This story will be fuzzy in parts because of the long passage of time. But although some details may be slightly different, ‘strue. So I must tell the tale before those last few grey cells that hold the memory get blitzed by the box wine.
It was on the Berg River Canoe Marathon that Christof Heyns came to tell me was pulling out of the race. Why!? I said, dismayed. He’d fallen out in the frigid flooded Berg river and lost his glasses. Couldn’t see past his nose, so it was way too dangerous to carry on in the mid-winter Cape cold and the flooding brown water.
Hell, no, I said, I’ve got a spare pair, you can use mine.
He rolled his eyes and smiled sadly at my ignorance. His eyes were very special, his glasses were very thick and there was no way just any arb specs would do, he mansplained patiently. In his defence, he didn’t know I was an optometrist, that I was wearing contact lenses, that I had a spare pair of specs in my luggage and one tied to the rudder cable in my boat, or that I had a very good idea of what his prescription was from seeing his glasses on his nose both on this race and on a Tugela trip we had been on together. I knew about his eyes better than he knew about my soul (he might have known a bit about that as his Dad was a very belangrike dominee in the Much Deformed Church – top dog, in fact).
So I said, trust me swaer and went and fetched my spares. He put them on and was amazed. I can see! he shouted like I was Jesus who had just restored his sight. I know, I said.
So he wore the glasses and finished the race and I said keep them till we next meet.
Many months later I saw an article in the SA Canews, the paddling magazine, titled: “My Broer se Bril”. Christof wrote the story of how he had lost hope when some arb oke said “Here, try mine” and he could see! And he could finish the race.
He ended off by saying “Actually they were so good I’m wearing them to this day”. Ja, you bugger, I know, I thought. I could have written an article “How a dominee’s son appropriated my bril”, but I didn’t. I’m way too kind! In his defence, we haven’t seen each other since that race.
belangrike dominee – important churchman; flock leader; the lord is my shepherd, I am a sheep;
swaer – bro;
my broer se bril – my brother’s spectacles;
mansplain – when a man laboriously explains something you already know; usually inflicted on women;
That’s what Jacques de Rauville told my business partner when he heard I was going to do the 1983 Berg River Canoe Marathon. He had come across me one evening on the Bay and I’d asked which way to go, it being my first time out there and the lights and the reflections were confusing. “Follow me” said Jacques, and off he went, but within 50m I was 49m behind him. He waited and told me “Left at the third green buoy” or whatever he said. When he passed me again on his way back and I obviously hadn’t made enough headway, he thought whatever he thought that made him tell his optometrist Mike Lello “tell him not to attempt the Berg.”
Jacques was right, but luckily for me Chris Logan got hold of me and took me for a marathon training session on the ‘Toti lagoon one day which got my mind around sitting on a hard seat for hours on end, numbing both my bum and my mind. Chris was a great taskmaster. We stopped only once – for lunch (chocolate and a coke, it was early Noakes, not Banting Noakes). Before Chris, my training method entailed using the first half of a race for training, then hanging in grimly in the second half till the finish. Between races, I would focus on recovery, mainly using the tried-and-tested cold beer and couch methodology.
We set off for Cape Town in my white 2,0l GL Cortina, me and Bernie Garcin the paddlers and sister Sheila and mom Mary to drive the car while we paddled.
The night before the first day of the race, in Paarl the race organisers pointed out a shed where we could sleep. Cold hard concrete floor. Winter in the Cape. Luckily I had brought along a brand-new inflatable mattress and an electric tyre pump that plugged into my white 2,0l GL Cortina’s cigarette lighter socket. So I plugged in and went for a beer.
*BANG* I heard in the background as we stood around talking shit and comparing paddling styles and training methods. I wondered vaguely what that was. A few more beers later we retired to sleep and I thought “So that ‘s what that bang was” – a huge rip in my now-useless brand-new no-longer-inflatable mattress, and the little pump still purring and pumping air uselessly into the atmosphere. So I slept on the concrete, good practice for a chill that was going to enter my bones and then my marrow over the next four days.
The first day was cold, windy and miserable, but the second day on the ’83 Berg made it seem like a balmy breeze. That second day was one of the longest days of my life! As the vrou cries it was the shortest day – those Cape nutters call 49km a short day – but a howling gale and horizontal freezing rain driving right into your teeth made it last forever. Icy waves continuously sloshing over the cockpit rim onto your splashcover. It was the day Gerrie died – Gerrie Rossouw, the first paddler ever to drown on an official race day. I saw him, right near the back of the field where I was and looking even colder than me. He wasn’t wearing a life jacket. It wasn’t macho to wear a life jacket and I admit that I wore my T-shirt over mine to make it less conspicuous and I told myself I was wearing it mainly as a windbreaker. Fools that we were. Kids: Never paddle without a life jacket.
Later in amongst a grove of flooded trees I saw Gerrie’s boat nose-down with the rudder waving in the wind, caught in one of the trees, and I wondered where he was, as both banks were far away and not easy to reach being tree-lined and the trees underwater. Very worrying, but no way I could do anything heroic in that freezing strong current, so I paddled on to hear that night that he was missing. His body was only found two days later.
That night a bunch of paddlers pulled out. Fuck this, they said with infinite good sense. Standing in the rain with water pouring down his impressive moustache my mate Greg Jamfomf Bennett made a pact with the elements: He would paddle the next day IF – and only if – the day dawned bright, sunny and windless. He was actually saying Fuck this I’m going home to Durban where ‘winter’ is just an amusing joke not a serious thing like it is here. He and Allie were then rescued and taken out of the rain to a farmer’s luxury home where about six of them were each given their own room and bathroom! Bloody unfair luxury! This then gave them an advantage and allowed them to narrowly beat me in the race! By just a few hours.
After devouring a whole chicken each, washed down with KWV wine and sherry supplied by the sponsors, us poor nogschleppers climbed up into the loft on the riverbank and slept on the hard floor. Here I have to confess Greyling Viljoen also slept in the loft and he won the race – which weakens my tale of hardship somewhat.
We braced ourselves for the third – and longest – day . . . which turned into the easiest day as the wind had died and the sun shone brightly on us, making for a really pleasant day which seemed half as long under blue skies – even though it was 70km compared to that LO-ONG second day. Before the start Capies were seen writhing on the ground, gasping, unable to breathe. They usually breathe by simply facing into the wind and don’t have diaphragm muscles. So a windless day is an unknown phenomenon to those weirdos. At the start about ten Kingfisher paddlers bunched together in our black T-shirts: Allie Peter, Jacques de Rauville, Herve de Rauville, Bernie Garcin, Dave Gillmer, who else? Greg Bennett was also there, to his own amazement. I hopped on to their wave and within 50m I was 49m behind. I watched the flock of black T-shirts disappear into the distance. I was used to that.
By the fourth day I was getting fit. I was building up a head of steam and could have become a threat to the leaders. Or at least to the black T-shirt armada. I could now paddle for quite a while without resting on my paddle and admiring the scenery. I paddled with – OK, behind, on her wave – a lady paddler for a while, focused for once. Busting for a leak, I didn’t want to lose the tug, so eventually let go and relieved myself in my boat. Aah! Bliss! But never again! I had to stop to empty the boat before the finish anyway (the smell! Must be the sherry), so no point in not stopping to have a leak.
Not that there will be a next time! Charlie’s Rule of Certifiability states quite clearly “Doing the Berg More Than Once Is Certifiable.” And while Charles Mason may have done fifty Umkos he has done only one Berg.
Greyling Viljoen won the race in 16hrs 7mins; I took 24hrs 24mins and probably 24 seconds; 225 maniacs finished the race; I was cold deep into my marrow.
The freezing finish at Velddrif at last!
The Velddrift Hotel bed that night was bliss with all my clothes on and the bedclothes from both beds piled on top of me. In Cape Town the next day I bought clothes I couldn’t wear again until I went skiing in Austria years later. Brrrr!! Yussis! Nooit! The Berg joins quite high up on my list of ‘Stupid Things I’ve Done’. Top of which is the Comrades Marathon as it’s the only ‘Stupid Thing I’ve Done and Not Even Finished.’
Some interesting stats and numbers for the Berg River Canoe Marathon.
241km from Paarl to Velddrif. Four days of approx 62, 46, 74 and 60km.
46 300 – The estimated number of paddle strokes required to complete the Berg
I thought ours was a really high-water Berg. At 19cumecs it was the 7th highest of the 21 Bergs up to then. But since then the river has often been higher and 1983 is now only the 21st highest of 55 races. The very first race in 1962 was a staggering 342 cumecs! Liewe bliksem! The lowest in 1978 was a mere 1.44 cumecs.
Only twice – in 1965 and 1967 – was the overall winning time more than 21 hours (I took 24hrs, but its OK, I didn’t win). The fastest overall time: 13hrs 20mins.
Five paddlers have completed 40 or more Bergs. Giel van Deventer – Berg Historian, who compiled these facts – has finished the race 45 times! In the book on the Umko canoe marathon I wrote in a draft which I sent to him “the Berg, over 200km long” and he hastened to write to me saying “Pete, it’s 241km long, don’t get it wrong”. I changed it to 241km.
One of the toughest years was 1971, only 49% of starters finished – the lowest percentage so far. The oldest finisher of the Berg, Jannie Malherbe was 74 when he did that crazy thing in 2014. He made Ian Myers seem like a spring chicken.
1 401 – The number of paddlers who have completed one Berg only.
2 939 – The number of paddlers who came back for at least one more – maniacs!
Andy Birkett won the Berg in 2016. He makes no bones about the fact that the gruelling race takes its toll, even on well conditioned paddlers. “Flip, it was tough!” he recalls. “It was cold, putting on beanies and two or three hallies and long pants when you are busy paddling. But that is all part of it”. He speaks of how one needs to discreetly tuck in behind the experienced local elite racers, particularly on the earlier sections of the course where local knowledge through the tree blocks and small channels is important.
I canoed the Vrystaat Vlaktes thanks to Charles Ryder, who arrived in Harrismith in about 1968 or ’69 I’d guess, to start his electrical business, a rooinek from Natal. He roared into town in a light green Volvo 122S with a long white fibreglass thing on top of it like this:
What’s that? It’s a canoe
What’s a canoe? You do the Dusi in it
What’s the Dusi?
Well, Charles now knew he was deep behind the boerewors curtain! He patiently made me wiser and got me going and I got really excited the more I learned. I decided I just HAD TO do the Dusi. What could be more exciting than paddling your own canoe 120km over three days from Pietermaritzburg to the sparkling blue Indian Ocean at the Blue Lagoon in Durban? Charles made it sound like the best, most adventurous thing you could possibly think of. He showed me how to paddle and was so generous with his time. Both in paddling and with Harrismith’s first Boy Scouts troop, which he helped establish.
I started running in the mornings with a gang of friends. Tuffy Joubert, Louis Wessels, who else? We called ourselves the mossies as we got up at sparrow’s fart. Then I would cycle about two miles to the park in the afternoons and paddle on the flat water of the mighty Vulgar River in Charles’ Limfjorden, or Limfy, canoe, which he had kindly lent me/given to me. It was the fittest I’ve ever been, before or since.
Overnight I would leave it on the bank tethered to a weeping willow down there. One day around Christmas time with only a couple of weeks to go before Dusi I got there and it was missing. I searched high and low, to no avail. So I missed doing the Dusi. Not that I had done anything but train for it – I hadn’t entered, didn’t know where to, didn’t belong to a club, didn’t have a lift to the race, no seconds, nothing!
Still enthused, though, I persuaded my mate Jean Roux to join me in hitch-hiking to the race. We got to Pietermaritzburg and the next morning to the start in Alexander Park in PMB, 1972 Dusi. Milling around among the competitors and their helpers, we watched the start and as the last boats paddled off downstream Alxendra Park started emptying, everyone seemd in a big hurry to leave. We asked wassup and someone said, We’re Following Our Paddler! so we bummed a lift with some paddler’s seconds to the overnight stop at Dusi Bridge. We slept under the stars and cadged supper from all those friendly people. They let us continue with them the next day to the second overnight stop at Dip Tank and on the third and last day to the sea, the estuary at Blue Lagoon, following the race along the way.
I continued the search for my missing Limfy after we got back from watching the Dusi and eventually found a bottle floating in the Kakspruit, a little tributary that flows down from Platberg and enters the river downstream of the weir. It had a string attached to it. I pulled that up and slowly raised the boat – now painted black and blue, but clearly identifiable as I had completely rebuilt it after breaking it in half in a rapid in the valley between Swinburne and Harrismith. Come to remember, that’s why Charles gave it to me! I knew every inch of that boat: the kink in the repaired hull, the repaired cockpit, the wooden gunwales, brass screws, shaped wooden cross members, long wooden stringer, shaped wooden uprights from the cross members vertically up to the stringer, the white nylon deck, genkem glue to stick the deck onto the hull before screwing on the gunwales, the brass carrying handles, aluminium rudder and mechanism, steel cables, the lot. In great detail.
That was January 1972. In 1976 I entered the race and convinced a friend at College Louis van Reenen to join me. He had asked ‘What’s that?’ when he saw my Limfy on my grey and grey 1965 Opel Concorde in Doornfontein, and ‘What’s that?’ when I said ‘The Dusi,’ so he was ripe for convincing. Later in the holidays he bought a red Hai white-water boat with a closed cockpit from Neville Truran and paddled it once or twice on Emmerentia Dam. In those days that sort-of qualified you for Dusi! Then he loaded it up on his VW Beetle and traveled down from Jo’burg to meet me in Harrismith. Only one of us could paddle, the other had to drive as the ‘second’ taking food and kit to the overnight stops. So we tossed a coin. I lost, and so we headed for Alexandra Park in PMB with the red Hai on the roofrack.
In that 1976 flood-level high water Louis swam his first Dusi! He swam and he swam and he drank half the water, lowering the level somewhat, but not enough. Evenings he had to hang his bum out the tent door, wracked with ‘Dusi Guts’, but he rinsed and repeated the performance three days in a row and finished the marathon. He was a tough character, Louis!
I drove that pale blue VW in the thick mud of the Valley of a Thousand Hills. Us seconds took turns getting stuck and helping each other out. In places there was a queue of dozens of cars, but one-by-one we’d give each car a shove and we all got through.
Here’s my orange pup tent and Louis’ red Hai and blue VW at Blue Lagoon after the race, wind howling: