I can’t really say I was born ‘up Shit Creek without a paddle,’ but I can say that mere days after I was born I was taken home to our house on a plot on the banks of Shit Creek. And that it would be ten years or so before I owned my first paddle.
The first time ‘I paddled my own canoe’ was years later after we had lost the plot. OK, sold the plot, moved into town and bought a blue and red canoe. As far as I remember the first place we paddled it was in a little inlet off the Wilge river above the Sunnymede weir, some distance upstream of town. Right here:
Before this, I had paddled a home-made canoe made of a folded zinc roof sheet, the ends nailed onto a four-by-four and sealed with pitch. Made by Gerie Hansen and his younger boet Nikolai – or maybe by their carpenter father Jes? We paddled it, wobbling unsteadily, on their tiny little pond in the deep shade of wattle trees above their house up against the northern cliff of Kings Hill.
Good school friend Piet Steyl wrote of the wonderful days he also spent in the company of Gerie Hansen – who died tragically early. He told of fun days spent paddling, gooi’ing kleilat, shooting the windbuks and smoking tea leaves next that same little pond. He also remembered Gerie winning a caption contest in Scope magazine and getting reprimanded for suggesting Japanese quality wasn’t good. Irony was, they had one of the first Japanese bakkies seen in town – a HINO.
Gerie used to say ‘He No Go So Good’, and Piet says when it finally gave up the ghost he said ‘He No Go No More’!!
Shit Creek – actually the Kak Spruit; a tributary of the Wilge River which originated on Platberg mountain, flowed down, past our plot and westward through the golf course on the north edge of town, then turned south and flowed into the Wilge below the park weir;
gooi’ing kleilat – lethal weapon; a lump of clay on the end of a whippy stick or lath; spoken about way more than practiced, in my experience; Here’s a kid loading one:
Dukandlovu rustic camp was underutilised. Parks Board wanted to increase its use and were looking for new ideas. It was a walk-in or cycle-in rustic camp and they were reluctant to open it up to drive-in access, so wanted to try other ideas first.
Rustic, but splendid, it’s a four hut, eight bed camp with basic kitchen facilities and cold water showers. The widows are openings with roll-down reed blinds which keep about half the wind and none of the mozzies out. The beds had mattresses, but bring your own bedding.
It was doomed. So few people want to rough it! Not ‘nowadays’ – always. Since humans first walked upright the majority have chosen the cushiest of whatever’s available. ‘I prefer roughing it’ has always been the weirdness of a few.
But the rugged few in Parks Board were reluctant to give in too easily, so first they tried us: “Let’s test the feasibility of adding canoeing-in to the access menu!” they said. Robbie Stewart was approached and he took Bernie Garcin and I (and others – who?) to test the waters. Literally. We set off with our plastic kayaks to False Bay, launched them and headed south towards the mouth of the Hluhluwe river on the Western Shores. Right from the outset we could see this wasn’t promising: We touched bottom often. Our draft was mere inches, but the lake was that shallow in places. Great for small worms and other marine creatures and for the wading birds that spear them from above, but not good for paddling. Oh well, we had tried. Not long after this they actually did open it to vehicle access. With a sigh, I’ve no doubt.
After staying a night the rest of the guys went home on the Sunday. I stayed over with Parks Board Rangers Dick Nash and Trevor Strydom. Monday morning I woke, eagerly looking forward to my day of ‘rangering’. What derring-do would we get up to with me as ‘ranger-for-a-day’?
Paperwork at a desk, that’s what. As head ranger, Dick first had a whole bunch of admin to sort out! Not what I’d imagined.
But later we got going on their regular bird count in the wilderness area in the north-east arm of the lake. We set off in their spacious craft with a Hamilton jet propulsion system (an impellor rather than a propellor, it sucks water in the underbelly and spits it out the back). This was fine in clear deep water, but when we nosed up the Mkhuze river we soon sucked up waterweeds and came to a halt. Dick pulled rank and ordered Trevor to jump overboard and remove the weed from under the boat. On the bird count we had seen at least fifty thousand and ten of their distant cousins – crocodiles – so the thought of jumping overboard was not inviting! Anyway, before Trevor could remove his shirt Dick was already under the boat doing it himself. A bit disconcerting when you looked at his hand as he chucked the weed away: He only had two fingers and a thumb. Had a croc taken the other fingers?
We got going again in fits and starts and after a few more stops to clear the impeller we turned back to the lake and continued to count birds. And thumb our noses at the crocodiles.
So do go to Dukandlovu, you can drive there now. You wimp.
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;
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.
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 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 Christmastime and about ten days before Dusi I got there and it was missing. I searched high and low, to no avail. So I missed doing the Dusi.
I continued the search 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.
So no Dusi for me. 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, nothing! Still enthused, though, I persuaded my mate Jean Roux to join me in hitch-hiking to the race. We got to the start in Alexander Park in PMB, where 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. The stayed with them 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.
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’ Hai and VW at Blue Lagoon after the race, wind howling:
Down the Mighty Vulgar River (Wilge really) in a borrowed canoe ca 1970. An Accord double kayak borrowed from the ‘Voortrekkers’ thanks to Ou Lip’s kindness. He had a good heart, Ou Lip Snyman, and I’m sure he thought he looked dashing in his Voortrekkerleier uniform. I’m with my mate Claudio Bellato. We embark in Swinburne.
The water’s high, it flows up in the willow branches making some sections very tricky. A branch whips off Claudio’s specs – down into the swirling muddy waters go his 5D cyls (optometrists will know that’s no mean amount of astigmatism). He wants to go after them, knowing that Dad Luigi will take a dim view of the loss. I say “Are you mad!? You’ll drown!”
Later I lose my specs after an unscheduled swim and I go out on a precarious willow limb sticking out over the current looking ‘just in case’. “Oh!” says Claudio, “I’m mad to think of looking for mine, but its OK for you to look for yours?!” Well, mine are 4D spheres I mumble, illogically.
We paddle on in the blur, the myopic leading the astigmatic. I’m wearing my PlusFours. We decide we should camp while there’s still daylight. That night we share one damp sleeping bag, as mine’s sopping wet. Little did I know that for decades ever after Claudio would introduce me: “Meet my mate Peter. I’ve slept with him”.
The next day we sally forth, peering ahead and paddling tentatively, which we later learn is not the way to negotiate a swift current. The river forks to go round an island, there’s a treeblock, and we wrap the boat around the semi-submerged treetrunk. Our downriver expedition has ended.
This is new to Claudio, but it’s the second time I’ve now wrapped a borrowed boat on a flooded Wilge River. Fording the rushing current, I only just make the right bank and I signal above the roaring water for Claudio to SIT! STAY! on the island. DON’T try and cross this stream, its DANGEROUS! I semaphore in my best sign language. Then I turn and run off to the beautiful old sandstone house under the splendid oaks of Mrs Girlie and the Misses Marie and Betty Jacobsz’ farm Walton to phone Charlie Ryder.
He comes roaring out in his pale green Volvo 122S with a long rope. We pull Claudio off the island, but we only rescue the Voortrekkers’ boat two weeks later when the water has subsided.
The Voortrekkers take a dim view of my treatment of their flatwater craft and rush me R50 – keep the wreckage.
I’m hooked on kayaking! I can do this! I think . . .
Sudden thought: Was the Jacobsz ladies’ farm Walton, or Wattle Grove?
Fluffy Crawley and I were dropped off in Swinburne on the banks of the Mighty Vulgar in the grounds of the Montrose Motel with our open red and blue fibreglass canoe. We were aiming to head off downstream, camp overnight and finish in Harrismith the next day. This was ca1970.
But we bumped into Ian Grant who persuaded us to spend the night at Montrose. His folks Jock & Brenda agreed to let us sleep in one of the rondawels.
As evening fell Ian was up to mischief as always, and soon after dark one of the petrol attendants snuck up and slipped us a litre bottle of brandy. Ian organised a bottle of cream soda and we were set for nonsense. After a couple of quick shots I suggested we hang around and let the alcohol take effect and let the laughing begin, but as I was in the bathroom taking a leak I overheard Ian mutter “Fuck him, I’m drinking the lot!” so I came out and said “Pour!”
Well Ian was first and I stuck a bucket under his chin as his technicolor yawn started. Just then I heard HURGH! from Fluffy so I grabbed the little wastepaper bin from the bathroom and stuck it under his chin. It was a lumpy laughter duet.
Early the next morning I woke Fluffy and said “Come!” and we carried the boat to the river and launched it onto the muddy waters. Well, actually “launched” it because it touched bottom.
The river was so low we didn’t even get our shoelaces wet! A long spell of carrying the boat on our shoulders, stopping for a hurl, carrying a while till another stop for a chunder ensued till we found deeper water and a settled stomach and could paddle home.
Fluffy remembers: “The river was terribly low and we did a lot of foot work crossing or by-passing the rapids. We made it in one day, no overnight stop. Your Dad picked us up in town under the old ‘ysterbrug’.“
Dave Walker tells of a Tugela trip or race with Clive Curson when they broke and had to carry their boat for miles. They christened their trip Walkin’ an Cursin’.
Mine with Fluffy Crawley would then be Walkin’ and Crawlin’.
The mighty Vulgar river had risen! It was flowing way higher than usual, and had overflown its banks. We needed to get onto it!
So Pierre and I dusted off the open blue and red fibreglass canoe the old man had bought us and headed off downstream early one summer morning from below the weir in the park.
By the time we started the river had dropped a lot. Still flowing well, but below the heights of the previous days. This left a muddy verge metres high where the banks were vertical, and up to 100m wide where the banks were sloped and the river was wide.
When we got to Swiss Valley past the confluence of the Nuwejaar spruit, we had a wide wet floodplain to slip and slide across before we reached dry land, leaving us muddy from head to toe. Dragging the boat along we headed for the farmhouse where Lel Venning looked at us in astonishment. I don’t think she even recognised us.
No, You haven’t! You can’t fool me! APRIL FOOL! she exclaimed when we said we’d paddled out from town.
Pierre and I looked at each other and he said “Happy birthday!”