In 1971 I decided I wanted to do the Dusi. Charlie Ryder (who gave me his boat, a fibreglass Limfy K1 with nylon deck and his left-feather paddle) told me it was tough, I’d better train.
So I did.
Every morning a few of us (Louis Wessels, Tuffy, who else?) got up at 5am, cycled a mile to the jail and then ran the X-country course. About 3,5km up a hill, across, down through a donga/stream bed and back. Probably a 15 minute run.
After school I would cycle to the mighty Vulgar River and paddle Charles’ boat (which I left “hidden” under a willow tree) for about a km or two. The cycle back home was uphill.
I’m not even sure I told anyone I was I was aiming to paddle the Dusi! I must have surely? They knew about the boat anyway.
I have never been as fit in my life, before or since. Running I felt like I could fly. I would run hard, then even harder and still think “I could just carry on like this!”
Today I re-read Graeme Pope-Ellis’ book. The part about his training in 1971.
He ran at 4.30 am for two to two-and-a-half hours; He ran hard.
In the afternoon he paddled for two to two-and-a-half hours; He paddled hard.
Plus he did half an hour of hard, targeted gym work.
My total training was an hour a day and only parts of the running was done hard. The cycling and paddling were leisurely. No pain; No pain!
I didn’t have a clue what “train hard” meant! Talk about chalk and cheese! Quite an eye-opener.
I didn’t do that race in 1972. My boat was stolen. I hitch-hiked to the race and followed it down through the Dusi and Umgeni valleys (with friend Jean Roux), sleeping in the open and bumming rides with paddlers’ seconds. Graeme won the race. His first win. He went on to win it 15 times.
Later I got to know Graeme and many of the guys who dedicated their lives to winning the Dusi. They trained like demons. Some of them did beat Graeme. Occasionally. But usually Graeme did the winning.
Me, I became a tripper! One of the trips was with Graeme and other fast paddlers who geared down and bumbled down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in leisurely fashion. My style!
In my first Dusi in 1983 I politely waited for the okes in a hurry to move on over the flat water in Alexander Park and when I go to the weir I paused to tie a shoelace. Jerome Truran (world-class whitewater paddler) was spectating that year. He spotted me and said “Hey Swanie, you do realise this is a race, right?”
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: