First we went west from Oklahoma, to New Mexico. I went with the Manars in Tom’s luxury (I really should know what that car was) towing their blue Willys Jeep, quite a recent model. We drove to Red River, to Granma Merrill’s cottage in the valley south of town.
After a wonderful stay with a huge gang of the very best people, Jim n Katie Patterson took me and Dottie Moffett to Las Vegas from Red River, New Mexico in their silver-grey Ford LTD.
We drove via Colorado where we caught a steam train from Durango north to Silverton.
Then we drove through Utah, visiting Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park:
In Vegas we stayed at The Stardust on The Strip. It boasted (natch) the ‘biggest neon sign in the world’! I learnt to gamble. I learnt to win. I battled to lose. Dottie was a good luck charm! I kept on and on gambling, determined to lose. Finally as dawn approached we were $10 down. We’d paid our dues and could go to bed.
Jim n Katie took us to a show! We saw Joan Rivers being delightfully rude and Petula Clark warbling away – also Joan warbled a bit and Pet told a joke! I saw Jim slip the doorman a cri$p note to get us good seats! We got great seats.
After Vegas we stopped off at The Grand Canyon: We stared down at this awesome sight from the lookout on the south rim. We only had a few hours there, so we were just look-see tourists. Suddenly I couldn’t stand it! I just had to get down there. I started running down the Bright Angel trail. Dottie joined me; she was fit – Oklahoma’s number 2 tennis player! It’s about 10km to the river. I’d give us an hour to get down, I thought. The run was easy on a well-maintained track with the only real obstacle being the ‘mule trains’. Every now and then we’d have to step off the trail and let a bunch of mules pass, sometimes with a steep drop inches away. We made sure we were always on the upside!
At first it was all open desert trail, but at Indian Gardens I was surprised by the amount of greenery in the Canyon. From the rim it looks like all desert, but in the protected gorges there was water, green shrubbery and even some tall trees.
In about an hour we got to just above the river. I stared in awe at the swiftly-moving blue-green water. I had never seen such a large volume of clear water flowing like that. Our South African rivers mostly run small and muddy and I wasn’t expecting clear water. Right then I thought I MUST get onto this river! I’d been kayaking for a few years, but if I’d been asked I’d probably have said on a raft, little knowing that eleven years later I would kayak past that very spot, under that same bridge in 1984 on a flood-level brown river! *(see below)*
The hike back out was steep, but hey, we were 18yrs old! Cross-country running had been my favourite obsession the year before, so no (or an acceptable amount of) sweat!
Then we headed home by and large followed the old historic Route 66 – the new I40. Flagstaff Arizona, Albuquerque New Mexico, Amarillo Texas, back to Oklahoma. To Apache, and then Katie and I drove the delightful Dottie on to Ardmore.
I learned later:
They tell you Do Not try to hike from the rim to the river and back in one day!
The 10km climb down Bright Angel is about 1000m vertically, and every metre down you’re going back about 100 000 years in geological time!
The name Colorado was for its muddy colour and its clarity is in fact an undesirable artifact because of Glen Canyon Dam upstream;
Jim Patterson has since hiked rim to rim through the canyon a number of times – he made it an annual pilgrimage. The last I heard was when he was 70!
Footnote – Eleven years later, in ’84, I arrived under that bridge in my kayak:
The level was high, and the Little Colorado poured brown floodwaters into the Colorado, so the water wasn’t running clear.
Jim n Katie Patterson, wonderful host family in Apache took girlfriend Dottie Moffett and I on a special trip out west, driving across the Texas panhandle to New Mexico, where Jim’s Mom Merrell had a cottage outside Red River in the Sangre de Christo mountains.
Here we stayed with the gang – the wonderful group of Apache friends the Pattersons hung out with: Manars, Hrbaceks, Mindemanns and Paynes.
After a terrific stay there, we headed off to Vegas in their Ford LTD via Colorado and Utah
Then via Utah, where we visited Bryce Canyon and Zion NP.
In Vegas we stayed at The Stardust on The Strip. I learnt to gamble, I learnt to win. I battled to lose. Dottie was a good luck charm! I kept winning small amounts so kept on and on gambling, determined to lose. Finally as dawn approached we were down by a considerable fortune – $10 – and could go to bed.
We saw Joan Rivers being delightfully rude and Petula Clark warbling away (also Joan warbled a song and Pet told a joke!). I learnt a Vegas rule when saw Jim slip the doorman a cri$p note to get us a good table!
After Vegas we stopped off at The Grand Canyon: We stared down at this awesome sight from the lookout on the south rim. We only had a few hours there, so we’re just look-see tourists. Suddenly I couldn’t stand it! I had to get down there.
I started running down the Bright Angel trail. It’s about 10km to the river. I’ll give myself an hour, I think. The run was easy on a well-maintained track with the only real obstacle being the ‘mule trains’. Only once I had to step off the trail and let a bunch of mules pass. I made sure I was on the upside!
At first it was all open desert trail, but at Indian Gardens I was surprised by the amount of greenery in the canyon. From the rim it looks like all desert, but in the protected gorges there’s green shrubbery and even some tall trees.
In well under an hour I got to just above the river. I stared in awe at the swiftly-moving green water. I had never seen such a large volume of water flowing clear like that. Our South African rivers mostly run muddy brown, and I wasn’t expecting clear water. Right then I thought I MUST get onto this river! I’d started kayaking a couple of years before, but if I’d been asked I’d probably have said on a raft, little knowing that in eleven years time I would kayak past that very spot, under that same bridge in 1984 on a flood-level river!
The hike back out was steep, but hey, I was 18yrs old! Cross-country running had been my favourite obsession the year before, so no (or an acceptable amount of) sweat!
Then we headed home, by and large following the old historic Route 66 – the new I40. Flagstaff Arizona, Albuquerque New Mexico, Amarillo Texas, and back to Oklahoma. To Apache and then Dottie on to Ardmore. What a wonderful trip with amazing people!
I learned later:
The name Colorado was for its muddy colour and its clarity is in fact an undesirable artifact because of the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell upstream;
The 10km climb down Bright Angel is about 1000m vertically, and every metre you’re going back about 100 000 years in geological time!
They tell you Do Not try to hike from the rim to the river and back in one day!
Jim has hiked the rim to rim hike through the canyon a number of times since – an annual pilgrimage – the last time he did it he was 70!
***most pics off the ‘net – I’ll add my own as I find them!***
Hance Rapid at Mile 76.5 stands sentinel at the Colorado river’s entry into the Granite Gorge. The river drops 30 feet as it passes through a natural constriction formed by the Red Canyon. The dark dike cutting through the red Hakatai Shale is one of the most photographed features in the Canyon.
I found out more about the man the rapid was named after:John Hance (1840 – January 8, 1919) – thought to be the first non-native resident of the Grand Canyon.
He opened the first tourist trail in the canyon before the canyon was a national park, giving tours of the canyon after his ca.1866 attempts at mining asbestos failed. “Captain” John Hance was said to be one of the Grand Canyon’s most colorful characters, and one early visitor declared that “To see the canyon only and not to see Captain John Hance, is to miss half the show.”
Hance delighted in telling canyon stories to visitors, favoring the whopper of a tale over mere facts. With a straight face, Hance told travelers how he had dug the canyon himself, piling the excavated earth down near Flagstaff (thus ‘explaining’ those mysterious then-unexplained dirt piles).
John Hance died in 1919, the year the Grand Canyon became a National Park, and was the first person buried in what would become the Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery.
In May 1891 one Charley Greenlaw wrote this in John Hance’s guestbook: I can cheerfully say that this, the Grand Canon of the Colorado River, is the grandest sight of my life. As I noticed in this little book of Capt. John Hance, a great many people say ‘indescribable.’ I can say nothing more. It is beyond reason to think of describing it in any way. You must see it to appreciate it. A grand sight of this kind and so few people know of it. By accident I formed the acquaintance of two ladies en route to the Grand Canon. I joined them. We have enjoyed our trip; the stage ride from Flagstaff to the Grand Canon is grand. Good horses, competent and accommodating drivers. I have seen the Yosemite, have visited California several different times, in fact seen all the principal points of interest in the United States, but the most wonderful, awe-inspiring piece of Nature’s own work is this, the Grand Canon of the Colorado River.
Another Hance guestbook entry by J. Curtis Wasson told of the twelve hour stage coach journey after alighting from the Santa Fe Railroad Company’s train: From Flagstaff at 7 o’clock a.m. our stage-and-six goes out. Arriving at Little Springs Station, where a new relay of six horses is added, we make haste until the half-way station is reached, passing through a fine unbroken forest of Pinus ponderosa, quaking aspen, balsam fir, and spruce. The open forest, the waving grasses, the gorgeously colored mountain flowers, the occasional chirp of the forest songsters, the ice-cold springs traversing our smooth compact road, the peaks, clear-cut and massive, towering up nearly 14,000 feet into the blue above, the low rumbling of our great Concord stage, the sound of two dozen hoofs, the sharp crack of the driver’s whip, the clear, bracing atmosphere, every breath of which seems to stimulate, the indescribably beautiful Painted Desert outstretching for a hundred miles to our right.
One fain would linger on scenes like these but we have arrived at Cedar Station, and after partaking of a very refreshing luncheon we are given a new relay of horses and hasten over the desert portion of our ride to Moqui Station, where another relay is provided, which takes us to the hotel at the rim of the Grand canon, where we arrive at 7 o’clock p.m.
Leaving our Concord stage, giving our grips to the porter, not even waiting for “facial ablutions,” we hasten across the yard and up to the rim of the canon, when, looking over — the Chasm of the Creator, the Gulf of God, the Erosion of the Ages, that Erosive Entity, that Awful Abyss, lies in all its awfulness before us, — awful, yet grand; appalling, yet attractive; awe inspiring, yet fascinating in its greetings.
Lee’s Ferry on the right bank of the Colorado River, just above the mouth of the Paria River, at an elevation of 3,170 feet asl is the site of the start for most river trips through the Grand Canyon.
Originally called Lonely Dell by Mormon church-man with 19 wives and 67 children John D Lee, who established the ferry in 1872, it provided the only access across more than 300 miles of river for many years. Actually one of Lee’s 19 wives, Emma ran the ferry for a number of years while he was on the lam – hiding from the law for his leading part in the wicked 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre.
The massacre near St George, Utah involved a group of emigrants known as the Fancher Party trekking west from Arkansas who were camped at Mountain Meadows in southern Utah preparing for their final push across the Mohave Desert when they were attacked by a group of Mormon Militia who disguised themselves as Native Americans so as to cowardly deflect blame for the attack.
It was a time of great tension between Mormons and the rest of the United States, and the massacred party was most likely attacked because they were not Mormons.
After an initial siege, the treacherous Lee approached the emigrants saying he’d negotiated safe passage for them with protection from their supposed Native American attackers if they surrendered their weapons. The group agreed, whereupon the militia proceeded to kill all but the children under 8 years of age.
One hundred and twenty men, women and children died that day. For almost two decades, the incident was covered up, but in 1874, Lee was brought to trial. Never denying his complicity in the massacre, Lee did insist – probably correctly – that he was acting on orders from high up in the church. He was the only one of about fifty men involved in the massacre to be brought to book. He was convicted and executed by firing squad in 1877.
His widow Emma Lee sold the ferry in 1879 for 100 milk cows to the Mormon Church who continued to operate it until 1910 when it was taken over by Coconino County, Arizona. The ferry stayed mostly in use until 1929 when the Navajo Bridge was completed. Ironically, the ferry was used to ship much of the material to build the bridge that put it out of business.
1984: There was only one bridge when we crossed to the right – or ‘north’ (rivers only have left or right banks – think about it) – bank of the river. It was completed in 1929. A larger parallel second bridge was added in 1995. The bridge we crossed is now used for pedestrian sight-seeing.
1984 was one of the
very few years since 1960 that Colorado river water from the Grand
Canyon actually reached the sea. High snow melt pushed it past the
point where golf courses and old-age homes drain it of all its water
and so – at last! – the waters of the Colorado reached the beautiful
estuary at Baja California and flowed into the Sea of Cortez again!
Unknown to many, 1984
was also the ONLY year Mexicans would have been able to taste
Mainstay cane spirits, distilled from South African sugar cane, mixed
into that Colorado river water. Well, recycled Mainstay and river
water, as the Mainstay that reached the sea had first passed through
the kidneys of a mad bunch of South Africans that Chris Greeff had
assembled to paddle through the famous American Canyon.
That’s because we were on the river sponsored by Mainstay Cane Spirits and South African Airways. The ‘Mainstay’ we drank was actually an SAA Boeing 747’s supply of tot bottles of whisky, brandy, gin, vodka, rum – and Mainstay cane spirits. We decanted all the little bottles we could find into two two-litre plastic bottles to help the stewardesses on board with their end-of-Atlantic-crossing stock-take. We had resolved to drink the plane dry but man, they carry a lot of hooch on those big babies. Maybe in case they end up with all 350 passengers happening to be as thirsty as paddlers are? Here we are in Atlanta with the loot. Note the Mainstay sticker on one bottle held by our host Dave Jones, a paddler himself. Paddled for the USA in K1, C1 and C2 wildwater, US national champ and also coached the USA team. So we were saddled with not one but TWO national paddling champs who are dentists and military men! Myself I personally reckon mixing guns, boats and teeth with beer can only bring trouble . .
From Atlanta we jetted on to Phoenix Arizona. There we hired another lang slap car and took a slow drive to Flagstaff here we got ‘outfitted’ with kit for the trip. Fifteen canoeists from South Africa joined our guide Cully Erdman and his delightful partner JoJo on a trip down the Grand Canyon from Lee’s Ferry to the take-out on Lake Mead three hundred miles downstream. We were accompanied by one other paddler, an Argentine José who was ticking off his bucket list, having climbed Everest. Five rubber inflatable rafts carried the food and the ‘Mainstay’ and hundreds of beers, plus a motley assortment of tag-along raft passengers from America and South Africa. Talking of motley: Us paddlers ranged from capable rough water paddlers to flatwater sprinters to happy trippers to complete novices. Some had Springbok colours, others had a lot of cheek.
Outfitting was also needed for supplies and Greeff put himself in charge of catering for the liquid refreshments. He was good at maths back in Parys se hoerskool so he did some sums: Seventeen kayakers plus some rafters times 12 days times 10 beers each is, lessee . . . OK, and then after breakfast we’ll need . . .
Apparently the yanks thought he’d grossly over-catered and they were worried about how they were going to carry the left-over beer out of the canyon at the end. That’s if the rafts stayed afloat. Well, ons sal sien . .
Some twists in the tale: My boyhood kayaking heroes had been the van Riet brothers, Willem and Roelof, who won the Dusi three times just as I was first learning about the race ca 1970. As I started to participate in the race in 1972 Graeme Pope-Ellis won the first of his eventual fifteen Dusi wins. Both Willem and Graeme were with us on this trip, along with other paddling legends I had met in my recent entry into the world of canoeing. Having ‘paddled lonely‘ from 1970 to 1982, I was now rubbing shoulders with legends!
Me & Willem
Pope, Herve, Wendy, Chris
Another twist: In the year I first saw the Colorado river after walking/running down the Bright Angel trail from the South Rim to the Colorado’s swiftly-flowing clear green water, 1973, Willem had launched a boat at Lee’s Ferry, done an eskimo roll and come up with ice in his hair, causing him to postpone his trip. Now he was back, eleven years later – in the summer! And so was I.
The trip was put together by yet another iconic paddler Chris Greeff, winner of more kayak races than I’d had breakfasts. One of the craziest races he won was the Arctic Canoe Race on the border between Finland and Sweden. About 500km of good pool and drop rapids in cold water. When he arrived at the start with his sleek flatwater racing kayak the other paddlers and the officials looked at their wider, slower, more stable canoes and thought ‘Ha! he intends portaging around all the rapids!’ They had heard of the Dusi and how mad South Africans run with kayaks on their heads, so they amended the rules: Every rapid avoided would incur a stiff time penalty. You portage, you pay! Chris grinned and agreed enthusiastically with their ruling: He was no Dusi runner and he had no intention of getting out of his boat!
Later: On the trip, our American kayak and raft guides kept asking us about the sponsors stickers we had attached to kayaks and rafts. SAA they understood, South African Airways; but what was this “Mainstay” stuff? Ooh! You’ll see! was all we’d say. At ___ rapid on Day __ around the camp fire we hauled out our two-litre bottles filled with a suspicious amber liquid. THIS we said, was that famous stuff!
The first thing about Mainstay, we told them, was its medicinal properties. Toekoe had turned blue from too much swimming, but after a slug of Mainstay he got his colour back as the before and after pictures clearly show:
As more Mainstay was swallowed, hilarity and a bit of insanity ensued. I have a picture frozen in my mind of Willem sprinting past me, running nimbly across the pontoons of a raft and launching himself in the darkness into the swift current of the Colorado running at 50 000 cfs shouting Yee-ha!! – A bit like this, but at night:
Besides this fortified and fortifying SAA loot, Greeff had also arranged for beers on the trip. John Lee tells the story:
I recall how our Yankee rafting crew were somewhat taken aback at the rather large drinks order they received prior to the departure from Lees Ferry! Despite the huge stocks, somewhere downstream in the depths of the Grand Canyon, to their utter disbelief, the only liquid left was the raging Colorado River. Stocks had run dry .
There were some thirsty, desperate river runners in camp. We were way upstream from the next available beer at Phantom Ranch’s shop on the high rim.
Desperate times call for desperate measures …….
Some of us (hello Felix!) resorted to performing like trained seals, executing dashing eskimo rolls for passing J-Rigs, and being rewarded with frosties for our efforts!
One Captain (PF) Christiaan Lodewikus Greeff called quietly for volunteers, and assembled a raiding party – could also call them ‘SEALs’, one was a parabat – to address the situation. This unbeknown to our unsuspecting, law-abiding river crew.
In the dead of night, wearing beanies, faces blackened, they slid silently into the icy waters of the flooded Colorado River and headed into an upstream eddy towards the distant sounds of happy laughter from a neighbouring campsite.
Reaching tethered rafts, they found the holy Grand Canyon grail . . . multiple nets strung from the rafts, laden with tins of sunset amber liquid.
Their return to our camp was triumphant.
I cannot recall the composition of that courageous group. Suffice it to say, that I am certain that it included one Lieutenant-Colonel A Gordon-Peter (SAB with bar).
The reaction of our guides, later, was somewhat different!
Mules heavily laden with liquor were later cajoled down the treacherous track from Phantom Ranch, and our evenings were once again fueled with fun, laughter and Willie’s moerse yarns!
In closing, who will ever forget that wonderful mirage in the middle of the shimmering Lake Mead – a very naked, very tall and statuesque blonde River Goddess on a drifting raft … … or was it ?
Well, I dunno – but there was one naked lady that I do know of: JoJo posed butt naked for a stealthily-taken pic on George’s camera. What a sport, she removed her bikini top and bottom for the gentlemen doing research on just how much trouble George would get into with his wife back home.
Lee plans his arguments for the court cases sure to follow: YaRonna! These were just Merry Pranksters, M’Lord . . .
At the confluence of the Colorado and the Little Colorado the Little was flooding and massively silt-laden. We stopped on a skinny sandbank and had mud fights and mud rolls. The muddy water from the flooding Little Colorado was so thick that the trout Felix Unite caught thanked him for rescuing them!
It merged here with the clear water coming out of Lake Powell – seen behind Felix – and from here on we had traditionally red-coloured water – ‘colorado.’
Somewhere downstream from here I got sucked under by a big whirlpool that formed under my boat that I couldn’t escape. As I went down I set up to roll but stayed down until I thought ‘I’m outa here’ and bailed. Up on the surface the guys told a more dramatic tale: ‘Swanie! You disappeared for AGES! Then your boat popped up; Then your paddle popped up; And still there was no you! Then at last you popped up!’ So then they started calling me Pete Whirlpool. Lots of that muddy water stayed up my snout and I had a few bad sinus headaches but Wendy – Dave Walker’s connection – very kindly stepped in and saved my butt with strong painkillers. Back in Durban a month later I was rushed into theatre for an emergency sinus washout! As Saffeffricans say ‘Ah neely dahd!’ Some Little Colorado River mud was washed down Durban’s St Augustine Hospital’s outlet pipes into the Indian Ocean that day. Probly also had a smattering of Mainstay in it.
Hikes up the side-canyons:
Map reading: I had a lovely large-scale map of the river through the canyon showing all the rapids. We would pore over it, going over the day and plotting our tomorrow. Here Jannie Claassens stands left, Swys du Plessis is prominent in red shorts, I am just visible behind him, Dave Walker wears a cap, Willem van Riet sports a ducktail probly cos of his last swim, Herve de Rauville kneels like a good Catholic, Allie Peter lying down in the background cursing his shoulder, Chris Greeff in the Mainstay cap ponders his next move, Bernie The Jet Garcin has a beer in his hand and a sock in his speedo, Wendy Walwyn is planning her first eskimo roll soon, and Cully Erdman in blue shorts thinks ‘Wwho ARE these okes? and where was that huge rapid Willem is talking about!?’
Happy daze drifting in the current, lying back gazing up at the cliffs and watching the waterline as century after millenium of geological lines rose up out of the water and each day rose higher and higher above us. Willem the geologist would explain some of it to us. The latest view seems to be that the river is around six million years old, and it has exposed rocks up to two billion years old as it carves downwards, aided also by wind erosion.
Then every so often you would sit up and listen intently. Then peer ahead with a stretched neck and drift in a quickening current as the roar of the next rapid grew in the canyon air. The river was running at an estimated high of 50 000cfs – that’s about 1650 cumecs, big water. 1984 was a high year. Once you could see where the rapid was, you pulled over and got out to scout it and plot your way through it. It was no use asking Greeff. His stock answer was ‘Down The Middle!’
For days before Lava, the bullshit build-up built up: ‘Rain? That’s not rain! That’s the mist from LAVA FALLS!’
Arriving at Lava we hopped out and checked it out, butterflies no longer flying in formation. After scouting carefully most of us went left; a few went right. One – Ryan – went snorkeling straight into the big hole and got chomped, rinsed and spat out. His blue helmet can be seen in the picture if you have a magnifying glass.
And then typical ladies: As we strutted and boasted of derring-do, they quietly commandeered one of the rafts and rowed it ladies-only down Lava! They took one yank with them, just to show him they could . .
At the usual take-out at Diamond Creek before Lake Mead, we stopped for a rest and some team photos. The high water had washed away the road. We had to keep going. Some miles later we hit the dead waters of Lake Mead. The river ran out of push, tamed by a damn dam. Paddling was over for most of us! We piled our kayaks onto the rafts and lay on them – there were still a few beers that needed polishing. Our five-raft flotilla was tugged out by a motorboat to another take-out point, Pearce Ferry on Lake Mead miles downstream.
Downstream? Except of course there was now no longer any ‘stream’ – we were on flat water. Greeff and a few other crazies – including Wendy Walwyn – you know, the types who weren’t issued with handbrakes, brains or limits, paddled the whole flat water way! Holy shit! I drank beer lying on a raft, gazing at the blue Arizona sky.
Too soon, it was over.
Drifting downstream, Dave Walker had led the singing:
The canyon burro is a mournful bloke He very seldom gets a poke But when he DOES . . . He . LETS . it soak As he revels in the joys of forni- CA-TION!
and (to the tune of He Ain’t Heavy):
Hy’s nie Swaar nie
Hy’s my Swaer . a . a . aer
We went down the Canyon twice
I always say we did the Canyon twice. Once we would bomb down in our kayaks, crashing through the exhilarating big water; The second time was much hairier, with bigger rapids, higher water and far more danger: That was around the campfire at night when Willem would regale us with tales of his day on the water. ‘Raconteur’ is too mild a word! The word ‘MOERSE’ featured prominently in his epic tales and his long arm would be held high to show you where the crest of the wave sat. And this from a man who bombed ‘blind’ down the Cunene River in 1963.
Postscript: While we were paddling Chris spoke of attempting to beat the record for the fastest non-stop descent of the Canyon – the 277 mile stretch we had just done from Lee’s Ferry to our eventual take-out at Pearce Ferry.
a handful of boaters have been crazy enough to undertake such a
mission. After all, doing it non-stop means having to shoot Lava
Falls at night! The Riggs brothers made what could be considered the
first speed run in 1951 when they rowed a cataract-style wooden boat
through the canyon in 53 hours; Fletcher Anderson, a pioneering
Southwestern boater, made a 49-hour solo kayak descent in the late
1970s; and then in 1983, just a year before our leisure trip, Kenton
Grua, Rudi Petschek, and Steve Reynolds completed a now-legendary run
on a flood of 70,000 cfs in a wooden dory named the Emerald Mile.
Their record of 36 hours and 38 minutes was the time to beat.
Nothing came of it – it would have been a very expensive undertaking from South Africa for an obscure record only the small expedition kayaking fraternity would have known of and anyway, why do it? But the record is ever-present in some people’s minds. In January 2016 the record was beaten twice. First by ‘Team Beer’: Ben Luck, Matt and Nate Klemas and Ryan Casey in three Pyranha Speeders and a Perception Wavehopper, boats much like the ones we used. Then three days later by Ben Orkin, paddling solo in a composite Epic 18X sea kayak, a boat much lighter than the models Team Beer had used and with a metre longer waterline. He reduced the time to 34 hours and 2 minutes. The Emerald Mile’s record, which had stood for over three decades, had been broken twice in three days.
I do (sort of) understand the quest for records (sort of), humans always will go for fastest; but for me, floating down in awesome wonder is really the way to do it.
Before the river became crowded and the park service slapped restrictions on trip lengths, private boatmen in the ’70s vied at ‘slow-boating’, or making a trip last as long as possible. The crowning glory of slow-boating has gone down in river history as the Hundred Day Trip. Legendary boatman Regan Dale and his extended family floated away from Lees Ferry and spent a whopping 103 days in the canyon. They hiked every side canyon, spent as long as a week in favorite camps like Nankoweap and Granite Park, baked their own bread and wallowed in the vast silence of stone cathedrals broken only by the rustle of the river. The moon waxed and waned three times while they were there. It was roughly as long as the very first trip down the canyon led by John Wesley Powell in 1869, over a hundred years earlier – and 150 years ago now; I wonder if there will ever be trips like that again.
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!
1972 Duzi – 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.
1976 Duzi – 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 light blue VW Beetle and drove 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. A great pity for me, as I had done a lot of canoeing, also in flood-level rivers, and had broken two boats in half and repaired one, getting it going again in time for the 1972 Dusi as related above. But – a coin toss is a coin toss. For Louis, the coin toss won him first-ever trip down a river. And what a river!
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, as it continued raining and filled up faster than he could drink it down. 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 Louis at Blue Lagoon finishing that epic Duzi!
Here’s my orange pup tent and Louis’ red Hai and blue VW at Blue Lagoon after the race, wind howling:
1983 Duzi – It was only in 1982 that I eventually got round to paddling again – and then in 1983 I finally did my first Dusi. On a low river:
and the Lowveld Croc:
All in quick succession, and all at my not-furious pace, staring at the scenery, which was good practice for kayaking the Colorado through the Grand Canyon in 1984.
When I got back from America I thought I must get hold of Charles and tell him what his enthusiasm had led to.
But I didn’t do it then – procrastination – and then I was too late. His heart had attacked him, he was no more. Thank you Charlie Ryder. You changed my life. Enhanced it. Wish I had told you.