A well-drilled, orderly troop of Queen and Empire Poms marched up Platberg. And when they were up they were up **.
They reconnoitered the surrounding area looking for Boer commandos, ready to report any sightings to some grand old Duke, or Lord, or someone. Ridiculously dressed in anti-camouflage they stuck out like sore thumbs, but at least they were together and obeying the orders of Field Marshall Lello RSVP. This would not last very long.
Once on top the cohesion started to wobble and soon a small breakaway happened. Some of the troops began behaving like Boers, thinking they could just go home when they felt like it. Five of them headed off down One Man’s Pass, misled by a trooper who said he had local knowledge and ‘it wasn’t far.’
It was far and it was steep and soon more than just cohesion was wobbling.
The remains of the patrol, now only nineteen strong, headed East back to Flat Rock Pass – or Donkey Pass – where a further split took place with trooper Soutar suddenly developing a deep longing for his ancestral home, Howick. I know, who would want to go to Howick?
Down to fifteen, the remainder headed for the Akkerbos for lunch and booze, where another defection saw four more wander off the beaten track and puncture the one wheel of their Ford Platberg Cape Cart. Field Marshall Lello RSVP set off to rescue them, dispatching sergeant Garth, corporal Nigel and Generaal Leon to rescue the original five deserters. Who of course, didn’t need rescuing as they had the whole thing under control and knew exactly where they were as they had a knowledgeable local guide with them. (Right!)
Back at the Oak Forest – where the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret had been kerfuffling in the bushes with equerry Group Captain Peter Townsend back in 1947 when most of us were busy being born – a laager had been formed and tables laden with provisions, especially booze.
A re-grouping took place and the size of the force stabilised at fifteen, with no wounds or injuries other than some grazes and some wobbly legs and some mild miffedness. (Justified, BTW). The disorderly conduct and the booze, together with the coating of dust and black soot on all the troops made the patrol look less and less like a plundering invading force from a small island, and more and more like good, patriotic, camouflaged local defenders.
Back down at the bottom of the mountain, the numbers swelled to nineteen and confidence grew to such an extent that a decision was made by the now almost completely Boer commando, to attack the blerrie Breetish in their blockhouse situated on the banks of that sparkling brook called the Kak Spruit. A clever encircling movement was made and we attacked the crows nest from above, putting the occupants to flight. Bladdy Poms!
So ended another successful campaign by us Boer guerillas. Generaal Leon could heave a sigh of relief and return to his farm after successfully converting a motley band of misled ‘joiners’ and getting them to support the right side at last.
PS: I forgot to mention – During the whole campaign there was a westerly breeze.
Willie the housemaster of the Doornfontein residence of the Witwatersrand College for Advanced Technical Education was a good ou. In the fickle lottery of life he drew the short straw when we moved into the large, highly-prized room adjacent to the housemaster’s conjugal apartment on the corner of Louisa Street and St Augustine Street that he shared with his long-suffering wife.
Willie tried his best. We ignored him.
You couldn’t really ignore the real boss of the res, Sarie Oelofse though. She was fearsome. When we checked in to res on day one as fresh new arrivals in 1974, she made it very clear that she vatniekaknie.
Let us pause briefly right here to think about what sort of doos would christen a place a “College for Advanced Technical Education / Kollege vir Gevorderde Tegniese Onderwys”. Fuck me! Catchy title, china! One can imagine flocks of proud alumni saying “I went to the College for Advanced Technical Education.”
But back to onse Sarie: She was tall, had been through some husbands, and was crowned by a snow white mop on top. No one would dare give her kak, we thought. Then we met Slabber. Sarie marched into our room one day in our first week as inmates in first year and asked in her strident voice, “Vuddafokgaanhieraan?” We were drinking against the rules and making a happy, ribald commotion against those same rules.
We were ready to capitulate and come with all sorts of “jammer mevrou’s” and “ons sal dit nooit weer doen nie’s” and untrue kak like that when Chris Slabber – an old hand, in his third year in res – stepped forward and said “Ag kak, Sarie, hier: Kry vir jou ‘n dop,” and poured her a large brandy.
Sarie melted like a marshmallow on a stick roasting on an open fire. Reminded me of that Christmas song by Nat King Cole. She sat down, smiled coyly and lost all her authority in one gulp. It was wonderful. From then on, we wagged the dog. We continued to show her huge respect while doing whatever the hell we wanted. We helped her, and she turned a blind eye. The formula Chris Slabber had worked out while living over the road in the old St Augustines Street cottages worked like a charm. It needed regular dop provision, of course, but that was no PT: Whatever we were drinking we would just pour Sarie some and she would remain completely reasonable and amenable.
It was what you could call win-win. Educational, in fact.
vatniekaknie – intolerant of rambustious student behaviour
doos – person lacking your clear insight
kak – uphill
Vuddafokgaanhieraan? – What gives, gentlemen?
jammer mevrou’s – apologies
ons sal dit nooit weer doen nie’s – perish the thought
Ag kak, Sarie, hier: Kry vir jou ‘n dop – Have a seat, ma’am
dop – libation. Actually, any alcoholic drink
Another lady lived off the premises, just outside our windows in St Augustine Street. Her name was Agnes and the poor thing would attempt oblivion by swallowing methylated spirits. ‘Riding The Blue Train,’ a wild and dangerous ride. When going strong she would rant and rave and give us plenty of lip with some choice foul language. We would shout out the window: AG SHURRUP AGNES! and she would come right back with FUCK YOU YOU FUCKEN POES! Feisty, was ole Agnes. Sleeping rough in winter, she and her companions would huddle around whatever they could set alight for some warmth. One night she must have got a bit too close to the fire and then belched. A fatal meths burp roasting on an open fire. Reminded me of that Christmas song by Nat King Cole. ‘Twas the end of Agnes. The police mortuary van came to take her on her last wild ride.
Many decades later – 2020 – I was misled into drinking a lot of wine into the wee hours at Mike Lello’s lovely home overlooking the Palmiet valley. Mike had also stayed at the Doories res, about five years before me, and Sarie Oelofse had been his House Mistress too. He had fond memories of the old duck, including gently carrying her to bed. And then leaving her there, dead drunk! So not what you were thinking. He stayed in her wing of the establishment, down at the bottom end, under the same big roof as the dining room. They got on so well, indeed, that Sarie even attended his and Yvonne’s wedding, how’s that!
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.