Berg River Freeze

“Please tell him not to. He’ll never make it”.

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 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 in Paarl they 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 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. 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.

1983 Berg Canoe (1)

I saw Gerrie’s boat nose-down with the rudder waving in the wind, caught in the flooded 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 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, giving them an advantage and allowing them to beat me in the race!

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 ini 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, 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. 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 50 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’

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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.

South West Africa Tour

The Kestell bus was like a half-loaf, but still they couldn’t fill it so we Harrismithians had been invited along. Leon Crawley, Pikkie Loots, Pierre du Plessis, Tuffy Joubert and me, plus a few others joined the Kestell boys. It was R25 for fifteen days. We said YES! and our parents said yes, so we were off!

It was boys-only, a seunstoer, but Mnr Braam Venter of Kestell took his daughter along. She was about Std 4 we were Std 7 to 9. She was very popular and soon became like the tour mascot, second only to Wagter the tour dog – who was actually a found holey corobrick with a dog collar through one of its three holes and string for a leash.

The short bus had a longitudinal seating arrangement. Long rows running the length of the bus so you sat facing each other.

We all bundled in and set off. After a few hours we had the first roadside stop. Mnr Venter lined us all up outside the bus and said “Right, introduce yourselves”, as the Kestell ous didn’t know us – and we didn’t know them. Down the row came the names, van Tonder, van Wyk, van Niekerk, van Staden, van Aswegen, vanne Merwe, van Dit, van WhatWhat, Aasvoel, Kleine Asenvogel, Marble Hol. Fluffy standing next to me murmured “Steve McQueen” but when his turn came he let out with a clear “Leon Crawley” so I said “Steve McQueen” out loud. Without a blink the naming continued before I could say “Uh, just kidding” so I became “Ou Steve” for the duration.

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When we entered SWA we headed for a pub. Us fourteen to sixteen year-olds. Read about that here.  

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We went to the Fish River Canyon. Like all canyons, it was billed as the biggest, longest, deepest, whatever in the (insert your area or ‘world’ here). We stood on the rim and gazed down. Then Pikkie Loots and I couldn’t stand it; so – against orders – we zipped down the pathway, slipping and sliding down as fast as we could. Before we got to the bottom we decided we’d get into big kak if we took too long, so we reluctantly stopped and returned to the top, slowly.

We camped next to the Vingerklip, while it still stood (it fell down on 8 December 1988). About 30m high from the vlaktes at the base, the little neck it balanced on was only about 3m X 1,5m, making it rather precarious.

SWA_mukorobvingerklip-before-it-fell

Later we camped near Windhoek where my Dad had arranged that I got fetched by some of his relatives I had never met. Third or fourth cousins, I suppose. In the car on the way to their home they had lots of questions, but before I had finished my second sentence the one younger guy blurted out “Jis! Jy kan hoor jy’s ’n rooinek!” (Boy, You can hear you’re English-speaking!) and my bubble burst. All of my short life I had laboured under the mistaken impression that I was completely fluent in Afrikaans. No-one had told me otherwise.

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On to the Brandberg, where a long walk would take you to some rock paintings. I chose not to make the walk. Pikkie did, and said he remembered “the terrain as being barren, hot as hell, and rock strewn. The rocks had a rich red-brown colour, and I thought it was amazing that the local indigenous people had painted a white lady, which according to legend was the Queen of Sheba, who they would probably never have seen! Some people wanted to pour water on the paintings but I think Braam stopped them and of course today I realise that he was a hundred per cent right in not letting us do it. If we all poured water on it it would have been washed away by now!”

SWA_Brandberg

We got to Etosha National Park after dark so the Okakuejo gate was closed. We didn’t pitch our tents that night to save time, simply bedding down outside ready to drive in first thing the next morning. On spotting us the next morning the game ranger said Net hier het ‘n leeu eergistraand ‘n bok  neergetrek

On our way back, we passed Lake Otjikoto, the ‘bottomless lake’:

SWA_Otjikoto lake

SWA_Lake Otjikoto
cichlid fish, Tilapia guinasana

The Hoba meteorite next. Weighing about 60 tons, made of iron and nickel it is still the largest single intact meteorite known, and also the most massive naturally occurring piece of ferronickel known on Earth’s surface. Estimated to have fallen 80 000 years ago, it was discovered around 1920.

SWA_Hoba meteorite
This pic from July 1967, two years before we saw it

On the way out of SWA we reached the SouthWest corner of the country, heading for the border with the Kalahari Gemsbok Park, when we spotted something tangled up in the roadside fences. Turned out to be a few springbok, some dead, some still alive but badly injured. As we spotted them one of the farm boys yelled out Ek debs  die balsak!”. He cut off the scrotum, pulled it over the base of a glass cooldrink bottle. What? we asked. When it had dried he would break the glass and he’d have an ashtray, he explained. Oh.

The alive ones were dispatched and all were taken to the nearby farmer who gave us one for our trouble. It seems some hunters are indiscriminate and less than accurate and the buck panic before the onslaught and run into the fences.

SWA_springbok

That night we made a huge bonfire on the dry bed of the Nossob river or one of its tributaries and braai’d the springbok meat. It was freezing in July so we placed our sleeping bags around the fire and moved closer to the bed of coals all night long. Every time we woke we inched closer.

A wonderful star-filled night sky above us.

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seunstoer – boys tour;

Ek debs  die balsak! – ‘Dibs on the ballbag!’ (the antelope scrotum);

Net hier het ‘n leeu eergistraand ‘n bok neergetrek – Right here where you’re camping a lion killed an antelope the night before last;

 

River Trip Swinburne – Walton

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 . . .

Jock shuns the Swanie / Bellato Vulgar River Expedition ex-Voortrekkers’ canoe

Sudden thought: Was the Jacobsz ladies’ farm Walton, or Wattle Grove?

River Trip Swinburne – Harrismith

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.

Swinburne, Montrose Motel
What was left of the motel in 2012

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.

Swinburne-bridge-1
We launched under the old sandstone road bridge

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’.

Harrismith-Hamilton-bridge
We finished under the old Hamilton bridge in Harrismith

 

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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’.

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Geronimo-o No!!

When modern man decided to pinch water from the Tugela river and pump it uphill to satisfy the Vaalies’ thirst, our area around Harrismith and Bergville saw a flurry of activity and an influx of new people. A bus arrived at school and a flock of new kids tumbled out. They were cruelly christened Die Dam Paddas by us parochials.

Sterkfontein dam, TuVa township (Tu Va – Tugela/Vaalies, geddit?), a vertical tunnel in the Drakensberg for the hydro-electric turbines, canals and smaller dams all had to be built. One of the latter was Driel Barrage on the Tugela on Kai’s farm The Bend, so once we’d had sufficient beer one fine day we drove down on Kai’s big Chevy pickup to look at the construction.

A very high wall had been built starting out from dry land until its highest point in the middle of the river. Very interesting, but we don’t have to . . . . Oh, we do?

So we climbed up it and inched our way on our bums along the 30cm wide wall to its highest point. Some walked, but they were just being foolish, right? OK, so we’ve seen it, can we go now?

The muddy brown water way below us was completely opaque, no way you could see even one centimetre into it. It could have been knee deep or ten metres deep, who knows, so we definitely won’t be . . . . Mandy! ARE YOU MAD?!

She’s jumped! Holy shee-yit!! Ah neely dahd, she took forever to plummet as I watched in slow motion, and then she entered with a big splash and disappeared, which I s’pose was better than if she hadn’t.

Eventually she surfaced with a huge grin on her face and now I knew I was stuffed. I’d have to jump. Unless the others chickened out, but no, there went Sheila and so before long I had to stand up, act casual and plummet meself.

Unbelievable what a fierce hold brave women have over us cowardly um, circumspect men . . .

I’m fifteen?

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!”

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