“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. Chris was a great taskmaster. We stopped only once – for lunch (chocolate and a coke. It was pre-Banting).
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 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, 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 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, 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 – 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.
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 in the freezing gale-force wind and horizontal rain, Greg Bennett announced that he was going home unless the next morning dawned sunny and windless – a seeming impossibility. But rested after devouring a whole chicken each, washed down with KWV wine and sherry supplied by the sponsors and after sleeping in a farm loft, we woke and braced ourselves for the third – and longest – day . . . . .
Which turned into the easiest day as the wind actually HAD died and the sun DID shine 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’s 49km! At the start about ten Kingfisher paddlers bunched together in our black T-shirts: Alli Peter, Greg Bennett, Jacques de Rauville, Bernie Garcin, Dave Gillmer, who else? I hopped onto 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 and could paddle for quite a while without resting on my paddle and admiring the scenery. I paddled with (OK, behind) 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!) so no point in not stopping to have a leak.
Not that there will be a next time! Charlie’s Rule of Certifiability states 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; 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!
Some interesting stats and numbers for the Berg River Canoe Marathon.
241km from Paarl to Velddrif. Four days of 62, 46, 74 and 60km.
46 300 – The estimated number of paddle strokes required to complete the Berg
The river flow in cubic metres per second at the start of the lowest ever Berg in 1978 was 1,44 cumecs. In 1983 it was 19 cumecs at Dal Josephat Bridge and seemed quite flood-like enough to me! But the highest-ever was in the very first Berg in 1962 – 342 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.