Category Archives: sport

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 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).

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.

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.

Rested after sleeping in a farm loft and after devouring a whole chicken each, washed down with KWV wine and sherry supplied by the sponsors, 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’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 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 and could paddle for quite a while without resting on my paddle and admiring the scenery. I paddled with 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 rather. 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 spose I was about 224th?); I was cold deep into my marrow.

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!

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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. In 1983 it was 19 at Dal Josephat Bridge and seemed quite flood-like enough to me, thank you! 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 24mins – but its OK, I didn’t win). Fastest time is 13hrs 20mins (or 12hrs 36mins if you remember there was once a “kort roete”).

Five paddlers have completed 40 or more Bergs. Giel van Deventer – Berg Historian – has finished the race 45 times! In one of the toughest years in 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.

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.

Please Release Me Let Me Go!

July 1970. The All Blacks were on tour. We had seen them playing in Bethlehem where Bryan Williams, the first Maori allowed to play in South Africa (inconveniently fast, handsome and popular) scored a try in his first game in an All Blacks jersey. I think our Dawie Fourie played against them. Check the Bethlehem news “en daar was rugby ook”: We got klapped 43-9, so the rugby was just an afterthought!

Now they were playing Free State (or Vrystaat) in Bloem and Jean le Roux and I decided we needed to go and see the game. We hitch-hiked, arrived in time and watched the game. Let’s conveniently forget the score. You know how those All Blacks are.

After the game we realised it was getting dark and cold. We had made zero plans or arrangements, so we made our way to the police station, told our tale of need and were met with excited enthusiasm and hospitality. NOT. We were actually met with indifference and ignored. Eventually one konstabel saw us and asked, “Wat maak julle hier?” and we told our tale again. He said nothing but fetched some keys and beckoned us to follow him. “There’s a ladies cell vacant”, he muttered, letting us in and locking the door behind us.

Toilet in the corner with no cistern, no seat and a piece of wire protruding through a hole in the wall: the chain. Four mattresses with dirty grey blankets. Lots of graffitti, mostly scratched into the plaster. Yirr, some vieslike words! We slept and woke early, eager to hit the road back to Harrismith. After waiting a while we started peering out of the little hole in the door, hoping someone would walk past. Then we called politely with our lips at the hole. Eventually we started shouting – to no avail. After what seemed like ages someone came to the door. Thank goodness!

“Please open up and let us out, we have to hitch-hike back to Harrismith”, we said, eagerly. “Dink jy ek is vokken mal?” * came the voice and he walked off. We realised it was probably a new shift and no-one knew about our innocence!

We had to bellow and yell and perform before we eventually could get someone to believe us and let us out.

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* Do you think I’m crazy?

Thanks, Charlie Ryder!

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 like this:

1966 Volvo 122s Charles Ryder

with a long white fibreglass thing on top of it like this:

First Duzi. Dad seconds in my Cortina 2,0l GL

I asked:
What’s that?
It’s a canoe
What’s that?
You do the Dusi in it
What’s that?

Well, he eventually made me wiser and got me going and I decided I 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 (we called ourselves the mossies as we got up at sparrow’s fart), cycling about 2 miles  to the park in the afternoons and paddling on the flat water of the mighty Vulgar River in Charles’ Limfjorden canoe, which he had kindly lent me/given to me. 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 (about ten days before Dusi) I got there and it was missing. I searched high and low, but to no avail. So I missed doing the Dusi – but we went to watch it (see: https://bewilderbees.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/my-four-plus-2-dusis/ ).

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, 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, 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! We ended up hitch-hiking to the race (me and my mate Jean Roux) and going to the start in Alexander Park in PMB. There we bummed a lift with some paddler’s seconds to the overnight stop at Dusi bridge where we slept under the stars and cadged supper from all those friendly people. On to the second overnight stop (Dip Tank?) and on to Blue Lagoon, following the race.

That was January 1972. In 1976 I entered the race and traveled down from Jo’burg with a friend Louis van Reenen, newly introduced to canoeing. He had said “What’s that?” pointing at my Limfy on my car in Doornfontein and so his paddling career started. We knew only one of us could paddle, the other had to drive his VW beetle to second. At the start in PMB we tossed a coin. I lost. In that high water he swam the Dusi! He was in a Hai white water boat with a closed cockpit that he’d bought from Neville Truran which he had only paddled on Emmerentia Dam! He swam and drank half the water, and evenings he had to hang his bum out the tent door, wracked with ‘Dusi Guts’, but he finished. He was a tough character, Louis!

I drove his VW in the thick mud of the Valley of a Thousand Hills. Us seconds took turns getting stuck and helping each other and we all got though. Here’s the pup tent we used –

  • pic here *

When I eventually got round to paddling again in 1983 I did the Dusi,

dusi

the Umko,

umko_no1

the Berg,

berg_hermon

the Fish,

fish

the Lowveld Croc

lowveld-croc_1

in quick succession, and when we got back from kayaking the Colorado through the Grand Canyon in 1984 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. You changed my life. Enhanced it. Wish I coulda told you.

Rocky Horror in Senekal, Vrystaat

1971: Rugby in Bloemfontein, Springboks vs the Frogs.
After the game, Tabs, Des, Raz, Stervis and I are driving back when the kroeg (no way you could call it a pub) in Senekal beckoned.
By the time the barman threw us out Des had bonded deeply with one of Senekal’s left-behinds and when we suggested we leave for home rather than go home with Deliverance for a braai, Des told us in no uncertain terms that WE could go but HE was not leaving his lifelong mate (of three hours) in the lurch.

ONE fing we must NOT do, we were told when we got to the small house on the wrong side of Senekal, is wake his wife. Lemme tell you carefully, you must not, no marrer whut you do, wake my wahf, you hear?

Wooden floors, five drunk ous stumbling around, I started to think this goon doesn’t actually have a wife, and if he does she’s in pieces in the chest deepfreeze. Which is where Conan is, scratching around and hauling out what looks like a roundish, rock-hard lump of blood in a plastic checkers.
Des, we should go, this is going to take forever.
It’s like Des told us: WE can go, but HE’s not leaving his lifelong mate.

Eventually a fire gets going – sort of – and the icy red lump piece of deceased wife sits on it, refusing to melt. (Another recollection is the oven was turned on and the lump placed in there. Exact facts are hazy). It’s midnight in June in Senekal, Vrystaat. It’s not hot.

Meantime, Jack Nicholson has found some dop and we have to drink, and luckily this puts him to sleep and mellows the Glutz so we’re able to persuade him to make a bolt for it, hitting the Senekal dirt roads till we find the tar to Harrismith. (Another recollection has the Wildman pulling out a gun and taking potshots as the getaway car spins madly down the driveway).

Bliksem!

To this day I can experience that weird, out-of-body sensation of “WTF are we DOING here? Am I in a bad movie or in a bad dream?!”