Rob Davey’s Umko – ‘overtaken by a guy on a lilo!’

Finish Rob Davey

I spent my early years growing up in the small South Coast town of Park Rynie. No TV’s and PC’s in those days so much of my time was spent surfing, fishing and diving for crayfish with my Dad. Not a bad way to start off life. In 1969 I was sent off to boarding school at Glenwood in Durban.

I had a rude awakening on arriving at what would be my new home for the next five years. Gone was my freedom and instead I was suddenly being terrorised by a short, stick-wielding angry old man. Builds character I was told, not so sure about that.

During one of my library sessions I discovered a book that described the first descent of the Umkomaas river by two intrepid paddlers. Having grown up a stones throw from the Umkomaas River and also having travelled through the Hella Hella valley once or twice to visit relatives who farmed at Donnybrook I was fascinated by the tales of massive rapids that went on for ever and a big waterfall that had to be portaged around. This book became my bible and deep down inside I knew that one day I would paddle down that river.

During one of our school holidays I read in the newspaper that a race was being held on the Umkomaas and the first paddlers should be in by mid-morning. I told my mother that I was going to the beach, hopped onto my bicycle and cycled the 15 Km to Umkomaas to watch these paddlers come in. K1’s were paddled in teams of two in those days. I watched the first two paddlers arrive. As they hit the bank this very excited paddler talking with a strange accent proceeded to tell all who would listen to him about the massive rapids he and his partner had just journeyed down. It was only years later that I realised that this was the legendary Paul Chalupsky who won the Umko seven times between 1967 and 1977.

It was only after completing my national service and on my return to Durban that I got in touch with my old school friend Mike Frizelle. Mike had just completed his first Dusi (1976 flood year) and before long I was in a boat and learning to paddle. I recall my first attempt at paddling in a river. We launched at Pump House Weirs and paddled down to Dog’s leg which used to be quiet a challenge in those early days. I think I had about five attempts before I made it through. The rest is history.

I entered my first Umko in 1977 (entry fee was less than R5.00), a very full river with the route taking us from Josephines to the beach. My first of many swims came a few hundred meters down the river when I hit the first bend. Somewhere towards Riverside I broke my paddle. I do believe that it was Brian Moore who gave me a spare paddle, a broomstick with two planks nailed onto it. Not the greatest, but it did get me going again. During one of my swims I was suddenly overtaken by this guy on a lilo clutching onto a paddle. We agreed that it would be better if I took his paddle and let him concentrate on getting to the overnight stop. This was the start of a great friendship with Dave Biggs that has spanned almost forty years. Dave has been an inspiration to me and I will always treasure the great times we have had on the river together. After a big swim through Gulley where I had both my shoes sucked off I finally made it to the beach about 20 min after cut-off time. Don Southey, one of the organisers could see me way up the river so he waited for me in true Umko style and then took me up to the Lideo Hotel to join in the festivities.

For those that don’t know the Lido the function room was downstairs with a large window looking into the swimming pool (below water level). Some time during the evening two naked bodies appeared on the other side of the window causing much hilarity and a scramble by management to get them out of the pool. Without giving anything away lets just call them both Trevor.

Here we are in 2015 and I am still enjoying paddling on this magnificent river just as much as I did in the early days. Yes the race is a lot easier than those early epics but still a great adventure for all those that take up the challenge. If you have been contemplating tackling the mighty Umko now is the time, come and join us in celebrating the 50th running of this iconic event.

Oh and by the way that book that I found in the library in 1969 was the first edition of Men, Rivers and Canoes by the late Dr Ian Player. Thank you sir for launching my paddling career. And a special thank you to Mike Frizelle for taking me under his wing and assisting me to get into this wonderful sport or should I say way of life.

Rob Davey


In 2015 Rob did what Rob does:

An American on the Umko

2015 – A week before Umko an American kayaker Culley (?Thomas) who was coming out on business contacted KCC to see if he could enter the race. Rob Davey contacted him and a few days later he lined up at the start. Below is an email that he sent out to his mates when he got back to the USA:

Thanks again Rob and Aileen. I had a great time at the race!  Here is a quick summary I sent to my friends:

“One reason I love kayaking: The global kayaking community!

I was in South Africa for work last week and on a whim decided it would be fun to paddle in a country and continent I had never visited before. After some quick internet research I found out that A) it’s the wet season and rivers are flowing, B) there was a race on the Mkomazi River, C) that there was going to be a party. Excellent.

Only problem was that I didn’t have a kayak, paddle, life jacket or any other piece of gear. I also had no car and no clue where in the country the river was. Back on the internet, I found a kayak blog and asked if I could borrow or rent a boat and other gear. Within 6 hours Rob Davey, the race organizer, had sorted out all my equipment and other logistics. He and his wife, Aileen, picked me up at the airport in Durban, gave me a room in their guest house on Friday night, and a 2-hour ride to the race the next morning. Once at the race Rob and his friends organized my shuttle and lodging.

Now whitewater kayak races in South Africa are a little different than what I am used to in the USA. The races are long (the Umko Race is two days and 70km), they paddle Class 4 whitewater in boats that we would consider sea kayaks or surf skis, and most importantly South African kayakers are in really good shape. Finally you are racing through really wild gorges with wildlife and remote villages on the shores.

The race was super fun. I was happy that the first day was the easier of the two. I think it took me about 20 km to figure out how to turn the long boat with no rocker and another 10 to 15 km to figure out that it is actually fairly stable (just all secondary and no primary stability). Needless to say I think I was near the back of the pack, but still happy to be out in the beautiful canyons paddling.

After the race during the 3-hour shuttle to camp, I realized that South African Paddlers and American paddlers have the exact same fondness for road beers and shit talking on long dusty bumpy drives. During the ride and at the party the paddlers and other participants went out of their way to make me feel at home.

The next day was much harder (decent sized and pushy class IV rapids for most of the run). I did a fair bit better on this section and moved up a few places, but still placed nowhere near the top in the cumulative rankings, but who cares . . . I just had a blast kayaking in another country with great people.

The global kayaking community rocks. We live in different places, paddle different styles, speak different languages, but it is all the same tribe and its amazing how we take care of each other!

Thanks Rob and everyone else for your amazing generosity!


more from Rob Davey
1. I will try and get Neil Blue to give his Umko war story. paddling a K2 he broke up on the section between Josephines and Riverside. During the swim he lost one shoe. He and his partner walked for about 8 hours to get to the overnight stop escorted by a local maiden. It was tough going without a shoe so the two of them took turns with the third shoe, swapping every few km. Eventually located the camp some time after dark.
2. There is also a story about Ken Reynolds paddling with Ian Budd. They broke up around 5&6 and while walking back to No.8 Ken spotted a snake which would bring in some beer money from the snake park in Durban. Once he had caught it he stuffed it into his juice bottle for safe keeping. The bottle was placed in the car at No.8. When it came to departure time the snake was no longer in the bottle. It was nowhere to be found. Budd refused to travel back to Durban in the vehicle. I believe the snake was only found a few days later.

Author: bewilderbeast

It's about life, marriage, raising kids, paddling rivers, travel in Africa . . . re-posting thoughts written over decades - at random, I'm afraid.

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