Rowan Rasmussen – no more tshwala for the umlungu

A couple of other recollections:

I broke up once somewhere in the lower reaches and hiked up the left bank side till I reached a road on the top. I eventually came across a collection of huts. It was late morning and all the men were sitting under a tree drinking Tshwala. I explained my predicament and they said there would be an Indian bus along about two. They fetched a dining room chair and I joined the circle. When my turn came they passed me the Tin can. I obviously wasn’t too good at hiding my reaction. Amidst great mirth a minion was dispatched to the main hut.

About fifteen minutes later the number one wife appeared with a perfectly laid tray of tea – including the crocheted doylies festooned with coloured beads to keep the flies off the sugar and out of the tin of condensed milk. After the stiff morning’s hike I finished off the lot. Later that afternoon I enjoyed a free ride with my paddle to join you guys at the Lido.


One year I had a personally memorable finish in a yellow hulled experimental single I had built for the Duzi in the woodwork room at pinetown high school. To cut down on weight, the Master of WW suggested I use a heavy but strong timber called Lagaan. I made all the superstructure using ultra thin sections of timber about 7mm X 30mm. That wood was heavy compared to Spruce so I’m not sure there was a weight advantage at all. It lasted a low year on the Duzi and two and three quarters of the Umkomaas but going into something heavy – probably No Name because it was near the end somewhere – both gunwales snapped and the boat folded up around my knees. I carried on as it managed to keep a somewhat reasonable shape at first, but slowly collapsed into a stupidly embarrassing V shape. I crossed the line in my bright yellow banana after a frustrating epic jumping in and out of my “boat” to cross the interminable sandbanks. Remember how that water below Saicor Rayon Factory was so polluted with something that ate and burned your skin.

Canoe design has come a long way since our trials and error attempts to move the technology forward. In fact I have often said that the three most significant developments in SA canoeing centred around three personalities:

1. Charlie Mason – He planned and administered and drove the whole canoeing scene once the early pioneers faded.

2. Paul Chalupsky – introduced the ungentlemanly and weird concept of training – without which we would all still be paddling in short sleeved khaki shirts and scout hats with leopard skin hat bands. I think he also called a canoe a kayak!!!

3. Gordie Rowe – he ushered in the era of professional boat building by drawing on his own experience and by working with old man Chalupsky with his sense of German Precision. They lived close to each other in Westville. I used to envy Paul his superbly built craft that he could simply clean down and hang up for use in the next race. The rest of us were constantly rebuilding, patching or starting from scratch with little time to train.
Gordie’s enterprise meant that anyone with R150 could buy a perfect ready made craft. How many canoeists these days would care to or have the ancient skills needed to build their own boats?

Some other memories.
•Do you all recall buying hundreds of eighth inch by two inch brass nuts and bolts from Rance Colley in Umgeni Rd to construct your boat?
•Cutting L shaped aluminium lengths into hundreds of little angles to attach crosspieces to the gunwales which were first genkemmed and then brass screwed onto the hull.
•The smell of genkem as you used a whole tin to glue vinylon inside the hull because most races the poorly constructed fibreglass sans gel coat would crack and your boat would fill up with water.
•That lovely feeling of fibreglass splinters on your shoulders, neck and thighs from coming into contact with rock roughened hull and which would still be a reminder two days later.
•That sinking feeling after having spent most of the night cutting up chop strand and working it in with steel washer rollers- three layers plus three strips in the V – and hairy mess jammed into the nose for thickness, only to arrive proudly the next morning to see a gooey mess of collapsed chop strand sagging limply off the mould walls and a sticky pool of purplish resin in the V – all the resin having followed the dictates of gravity and meekly run out of the fibreglass because you forgot to add accelerator to the MEK and the chemical reaction with the resin had not occurred.
• Going into a Ladies curtain shop to buy wired stretch cord and O screws so your mom could thread it through your cumbersome bulky vinylon spray cover.
•Paddling with hardly cured and sticky home made paddles because they were the last thing you managed to complete the night before the race.
• The sinking feeling of driving down into a valley and finding a bony river that had not been filled with an artificial release of water the night before.
•The somewhat crazy practise of placing two additional layers of surgical cord over your spray cover under the cockpit lip in the days before pumps ‘cos you had no plans to portage anywhere on the Umkomaas and had no desire to stop and empty on the way.
And much more as it comes to me.


Hi Robbie,
Amazing what nostalgia wells up when these stories are retold.
You know, considering it was such an amazing three days there is not a heck of a lot I can recall, although a few details do come to mind. Below are my recollections.
Driving down into the Hella Hella valley that morning was , for me, filled with feelings of both apprehension and excitement. We knew that it had been raining in the catchment but I don’t think we were prepared for what we saw.
When there was rain about, the cliffs and hills above the bridge were always shrouded in wisps of mist that added a moody atmosphere to the proceedings. That day was no different!
I do remember the consternation amongst many paddlers as they talked themselves and others either into or out of starting the race. There were many who decided against it and tied their canoes back onto their cars. Most of the personal race preparations were done in the middle of the road on the bridge – securing drinking water, extra buoyancy and stowing spare paddles – while below us the river roared and Colin Wilson had his conversation with God (whom he assured us advised him not to paddle).
The actual start is not clear in my mind, but the shock of rounding the first bend and plunging straight into the approaches certainly is. I think I lost all sensation of racing and just dug as deeply and strongly into the rush of waves and swirling water as I could, realising that any lapse of concentration or effort would be disastrous. I had utmost faith in Robbie’s decision making and applied myself only to pulling as hard as possible to keep maximum momentum so that we could have control. Under the circumstances, control was a relative term, but somehow, with our fellow paddlers appearing and disappearing around us as they either crested the huge waves or dropped out of sight into the troughs, we arrived at the top of Number One. I don’t know if we were first through, but thereafter we seemed to be alone on the river, and, apart from Robbie’s Special, which was notable for the fact that we missed it completely by paddling over barbed wire fences in the fields on the right, and the speed at which we were carried down Number Eight, the rest of that day remains a blur for me.
There was however, one particular moment of terror as we approached the first right angled bend somewhere either above or below Number Two or Three. The river hurled itself straight into the cliff face and built up the most intimidating version of a perpetual storm surf wave which collapsed down onto itself with tremendous force. I recall imagining what the outcome would be for anyone unlucky enough to swim just before the bend or who took evasive action too late Fortunately we were able to take the opposite bank’s relatively user friendly passage. Thereafter the same scene presented itself wherever the river took a tight bend – but familiarity breeds contempt and thereafter such sights were simply part of the race.
For me, the euphoria of arriving at Josephine’s Bridge in one piece far outweighed the fact that we were first boat in. The race position seemed almost irrelevant. It had all happened so quickly. The speed of the river together with the almost superhuman effort directed at simple survival made sure of that.
I think it was a rainy night and many thought the river could rise. Well we all know that it did and we were able to launch straight from the level of the campsite – no climbing down that concrete  berm under the bridge. The second day yields memories of more of the same as day one, but also the view of that herd of goats high up on the cliff near St Elmo’s with never before seen waterfalls cascading off the plateau high above. The sound off huge boulders growling and snapping under the water as they were rolled downstream. Pumpkins bobbing along next to us and that terrifying “cheese-cutter” sand grab cable alternately being forced underwater and then whipping to the surface and up into the air again as the tension fought against the pull of the river. That was a sure tragedy just waiting to happen and I’m amazed that nobody was sliced in two. Later, our short swim five metres from the bank for seemingly no reason at all was a lucky wake up call. I suppose it was a result of intense fatigue and the subsequent lack of concentration. How lucky to have had it happen on a smooth section of water where recovery was quick and simple.
Being stopped above Mpompomani by Doc Curzon because there were no officials yet at the overnight finish a kilometer or so further on is also in my memory. We then had a “mini” race about an hour later against Scotty and Paul to complete day two when the officials finally arrived. That quick thinking by the Doc rescued what could have been a major mess.
Day three seemed a lot less hectic, probably because we had adapted to the level, but there was always those major obstacles we had to negotiate that lay ahead. We managed those without any noteworthy incidents but, with almost the last significant rapid, we dropped over that boulder on the right hand side of No-Name Rapid and straight down onto a rock. I remember watching Robbie hurtling forward off his seat and driving right into the front section as sheer momentum carried him into the bowels of the engine room. How we never came out is another mystery, but with the steering totally demolished we thereafter threaded a sorry zig-zag course in the still turbulent waters down to the mouth. Inexorably Scotty and Paul hauled us in and passed us with Paul’s words still haunting me. I think it was “ Now we got you” followed by “that’s your bundle”. How sweet it was to finally finish unscathed but disappointed to have relinquished our leading spot.
And that was the Umkomaas 1972.

Robbie Stewart comments – Great writing Rowan,

This is what I said to my family when I forwarded your piece to them:

“Read this and you will understand why Rowan and I remain friends after all these years.”

Angus will affirm that the overnight stops are what made Canoeing so special in South Africa – everyone had been through the mill and had their own war stories to relate.”


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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