My main memory of the Umkomaas is the sheer beauty of the valleys we paddled through and in particular the cliff faces overhanging the river. Very early in my Umko paddling career, Brian Grant and I were passing below a cliff face in the St. Elmo’s area when there was a sudden loss of power from the rear of the boat. “Paddle Brian” I shouted. “Look at all those orchids up there!” came the reply followed by a string of botanical names. Initially I was irritated by this. Hell, we were in a race! Later it dawned on me that we were not going to win the race and that Brian had the right approach. In my many passages down the river in later years, I always took time out to soak up the magnificent scenery around me, often just drifting along in the pools below the cliff faces.
We had had, by our standards, a good first day of the marathon and were going well on the second day when we approached “The Waterfall”. The river was at a good level and we had ‘heard’ about the side channel down the left. When we got closer there was the channel and we paddled into it. It did not take long before we realised we had made a big mistake! On the short final drop back to river level our boat called it quits and we then had a five hour walk out to the coast. The punch line of this episode was Rob Stewart looking disdainfully at us two amateurs and saying “Guys, you would have had a better chance by going over the main waterfall”.
I had the privilege of paddling three marathons with “Mr Umko”. In our third race we were in the water at the start waiting for our batch start when Charles in his usual laconic way says to me “Shall we make a bit of an effort?” instead of his usual previous race question of “You are not in a hurry are you?” The GO is given and we take off like a bullet and are a good 20 metres ahead of the youngsters as we go into the first left/right drop before the approaches to #1. Down the approaches we go with me wondering how long we will able to keep this pace up before I blow when Charles casually announces that we have no rudder. No real problem. We pull over, haul the boat on to the rocks and take out our extensive emergency repair kit. New piece of cable and connectors in hand and all we need to do is thread the cable through the rudder wheel. Not included in the repair kit is reading glasses and there we have two middle-aged gents trying to put the cable through a small hole we cannot see too clearly.
Bright idea!! We lift the rudder end of the boat up and face it into the sun. We can now see the cable hole properly and in no time at all we are back on the river. True to Charles’ style we continue at a steady pace and pass many boats before the overnight stop.
P.S. Allie has already beaten me to it but I must reiterate the immeasurable contribution Ernie Alder has made to both the Marathon and the many other Umko one day races.