After my first Dusi with Brian Hoogewerf I was offered a back seat in Rob Gandy’s Umko boat in 1973. The river was low and this made Hella Hella to the sea a daunting challenge. Two novices in an all-fibreglass Accord had little chance of making the finish.
After fiddling about – even sans spraydecks – No 7 gobbled us and we were in two pieces. We dragged, carried and cursed what was left of the boat for 7 hours and finally laboured into the Day 1 finish at Josephine’s Bridge. We worked the whole night putting the boat together, needing to hold the ungelled repairs over a fire at 6 or 7 am, before we could tackle Day 2.
After no sleep at all we set off on Day 2 in a leaking barge, emptying every 15 minutes or so arriving at the Day 2 finish above Mpompomani 8 hours later. Another night in the rain trying to get the resin to gel to make Day 3 a more pleasurable day. Not much success here.
Having shot all rapids, still emptying the boat at regular intervals we finally arrived in Umkomaas, a hundred years older in an overall time of around 23 hours (ed: um, actually 25hrs 33mins and 28secs, Rob). Only one other double completed the course so we basked in the glory of “2nd place K2” – but stone last overall.
Little did I know an addiction had been created by pain, fatigue – no, utter exhaustion – anger, frustration, embarrassment, but also the glory of silverware.
Amazingly, Rob Gandy and I are still friends today, 40-something years later – mainly because we have never attempted the Umko together again. I have, however, continued to do it every year for a lifetime of years since this nightmare. I re-established my partnership with Brian Hoogewerf and later Chris Watts with whom I completed 31 Umkos TOGETHER. Both remain close friends of mine today.
When you have stared injury and even death in the face so many times AND SURVIVED life takes on a new dimension – of elation, glory and an unflinching resolve TO DO IT AGAIN.
Of course all of us are ever grateful to the Big Boss upstairs for watching over us on these annual adventures.
There are many other stories too, like visiting the bottom of No.5&6 looking at both sides of Pinnacle Rock at the same time, fighting the river Gods in The Approaches, surviving No.1 in full flood, feeling our way blindly down past the Thumb in No.4, tail walking in No.7, sitting on Devils Toilet, dodging football-size rocks dropped on us in the lower reaches, hitting the rock below Goodenough’s weir and slogging across the sandbanks in the Sauna down past Sappi Saicor to the high of arriving at The Finish.
Amongst all of this stress there were happy and even hilarious situations as well that lifted the spirits when most needed. Brian and I were in a full river one year struggling with a rather strange problem. I had made the mistake of wearing very slimy nylon Comrades shorts. They slipped and slid all over the cockpit and I found myself sitting on the cockpit lip in the wild approaches to Mpompomani. I found the solution! We pulled over and I squeezed the full contents of a tube of contact adhesive onto my seat, sat down in it and literally glued myself to the seat. Talk about ‘ringsting!! It burnt my arse skinless but we stayed in the boat and managed a Top 10 finish.
I have many stories to tell but these are a few of the most memorable to contribute to the Umko Story.
Will I go back there again? Well, it is the 50th next year . . . . !
Another few Umko Snippets: In those early days: * all glass boats – no Kevlar – * NO LIFEJACKETS * NO HELMETS * We wore a cotton Vest and a cloth cap. * many paddlers slept rough after breaking boats.
That ’73 K2 silver medal – the evidence! Complete with mis-spelled name (Rob got used to that!).
(Dont peer too closely at their time).