NB: Scanned on OCR – still needs editing. Read Rob’s book Duzi Fever or read it on joomag.com – page 14 of Umko 50 years.
FIRST UMKOMAAS RIVER TRIP – EASTER WEEKEND 1960
The Duzi was either a paddling or walking race. Whatever the river levels were, there was an unavoidable amount of walking. The level of the Duzi benefited from local flash floods and the Umgeni River from good sustainable rains in the catchment area. These conditions were unpredictable and the race often resulted in a soul destroying foot-slog. We heard they were going to build an enormous dam – being The Inanda Dam on the Lower Umgeni and this would make things worse.
We dreamt of paddling in a river where there was virtually no portaging. We decided to plan a trip on the Umkomaas River and decide its viability for a major canoe race. We planned to start our trip on Easter weekend 1960 at The St. Josephine’s Bridge that spanned The Umkomaas River on the Richmond / lxopo Road to the Cape.
Peter Marriott’s Father – Geoff Marriott had built a huge trailer with a multiple rack that could accommodate at least eight or nine canoes and he kindly ferried us to St. Josephine’s Bridge as we planned to sleep under the bridge and make an early start. We built a fire to keep us warm and hunkered down for the night, The cold woke us early and after a mug of steaming coffee and rusks we slid our canoes into the river and into the swiftly flowing current. Paddling was a dream and we basically spent the day steering more than paddling our canoes over rapid after rapid on the beautiful clean water, the river flanked on either side by smoothly rounded white boulders. On bends of the river we canoed beneath krantzes that towered above us, carved out by the passage of centuries of flood-waters passing through. Having journeyed many miles down river, stopping occasionally for a smoke break and to stretch the legs and ease our burns.
We were in the best of spirits and then Dereck Antrobus started horsing around. In losing concentration, he left it too late to bypass a projecting boulder, got caught sideways on and then in a flash, the inevitable happened: His canoe wrapped around and broke its back. We were now about ten miles up river from a small trading store known by the locals as “Fishy Fish”. We decided to head for it and wait for Dereck, who was now on foot to catch up. There being no track or footpath to follow, on many occasions he had to swim the river to bypass the insurmountable krantzes that blocked his path. A few miles above Fishy Fish the ground levelled out and he came across an Umfaan with his donkey. After parting with a shilling or two the Umfaan let him mount the donkey and about two hours after our arrival at Fishy Fish and as we were starting to worry about him, in rode Dereck grinning like a Cheshire cat astride the donkey. Before Dereck arrived we had decided it would be too dangerous for a lone canoeist to pioneer his way out of the valley. We had no idea where the bus or roads were, so we planned to sleep on the concrete floor of the stores covered verandah and on the morrow we would find the way out of The Umkomaas Valley and back to Durban. ln our canoes we carried rations to last us the expected four days we had allowed for the trip. Because of the weight limitations restricted by the canoes carrying capacities, we were unable to afford the luxury of beers and instead we carried half jacks of Cane, Vodka, Brandy and what ever the individual preference. The mixers were packets of Cool Aid topped up in a billycan of river water. Our food consisted of tins of Bully beef, Spaghetti etc. and of course coffee and rusks.
To heat up and boil water, we had four Turm Sporl mini cookers that were fuelled by methylated spirits contained in a small brass reservoir attached to the top of the Turm Sport stove. Needless to say, us being youngsters and not used to drinking “shorts” downing a billycan of Riverbrew at one go soon did the trick. lt wasn’t long before we were semi-paralytic, singing bawdy songs at the top of our voices and banging with our knives on our upturned billycans to such an extent, that we actually punched holes in them. Having flattened our half jacks, Graham who hardly ever imbibed, kept up an incessant bitching for more booze. To placate him Peter Marriott unscrewed the cap of his Turmsport Stove, and passed it to Graham saying, ‘shut up and drink this”. Graham was so out of it. He raised the stove to his lips and had a good few gulps of the purple liquid. All of a sudden, he let out a yell and then spewed the most spectacular cat I’ve ever seen all over the poor little Brakkie that was trying to beg some scraps from us. Graham hurled his boots up for a solid hour and then, thank God he fell into a drunken sleep. The following morning when we awoke, bleary eyed and buggered, the verandah looked as if a bomb had hit it; the floor was littered with the remnants of the previous night’s debauchery. Among the debris stood the dejected looking Brakkie wearing a saddle of congealed puke. Someone called Graham “Captain Honk” and this nickname has stuck ever since and might be the origination of the rapid now referred to as “Captain Honks Rapid”.
The store owner arrived, fortunately after we had sorted out the shambles and we asked him if he would look after our canoes for two weeks. To ensure his un-dying loyalty and co-operation, we proceeded to tear a number of R10 notes in half in front of him. His eyes nearly popped out of his head as we did this, and told him we would be back for our canoes in two weekend’s time and would then give him the other halves of the notes.
We bid the owner of Fishy Fish store farewell, and reminded him again to be sure to meet with us in two weekend’s time. We then set off plodding up the dirt track leading from the store to a dirt road used by the bus somewhere above, where hopefully we would be in time to hitch a ride on the bus that headed for Umkomaas.
We arrived at the top, hot and sweaty and flopped down to rest under a shady thorn tree to wait for the bus, which announced its arrival in a cloud of fine red dust. We managed to squeeze aboard and became instantly aware of the stale odour of the sweaty, unwashed bodies of the passengers. l’m sure we didn’t smell much better ourselves. As the bus journeyed on, it stopped periodically to allow passengers to alight or board. No toilet stops were made and when nature called, a male would simply hang from the running board by the driver and make like a fire hydrant. Females seemed to have mastered the art of holding on indefinitely. The bus driver made one emergency stop to replenish supplies of the local brew which did its rounds among the passengers, including us. We eventually arrived at the bus depot in Ndudut where we alighted and found that we still had to board another bus to take us to the village of Umkomaas. Where we would find this bus was another matter, but then good fortune smiled upon us as we gazed around at the sea of curious Blacks staring at us and wondering who we could ask for help or directions.
My gaze became focused on a familiar black face. I was currently employed as a pay clerk at Mobil Oil Co. The weekly paid staff had to present themselves at the pay office window on Friday afternoons to collect their pay envelopes. On arrival they would call their Company Badge Number followed by their name. the fellow I was now staring at was an employee of Mobil, whose name was Nelson. Before collecting his pay packet he would stand at the pay window and announce himself as, ” No. 5611 – Nelson – one arm, one eye, one arsehole” and amidst howls of laugher would receive his wages. I called out “5611” at the sound of which Nelson leapt around and rushed over to greet me. We told him where we had come from and he directed us to the bus that took us to Umkomaas and now to hitch to Durban. We tried to flag a motorist down with no luck. lt became apparent that nobody was prepared to stop for such a motley looking mob such as us. So we resorted to Plan B. Two of us hid out of sight behind bushes on the verge and the best looking of the three stood on the side of the road with thumb up and a fixed smile on his face. This worked. Within minutes a car stopped and as the motorist said’ “hop in”, so the other two sprang from hiding and rushed the car. We managed to arrive in Durban none the worse for our adventure.
Two weeks later we returned as promised to the Fishy Fish Store to retrieve our canoes and found the store owner eagerly awaiting our return so he could redeem the other half of the notes in his possession.
2nd UMKOMAAS TRIP – EASTER WEEKEND 1961
Having had a taste of the Umkomaas and realizing its potential as a future canoe race venue, we decided to undertake another exploratory trip on the river over the 1961 Easter weekend which ended on the 3rd of April. Meanwhile Verity and I had set our Wedding Date for the 4th of April 1961. It would be touch and go to make the wedding in time should any canoeing mishap occur on the river. To enable us to carry more provisions (which included the luxury of some beers) and to cope with the much bigger rapids on the Umkomaas, we built “Birddog” double canoe hulls but fitted them with single cockpits. These canoes proved to be ideal for the conditions we would encounter as they had loads of freeboard and were extremely buoyant.
Two weeks prior to our trip, Peter Marriott, Denny Sterling, Norman Dyer and myself drove to the Fishy Fish Trading Store in Pete’s Opel station wagon and dropped off provisions for our impending Easter trip. Again we tore a couple of notes in half to ensure the store owner’s co-operation and reliability. We returned to civilization up a steep and badly eroded dirt road that led out of the Umkomaas Valley.
We had planned to spend the night under the St. Josephine’s Bridge, but as light rain had started to fall we decided to spend the night at the local Richmond hotel nearby. The manager seemed overjoyed that we would help fill his vacancies, a decision I am sure he later regretted. We dumped our gear in our allotted rooms and went in search of the Pub, which as we entered, we saw was being patronized by a group of rough, tough looking individuals dressed in Khaki shirts, Khaki shorts and Vellies. As we entered they turned as one man and stared disdainfully at us. We ordered ourselves a round of beers and then to break the ice we broke into a rendition of what we thought would be an appropriate song which went like this:
“Daars ‘n ou spinnekop in die kakhuis
en hy val van die deksel tot die draad
en as jy my nie kan wil glo nie
dan kan jy in die kakhuis gaan kak”.
Moments later we were all maaties and much were the jokes, singing and drinking that ensued. The pub closed and we tottered off to our respective bedrooms. The noise we were making as we said goodnight to each other was indescribable and it wasn’t long before the manager was summoned in an attempt to shut us up. Down the length of the hotel passage was a cricket mat runner. At one end stood the manager who was kakking all over poor Colin Wilson who happened to be the closest to him. The opportunity was too good to be missed and on impulse I bent down and jerked the mat from under them. They crashed to the floor like ten pins. We howled with laughter and nearly ended up spending the night in the local jail. Fortunately the manager had a sense of humour and after promising him faithfully that we would behave ourselves he condescendingly allowed us to stay over. What a Gentleman!
The following morning we were driven to the river and began our trip. The river and rapids were fantastic. The scenery was too beautiful. We shot the rapids single file and then waited at the bottom for the last canoeist to come through and then floated abreast to the start of the next rapid and so on. We must have covered a good forty miles and we began keeping a lookout for a suitable campsite for the night. We chose an ideal spot opposite a gently flowing rapid and a flat sandy bank to pull our canoes on to. Behind this was a nice grassed area to camp on. The river must have overflowed its bank in the past as in receding it had left behind a plentiful supply of driftwood, bleached pearly white by the sun. Perfect for our camp fire.
For sleeping, we planned to prop our canoes on their sides and stretch sheets of thin plastic sheeting over the top to form a waterproof roof cover. For a bed, we would dig a hollow for our hips and pack it with grass to form a mattress. The best of plans don’t always work. We discovered that the heat generated by our bodies caused heavy condensation on the underside of the plastic and we ended up soaking wet. The sheeting was definitely a bad idea.
As we were preparing to crawl into our grassy beds, one of our canoeing buddies, Denny Sterling pulled out his “Piece de resistance”. It was an “el-cheapo” luminous pink lilo. Denny waved it in our faces and bragged about the good night’s sleep he would have on it. If looks of jealousy could kill, he would have been dead. Denny proceeded to blow up his lilo which as it filled with air swelled into three equal compartments. Just to gloat, Denny kept on blowing and blowing.
Suddenly, without warning, one seam of his lilo split and the lilo popped into two panels, one double size and the other normal. I was sitting next to him wearing my sheath knife. As the lilo went “kapuf”, I whipped out my knife and stabbed it. We howled with laugher, but Denny couldn’t see the funny side and slunk off into the bush with the mutters.
We were awoken from sleep by a shout from Denny who had meanwhile snuck back to our camp fire and, being cold, had gone to sleep with his damp rope soled shoes as close to the fire as possible to dry them. After they dried they began to smoulder. After that rude awakening sleep was hard to come by. I put on a brew of coffee and as I sat sipping it, so the full moon appeared over the top of the hill opposite me and as it rose above the hill, it was as if Mother Nature had suddenly switched on the lights. The river became lit up in a magnificent silvery glow. I thought of how privileged I was to witness this event. We rose early, ate rusks dunked into mugs of steaming hot coffee and we were ready for the day.
We couldn’t wait to get back into the river. Day two was a repetition of the previous days canoeing. Rapid after rapid with unbelievable scenery as we paddled past kraantz after kraantz. We were totally stoked. Again we chose a suitable spot on the riverbank with plenty of driftwood for our campfire. We soon had a roaring blaze going. For supper we ate like Kings, feasting on vacuum packed Braai chops, baked beans and potatoes wrapped in tin foil and cooked over hot coals. We washed the meal down with Castles cooled down in a cairn of river – stones we had built in the riverbed.
Day three: We ate our traditional breakfast of Rusks and coffee and we got on our way. We had been fore-warned that somewhere along today’s route we would come across a huge waterfall where the river narrowed down and funnelled through a five metre gap, plunging some fifty meters into a deep pool that had been hollowed out beneath. We kept a wary eye out for signs of the waterfall fearing that we may suddenly come upon it without warning and be unable to pull out in time. Our fears were unfounded because as we rounded a bend. there in the distance about three kilometres ahead we could see a column of white spray rising up into the sky. As we approached within 500 metres the roar of the waterfall was clearly audible and the spray hung like a pall above us. As we neared the waterfall the terrain became strewn with huge boulders that had obviously been tumbled there like marbles when the river was in flood. Carrying our canoes over these boulders would be extremely difficult and unpleasant.
Playing on the sandy left bank of the river, just before the start of the boulders, were a group of Umfaans. We asked them if they would help carry our canoes around the waterfall and we were met with stony stares and a shake of heads. It’s truly amazing what the jingle jangle of coins in the pocket can do. In a flash we were inundated with more willing bearers than Dr. Livingstone and Stanley must have had. Watching them portage was sheer pleasure as we strolled along like gentlemen behind, admiring the countryside.
After repaying their kindness we got back into the river and were soon propelled out of sight by the fast flowing current. Some miles further downstream we heard the tremendous roar of what could only be a mother of a rapid. We were right, and just as well we climbed out of our canoes to inspect it. To have attempted to shoot it would have been suicide. The water cascaded for about a hundred metres at a steep gradient over rocks and then flowed at pace along a gulley flanked on either side by gigantic grey speckled river boulders that created eddies and whirlpools on the waters surface. After studying the terrain we felt that the easiest and safest way to re-enter the river was to carry around the cascade and climb back into our canoes in the calm water that existed between each boulder and to be prepared for the sharp right hand kick of the canoe as the nose edged into the main flow.
All six of us made it safely and as we waited downstream for our last member, Claude to appear there was a lengthy delay with no sign of Claude or his canoe. We pulled our canoes onto the bank and then rushed back to find out the cause of Claude’s holdup. On reaching the boulder where we had embarked, there was no sign of him or his canoe. A feeling of panic and terror overcame us. We knew Claude was a poor swimmer and we began shouting his name above the roar of the river. lt seemed as if the worst tragedy had befallen us. I don’t know what made me do it, but I crawled on top of the huge boulder and as I lay on my stomach and looked over its edge into the river, I peered straight into the panic struck eyes of Claude, just as he emitted a scream for help. There he was, terrified and clinging for dear life to a ledge under the overhang, with his canoe being crushed by the pressure of the river against the face of the boulder beneath him. I dropped into the river and prized him off the rock. One other canoeist rescued his canoe and between us, got Claude and his canoe safely back to the river bank. After a cigarette and a shot of brandy from our emergency rations, Claude was declared fit but he decided he’d had enough and would find his way out of the valley on his own.
From here on the rapids were gentle and we had no more drama. We now had to decide where to camp for our last night. Peter Marriott had heard that somewhere in our vicinity there was a mission. Fed up with roughing it at night, the thought of home comforts at the mission appealed to us. We started to enquire as to its whereabouts from local Blacks as we came across them. We drew a blank, until we encountered a group of umfaans playing down by the river. but who actually lived at the mission. They guided us to a footpath that led uphill and brought us out at the mission. We met the Missionary a Mr. Swanson who told us that he had built the mission many years ago and that all the building material had been brought there by river-boat long before the Rayon factory and weir on The Umkomaas had been built. It was fantastic to be able to have a wash and a drink of good clean rainwater. Mr. Swanson came along and offered us a bunch of ripe bananas which we grateful accepted and proceeded to devour with the speed of a troop of monkeys. Shortly thereafter he came back and asked if we would like to attend the evening church service. This caught us totally off guard and we tried to concoct a few lame excuses as to why we were tied up. Mr. Swanson proceeded to castigate us saying we accepted his food. but not his religion. We felt guilty and reluctantly agreed to attend the evening service. The loud ringing of a bell told us it was time to attend service so off we went like lambs to the slaughter. As guests of honour we were ushered to chairs in the front row. The church hall on our left and behind us was packed with children. Their faces shining from their recent ablutions with Lifebuoy soap. They sang a number of hymns In Zulu and finished their recital with a hymn sung in English, something about paraffin lamps, lights etc.
Then horror of horrors, Mr Swanson asked us whether we would like to sing one of our hymns. There was a hush of silence as the congregation eagerly awaited our rendition. We looked from one to the other. Sad to say, not one of us knew the first words of any hymn and felt that “Barnacle Bill’ or “Mother McGinty” might not be suitable. We sat ashamed and red faced with embarrassment. The children began to titter as they realized how stupid we were. Once again we slept outside with our canoes.
Day four: We couldn’t wait to leave the mission behind us. They say the best form of defence is attack, so to cover the embarrassment of the previous evening, we all agreed that Swanson was an arsehole. If he wanted to bury himself in the bush, that was his indaba, but he mustn’t try and drag us with him. We felt better having got him and his mission off our chests and we could now turn our attention to the final flat paddle to Umkomaas, with only the Rayon Factory Weir to carry around.
Now for my trump card. I had kept this a close secret and told no-one. Now was the time to surprise them with the good news. Unbeknown to them, I had been in contact with the manager of The Lido Hotel in Umkomaas and had told him of our impending river trip and suggested that if he wanted publicity we would end our trip at his hotel around midday on the 3rd of April and see if we could arrange coverage with the media. He thought this was a brilliant idea and I asked him if it would be possible for him to lay on a lunch and cold beers at the end of our journey. The guys almost started singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow”. Little did I suspect that an hour or so later they would want to lynch me.
We set off in high spirits with the thought of the culinary treat that lay ahead. We began a slow paddle down the final stretch of The Umkomaas. We were well ahead on time and wanted to arrive at The Lido around midday as scheduled. As we merrily cruised along we came across a small trading store on our right bank and decided to pull in and grab a couple of Cokes. To my joy, the Coke fridge also contained bottles of Raspberry flavoured milk which was my favourite. I went berserk and in satisfying my craving, glugged down bottle after bottle to a point where I was as full as a tick and could hold no more. I tried walking to my canoe but my stomach seized in violent cramps. I would be unable to paddle in this condition, so I did the only thing possible in the circumstances. I put my finger down my throat and hurled the most spectacular pink cat.
My recovery was instantaneous. It was now time to make the finish. We paddled on slowly over the remaining couple of kilometers and arrived on schedule just before 1pm.
Instead of the welcoming committee I had thought would meet us. there wasn’t a sole to greet us. What a let down. In desperation. I suggested to my now sceptical buddies, that we hike up to The Lido and confront the manager. So up we trudged. After a short walk, we arrived outside The Lido. Entrance was barred by a wooden door with a buzzer, which I pressed optimistically and then stood by with bated breath hoping for a miracle. The latch rattled and the door creaked open and there stood the manager. I could have hugged him. He welcomed us with open arms and invited us in. He asked if we could carry our canoes up the stairs to the pool terrace. I went first, head inside the canoe and started blindly carrying it up the steep and narrow staircase that led up to the pool deck. Half way up, I felt the prow of my canoe catch on something. I shoved and the next minute the light fitting I had hooked off the wall came crashing down, followed by an agitated shout from the manager, “no more canoes!”. So as a lone ranger I soldiered on – as I emerged there was a roll of drums and a voice that blared out over the microphone announcing, “the arrival of the canoeists”.
I peered out from under my canoe and there I stood like a prize prick, the centre of attraction to a large gathering of Lido patrons having an al fresco smorgasbord luncheon around the swimming pool and being entertained by a live band. The voice boomed out again, “Would you please put your canoe into the pool and give us a demo”. As I obliged, my fellow canoeists dived into the pool out of sheer embarrassment, a slick of river mud oozing from their boots, cigarettes and bits of sweet wrappings floated like flotsam on the surface of the sparkling blue water. I lowered myself into my canoe which took up nearly half the length of the pool and after two strokes hit the other side. We clambered from the pool accompanied by a roll on the drums and the clapping of the spectators. The manager invited us to a small dining room downstairs and we were treated to a wonderful cold buffet and best of all, some ice cold Castles. But we were not off the hook. The manager asked if we would please say a few words to the crowd. The fixed stares of my buddies told me that I was it.
We all trooped back up to the pool deck and I was handed the microphone. My knees were trembling and I felt as though I had swallowed my Adams Apple. I coughed once or twice into the microphone and peered balefully around at the mob. There was no way out. I had better give them their money’s worth. As I got going my nervousness left me and was replaced by verbal diarrhoea. I embellished my tale with what I hoped was poetic license (another name for bullshit). We had to dodge the odd crocodile on the sandbanks, we were chased by Impis of spear wielding savages and had to swipe at the odd Mamba dangling from trees as we swept under. When I eventually ran out of bullshit and stopped talking the crowd broke into rapturous applause. It was time to make our exit while we were still on top.
Having said bye to the manager and thanked him once again for his hospitality it was time to hit the road and prepare myself for the event that would change my life forever and that was the marriage of my beautiful bride to be – Verity, to a dirty, smelly unshaven me. We were to be married at 5:30pm on the morrow. When I made it back to Durban and fell into the waiting arms of Verity she took one look at my condition and burst into tears. She thought not even a car wash could get me presentable for the wedding.
We had a memorable wedding, spent our honeymoon night in our flat on the Berea. All we had was a mattress with no linen. We departed the next morning for our honeymoon at Royal Natal National Park Hotel in my faithful 1951 Ford Prefect which I had hand painted a bright emerald green. The car had a major engine knock and overheated so I had my doubts as t whether it would survive the strenuous uphill trip to The Drakensberg. To conserve the poor thing, I had decided to switch the ignition off and coast all the major downhills, the first of which was Windmill Hill just after Hillcrest on the main road to Pietermaritzburg. In free-wheeling downhill with the engine off, I was amazed to see the speedo reaching 65mph and as I levelled out at the bottom of the hill and turned my ignition back on, so a motorist rode alongside signalling me to stop. I obliged thinking he had noticed something major wrong with my car, but all he wanted to know was how I had souped up my motor. He had never seen a Ford prefect fly along at such a speed with such a silent engine. He couldn’t believe it when I told him I was free-wheeling with the engine switched off.
We managed to make Royal Natal National Park without hitch and were shown our Honeymoon rondavel. Then tragedy struck. I developed violent toothache which turned into an abscess. For four days I lay on my bed, dying of pain and only emerged at meal times to eat and rush back to the rondavel. After four days I could stand the pain no longer and drove into Bergville where the local dentist yanked out the offending tooth. It took one more day spent on the bed recovering and the next day awoke feeling like a million dollars and fit enough to mingle with the other guests.
In explaining that our absence for five days was because of toothache they said they had observed Verity and me rushing in for a quick meal and straight back to our rondavel for five consecutive days and had deduced that I was some kind of Superman.
======== END 2nd UMKO TRIP – Rob Gouldie 1961 ============