Charles Mason’s Story on The Beginning

Sponsor Hansa - Charles Mason_cr

Charles Mason - Kingfisher number K1 and Umko Race Number 1 in perpetuity
Charles Mason – Kingfisher number K1 and Umko Race Number 1 in perpetuity

UMKO Trip 1965 Cobbeledick, Mason, _, _

The 1962 Dusi was one of those rare occasions when the River Gods pulled out all the stops and blessed the paddlers with a raging river, probably the highest level for the race up to that time.

At the prize-giving a group of stoked paddlers – mainly Kingfisher (KCC) members – decided on a trip down the Umkomaas which had also benefited from the recent rains and was flowing at a good level. Participants included Dave & Don Cobbledick, Jimmy Potgieter and a couple of Transvaalers as well as Natal Parks Board paddlers.

I joined KCC in 1962 and hearing members talk about their river trips at club meetings fired me with enthusiasm for this type of paddling.

My first official race was the 1963 Dusi. I came dead last. In the months following the Dusi arrangements began for the annual KCC Easter trip. That year it was decided to explore another river: The Umzimkulu River from the village of Umzimkulu on the Durban-Umtata road to Port Shepstone on the coast. To our knowledge this river had only been explored once before: By Ian player and three companions many years before.

There was considerable interest amongst club members but the KCC committee (and quite rightly so) decided that the Umzimkulu trip would be open only to experienced paddlers. As a compromise and in order to accommodate other less experienced members, it was decided to hold two Easter trips that year – the other being from Albert Falls to Nagle Dam on the Umgeni River, a section considered less taxing for any less experienced paddlers. It must be noted, however, that most of that stretch of river had never been paddled before!

Both rivers were flowing well, especially the Umgeni. This was before the Midmar, Albert Falls and Inanda Dams existed, so the Umgeni was still flowing freely all the way down to Nagle Dam.

Being a relative novice (and I suppose in view of my recent Dusi performance!) I was assigned to the Umgeni trip along with Ken Willan, Hugh Christie and schoolboy Robin Phillips. The Umzimkulu trip was abandoned after three days when they realised that they would never have time to get to Port Shepstone by the Monday afternoon, but we were unaware of that as we started out at midday on Saturday at Albert Falls weir on a fast-flowing Umgeni. I remember I was in a Bird Dog with a plastic deck and Ken in a state-of-the-art big water boat called a Bonita. Very soon the mother of all electric storms erupted and rain bucketed down. We took refuge under the Greytown road bridge for about an hour and watched the water rise. Later we passed Baine’s Drift and somewhere in the vicinity of Edmonds Farm we saw the lights of a farmhouse on the south bank. Permission was readily granted for us to spend the night in their barn. The rain continued all night and the next day as we continued down the raging river. Hugh lost his canoe early on and walked out of the valley northwards towards Wartburg. We were now well into “jungle territory”  – we had no idea where we were or how far we still had to go. We all took numerous swims and then Robin also lost his boat. We decided to camp the night as we could not leave him to his own devices.  What a miserable night! One small tarpaulin, no fire – everything was soaked wet – and incessant rain. My meal of one tin of cold meat balls stuck to the roof of my mouth and bore no resemblance to the delicious picture depicted on the label. The rain abated, thank goodness, but the sun took ages to reach the deep valley. I remember standing on a rock well into the fast-flowing current waiting to be warmed by the welcome early rays. We paddled and then waited every so often for Robin – walking on the bank – to catch up to us, making progress very slow. Eventually we found a small kraal where we bought some dry matches and could make a very welcome fire and enjoy coffee and hot grub. After what seemed a never-ending slog we arrived at Nagle Dam, two of us still paddling (though me without my deck, having lost it on one of my many swims) and Robin walking in the dark. It was 10pm Monday night.

Needless to say, neither of these routes were chosen for future river races!

Former KCC stalwarts (Rob Gouldie, Denny Sterling, Don Cobbledick, Peter Gladwin, Graham Hall and Peter Marriott) were hanging up their paddles and new blood was picking up the reins.

Easter 1964 saw a change in direction, with the club committee deciding on yet another river for the annual Easter trip, the Mlambonja River below the Cathedral Peak Hotel and a different format: Instead of the usual “carry all” self-supporting trip the participants that year camped about 15km downriver from Cathedral Peak Hotel and paddled day trips in the vicinity. A large overhanging rock near our camp had some remarkably well-preserved Bushman paintings. This fixed-camp format had the advantages of being closer to a “watering hole”, more members could participate and it also accommodated inexperienced paddlers. But it lacked the pure thrill and adventure of a “carry all” trip into the unknown, so was not attempted again.
Don Cobbledick had been my mentor at KCC for some time, and after much coercing I managed to persuade him to have one more crack at the Dusi (he had a number of creditable performance and some high-up placings to his credit). We teamed up for the 1965 Dusi but in the months leading up to it I noticed a disturbing pattern: Don was spending more and more time at the local library! This was unusual behaviour, to say the least and this new-found interest in literature needed investigation. It turned out the librarian was petite and very attractive and Don was making some serious and ominous settling-down moves!

Despite this difficulty we managed to win the Dusi after a closely-contested race on a low river, beating Ken & Barry Willan into second and Ernie Pearce and Harry Fisher into third place.

At the Caister Hotel pub a while after the race Don suggested it was time I took over the reins at KCC and seriously pursue the idea of a multi-day marathon on the Umkomaas – a paddlers race on a bigger river with little or no portaging. He set the goal of holding the first race before the end of 1966. I needed no further encouragement. Together we formulated the bones of a critical path analysis to achieve this end.


“Sleeping under Josephines Bridge in the drizzle suddenly seemed a far better idea!”

The Umkomaas had not been neglected since the last trip in 1962, and many other shorter (mainly two-day) trips had been undertaken, mainly from Hella Hella to Josephines’ Bridge. The notorious section from Deepdale to Hella Hella had only been paddled once and was not deemed suitable for a formal race.
The 1965 trip started with us all meeting at the Richmond Hotel and then proceeding to Josephines where we were going to sleep under the bridge. We met a local farmer in the pub and over a few beers he kindly invited us all back to his farm for dinner and to sleep the night. This offer was gratefully accepted and at 9pm we all followed him in convoy to his farm. However he had obviously not sought nor obtained government permission as when we got there his irate wife told us in no uncertain terms that she did not think his offer was appropriate and suggesting we leave forthwith. We all suddenly agreed among ourselves that Josephines Bridge actually seemed a far better idea, despite the light drizzle!

It continued to rain the next day, but nothing could take our minds off the beauty of the valley with its magnificent cliffs and continuous rapids. Anyhow, we had cut neck and arm holes in fertilizer bags for rain jackets, so rain was not a big problem. For all of us it was our first venture down this stretch of river so we had the delicious long-necked uncertainty of not knowing when we would encounter difficult rapids or the dreaded waterfall. Our craft were mainly ‘Bird Dogs’ but now with fibreglass decks and built-in waterproof hatches. They were heavy, but ideal for the purpose of tripping with all provisions on board.

The first camp was on the north bank a short distance below Captain Honks Rapid a couple of kms above Riverside Store (Rob Gouldie’s Fishy Fish Store). A leisurely start the next morning took us past the store and – apart from a few native kraals – our last contact with the outside world until the lower reaches approaching Umkomaas village and the coast.

That day took us to an as-yet-unnamed (and we didn’t know it then, but soon-to-be-named) rapid where we camped on a small grassy bank under a large overhanging rock on the south bank. Old hands by now, we set to our camping chores with gusto: A fertilizer bag (without holes) would be filled with river water and propped up between rocks to allow the silt to settle (an early form of water purification, maybe?). This would serve as the basis for the tipple of choice: Brandy and lime juice. Mixed at a sufficient concentration it served to:
– Disguise the look (it was a similar colour to river water);
– Disguise the taste (you added till it did);
– Contribute meaningfully to conversations related to the deeper meaning of life.

The third day dawned bright and clear. However the deep Umkomaas valley results in the sun at that time of year only reaching the river after several hours of daylight. On our trip this meant we had leisurely starts in the mornings. Below that campsite and the unnamed rapid the river took a sharp turn to the right and headed in a southerly direction towards Mpompomani Rapid about an hour’s paddle downstream. Paddling past a big island on our left the riverbed was occupied with a huge rock shelf that extends almost to the island in the centre of the river. This forms a natural weir and at certain levels, a strong suck-back wave. Peter Hammond misjudged the strength of the flow and got sucked into the wave. Thrown out of his boat he managed to escape the stopper wave only by diving deep (fortunately in this instance he had no lifejacket!) and being pulled downstream by the underwater current. His boat, however, was held fast. Neither he nor any of us were prepared to swim or paddle into the wave to retrieve his boat so we did the next best thing and sat down on the bank and waited for the river to release it. This it eventually did, but only after 30 to 40 minutes of being churned over and over by this giant washing machine. It was a lesson in the power of water and the importance of knowing the steps (“you can dance with the river, but you must learn the steps”).
A tribute to the boatbuilding skills of Peter Marriott came when we inspected the boat: It was still intact and no water had entered the watertight kit compartment!

Peter Marriott was one of - if not THE - most skilled fibreglass 
fabricators ever. At the cutting edge of fibreglass development in 
South Africa, he designed and built the first fibreglass motor car 
body in the country. His only problem was his generosity which resulted 
in him underpricing his work and being generous with his time with the 
result that his business suffered. 
Above his factory door in Congella was the motto: “A TOUCH OF CLASS 
IN GLASS”. His designs were ingenious: He built sportscar bodies and 
the first "Skinoes" - ski-decked kayaks. His techniques were sometimes 
unconventional: When constructing the "bucket" mould he filled a large 
container with liquid plaster of paris and assigned a "volunteer" (one 
of his workers) to sit in it to shape the mould while it was setting. 
Peter had underestimated the amount of heat such a large volume of p.o.p 
would generate during the chemical reaction. He was alerted to this fact 
when loud cries of discomfort and pain emanated from the poor volunteer 
when the heat started cooking his nether regions!

Some umfaans on the bank told us the name of the next big rapid, saying it was named for the sound of the boulders rolling underwater when the river was full. “Mpompomani”. We continued downstream with the river making its gigantic left and right turns as it carved its way down the huge valley, at times almost turning back on itself. Kingfisher Falls came without undue incident and we did what I am sure all paddlers do when witnessing such a sight for the first time: Like Livingstone, we stopped and marvelled at the power of so many cumecs of water thundering down into the deep gorge below. At the time the waterfall was known by paddlers to exist but it was still unmapped on any official maps. (Later, in Cape Town – when down there to paddle the Berg in 1966 – I visited the Admiralty Office to purchase the latest 1:50 000 contour maps of the Umkomaas valley. I pointed out to the cartographer in charge the locality of the waterfall, but he denied its existence! However, on checking the aerial photographs on their 3D machine he conceded its presence and thanked me for bringing it to their attention!).

Our third campsite was next to another unnamed rapid (to be named No Name Rapid in time to come!) in a well-protected glade of trees. This camp became the scene of a tragedy: The river rose half a metre and washed away some beers we had placed in a rock pool to cool down. Despite a careful search, we never did find them.

A relatively short paddle the following morning brought us to the weir. At this point luck played a major part in our recce of the river and the valley: We met Ken Goodenough, local pineapple farmer who had driven down to the weir to collect some staff members who lived nearby. He would play a major part in helping us find campsites and vehicular access to the riverbank which we needed in order to organise a multi-day marathon race on this river. Ken had lived in the valley for fifty years, knew the local Tribal Chiefs and Indunas and had been the government census officer for the Umkomaas valley from the coast up to Riverside store some years prior. He was just the person we needed at this point! He was also interested to hear about our trip and our adventures upstream and listened to our idea of establishing a race, readily agreeing to offer whatever assistance he could. Assistance that would prove invaluable in setting up the race to come.

I had heard of Rob Gouldie’s trip and his activities at the Lido Hotel in Umkomaas. So when I phoned the manager and he agreed to provide us with lunch on our arrival I was not surprised when he made one strict proviso: No boats in his pool!

Driving home that Monday afternoon I was elated. We had successfully completed a “blind” trip down this challenging and exciting river and in so doing had proved the viability of a Kingfisher multi-day marathon to rival “that other race”. This ticked the first box in our critical path analysis. Our chance meeting with Ken Goodenough gave us the key to ticking the second box: riverbank access. The future of “The Umko” looked bright.


Quite soon after this trip Barry Willan, Hamish Gerrard and I met Farmer Goodenough at the Umkomaas Station early one Saturday morning in Hamish’s old Gunston Orange Landie.

Umko The Goodenoughs.jpg

We headed upstream on the south shoulder of the wide valley to a point fairly close to the village of Ndududu where we turned right and dropped down into the valley. What a magnificent drive, steep cliffs above us on our left and deep descents on our right. The road was under construction and we passed a camp with heavy earth-moving equipment most of which had the brand KOMATSU painted on the side. Only one guess what we named the road! On reaching the valley floor we continued upstream for a few more km’s until suddenly to the right we recognised Mpompomani Rapid! We had struck paydirt! We had access to our second overnight camp and a three-day marathon was feasible!

However, we continued to see how far the road went. Eventually it came to an end quite near to our second campsite on the trip a few months earlier and Ken announced “This is Chief Vela’s Kraal. He is a bigwig in the KwaZulu Legislative Assembly. Come and meet him.” There were many people around and Goodenough established that the Chief was holding court that day. He requested an audience and eventually we were ushered into the chief’s personal hut, which was huge and set in the middle of the kraal. Once inside I suddenly had what I presume were feelings similar to what Piet Retief must have had at Dingane’s Kraal back in 1838. But I needn’t have worried! We were warmly received. I was able to do a little name-dropping regarding people I knew in Zululand which helped a lot. Chief Vela clapped his hands and a factotum appeared with a tray and slid low across the floor, all the while making sure he was lower than his Chief’s eyes. The tray on which were cooldrinks, rock-hard mielies and a bottle of Old Buck gin was placed on a table while Chief Vela gave us his blessing for our plans to hold a canoe race down his valley. The bottle of gin was then duly flattened and we took our leave.

The second box was ticked, gifts of Old Buck gin became an annual tradition and that ‘un-named rapid’ had its name.


The announcement of our findings at KCC met with unanimous and enthusiastic approval. The formal approach to the Natal Canoe Union was greeted with a similar response and a date was set: The first three-day canoe marathon on the Umkomaas River from Josephine’s Bridge to the sea would be held on the long weekend of the 16th December 1966. Arrangements could now start in earnest.

KCC’s stated ethos of the race was to give paddlers real value for their money, and the first sponsors, Pepsi Cola, went along with this, donating the trophies still in use today and supplying each entrant with a sought-after cooler bag. This was unique at the time and whenever possible has been continued by the Club ever since.
BP lined up as sub-sponsors, supplying a trophy and fuel for all official vehicles. Several other organisations and individuals also helped, providing trophies and “in kind” items needed. Notable among these was Trevenna Supermarket who provided food for the overnight stops. Generally the responses and assistance received were generous and extremely heartening.

Native Affairs Commissioners, Traffic Authorities and Police were approached, and permission was obtained to be in “Tribal Trust” land. Such essential formalities are invisible to the paddler and can often be lengthy and laborious processes! The race itself needed transport for paddlers personal effects, boat-repair facilities, medical facilities, timing and other officials, tents, cooking utensils, maps and a myriad of other details were arranged, such as getting the media onboard and excited about the event. The list seemed endless. But even here volunteers were cheerfully available and we had to actually regretfully turn some people away! Canoeists wouldn’t be surprised at this: Who wouldn’t want to explore a new valley and be at the riverside in a pioneering race?


Trip Anecdotes:

On one trip – High water, the river banks flooded. Tank Rogers paddled into a field where market gardeners’ produce was sticking out above the water line. He whipped out a bush knife and lopped off a big bunch of bananas.
When an Indian gardener approached him to query the loss, Tank thought attack was the best form of defence and launched a tirade against the hapless man for “allowing” his crop to go to ruin. This brought a hasty back-down and a “sorry master!” to the banana thief.

On another trip, Tom Howcroft the game ranger from Zululand Canoe Club, which was mostly game rangers, found a snake at an overnight camp. He caught it and put it in a bottle which he placed at his feet in the cockpit of his boat and paddled the rest of the way with his bottled companion. Heck, they paid for snakes by the foot at the Durban Snake Park!


Umko 1983 program (16) copy 2 

Ntombis on the Rocks

In the late 70’s two legendary Dusi and Umko paddlers and winners teamed up for the marathon. It was a full year and at a point roughly halfway between Riverside and Mpompomani where the river flattens out and widens the Pope was passing the time of day with some of the scantily-clad and well-endowed maidens washing clothes on the riverbank.
The conversation in isiZulu was interspersed with much mirth and ribald laughter and as they paddled off Charlie ask what had been discussed.

“Oh” said Graeme, “the Dolly Parton look-alike wanted me to spend some time with her and I told her I was far too young for that kind of thing.” Oh, yes? said Charlie.
“She then said ‘What about you?’ and I told her you were far too old for that kind of thing.”
Oh, thanks very much, replied Charles.

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.

2 thoughts on “Charles Mason’s Story on The Beginning”

  1. Pingback: The Umko

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