Ian Player & Fred Schmidt’s 1952 Umko Trip – full account

From Ian Player’s 1964 book “Men, Rivers and Canoes” 

I was struck with Fred Schmidt’s personality and particularly with his sense of humour. We usually went home together after Canoe Club meetings, and we discovered a common and fanatical interest in fishing. Fred’s family were famous fishermen on the Natal coast and his brother, Lefty Schmidt, held many records. As we became more friendly, I asked Fred if he would like to have a go at the next canoe race; but in order that we should get to know each other well, I suggested that we do a trip down the Umkomaas river first. Fred was agreeable, so we started making arrangements and getting all the necessary kit together. I had a light, but very strong canoe of canvas and Philippine mahogany, which proved to be one of the best I ever owned. Fred was keen to experiment with a light and narrow canoe; the journey turned out to be a nightmare for him because his canoe was so unstable.

During a week-end towards the end of March, 1952, we went to St. Josephine’s Bridge on the Maritzburg-Ixopo road, left the car under some trees and walked twenty miles down river, having a good look at the rapids and anything else of interest. We camped above a bend and began fishing. The water was alive with barbel and eel, and for two hours we pulled out fish after fish. Some people might scorn dirty barbel and eel as sporting fish, but to fanatical fishermen like ourselves it was a taste of paradise. As darkness fell, we realized how hungry we were, so Fred set to cooking barbel and eels. His knowledge was expert, and in half an hour he had produced a first-class meal. Never had fish tasted so good !

After dinner we baited up again and threw in, then left the reels with the ratchets on while we lay near the fire and tried to sleep. An umfaan walked past on the footpath above and asked whether we were not afraid of the mambas that lived on the ridge overhead. This gave us qute a start. We had been so busy fishing that we had not worried to look for a good camping spot, It was too dark to move, so we built up a smoky fire and lay down again. I had barely fallen asleep, when a ratchet screamed. We both made a grab at our rods and almost knocked each other into the river in our excitement. With muttered curses, we grabbed our respective rods and struck hard. The fish was on Fred’s line and I watched his rod bending at an acute angle in the starlight. A few minutes later he hauled in a 15lb eel. We baited up and threw in again, and crept back to the fire to sleep. Five minutes had hardly passed when the ratchets screamed. We dived for the rods and struck. “I’m on!” yelled Fred. “Me too!” I shouted excitedly. The fish cut across-river and we battled in the dark to sense which way they were going. Gradually it became obvious that our lines had crossed. Bad language flowed like the river, and we reached a point of almost pushing each other into the water. Knowing that I would come off second best, I was prepared to hang on desperately and pull Fred in with me. Eventually reason prevailed, and we managed to lift two huge eels on to the stony ledge, then spent an hour untangling our lines. I had reached saturation point and wanted nothing but sleep, but Fred’s blood-lust was up and he wanted to go on fishing. All night long his ratchet screamed, as he pulled out eel and barbel galore; by dawn the next day he had caught well over twenty-five fish. It had been an exhausting night for him, but never had I seen a more smug and satisfied expression on anyone’s face. He was in his element. If he had ever had any misgivings about going down the Umkomaas, they were forgotten now, and wild horses could not have stopped him.

On our way back to the car we noticed a well-kept kraal on the slopes of a green hill; we made our way towards it, hoping to get a khamba of kaffir beer. On a hot day, with a long walk ahead, there is nothing to beat tshwala. A Zulu kehle came out and greeted us politely. At our request he brought a pannikin of cold beer and we drank noisily; he smiled at our thirst and jokingly said that it was fortunate that the valley was not populated with people like ourselves, otherwise the river would always be dry. As he grew more expansive, I asked him about the lore of the valley. He said that wild animals had ceased to be of any significance many years before. In his youth he and his father had hunted leopard that used to live in the krantz overlooking the river, and he pointed to a precipitous slab of rock overhanging a ravine. When he was an umfaan he remembered white men coming from Richmond and Ixopo to shoot the crocodile that once inhabited the pool where we had been fishing the night before. Baboons had plagued the valley dwellers by swooping on the ripening crops and destroying many weeks of toil in a few hours. The baboons seemed to know that the women were powerless to act, and only when the men came storming home from a beer drink would they beat a hasty retreat. The tribesmen persuaded a group of white farmers to help, and within a year the baboons had been reduced to one troop. Late one afternoon this troop was surrounded and wiped out with rifle fire.

The old man seemed a little sad when he spoke of the animals, and I wondered if he was sorry they had gone. He must have read my thoughts, because he smiled wistfully and said, “We were sorely troubled by the wild animals, but they gave us much sport and kept us fit when we hunted them. Now there is nothing left to hunt, and we all grow fat and, lazy sitting in the shade of our huts while the women till the fields”.

On refection, I only wish that more Africans had the same sentiments as this kehle. There would be more wild animals left and Africa would not be losing its age-old character so rapidly.

For the next week we bought supplies and made preparations for our journey; then on Saturday 5th April 1952, we motored to St. Josephine’s Bridge again with our two canoes balanced on the hood of my old Nash. In the cold, grey dawn mist we pushed our canoes into the muddy racing waters of the Umkomaas and paddled down the first stretch towards the sea. Our excitement was subdued, because this was a journey that no-one had ever before attempted. As the first rays of the sun flashed on our paddles I thought how strange it was that in this twentieth century there was still so much adventure, so much to conquer.

As we rounded the bend I heard Jack Shepard-Smith, my companion of the first canoe trip, shout out, “Take it easy, you silly bastards!’ The term was one of endearment. “Enzanzi nemfula!” we roared in reply, hoping that our voices would at least sound brave. Then we were round the first bend in the river and Jack was lost to sight. For the next seven days we should be out of communication with the outside world, for there was hardly a chance of seeing a white man until we reached the river mouth at Umkomaas village.

As we approached the first line of rapids, I noticed that my fifty-pound pack was a little too big to fit into the prow of the canoe; I could see that Fred was also having difficulty with his. We were fully laden with sheath knives, groundsheets, cane knives, biltong, beans, coffee, sugar, snake bite outfit and a small camera. We had divided everything, in case one of us came to grief; this would mean half rations only, but at least there would be something to eat.

The roar of the rapids grew louder. Then my canoe shot forward and bobbed about in the frothing maelstrom; by paddling and back-paddling I managed to ease my way past a dangerous-looking outcrop; then I raced off at a frightening speed. I breathed with relief at getting past this hazard, when suddenly my canoe grounded on a flat, submerged rock – a canoeist’s nightmare; slowly the canoe turned round and faced upstream. I saw Fred come racing towards me, stroking madly in an effort to avoid hitting my canoe. Then I turned over and was swept downstream by the current. I hung on grimly and prayed that nothing had fallen out. Half a mile further down, the river deposited me in a pool, where I struggled out onto a sandy beach. As I dragged the canoe up, I saw Fred’s hat come bobbing down. He too had turned over. I gave him a hand to retrieve his belongings as he spat out a stream of brown, muddy water. “Curse and blast this canoe !” he said. “It’s going to give me a lot of trouble.” His words were prophetic.

We took stock of our position and were alarmed to see that half my foodstuffs were ruined because of a leaking American oilcloth bag. Within an hour of starting, we knew that we should have to be on half-rations for the rest of the trip. Our morale suffered a serious blow, but a few minutes later we safely got over another set of bad rapids and started singing as we made our way down a silent, calm stretch. “What the hell are we going to do about grub?” I asked. “Ah, moenie worry nie!” Fred laughed. “Have you forgotten how many fish there are in this river?” “Seven days of fried barbel doesn’t sound so good to me!” I said. “We can always buy mealies from the Natives. Cooked in the coals they taste pretty good at any time,” Fred replied.

We started to go faster, then we heard the familiar roar of more rapids. I paddled ahead to recce the position and Fred followed. This lot was worse than the first; I battled to keep my balance as the canoe ploughed through waves that were over three feet high, then turned round to warn Fred; but he had already turned over, and I saw him trailing behind his torpedo-shaped canoe. I could not suppress a grin at his anxious expression; but there was no time to laugh, as my canoe crashed against boulders and rolled from side to side, shipping water at every wave. Eventually the water was over my knees, and every muscle strained as I tried to paddle and guide the canoe between the rocks. Gradually these rocks got less, and the river calmer; then I was in a smooth stretch again. I grabbed some over-hanging foliage and waited for Fred, who soon came up cursing “The trouble with this bloody death-trap is that there are no splash boards,” he said. “Every time I hit a wave the water pours straight into the cockpit, and I start to sink; by the time I hit the fourth wave I am travelling below water.”

We pressed on and I kept about two hundred yards ahead. At the start of every rapid I could hear Fred cursing loudly, both at his canoe and at me for not waiting. We hit one set of rapids that were rougher than most; I managed to jump them without turning, then waited in the pool below for Fred to arrive. The first wave he hit half-filled his canoe, the second swung him sideways on and only by superhuman effort did he turn in the right direction, only to be submerged by a third wave. He was up to his neck in water but went on paddling, and above the roar of the rapids floated some obscene oaths. Finally, all I could see was a pair of paddles held out of the water like a periscope, and a hat bobbing down the waves. Once he surfaced and spat water in all directions, I nearly turned my own canoe over, I laughed so much. Fred was really irritable, and who could blame him; from first light to sunset he was wet and miserable and missing the glorious thrill of jumping rapids. He had more than courage to keep on going.

The river was already in the shadows and we were chilled by the east wind, so we paddled on until we found a sloping bank where we could tie up our canoes. Stiff and weary, we climbed out and dragged the canoes a safe distance, then set about looking for firewood. Running around soon made us warm, but our appetites increased proportionately, and with Fred’s six-foot-three frame to fill, food was going to be short. Two black duck few up the river and we threw stones at them in desperation. A vain hope! Then Fred disappeared for an hour. I made the fire and got the billy boiling, then baited a couple of hooks with a piece of moulding biltong.

It was almost dark before Fred returned, and I shouted with delight when I saw that he was carrying an armful of mealies. We built the fire into a blaze that the forewarners of the Spanish Armada would have envied, then cooked the mealies and drank coffee. The fish were biting and Fred caught two enormous eels. He cut them into slices and we toasted them over the coals.

We put on every spare stitch of clothing – I must say I had more than Fred – and crept as near to the fire as possible. One of the purposes of this canoe trip, for me, was to find out whether Fred would be a good partner on the next race. Before the morning was finished, I had had my answer: his guts, determination and sense of humour made him an ideal companion. For Fred the night was uncomfortable in the extreme, and I woke up twice to find him sleeping on top of the remains of the fire. In spite of his sleeveless jersey smouldering, he had not been aware of the fire, and even expressed annoyance at being wakened from his first decent sleep.

At first light in the morning we were off without even a cup of coffee to warm our aching bodies, for we knew that if we  delayed our departure it would be midday before we got away. Breakfast in the veld always seems to take twice as long as any other meal. We had two good hours’ canoeing, then stopped, made a fire and boiled the billy for a cup of coffee. I know of no other smell, with the exception of nthombothi wood, that can recall the atmosphere of the bush as coffec can, blending with the woodsmoke and coming at a time when the body is crying for relief, it tastes like the nectar of the Gods. For hundreds of years it has been part of every explorer’s grub box, and we in our humble way were emulating the old giants.

The scenery was breathtaking, and far more overpowering than the Valley of a Thousand Hills, which I had once thought supreme. Gigantic krantzes loomed up round every bend, and ravines with bushy banks spilled clear, cold water into the main stream. In the geological past fantastic soil erosion must have taken place and left this magnificent relic for twentieth century man. White fleecy clouds drifted lazily over the blue mountains in the distance, and flat-topped acacia trees perched on the skyline. Kingfishers flitted across our path, their brilliance mirrored for a few seconds in the silent pools on the edge of the river. The riverine vegetation was thick, with phoenix palms and monkey vines predominating. Tall ficus trees grew along the flatter portions of the river’s meandering course. An occasional monkey chattered in the trees as we glided by, but the sound was drowned by the noise of the next rapids.

Our luck had held for nearly six hours and we had shot rapid after rapid with no danger of falling in. This was canoeing at its best: to be alone under the wide blue sky after weeks in a smog-ridden city was an exhilarating experience. For the first time I think I understood why Christ had gone out into the desert to spend his forty days and forty nights under the stars and the burning sun. I looked behind and saw that Fred was deep in thought as he paddled along with his easy stroke, his tall, lithe body glistening with sweat in the bright noonday sun. I put a little more effort into my paddling, and felt my chest and arm muscles stretch as the paddles bit into the water. We had been moving for well over three hours and neither of us had spoken; the sound of a human voice would have shattered the wonderful peace that was spread around us. It was good to know that we were within calling distance, but other than that we were content to leave each other alone. Every time the river took a bend there was a set of rapids to negotiate and some were over a mile long. We were fortunate that they were mild; indeed it was a pleasant thrill to feel the canoe leap forward like a race-horse, as the swift water caught the frail wood and canvas; for two or three anxious minutes there would be a chance that the canoe would overturn, so every sinew and muscle would be used to keep the craft on an even course. We covered mile after mile in this way, and although I knew how easy it was to fall into the trap of believing that the river was benevolent, I began to wonder if there was anything really dangerous about the journey. The fear of what might be lying round the next corner is part and parcel of the joy of canoeing: it keeps the mind alert and makes one savour every second of the placid waters and easy rapids.

In the early hours of the afternoon we heard the dull booming of a very bad set of rapids, so we kept close together and, paddling near the bank, cautiously made our way towards the next bend and the rapids. As we rounded the corner, I saw that they were impossible to shoot, so I shouted to Fred to make for the bank. We clambered out and walked a few yards downstream to see how far we would have to carry. The din was fantastic and we had to shout to make ourselves heard. Just as we were about to start lugging the canoes over the boulder-strewn flood plain, a long line of ntombazanas came walking down a Native foot-path. They looked at us with astonishment, then walked shyly forward and stared at the canoes. Fred did a few jive steps and sang, “Don’t Roll those Bloodshot Eyes at Me!” The ntombazanas thought Fred was screamingly funny and they crowded round, begging us to let them carry the canoes. They didn’t meet with much opposition. Before we knew what had happened two umfaans had appeared from nowhere, picked up my canoe and run off ahead. Three girls grabbed Fred’s canoe and in no time had passed the umfaans and were racing like hares to the end of the rapids. Fred galloped after them in a panic in case they fell and damaged the precious canoe. I cried with laughter as he tried to keep up with the fleet-footed girls. Every now and then he would stub his toes, and curse and scream at the girls for going too fast. They thought he was singing and acting, and shouted with laughter at his antics. Fred was not amused. Panting, and almost exhausted, he managed to catch them up and cling to his canoe before they gaily pushed it into the river. “These bloody women wanted to shove the canoe into the river!” Fred snarled. The girls stood around giggling, then shouted and waved as we pushed off into the muddy stream.

The rest of the afternoon was a nightmare. Gone was the peacefulness of the morning and the rapids we had jumped so easily. The river narrowed and the water bubbled and foamed over dangerous rocks. Fred fell in over and over again, as he battled to keep his frail, narrow canoe from smashing against jagged rocks and boulders. I turned over twice; all our clothes were saturated and the remnants of our food was a soggy mess. We stopped once to smoke our last two cigarettes. Fred was shivering uncontrollably us he struggled to strike the wet matches. Neither of us spoke, because each knew the other’s thoughts. Fred was worse off than I, and I didn’t want him to remind me, because I felt terrible and didn’t want to imagine how he was feeling.

We decided to keep going until sunset for, according to our small scale map, we still had many miles to go before we reached our second day’s target. The bends in the river were now deathtraps because of the whirlpools they set up. No matter how hard one paddled, one felt as though the paddles were passing through air. After two hours of the hardest going, we started to look for a camping site. The river was running swiftly through deep, narrow gorges. At the end of one gorge two huge arches stretched across, almost meeting. I felt my canoe gathering momentum as we passed beneath and raced round a corner, eventually the river flowed between two clumps of rocks which were not more than thirty feet from each other. I shot between them, then shouted a warning to Fred as I saw the enormous waves at the foot of a nasty-looking rapid. More by good luck than good judgment I managed to keep the canoe on an even keel and bounced my way over the rapids, through the waves and into the safety of a pool. I turned to see how Fred was faring. He got over the rapids but his cockpit was too full of water to get him through the waves. In slow motion he sank lower and lower until the canoe was out of sight and only his torso was visible, then his submerged craft struck a rock and he disappeared.

It was the end of a ghastly afternoon: a few yards downstream we dragged the canoes into a gulley and set about making camp. It was agony trying to walk and warm up our frozen limbs after having sat in one position for hours on end, but there was little time to lose, for darkness was falling fast and firewood was scattered. I returned with a pile of wood to find that Fred had discovered another mealie field from which he had collected a large bundle of mealies, “We eat again,” he said with a smile. “Did you see anyone near the fields?” I asked, anxious to try to check our position. “Not a soul,” Fred replied. “These mealies have been unattended for ages.”

We looked about in the gathering gloom, thinking that at least one curious Native must have seen us arrive. I had the feeling we were being watched, but no one came forward. An owl screeched from the bush above us, and nightjars flitted about, chasing insects. Two bats swooped low over our heads and frogs set up a quiet chorus. A myriad of stars appeared in the dark sky, as Venus began to drop on the western horizon. Our fire was burning fiercely, and we crawled nearer to get the full measure of warmth. Fred hugged his long legs then got up and slipped his jersey on like a pair of slacks. The fire spluttered and showered us with sparks when the billy boiled over. Oblivious to heat, for our hands had become hardened with hours of canoeing, we grabbed the billy and made coffee.

With torn, wet clothes, unshaven chins and unruly hair, we looked a pair of desperadoes, and I didn’t blame the Natives for not coming near. There is no doubt that one’s physical appearance can affect one’s mental attitude profoundly, for we felt like animals and acted with animal cunning in our efforts to stay alive and conquer the river. I found that imagination played a very small part as I battled against the river and the elements. Time became a different factor and I realized how puny man really is. It was also easier to understand the mind of the primitive Native; he had been battling against the elements since time began. It was understandable, too, how they became such easy prey to superstitions and other primitive fancies. The darkness of the night, the owls, bats, frogs and the screams ol the bushbabies, all this was the right setting for those who had no strong will and listened instead to the twisted mind of the witchdoctors. A light easterly wind blew up which moaned and sighed in the tall trees, drowning the sound of the chattering rapids at the foot of the next krantz. “I wish to hell I had a cigarette,” Fred said, breaking the spell. “lt’s going to be miserarbly cold tonight and if these clothes don’t get dry, I’ll freeze.” He placed the steaming clothes nearer the fire. “One of these days I’m going to invent some sort of light, waterproof blanket that poor canoeists like ourselves can carry in a small canoe. ‘This freezing at night is going to be the death of me,” he said as he pushed more wood onto the fire. It was a great pity we were unable to carry blankets or a sleeping bag, but as everything got soaking wet every time the canoe turned over, it was pointless taking them. I eyed my torn and wet jerseys and wondered much longer they would last. When all our clothes were more or less dry we put them on then lay down next to the fire to sleep.

I woke early next morning to hear Fred’s teeth chattering in thc darkness. “God! I’m cold!” he moaned. I was stiff and sore myself so I knew how he felt. We were on the river by the time the sun’s rays pierced the blanket of white clouds on the horizon. The riverine forest was alive with bird calls to which I listened with delight, forgetting for a few minutes the aches and pains of a disturbed night. The river almost doubled back on itself in places. The scenery was magnificent, with light mist rolling down thc valleys and lingering on the table-topped hills, making an unforgettable impression. At midday we reached a long calm stretch and Fred took the lead. For the next hour he maintained a cracking pace, and I had to work extremely hard to keep up with him.

Then we had an experience which is best told in Fred’s own words.

“I was about thirty yards in front of you and out of the corner of my eye I saw two black flashes shoot into the water. They were heading straight  across my path and I was going into fast water. I was in two minds whether to backpaddle or go like hell because I realized that the flashes were mating mambas. They swam to about ten feet in front of me then coiled round each other and balanced on their tails. They playfully struck at each other then fell with a plop into the water. As their heads turned away I put every bit of strength I had into the paddles, and literally made the canoe skim along the top of the water. I took the rapid as if it had been a mere riffle, then made for the opposite bank to wait for you.”

I had been watching two pied kingfishers diving on a shoal of small fish and had missed the drama in front of me. We pulled our canoes out of the water and sat down to rest. Fred was chalk-white after his experience. An umfaan herding a flock of black and white goats came towards us. After he greeted us, we asked casually how far the nearest store was. “Dusa” (near) he replied, pointing to the top of a hill. “Let’s go and replenish our supplies” Fred said. The thought of fresh bread and cigarettes was too much for us both, so we told the umfaan to lead on and show us the way. For two solid hours we climbed out of the valley and up a steep mountain path. Fred was barefooted, having lost his shoes on the first day. The umfaan walked over a patch of pronged devil thorns without even stopping for a second to pull them out. Fred followed, then let out a yell that echoed down the valley. The umfaan whipped round as though he had been struck, and I was ready to run, thinking it was at least another pair of mating mambas.

When we did reach the store the storekeeper was on the point of closing up and refused to serve us. I was carrying a single-barrelled .410 shotgun and Fred swears I threatened to shoot the man if he would not co-operate. All I know is that I was dead tired after walking up that terrible mountain and we were not going to go back empty-handed. We could hardly blame the man, though, for we looked a wild pair. We bought a tin of jam and three loaves of brend, and at once sat down to a wonderful meal. The return journey to the river was broken at a kraal where the headman gave us a khamba (gourd) of beer, which we drank willingly. It certainly helped us on our way and made the walk seem shorter.

We arrived at the canoes to find they had been ransacked and the last bit of sugar we had hoarded so carefully had been stolen. It was a hard blow. Without sugar our suffering was going to be increased a hundred fold, for it was sugar that gave us energy. We ranted and raved, but it was no good. Cursing ourselves for being stupid enough to believe an umfaan when he said a place was “Dusa”, we climbed into the canoes and paddled on downstream. Late in the afternoon we met a large group of Natives taking their cattle down to drink. Above the lowing and bellowing, one old man told us of a store a mile or two further on. Fred and I looked at each other when the old boy said the store was near the river. “I’ve heard that story once to-day, and that’s enough for me !” Fred said

I echoed his sentiments aud we thanked the kehle and paddled on. Fifteen minutes later we rounded a curve in the river and saw a small wattle and daub store perched on the bank. It was almost too good to be true. We hastily tied up the canoes and made our way towards the building. A short, stocky African came out to greet us, introducing himself as “Frans”, the storeowner. Frans treated us as though we were royalty. Calling his wife, he told her to get a hut ready for us while he made a cup of tea. He poured thick, sweet condensed milk into the tea which we gulped down hot. Then we were led to a spacious rondavel and given a wonderful meal of currie and rice. After this beds with white sheets were made up, and in a few minutes we were sound asleep.

When we awoke the next morning, Frans’ wife gave us coffee and rusks. While we were waiting for breakfast, Frans showed us round his store and told us the difficulties he had in making a living so far from the main road. Using donkeys and a small cart, he had to collect his stores from more than fifteen miles away, and as he had only a little capital it meant frequent journeys. I admired his courage in setting up a store so far from the main bulk of population where he would have stood a better chance of making a living, but this was where he had been born and he had come back to serve his people. He deserved success. We will never forget his hospitality.

It was late before we got away from kindly Frans and paddled on down the river. The going was hard and for the first time on the trip we spent most of the day lining the canoes down rapids. It was exhausting work and we blessed Frans and his wonderful meals. Frequently we would slip and come down hard on the jagged boulders. It was imperative to keep the canoes moving in the main stream and to do this we had to run alongside, jumping from rock to rock. At times we had to get into the water and follow the canoes down a bad set of rapids. Holding on grimly, we would edge our way down inch by inch, then hang onto the back and float the craft into the calm water, get in for a few minutes, then climb out at another set of bad rapids.

By four o’clock in the afternoon we had only covered about seven miles and a severe thunderstorm was building up in the south. Dark, black clouds were racing overhead and sheets of white lightning lit up the southern horizon. Thunder rolled and echoed about the valley. Nothing can be more frightening than a thunderstorm sweeping over the hills and into deep ironstone kloofs. I saw Fred looking apprehensively up at the skies and I wondered where we were going to find shelter. We had just corne through a frightful set of rapids, quite the worst I had ever experienced, and our nerves were on edge. I stumbled and fell into the water as another whiplash of thunder cracked viciously overhead.

Half carrying and half dragging the canoes, we ploughed our way through some shallows, then leapt in to paddle down a flat stretch. On the right hand bank I saw some Native children to whom I shouted, asking if there was a store nearby. They pointed to the top of a hill, “A school is there!” they shouted. Leaving Fred with the canoes, I made my way up to look for the African schoolmaster, and found him in his office, marking a pile of essays. Speaking in English I asked whether he could give us shelter for the night; this he very kindly agreed to do; then he took me to the schoolroom where he said we could make ourselves comfortable. It was dark when I got back to the river, to find Fred surrounded by a crowd of screaming children and a half crazed old Native who looked like the local witchdoctor.

The old man was dancing around, yelling at the top of his voice. The din was terrible, Fred had his hands over his ears and was pleading with them to keep quiet. After such an exhausting day, I knew that Fred’s nerves were in a bad way, and to be subjected to this onslaught was enough to turn anyone’s mind. My sudden arrival seemed to quieten the mob a little, so I took advantage of the lull and, swearing at the witch-doctor, told him to beat it. Then I turned and asked the children to help us carry the canoes to the schoolroom. “Thank God you came!” said Fred, with feeling. “If they’d gone on much longer I would have had to kill someone. My head felt as if it was splitting. I pleaded and begged them to keep quiet, but the old swine of a witchdoctor kept starting them off again. I don’t know what got into them.”

When we reached the schoolroom we were greeted by a fat old Zulu who told us in perfect English that he had worked for a lawyer in Maritzburg. This had certainly left its mark, for at the end of every sentence he would declaim, “I tell you, my Lords, it is null and void.” The old character kept us in fits of laughter with his legal jargon and we were sorry to see him go off to his kraal. A schoolgirl brought us a basin of warm water, soap and a clean towel, and told us that the schoolmaster was expecting us to dinner. By scrubbing hard we managed to get some of the grime and muck of the river off our hands and arms, but the pungent smell of muddy water lingered on our ragged clothes.

We had iust reached the schoolmaster’s hut when the storm broke and a deluge poured from the black skies. “Thank God we’re not out in that lot!” Fred muttered. Water cascaded past the hut in torrents and the wind lashed enormous raindrops against the windows, with a sound like hail. We could not make ourselves heard above the storm so we ate with great relish the plates of rice and goat meat. Our extreme hunger made the schoolmaster and his two women assistants stare at us in wonder. When we had finished eating, thick black coffee and cigarettes were provided. It was a wonderful meal and we had done more than justice to the food. The noise of the storm dropped, and for a while we talked. I asked the schoolmaster to tell us about his occupation; although badly paid he enjoyed the work he was doing and got great intellectual satisfaction from teaching. “It is a great adventure,” he said, “to take small children from the kraals and start teaching them from scratch. The sum total of their knowledge is how to look after the cattle and goats, or how to trap birds and animals. But from the moment they enter the schoolroom they become devoted to learning and I almost have to force them to go home in the afternoons. It might interest you to hear,” he continued, “how, when some little umfaans come to school for the first time and peer at a slate, their eyes water profusely, yet they can go home in the afternoon and squat round a smoky woodfire without even so much as a tear forming in their eyes.”

After about an hour, someone brought out an old gramophone and one record. For the next two hours I listened, ad nauseum, to “Don’t Roll those Bloodshot Eyes at Me.” Fred captivated everybody by jiving energetically to the music. He fell a few times, owing to the stiffness of his knees, but this only added to the general merriment at his antics. When he got really warmed up he had the audience gasping and cheering as he executed some very tricky steps.

We left when the rain had died down to a gentle patter on the thatched roof. Stars winked in the inky blackness, and the earth smelt cool and fresh after the storm. Frogs called from every direction and we could hear that the river had risen.

Our night was peaceful and we awoke to hear the young children arriving for school at dawn. There were muttered exclamations when they saw us lying on their work benches, but they soon overcame their shyness and surged forward to ask us questions. While we were dragging the canoes out I heard the children chanting the first prayers of the day, then they sang a hymn. I don’t think singing has ever moved me as it did that morning. Their young, rich and melodious voices rang out in a harmony I have never heard equalled. I had tears in my eyes as we said good-bye to our very pleasant host and made our way to the river. As we floated away the children broke into “Glory, Glory Hallelujah’, and it echoed down the river until we reached the rapids where the sound was drowned.

The river was flowing swiftly after the rain and the foliage lining the banks looked green and luxuriant. Crickets still chirrupped and frogs croaked their thankfulness. A pair of trumpeter hornbills flew, out from the bush and flapped across our path, uttering their weird and mournful cries. Gradually the sun rose higher in the bright blue sky and warmed our stiff limbs. We paddled quietly, afraid to speak for fear of breaking the wild peace that is only Africa’s. From the top of one of the green hills a Native broke the silence with a plaintive tune, a woman took up the refrain and together they harmonized. The music was beautiful and I stopped to listen. This was the music of old Africa, undisturbed by rowdy modern motor cars and aeroplanes. The canoe floated on and I strained my ears to catch the last refrain. All was still until a monkey chattered excitedly when we passed under his lookout post. A coucal bubbled down the scale and again I felt glad to be alive and experiencing the Africa I loved. I signalled to Fred to come up close and we shared one of our last cigarettes. I Iit mine and watched the blue smoke float lazily into the still morning air. It was good to taste the tobacco and get the feeling of content-
ment as I inhaled the smoke – a bad habit perhaps, but very pleasant in times of stress and after any exertion. I lay back in the canoe and let the current carry the craft forward. When the prow bumped against the bank I gave a slight shove with my paddle and floated out into midstream again. Fred followed and we spoke of the huge meals we were going to eat when we reached civilization.

Suddenly my ear vibrated slightly and in an instant all my senses were alert. “Did you hear that, Fred?” I asked. Fred sat up and listened carefully. “Yes,” he said. “There is a booming sound,” and he pointed to the east. The wind blew a little harder and we strained our ears to hear. When the wind died down the sound grew stronger and I knew that it was the famed waterfall we had heard so much about; “The place of the pythons” the Natives called it. “This must be what that old Native was speaking about,” Fred said. “Do you remember how he appeared at the camp one night and we gave him some tobacco – he used it like snuff – and then he warned us of the terrible hole in the river where the monster pythons lived. He described it all so clearly I hardly slept all night for thinking that we might end up in this hole.” I remembered only too well and, like Fred, had had a very uneasy night. By the time we reached the next bend there was no mistaking the sound of the waterfall and although it was still a long way away we kept close to the bank and looked anxiously ahead. A full hour passed and we seemed no closer. Fred paddled up and pointed to a low, sloping hill on our right. “It’s obvious that the fall must be on the other side,” he said. The river made a deep U-bend and had we wanted to we could have carried our canoes over the hill and cut off miles of canoeing.

We passed some Natives who were watering their cattle, and they hailed us. We paddled over to them and were given a lengthy warning about the waterfall. For the next half hour we were hailed by every Native we saw and given severe warnings of the peril ahead of us. When we reached the falls themselves a vast crowd of gesticulating Natives waved and shouted at us. By keeping close to the bank we knew we would be out of danger, and we pretended we didn’t understand what they were trying to say. They grew frantic and some of the women put their hands over their eyes as we drew closer and closer to the brink of the falls. The men were jumping up and down, waving their hats and yelling at the tops of their voices. I repeatedly cupped my hands to my ears, then shrugged my shoulders as though I could not follow. Fred played it to the full too, and lay back nonchalantly in his canoe, singing “Don’t Roll those Bloodshot Eyes at Me.” By the time we were thirty feet away, everyone was frenzied and some were holding on to each other.

Then with a great show we bluffed we had seen the danger and reacted with all the pomp we could muster. The crowtl was delighted and roared its approval.

Getting out of the canoes, we tied them up and walked to the edgc of the falls. Still mindful of our audience, we mimed great shock and staggered back at the sight of the pool below. The crowd screamed and yelled as though to say,” We told you so!”

A closer look at the pool showed me how the python legend must have come about; the water struck an outcrop of rock which made it spin and from a distance it looked like a coiled snake. We sweated for a full hour to get the canoes down the gorge and what was left of our clothes was badly torn when we had to bash our way through a forest of thorn bushes near the foot of the falls. It was far too dangerous to get into the river at that point, so leaving Fred with the canoes I scouted ahead downstream. I had to walk over a mile before I saw a point where we would be able to launch the canoes. My thirty-pound boat felt like a ton weight, and we cursed as we barked our shins on boulders and stood on devil thorns. We were deeply tanned by the sun and I saw an umfaan who was fishing, look at us in surprise as we passed him. I asked him what was wrong and he replied that he thought we were Indians. This made Fred roar with laughter, much to the umfaan’s astonishment, and he backed away as though we were two wild madmen. Manhandling the canoes had drenched us with sweat, but we were afraid to stop in case the terrible stiffness would overcome us before we could sit once more. After two hours of back-breaking labour we were ready to go and the canoes slid into the water. We drifted down the flat water to rest our aching arms, after lugging the kit and boats from the waterfall. Our rest did not last long – the familiar sound of cascading water greeted us when we had done no more than a mile. The rapid was a bad one and we had to line the canoes down. Fred led the way and I envied him, with his long legs, being able to hop from boulder to boulder with such ease. Where he could leap across with one bound I had to take two steps or get into the water and swim behind the canoe. Still, I had the better canoe and the going had been much easier for me when we were able to jump rapids. Pushing and shoving, heaving and grunting, we made our way down the rapid, leapt into the canoes then rode the waves at the bottom. What blessed relief to sit, after our arms had been almost torn out of their sockets and our knees and shins bashed against submerged boulders!

It was our sixth day out and our stamina was being tested to the utmost. I was glad of all the running to work and the press-ups and skipping that I had done, for it was standing me in good stead now. By midday we had covered five miles, and I gave a loud cheer when I noticed that the vegetation was beginning to change – we were obviously nearing the coast. The atmosphere was different too, warm and muggy with a low haze lying on the eastern horizon. The river had been rising steadily all morning and in the last ten minutes it had come up at least two inches. This was very much to our advantage, as it helped us to ride the rapids. For the next hour we took them in grand style. Following the deep channels, we guided the canoe prows with quick paddling then raced down, over the rocks and into the pool below. With almost unerring accuracy, we found the right channels. We began to eat up the miles, although a slip in the middle of a big cascade could mean death if the canoe was not righted quickly enough. Once in the rapid there was no time to change your mind, you had to keep on going right to the end. If the canoe turned over it meant hanging on and letting the water take you to the bottom of the fall. Once I struck halfway down, and Fred came careering towards me. I tried to move out of his way and he dug his paddles in in an effort to avoid me, but he hit me mid on. We came up gasping for air, then swam desperately after the canoes as they floated downstream. They disappeared into a deep pool, and we had to dive to get them out. First one then the other was dragged to the bank and emptied of water. AII that was left of our already meagre food supplies was half a pound of Holsum: everything else was completely ruined. Fred’s canoe had been badly damaged and he spent half an hour making essential repairs with bits of stick and Pliobond. This modern adhesive had saved our lives on more than one occasion. Fred’s ability as a carpenter was tested to the full, but he came out on top every time. I am sure that if only a piece of wood had been left he would have made a canoe out of it.

We pressed on hoping to reach the end of the rapids, but by five in the afternoon it was obvious that we should have to spend another night out in the open. Choosing a clump of bushes as a camping spot, Fred left me to get the canoes out while he went to look for a Native kraal to get some matches. I had iust arranged the canoes as a shelter from a slight drizzle that was falling when Fred returned with a full box of matches and an armful of mealies. “Thank God for the man who brought rnealies to this country !” he said. We soon had a big fire going and while the remains of our clothes were drying out, we roasted mealies on the coals and spread them with Holsum. We ate four each before stopping to say how good they tasted, but later that night we both paid dearly for eating so fast and for drinking water straight afterwards; we had severe stomach cramps and diarrhoea, which kept us awake and groaning for the rest of the night. As soon as we could see where we were going we climbed into the canoes and set off on the Iast stretch. After some vigorous paddling ther pains eased off and we could breathe without suffering the agonies of hell. As the sun climbed over the eastern horizon I saw a long plume of white smoke in the distance. “It must be the sugar mill !” I shouted excitedly to Fred. “It’s still a long way off,” he replied laconically. But it gave us heart and we paddled with extra energy towards the first sign of civilization we had seen for nearly seven days.

Two hours of hard paddling, then I saw a ferry boat on a long flat stretch of water. This was the end of the rapids and we whooped for joy. We pulled the canoes out at the ferry and while we stood talking to the ferry boy a European farmer arrived. He very kindly offered us tea, which we accepted with alacrity. We sat back in easy chairs and Iooked at the distant range of coastal dunes; I calculated that in two hours we should be at the sea.

When we reached the river again. I stripped and had a swim, much to Fred’s disgust. “Here we have been killing ourselves to reach the sea, and now we’re almost there you go for a swim !” he groused. I found it difficult to explain that it was my way of getting rid of the tension that had been with us on the last two days. I knew we were safe now and I wanted to linger and taste the fruits of success. We were, after all, the first people ever to have tackled and conquered this big river, and although our coming and going had left no trace on the surface of the water, in our minds we had achieved something big. I dressed slowly and tried to make my wild mop of hair look a little more respectable, then we climbed into our battered craft and made our way towards the sea.

Two hours later we heard the put-put-put of a pleasure boat coming to meet us. Friendly Indian market gardeners waved at us from the banks and Fred cracked jokes with them. A few minutes later the boat drew up near us and someone shouted, “Well done!” The pleasure craft turned round and headed for Umkomaas, and we followed in its broad white wake. Fortunately for us the tide was coming in, otherwise we should have had to push and pull over the last stretch. As we neared the boathouse where many years before, as a small boy, I had set out with my father to catch salmon. Five canoes manned by school-boys came out to meet us. We were touched by their spate of questions and tried hard to answer intelligently. One canoe came a little too close to us and we both nearly turned over. “Hell, that was close,” Fred whispered to me as we struggled to balance the rocking canoes. A group of holiday-makers set up a ragged cheer as we clambered out onto the boathouse jetty. We waved our hats adorned with the leopard skin band of the Natal Canoe Club, and were proud that our small club had given the lead to the rest of South Africa.

The proprietor of the South Barrow Hotel* met us and very kindly offered to put us up for the night. We were dead beat and his invitation was gratefully accepted.

Next morning we made our way back to Maritzburg, and six days later I began my new career as a Game Ranger.

*later the Lido Hotel

———– END OF IAN PLAYER & FRED SCHMIDT 1952 UMKO TRIP ————

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.

One thought on “Ian Player & Fred Schmidt’s 1952 Umko Trip – full account”

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