I paddled my first Umko in 1976 with a fellow called China Van Schalkwyk, who I played Rugby with at Glenwood Old Boys, I was literally pulled out the Pub on Friday night when his partner fell ill, China was a teacher at Dirkie Uys High School on the Bluff and a fine Scrum Half but of questionable canoeing ability, as was I at that time.
Now one must remember that in order to paddle races ,in those “olden” days, one simply had to join a club ,paddling in club colors was far more important than wearing a life jacket( only sissies wore them) or being able to swim, proficiency tests and qualifiers were decades away.So my total canoeing experience consisted of swimming from Pietermaritzburg to Durban in the Dusi of that year, 1976 is acknowledged as the highest level the race has ever been paddled.
So back to the Umko, Saturday morning sees China and I on the bank of the Umko at Josephine’s bridge, with his tired looking canvas decked accord and two lunch box juice bottles tied to the back footrest with sisal twine. It was the start of one of the longest days of my life.
The river was full and way beyond our capabilities ,or the capabilities of our tenuous craft and somewhere between Josephine’s and St Elmo’s, after about an hour and more swims than I can remember,our rather tired canvas decked accord was now very tired , or to put it more plainly was F#¥*ed.
We had washed up on the left hand bank of the river ,now everyone who paddled in those days knew that if you broke up on day one you had to walk out on the right hand bank but the boat was too badly damaged to swim it across the river and China refused to part with it, so into the wilderness we trekked ,for hour after hour we scrambled through thick bush with boat on shoulder in the February heat, heading we hoped in the general direction of the main road/Richmond. Our lunch box , sisal secured, juice bottles were long empty and we had not seen a living thing since we had left the river ,still China would not part with his craft so forward we bashed ,it was now mid afternoon and we had been off the river since about 9am, I was so thirsty that I took my shirt off and wrang the sweat into my mouth (probably not so smart but disparate times call for disparate measures) and told China that if he wanted his craft he would have to carry it himself , it was at this point abandoned . We had absolutely no idea where we were.
Late in the afternoon the bush started thinning out and eventually turned into grassland at the top of a plateau ,it the distance we could see a farm house, I was hoping it was not a mirage .Just before dark we arrived knocked on the door and were greet by a very surprised farmer, after all what were two canoeists , paddles in hand ,doing at their front door approximately twenty kilometers from the nearest river at 6 o’clock in the evening, if I remember correctly their surname was Stone and their farm was only a few kilometers from Richmond.
They were about to leave for the Valentines Ball in Richmond but offered us accommodation for the night lent us clothes and got their cook back on duty to prepare us a fantastic meal, I even managed to bum a packet of ciggerates from them, it was like waking in paradise after a bad dream.
China and I never paddled together again, and I often wonder what will go through the mind of the person who one day finds a double canoe in the middle of the bush many miles away from the nearest river, but I know that that will never happen . I also don’t think that we adequately thanked the Stones for their unbelievable hospitality , so if anyone reading this knows them please let them know that their good deed of forty years ago was appreciated more than they could imagine. As for China, well after our rugby playing days were over we lost contact with each other and I really do not know where he is, but would be happy to go to war with him , only not carrying his canoe.
Since this epic I have completed thirty two Umko’s out of thirty two and consider this and giving up smoking as two of my greatest achievements.
Pete please use this if you wish and feel free to edit as suit you, good luck with the publication I look forward to reading it.