THE FIRST UMKO – My version
1966 . .17 years old, the very first Umkomaas Marathon and there I was, racing . . let’s just say paddling, with Bob Templeton.
The race was going to start from Josephine’s and we were going to take 4 days to get to the mouth with overnight stops at Riverside, Mponpamani and…. Well hell, imagine that, where did we sleep? Or was it only 3 days to the mouth?
Well anyway there are certain facts that are absolutely clear in my memory, things that made deep impressions in my tiny teenage mind. It was a cold drizzly day at Josephine’s Bridge and I can remember the how my hero worship of Bob expanded when he wandered off and came back with two old fertilizer bags. Mystified I watched as he got out his knife and cut head and arm holes in the bags… Wow, my first ever rain jacket. You have to remember that in ’66 we didn’t have all the waterproof thermal gear that we have now. In those days it was a rain coat or wet, and nobody was going to take a raincoat down the Umko valley.
The boats we used in those days were really basic, 15ft (4.5m) x 24ins (60.9cms) with a hanging seat and a foot rest and no rudder, fiber glass hull with a vinyl deck stretched over a wooden frame work. Bob’s boat had a fiberglass cockpit with a new invention, a splash cover. My boat had a high galvanized iron cockpit that just carved through the waves like the Titanic without the ice berg!
So off we went with our plastic bags, one splash cover and one life jacket, both for Bob, who couldn’t swim. I can remember the hanging gardens in the mist below Josephine’s and bouncing through the big waves, and the way they turned and swirled, learning how to keep out of the eddies and well away from stoppers and pour overs! We only had to empty a few times, and I suspect that was mainly for Bob to have a smoke to calm his nerves. He kept his smokes in an Anadin tin stitched onto the side of his hat.
When we eventually arrived at Riverside it was to find that the support vehicles couldn’t get down the road to the overnight stop and were stuck in the mud. So, no warm cloths, no food, no tents. As the paddlers arrived we shuffled under the awning of Ozzie Gladwin the timekeeper’s Land Rover. That and one other Land Rover were the only vehicles that made it to the overnight stop. Mr. Gladwin and his helper each had a thermos of tea and a packet of sandwiches, which they shared with each paddler as they arrived. What a wonderful spirit of comradeship. As the afternoon wore on some of the brighter sparks (Mike von Weiringen included) went off up the hill to try to fetch some of the kit. They borrowed an ox sleigh and loaded it up, but unfortunately on the way down it capsized and the load was spilled into the mud and rolled down a hill. Eventually they made it back to Riverside with a bundle of mud encrusted sleeping bags and a sack full of tins, with no labels. After identifying sleeping bags we were allocated 1 tin per team (2 paddlers) and told to enjoy supper! Bob, as did most of the paddlers then, had a tin opener on the knife that he always had with him, my hero again! I’ll never forget just how good half a tin of cold beef stew can taste. As evening settled over the valley, in the steady drizzle, the store keeper at Riverside said that we could sleep in the shed next to the store. It was pitch dark inside with a small fire going. Bob and I had already claimed a spot on the verandah at the entrance to the store, so from hear on the story becomes hearsay, but it is too good to resist.
While all this was happening the other vehicle that made it to the overnight camp comes into the tale. This vehicle was the Chalupsky/Potgieter seconding Land Rover, driver by Paul Chalupsky’s father, Papa Chalupsky.
Well, Papa was a hard driving, uncompromising old man who took racing very, very…. very seriously. He had arrived with the time keepers and set up camp for his boys. A nice big army tent with stretchers, sheets and blankets. He had the kettle going and as Paul and Jimmy finished there was a cup of tea waiting for them, and steaks in the pan. So, while we shivered and starved they were snug, warm and well fed in their tent. This didn’t add to their popularity.
As the evening wore on and the tent crew were given a nice hot supper, I forget what it actually was but it smelt really good, the rest of us were moving from under the awning into the shed and verandah, when a Kingfisher lad who shall remain nameless, (it was Ken Willan) finally couldn’t take it anymore and started letting the guy ropes of the tent down. We all spotted this and gave the game away by laughing. Old man Chalupsky stuck his head out to see what was happening to his tent and with a bellow of rage took off after Ken with an axe. Now Papa Chalupsky was not known for his sense of humor so it soon became apparent that if Ken wasn’t careful the Old Man was going to do him some serious injury. The rest of us screaming with laughter wasn’t helping and as Ken ran round and round the tent he was laughing more and more. In fact if the Old Man hadn’t tripped over a tent peg I think he would have caught and killed Ken on the next circuit!
After the hilarity of the tent chase, the guys all snuggled down in the shed. Now there was a particular character, Tank Rodgers, well known for his . . . different . . . sense of humour, who found himself a place under a sloping ladder. For some reason no one else had claimed the spot so he was quite chuffed, until he felt a drip. “Aw dam guys, there’s a leak right over my head, never mind I’ll just pull my sleeping bag up and I’ll be fine.” Tank spent the rest of the night fighting this drip that fell all over his sleeping bag and on his head and face. You can imagine the hilarity when day light revealed that Tank had been sleeping under the chicken’s roosting spot. It hadn’t been rain dripping on him all night, but chicken shit!
After that…. let’s call it interesting, if not downright hilarious night, the rest of the race becomes a bit blurry. I remember the bright red of my high cockpit cutting through the top of the wave as the boat bobbed through the rapids. Bob’s big eyes as he followed me through. He was not happy in big water; He had spent most of his canoeing in canvas boats portaging all the bigger rapids. The last memory of that race is the incredible grind from Goodenough’s weir round that huge cursed bend passed the factory, over sand banks against the wind. It was never-ending and I was knackered to start with.
A real downer to finish with, it was much better in later years when they laughed off the flat section and just finished at Goodenough’s.
In the early ‘90s, soon after I remarried…. to Di the doctor in Cape Town (Another story, ja I’ll tell it sometime!) we came down to Durban to do the Umko. Di was wangled onto the race as the race doctor, (where she didn’t have to doctor anyone) and we had a joll of note. The race for me however was a total stuff up. I brought a nice Cape boat all the up to KZN, jumped on the river and paddled off, very nearly last. The locals, Oliver and crowd, had seeded me way back in the last batch, so off I went on about 1.3m from Hella Hella, heading for the overnight stop at St. Elmo’s. (See map). I trundled through the Approaches, loving being back on the river and bombed through the middle of No 1, as one should, with not problems at all. Thinks to self, “Ha didn’t touch a thing!” and actually I didn’t. In the pool my steering felt a bit sluggish, but that had never bothered me so I was ambling along when a guy paddled past with an amused expression and asked. “Having trouble with your rudder mate?” I looked back and saw a yellow banana with a rudder on it sticking up out of the water. Lesson No 1 at No1. Cape boats aren’t constructed to withstand the rigors of big water. Even moderate to low water! “Oh gosh!” I thought, (Or something with slightly more feeling and maybe slightly louder than just a thought!) I’ll just have to see if I can get to Josephine’s, I’m sure they’ll have patching facilities there. So I bumble off down the river. After all the sun was shining, I had lots of buoyancy in the boat, what’s the rush.
Well somehow or another I made it down to No 7, but in the long wave train just below the boat finally broke so that I was looking around the nose, that was pointing up into the sky, to see where I was going. The banana had been bending further and further and I had been supported by buoyancy for most of the way, but hey, I was still paddling and moving forward, until I broke my paddle in one of the bubblies above No8. Then I started doing the math. I’ll never make Josephine’s in this boat. In fact there may be nobody at No 8 and it’s a hell of a long walk from there to Josephine’s. If I don’t get a lift to Josephine’s and have to walk there, all the people will have carried on to St Elmo’s and that is a moer of a long walk!!!
Boat and paddle disappeared into the deep pools of the Umko and I literally sprinted about 4k down to the track below No 8 where I just caught a lone Landy driving off. It was literally one of those out of a movie scenes, sprinting behind in the dust screaming, “Waaaaaaaait! Heeeeeelp! don’t leave meeeee!!!!!
That was the last time I paddle a single on the Umko, so you can imagine, I’m very keen to settle the score.
Right now it’s Umko 1, Andre 0.