Brian Longley – “Big B”

Brian Longley (Dabs) UMKO

Umko – Brian Longley

It took me 25 starts to do my 20 Umko’s. I have swum in every rapid worthy of a name from Hella Hella to Josephine’s Bridge (and some not worthy!). If anyone wants a map of how to walk out from 5 and 6, give me a shout. After all this experience, there is only one rapid that I am worried about on Umko – the one coming next!

There are three tales worth telling.

  1. THE BEGINNINGIn 1981, with three months of paddling experience, and one Dusi, behind us, my Pommy mate, John, and I decided to take on the Umko. That year, the race was from Josephine’s to Goodenough Weir.

    We started at 9.00 and by 10.00 we had wrapped the boat. It could still be paddled by one person sitting in the back, so we set out one guy paddling and the other running over the hill, to rendezvous on the other side of each loop in the river. Sometimes we didn’t rendezvous perfectly and then echoes of JOHN!, JOHN!, JOHN! could be heard ringing through the valley.

    The cutoff was at Riverside Store at 2.00. We arrived there 20 minutes before cutoff. We decided that we would continue with our run/ paddle/ run since it couldn’t be much further now, could it??

    At 4.30 the boat finally gave up completely. We cut out the cable, each took a half and started dragging the boat. By 5.30 it had dawned on us that maybe this wasn’t going to work. At some kraal we took out the seats and pumps, “donated” the boat to the locals and set off once more. At this stage we must have looked like a marauding impi (a small one!) with shield (seat) in one hand and assegai (paddle) in the other. It wasn’t long before we decided to “donate” the seats at the next kraal.

    As it got darker, we were no longer able to cut overland and were forced to follow the river. At about 6.30 it was so dark that we could no longer see where we were going and, when we fell into a donga about 1,5m deep, we decided that the only option was to get into the river and float down. (It is quite “different” floating down a river in the dark hearing the sounds of unknown rapids up ahead!)

    At 8.30 we drifted into the overnight stop with pumps and paddles, starving of course, and feasted on half a can of tinned peaches, which was all that was left over from supper.

  2. NUMBER 2In about 1988 I started my third Umko with Niels Verkerk, scheduled to be a three-day event. The river was so low that the only flow through Number 2 was on the extreme left loop and the down parallel to the cliff face. Along the cliff there was a hole that ended our race in style.

    We went into the hole, the front came up but the back, with me in it got sucked back in. We sat there trying to paddle out but, inevitably, eventually tipped out. Niels and the boat floated out but I started going round and round in the washing machine. I went round three or four times, each time using the “long lips breathing method” at the surface to get some air before going round again. On the fourth attempt to get out of the washing machine, I had a slow-motion moment of clarity. “Brian”, I said. “Brian, this is not working. You must go down”. I stopped struggling to get to the light above me and swum downwards instead. The current immediately took me and spat me out of the rapid.

    There is a lesson there for paddlers – If you are caught in the washing machine, go down.

    The video of this episode is on Youtube.


In about 1991 Bruce Clark and I took up the challenge of a fullish Umko. I think 5 and 6 were a compulsory portage but, in any event, our fun that year came at Number 8.

There was a ledge along the cliff at Number 8 where the river had eaten into the cliff, so that the water would push the boat under the ledge if you got too close. We got too close! Some way downstream I got the boat to the left hand bank – no sign of Bruce. After beaching the boat I walked back upstream. Echoes of BRUCE!, BRUCE!, BRUCE! could be heard ringing through the valley. (Are you beginning to pick up a pattern here?)

When I got opposite the cliff at Number 8, I looked up to see Bruce clinging to the cliff face, about 10 metres above the water. The cliff is sheer and would normally only be scaled by an experienced climber with ropes and pitons but Bruce went out that way and over the top. There was no way he was going anywhere near the water!

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.

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