Whenever a powerful river floods – or any river for that matter – there is a certain period of, ‘so now what?’ afterwards. The first few post-flood paddles are done with trepidation as paddlers ascertain for themselves how thoroughly the furniture has been rearranged.
Huge rocks that were once on the left are now on the right; a small little benign bubbly is now a malignant monster.
Fortunately for us Vaalies, we had a fountain of knowledge in the form of Robbie Herreveld – aka ‘Horrible’. If Horrible said something about the Umkomaas you took it seriously. At the time he was in the middle of his paddling peak and, on the Umko, was in a class of his own. After a big flood, a few weeks before the race, he drove down and tripped the top stretch. When he got back we gathered around to pick his brains. He said, ‘Ja, pretty much the same but the hole at the bottom of No.8 is huge and be very careful of the rapid directly above No.8. The current on the sweeping bend has eroded the bank, and all the boulders are sticking out; there’s one boulder that’s at face height. If you drop in at the top of the rapid, on the wrong side of the tongue, you’re going to hit it with your face. Stay left or else you’re fucked.’
And what is good advice for if not to forget? On the race, Brian Longley and I were in a front bunch of three, and I was sitting on the right hand wave as we got to the rapid. The first two boats dropped into the rapid on the left of the tongue and I went right. It was the typical Umko, frighteningly quick roller coaster, and halfway around I became aware that the current was beginning to move under the bank instead of next to it. As usual, Horrible was correct. A split second before the boulder sticking out of the bank tried to rip my head off my shoulders, and deposit it in the back seat, I dived left and out the boat.
The swim that ensued afterwards lasted thirty minutes. Not the thirty-minute swim that was actually two minutes of swimming and another twenty eight minutes of overnight stop embellishment. It was thirty proper minutes. We arrived at No 8 third, and left it almost last. When I say ‘we’ swam, I mean ‘I’ swam. Brian popped up, grabbed the boat, grabbed his paddle, grabbed my paddle, swam the boat to the bank before it even got to No 8, emptied it, stretched his back, shook his fur, had some juice, and started tapping his foot.
I, on the other hand, didn’t. At 62kgs, with two splashies on, I was never going to be a good candidate for ‘swim against the current’. As No.8 got closer I was not even an inch closer to the bank. There’s that point-of-no-return at the top of a big rapid with which we are all too familiar. It’s as if a giant vacuum cleaner has been switched on and, to quote Horrible, you’re fucked.
I took the biggest breath possible just before I hit the hole at the bottom; it was just as well because I was down there for a few months. I was bounced on the bottom of the river a few times and, when I came up, I was in a tiny undercut piece of cliff face that was almost a cave. My head was out of the water but my legs were being taken in and out of the cave, like a pendulum, by the surging water. I was stuck. My arms were stretched up to their fullest, holding the cliff, and I was using all my strength to prevent myself being taken under again. There was no way I was letting go of the cliff because my courage, strength and swimming ability had deserted me at around the same time. So I climbed up. It took forever but eventually I got to the top. I probably set some sort of Umko record by being the only paddler to ever climb one of those cliffs, from the bottom, to the top, during the race.
Brian, of course, was watching the whole thing. He was thirty meters away and directly across the river. He watched as I got trashed in the hole; he watched as I climbed to the top, he watched as I walked downstream to flat water, he watched as I swam across, he watched as I walked back up the bank to where he was standing. Finally he spoke.
“Are you finished playing Spiderman?” he asked.