Bryan “Scatter” Slater – ‘our manliness had been severely tested’

Bryan Slater Scatter

A couple of the characters in this story are no longer with us, may they RIP – thankfully my brush with No.7 had a good ending*.

First Umko – heard all the war stories, conquered Fish so we thought we were the shit. My partner Henry “Hennie” Spradbury and I order a stable boat from a legendary JHB boatbuilder but that’s another story for another day. Take delivery of a very green boat on the way down to the race.

A Scottish gent of our acquaintance (William “Bull” Turnbull), who was not averse to chemical assistance in his unfulfilled pursuit of athletic honour, and not by any stretch of the imagination a big water operator, stops the Kombi one kay from the Hella Hella Bridge and pukes out the largest pile of undigested multi-coloured pills ever seen. (Copper Simpkins thought the hypochondriac Dabulamanzi-based Scot may have beaten SA to the term “rainbow nation”).

We line up for the old day 1 to Riverside, full of trepidation, in the approaches we realise that we may have been a little generous with our assessment of our skills. At No.3 the boat splits neatly in two – we are blaming the boatbuilder “as we speak” and not the hard rock impacts suffered up to that point.

We trudge back to the start, having sensibly suggested to our second, my partner’s girlfriend, that she waits a bit before leaving. We are now mentally shattered, our river prowess and manliness have been severely tested.

That year there was a big tent at Richmond Country Club and we settled in there at the beautifully curved bar counter and started imbibing furiously.

In a short time we were joined by “Big B” Longley, Neels “Captain” Verkerk, Graham Pope-Ellis, his partner and other rats and mice flotsam that came slinking back defeated, including one rather short vexatious fellow (Anthony ‘Waldy’ Wald), who had won the doubles in a singles Dusi year with Mark ‘Hophead’ Perrow, and hence considered himself the equal of the great “Pope” and was making us cringe as he regaled the Pope with his bullshit stories.

Seeing some of the cream of SA paddling around what we now were calling “Bailer’s Bend” seemed to enhance my partner’s manly fire and seeing his GF (our dutiful second) had tired of the drunken banter and slinked off to spruce up – he made a not-so-graceful lunge at another young lass who was seconding her uncle, a certain high ranking SA Canoeing official. His advances were instantly welcomed and this created a massive problem when the GF came searching for him many hours later.


*I would like to make special mention of the day I was trapped underwater in a wrapped boat in No.7 while tripping in a high river. Malcolm “Belkie” Stothard (with scant regard for his own safety, dived into the raging brown beast and managed to dislodge me and without doubt save my life. It is informative that we as big river paddlers never make a big fuss of things like this.


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.


In 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.

In 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!
My best Umko memory is my first, 1987.
Although still a beginner, in those days no-one stopped you doing the classic old 130 km, two day race, without helmets, so with youthful ignorance, I entered.
An untried combination of Tony Webstock and I, in a re-repaired Accord decided to tackle the ultimate river challenge. We set our sights on a finish – that would be an achievement, given all the war stories we had heard.
We left Jozi in Lightning’s Toyota double-cab. Memorable for two issues:
1. There were four Tonys in the car: Lightfoot, King, Webstock and Purchase
2. Lightening had a good looking filly with him (they took one of the two rooms in PMB hotel).
After the obligatory “kak your rods in anticipation” descent into the valley, we heard the announcer saying “17 swimmers in A batch, you can pick a springbok paddling team”. Well, after that there was no more kak left, I must have had five veldies in the half an hour waiting for my batch. We tapped down the river, portaging as much as we could. Nevertheless, after an hour the huge stoppers and wave-trains had broken the Accord, but we had anticipated our lack of prowess and a cake tin full of repair kit was stowed in the back. We rustled up the locals to collect firewood to help the mix go off. At the cut-off bridge old man Chalupsky advised us we were half an hour late, “but if you vant to go, its yoor problem”.
We arrived in the dark, only finding the marquee at Riverside due to the noise and fire. We filled up our bellies with Hansa to counteract our blisters being filled up with Merthiolate. Jeez, what pain, but it worked like a charm.
We finished the second day at Goodenoughs with our craft underwater, and were immortalised with the attached pic in the Sunday Star. The other Tonys finished their race more competitively, going backwards down Goodenoughs. The feeling of achievement was immense “the river gods had let us through”.
Annoyingly I have only entered, and completed, another three Umko’s, but 2016 is already in the diary, written in permanent marker.

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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