Colleen Whitton – Took the ferry across No.1

My very first Umko introduction – the river was running at a medium to full level . The Approaches boasted a who’s who of canoeing greats SWIMMING! It was decided in retrospect that a Springbok team could have been selected out of the casualties in The Approaches that year.

Richard and I made The Approaches safely, albeit fairly rattled at seeing those greats in the drink all around us, only to take what surely rates as my worst swim ever, in the big hole at No.1. The force of the water rushing into our cockpits dragged our K2 so far under water that hanging onto it I had no idea which way was up to the surface and which was down to the river bed. I felt I had to let it go in order to reach the surface. In our wisdom we were wearing two heavy duty splashcovers each – a big mistake as they just acted as spinnakers in the turbulent water, tumbling us head over heels in the depths. During one of those wash cycles my paddle got properly trapped in the bed rock under water and I had to leave it there to save myself.

Ken Reynolds happened to glimpse my orange lifejacket under water as they paddled overhead and pulled me up for a breath before I was once again subjected to the murky waters. When I finally reached the eddy on the right bank between the 2 drops in No 1, my chest was burning and I was dry retching from lack of oxygen. Richard had also managed to make it to the same spot as me on the right, only then did we have a chance to assess our situation.

All around there were paddlers calling for assistance either stranded as we were on the wrong side of the river or on the rock reef in the river, but as this was before spectators were able to reach this area, everyone who was there had already swum and no one was about to subject themselves to that ordeal again, so apart from verbal encouragement and advice, it was every man for himself. Our boat miraculously unscathed had washed into an eddy on the left, some distance below the 2nd drop + was pulled up by some other paddlers, just waiting for us to retrieve it.

We were now stranded with another shell shocked K2 contingent on the right between the two drops with no way out except across the river. They had their damaged K2 but no paddles, we had no boat but Richard had the only paddle. So with a lot of convincing Richard managed to talk the other paddlers into allowing him to ferry us one at a time across No.1 in their boat. Nerve racking to say the least to sit in the back of a K2 with no paddles, trusting Richard would get each of us across safely between the two drops in No.1! Bear in mind that Richard did this a total of five times as he returned with an empty back cockpit in order to retrieve the next one. I was the last to be picked up as the other two fought over the first taxi service, neither wanting to take a chance of being left behind.

Although we retrieved our K2 undamaged we had only one set of paddles between us. As we both paddle left feather and this was long before the existence of dual set up split shafts we were able to abandon our race with our egos intact. There was a queue of paddlers hiking back to the start and out of the valley that morning!

I subsequently had many turbulent swims, some over great distances, but none that came as close to a near drowning as this one did! Ken Reynolds in giving me that breath of air surely saved me from ingesting a heap of water into my lungs.

It was the last time either of us paddled with two splashcovers.
Colleen Whitton


The Early Days!
The entry fee for the early 1982+ Umko’s was a huge amount of…R10.00 per paddler!
For this princely sum you got to paddle down the rugged, demanding stretch of natural beauty from Hella Hella to Riverside on Day 1.
The now substantially reduced number of competitors collected your luggage and bedding from the race organisers support vehicle and selected a spot in the Marque between the hoards of other stretchers and bedrolls laid out within centimetres of one another.
You helped yourself to an awesome burger lunch, fruit and juice. You checked your boat out and got whatever materials and equipment were needed from the repair station as well as assistance and the use of generator driven power tools if the damage was severe enough. Then lay around exchanging war stories, bought (the only additional cost to your R10.00) some beverages mainly of the alcoholic variety and in between had a fantastic filling hot supper.
Those of us who were trying to race would retire as early as possible pretending to sleep whilst all around us the more social paddlers would go on long into the night, most forgetting there were now the brand new addition of literally 2 or 3 lady paddlers in their midst and the language as the beverages were consumed became far more descriptive and embellished by words best left out of print.
On eventually retiring in the early hours, after stumbling and falling over other recumbent paddlers with much noise and colourful expletives, these same imbibers proceeded to fill the night air with a totally unharmonious whistle and hoot of snoring and bodily noises best kept to the privacy of the bathroom.
At daybreak you packed up your meagre allotment of belongings and stowed them back in the support vehicles, breakfasted like there was no tomorrow and set off to enjoy all this majestic powerful river would throw at you until finally you reached the finish at the mouth of the mighty Umkomaas, feeling like a hero with an achievement shared by only this select handful..
After the finish all paddlers proceeded to” TheLido” where we lounged in the pool trying to ease our stinging legs + keeping them out the sun – there was a never to be discovered source of severe skin irritation either in the bank vegetation at the finish or the waste water pumped from the factories in the area which was as predictable as clock work, it had us all competing for relief! We and our drivers were treated to a free lunch at prizegiving before proceeding home, war stories shared and a sense of belonging to an elite bunch of like minded spirits.
Those were the “REAL” Umkomaas Marathons!

Colleen Whitton


Another memorable race was 16yr-old son Clive’s first Umko with me behind him in a K2 “showing him the way”:-

Daughter Debbie was paddling in a K2 with Kim Eksteen in her first. Debbie was about 19 and it would have been her 3rd or 4th  Umko.
For Clive and I it was supposed to be a social paddle just for him to get his first Umko under his belt (+- 1995 would need to confirm on the results) while Debbie and Kim were going into it racing.
We started in the batch behind Debbie and Kim and were proceeding cautiously to ensure Clive did indeed get an Umko behind him. Approaching the top of No 4 the entire rapid was absolute carnage with boats and paddlers strewn across the river so I advised Clive just to hit the bank on the right for a quick portage to stay out of trouble.
We were doing just that when a shout from the left bank alerted us to Debbie and Kim having wrapped their boat badly. We dashed down to the bank to assess how we could help and realised their K2 was wrapped in 3 places, the 1st right at the front pedals so there was absolutely no steering, and although once taped up the boat was like a string of sausages it was still holding together.
We decided we would all paddle down together nursing their boat as best we could until we could look for assistance below No 8. Kim however was totally shell shocked and wanted to withdraw immediately but we convinced her that there was no easy way out of the valley at that point so she reluctantly got back in the river. After a couple of hundred metres I realised that the chances of them getting this snaking K2 down the river with no front footrest or steering and with Kim in the state she was in was just not possible.
I had a short discussion with Clive (the total Umko novice!) and decided that he would continue down with Kim in the back of our K2 and I would get in the K2 with Debbie and help nurse their boat down until No 8 where hopefully we could find some fibreglass and do some make shift repairs to get to the overnight stop at the Orange groves on the left bank where Richard could do the necessary. It took a lot of convincing of Kim from all 3 of us, as all she wanted to do at this stage was get out this water and now we were telling her to get in behind Clive who had never even seen the river before!
I had full confidence in Clive’s ability to read any rapid and rated his chances in getting through but knew by reading the river he was going to be going down the middle of everything and that meant some really big stuff still to come but played it down to Kim and she agreed, I suspect only because she really had no way of getting out the valley without us at this stage.
For Debbie and I it was possibly the hardest thing we had ever done. We had absolutely no steering and very little boat control with it writhing in the water beneath us so we were also forced to take lines down the river which we would never had contemplated normally. The biggest epic was No 8 where we should have entered 8a on the right and crossed over the wave train to exit down the left at 8c – this just was not going to be possible so we made an off the cuff decision and just rode the centre of the wave train all the way down, mind blowing stuff and total energy sapping. I think Debbie took the brunt of the strain on this epic as she was having to keep the momentum going while I spent most of the time keeping the boat as straight as possible to the current with bow rudder strokes.
By good fortune not only did we get both boats down to below number 8 without any swims or incidents, Henry Pretorius and Kevin Walsh were at the bottom with enough repair materials to do a fantastic job of repairing the boat so well that only minor tweaks needed to be done at the overnight stop.
We then had to have a united front from us as paddlers and the “support crew” in convincing Kim to actually keep going. She was by now totally “rapid happy” and she had access to transport out …… But convince her we did!
Fortunately with us back in our original paddling format ie Clive and I, and Kim and Debbie, we all were able to complete that Umko without any further mishaps and could tick it off to experience. It turned out to be Kim’s only Umko – she emigrated soon after.
We are a stubborn family when it comes to not giving up!


correspondence (read bottom – to top)

Memories! According to my sources, that was 1992! My sources have all been male, though . . .

It’s going to be a challenge sorting out all these numbers and dates.
I have put in the intro “This is mainly about the FUN, and not so much about accurate history, as “accurate” is not easy to come by!

Luckily the ebook is everlasting and can always be fixed, updated and improved.
A paper book unfortunately is “frozen” on the day you print, and all your mistakes haunt you till you die!
But we’ll survive – broad shoulders and all that.

On 2015/09/25 06:13 AM, Collleen Whitton wrote:

Ok well 1994 definitely started at Hella Hella – Josephines Day 1, +Day 2 started in the pool between Mpompomani + Bad Rapid where the road came close to the river J.


From: pete swanepoel home []
Sent: 23 September 2015 17:55
To: Collleen Whitton
Subject: Re: ? yr (umko)

I have that as 1988 and 1989.
Josephines to Goodenoughs, 98km

I’m missing 13 races!!

I have no record of 1990, 1991 and 1995, (1994 I know started at Hella Hella but I have no other info);

and no info on 2003 to 2011 inclusive.


On 2015/09/23 10:21, Collleen Whitton wrote:

Am going to put together another snippet as soon as I have sufficient time but do you know which year it was when the one and only overnight stop was at Mpompomani?

Regards – Colleen Whitton


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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s