Debbie Germiquet nee Whitton
My Umko Stories:
Having grown up in a canoeing mad family, it was only natural that I would do the Umko at some point in my paddling career. This river (and the associated Umkomaas Marathon) is legendary in the South African river racing scene. Now having completed over 10 of these races, I still am in awe of this iconic river, which demands immense respect from those who paddle on its swirling, mud churning waters.
Where to start, well let’s start at the beginning with my first Umkomaas Canoe Marathon. At the tender age of 16, I did my first Umkomaas Marathon in the back of a K2 with my very experienced Uncle (Peter Zietsman). I felt very privilege that my talented Uncle would be taking me down this mighty river (the scene from all the Umko “war stories” I had grown up listening to). I would now be shown the infamous rapids: “the Approaches”, “Numbers 1 through 8”, “No Name”, “the Waterfall” and of course “Good Enoughs Weir”.
We set off in the same batch as my parents (Richard and Colleen Whitton) who were also doing the race in a K2. They, however, were racing for the mixed double title, whereas my Uncle and I were just there to complete the race. We started comfortably, there was no mad dash into the “Approaches” for us. We sailed through the “Approaches” and “Number 1” but took a silly swim in a bump of a wave just after number 1 (I had to settle the butterflies in my stomach somehow). Unbeknownst to me, during this swim, my uncle lost his contact lenses (he is as blind as a bat without his glasses). We got going again and approaching “Number 2” he informed me (the novice in the back) that he had lost his contacts, but that we would be fine……….My wet butterflies returned 100 times worse, but what could I do…….We proceeded to shoot “Number 2” perfectly. My uncle driving like a legend in the front, even with his limited vision. We carried on to “Number 3”. At the top he turned to me and said that we would pull to the bank at the bottom of the rapid so that he could put his spare contact lenses in and try to fix his sunglasses. I nodded my enthusiastic approval of that idea as we descended into “Number 3”. Emerging unscathed from the bottom of “Number 3” we headed towards the right hand bank to improve the visibility of my canoe captain and driver. As we approached the bank we saw a familiar boat. MY PARENTS!!!!!! They had come short in “Number 3” and had a massive swim almost from the top of the rapid. Well my mother had, had the pleasure of trying to swim the boat down the rapid and keep it as unscathed as possible, while my father found that running down the bank shouting instructions to my mother was far easier then swimming down the rapid with her. This story of their “Number 3” swim would turn into family Umko folklore in the coming years. Their boat was a wreck. It had folded in numerous places. My father was searching in the bushes for sticks to use as splints, my mother wasn’t saying much. You could cut the tension in the air with a knife. We offered to help, but could see we were standing in the middle of a battle field. Once my captain’s vision was restored, we gave them our roll of duct tape and tube of genkem and left the scene. The rest of our race was uneventful and I completed my first ever Umko. What a sense of accomplishment I felt when I reached the finish line.
This was to be the last year that the Umkomaas Marathon ended at the sea. So looking back now on all the Umko’s I have done, I am very grateful that I did my first Umko when I did, as I got to see and paddle down the big rapids on the lower reaches of this magnificent river.
Another, Umko story of mine, happened a few years later. In 1994 I was paddling with another lady, Kim Eksteen. We had done the whole Natal river season together and had had a stormer of a season. So naturally, Kim and I decided to do the Umko together. It would be Kim’s first Umko. We arrived at the start with a brand new K2. Great excitement in the air.
We were having a faultless run, as we approached “Number 4a”. I chose my line into the rock shelf that makes up the top part of 4a and we entered the rapid. It was only once we had committed to the rapid, that I saw the wrapped K2……It was folded and pinned around the base of one of the big boulders a third of the way down the rapid. The broken front cockpit protruding out into the channel we were coming down! At this stage there was nothing I could do except hold our line and hope we made it past the wrapped boat without getting snagged.
Unfortunately that was not to be…….our boat made a beeline for the wrapped boat and a split second later our nose had entered into the chasm of the buckled cockpit and we were jettisoned from our K2.
That swim down “Number 4a” is one of the worst swims I have had in my canoeing career. It was such a steep, rocky swim that we had no way of controlling ourselves, let alone the boat. At the bottom of the rapid, we washed up, exhausted on the right hand bank. Our “now not so new” boat had made it into the eddy on the left hand side of the river and the kind fellow swimmers there, had pulled it up onto the rocks.
I took a minute to get my breath back and then made the swim across the current to assess the damage to our boat. Kim was not moving from the right hand bank.
Our boat was wrapped in 4 places. The worst one being just in front of the front cockpit where it had, had to fold in order to come out from the other boat. This wrap had torn the brackets holding the front footrest off the sides of the boat. We had no pedals and definitely not enough duct tape and genkem to fix even half the damage.
To add to my worries Kim wasn’t budging. She informed me that there was no way she was getting back into that *$@%^]* river again!!! When I pointed out that it was impossible for me to ferry glide the broken boat across the river to her, I was just met with silence……
By now the rapid had been closed by the sweeps, as the trapped wrapped boat was making the rapid too dangerous to shoot. I needed help!!!
Luckily for me, my mother (Colleen Whitton) and my brother (Clive Whitton) were doing the Umko together that year. They had started in a later batch, so I knew they would still be coming. I started scanning the people portaging the rapid on the Right Hand Bank. Looking for those friendly faces. I didn’t have to wait too long before I spotted the familiar helmeted heads of my family…… Help had arrived!! I screamed and waved frantically to get their attention. In a matter of moments they had spotted me, and ferry glided across the river to come to my aid. Once there, I explained the terrible condition of my boat, but more urgent at that stage was getting Kim across the river and back in the boat……
My brother said not a problem, he left my mother and I, and set off back across the river. Bundled a silent, pale Kim into the back of his boat and crossed once more to our side of the river. After a while and many rolls of duct tape we had the boat as ship shape as we were going to get it. We now needed to get to the bottom of “Number 8” where there would be spectators and a good chance for us to repair the front footrest bar and pedals.
This in itself is no easy task without pedals…….There are many tough and technical rapids between “Number 4a” and help. I knew it was possible but it was going to be very hard and take team work.
Kim was still completely shaken by her ordeal and she wanted nothing more than to give up, leave the race and go home. For me that wasn’t an option. We had to finish!! With the help of my mother and brother who stayed with us from “Number 4a” and “escorted” us to the bottom of “Number 8”. As well as the help of two Umzinyathi Canoe Club members (Henry Pretorius and Kevin Walsh) who were also on the bank at “Number 8” with a damaged boat, we managed to repair our boat and re-attach the front footrest bar. We made it to the overnight stop!
The next day was uneventful, and Kim completed her one and only Umkomaas Canoe Marathon. Big water paddling isn’t for everyone, but the support and camaraderie between the canoeist on a big river is so special that I will always be back to do another Umko…….