I was at a family reunion a couple of years ago, and got chatting to Andre Hawarden (same surname as me, hence the family reunion bit) about paddling. I had only met him once or twice before and had seen him at the odd canoe race in the late eighties when I started paddling at Maritzburg Varsity. I have managed to remain, through my own lassitude as well as many years spent living in the miserable canoeing environment that is London, a fish and chips paddler. So I was keenly interested to hear all his war stories about what it was like to be at the sharp end of the race with Pope and Co back in the day.
In amongst the telling of these tales and the appreciative audience he held in thrall, he must have gotten carried away and was foolish enough to say, “we should do a race together sometime”.
“Sign here,” I said.
I have managed a couple of Dusis under my own steam and didn’t really fancy chasing Andre through the bush on foot, so I asked if he would drive me down the Umko instead. I promised to get fit. It’s very tough as a fish and chips paddler to break into the Umko. There are well established partnerships and a limited number of generous souls willing to drive novices down the river. So to further convince him, I said I would buy the boat. He looked keen, but just in case he wavered, I also threw in some accommodation. All he needed to do was to get there and see if he could remember the river after 20 years of absence. And my father Mike (same surname, again) who was now listening in, had a major attack of FOMO and signed himself up as our second. Even though he would have to fly out once more from New Zealand for the occasion.
If there is one thing I learned during the race, it’s that true old river dogs don’t really need to remember the river. They can read it afresh. Like returning to an old favourite novel. It all comes flooding back, so to speak. We’d approach a rapid, Andre would slow his paddling, crane his neck a bit to decide his line, and down we’d go, and generally emerge out the bottom of the rapid before everyone else.
The first day (the old second day) was fantastic, starting with some gentle bubblies to settle the nerves and getting bigger and more fun as the day wore on. You couldn’t design a better intro to big water paddling if you had all afternoon with a paper and pencil. The decision to switch the days around was genius. No one likes a baptism of fire. This easing into it business was for me. I was feeling solid by the time we reached the end, even digging in for a little end sprint to win our batch.
Despite the success of the day, there was still some residual anxiety around the dinner table that night regarding The Approaches and Number 1. The drive down to the river for Day 2 was a sombre one. There was a bit of tension in the car and my father dilly-dallying and spilling his coffee all over the place didn’t really calm the paddlers. I have never been on a quieter start line for any event, running, cycling, you name it, than Day 2 of the Umko. The only sound, other than yawns and the odd digestive squeak, was the rumbling of rocks and crashing of water coming from around the corner. I heard a back paddler friend of mine and one of those seasoned combos I spoke of earlier say to his driver, “I’m not sure of your line, let’s follow Andre”. I think a few other crews overheard this sage decision. Because I turned around as we were about to drop into Number 1 to see who was following and there was a veritable crocodile behind us, by which I don’t mean a savage oversized lizard, but a queue of boats following our line. Which was indeed a good one, we emerged with much a-hootin’ and a-hollerin’ out the other side. I didn’t see much to be honest. I wish I could remember more. The back paddlers’ view of Number 1 is to see his driver disappearing into the maw of the wave train and then it all goes brown for quite a while.
With no driving anxiety to concern me and the risk of wrapping the boat now seeming remote, the roughly 5 hours in total we took for the race were not only the most fun I’ve had on a river, but some of the most fun hours I’ve ever had doing any sport. Even a round of golf at a bachelor’s weekend isn’t that much fun. And one other thing: in amongst the excitement of the endless rapids, no one ever seems to mention how spectacular the Umko is at that point. The tall red cliffs, the remoteness, the bird calls, it’s a fabulous place and I have never before or since paddled the last kilometre of a race and instead of desperately thinking about a wors roll and a beer, I thought, “I’m so sad this is over.”
I will be back for the 50th. After all, Andre didn’t put a scratch on my new boat, and it hasn’t been driven since.