Jimmy Potgieter

Paul Chalupsky & Jimmy Potgieter after coming 2nd in the first Umko tie the boat onto Papa Chalupsky's Borgward
Paul Chalupsky & Jimmy Potgieter after coming 2nd in the first Umko tie the boat onto Papa Chalupsky’s Borgward


This website had a lovely fortuitous result:

On 2015/11/04 12:13, bernice@idodreams wrote:
Hi There,
I came across your book that you are writing and found the first ever photo that I have seen of my husband’s father, Jimmy Potgieter.  Sadly Jody my husband was very young when his Dad passed and his mother Audrey Cox (they never married) also passed away when my husband was 18 so we don’t have a lot of records of my husbands family.
We live in England now after leaving SA in 2007, and have since had a little boy who I would love to tell tales of his Grandad.  Finding this photo has been quite simply amazing for me.  Born and raise in Hillcrest I spent a lot of time on the banks of the river watching the Dusi come through.
I just read this back and it sounds like one of those dodgy emails … but it isn’t.  I would love to buy one of these books and also if you have any other stories or photos that I can share with my husband it would really mean a lot.
Kind regards
Bernice Watson – (My husband was adopted by another man his mother married, that is why our surname is different)
Hi Bernice
That’s absolutely terrific – I am so glad you found us. We will certainly gladly share everything we have about Jimmy with you. I am busy gathering stories and we hope to publish the book in time for next year’s Umkomaas river marathon. It will the 50th and Jimmy was one of those who paddled that very first race in 1966, finishing second (he always won or finished high up in his races!!).
I will keep in touch and you and your husband will have some good memories and stories to tell your kids!
He was a legend among paddlers. In 1970 I was introduced to canoeing and the guy who told me about the Dusi told me about “Iron Man” Jimmy Potgieter!
Kind regards
Pete Swanie
Hi Pete,
Thank so much for your reply I simply cannot wait for my husband to get home… I printed the photo off so we can have one for the wall of Grandpa Jimmy.  I have been looking into this all day and have come across the name Willie Potgieter who was one of the pioneers who attempted the Dusi in 1951 with Ian Player.  Do you know if this is any relation of Jimmy’s?  or do you know who I can ask?
This has been a wonderful day… 10 years after marrying my husband finally I can see where his looks came from.
Thank you
Hi Bernice & Jody
Here’s the full waterfall saga as it is going to appear in the book. It includes Pete Peacock’s eye-witness account of how he went over the falls and how – once he had recovered – he went back to rescue Jimmy.
Enjoy! It is one of the most legendary stories of the Umko – and of SA paddling.

PS: The picture was taken soon after the race when Rory Lynsky, a journalist and paddler took his colleague photographer from The Daily News back to the fall to get the picture. That’s Rory in the pic.


1.Charles Mason – “most have done so inadvertently!”


Kingfisher Falls is the only other place where almost everyone will carry their boat around. Of the very few who have shot it in racing craft, most have done so inadvertently! Most famous of these was Peter Peacock and Jimmy Potgieter who arrived at a preliminary race (Waterfall to Sea) late for the start. The field had already departed. Racing to catch up they put their heads down and paddled hard, thinking the race had started below the Falls. Too late, they saw to their horror that they were onto the dreaded Kingfisher Falls! Jimmy managed to cling to a rock at the lip of the drop and was eventually rescued by a group of umfaans who threw him a rope and hauled him to safety. Peter was swept over the falls together with their canoe. He survived miraculously with only a broken toe to show for his spectacular leap.”


2. Ali Maynard – “enter the land of long lips and tightly shut eyes”

The story about the waterfall goes like this. It was the first time that we organized a race from the Waterfall to the Lido by the sea. A road had been pushed in on the North side of the river which gave us access to the river in this segment. We arrived on that Sunday morning to find the river in full flood. The start was upstream of the waterfall on the bend coming down from Bad Rapid. Stewart as usual was late so the start was delayed. Later on about 20 boats set off. Mainly in doubles but Stewart was putting a Sabre on the river as a first-ever (a remarkable feat in itself, but he was good enough to do this). The river was a seething brown mass and I was in the back of a double with Paul Henry steering.

As we came around the corner and lined up on the left bank portage (still well ahead of us) we saw Jimmy Potgieter and Peter Peacock well across to the right. I think they were intending to portage but not having tripped had not checked out the right hand bank portage.

Now to what Jimmy told me later (by the way, Jimmy was one of the best Umko paddlers ever and could drink the water too – another story on it own). Jimmie was lined up to get out on the South Bank when they started to doubt where to get out. As we all know when we are in this situation, somebody starts to “back paddle” and the boat becomes unstable and voila! enter the land of long lips and tightly shut eyes. Only when you have swum in a raging river do you know that the body has an uncanny ability to shut tightly any vent on the body that could take water. Peacock now in this position was washed in the direction of the Falls holding onto his home-made double. I believe the boat just broke up when it hit the bottom and Pete was spat out below. I am not sure he even had a life jacket on.

Jimmy is now sans boat and hits out for the South bank only to swim into a shallow rock and grabs on for dear life. The local people had very little contact with umLungus in that area and soon a crowd gathered to look at Jimmy clinging to a rock about 15m from the bank. Soon a rope was produced and after much discussion the throwing started (likely the first time a throw-line was ever used in SA). The throw team got better and better with practice and managed to be able to actually get the line to Jimmie who point blank refused to touch it. There was much “Hau Bamba Boss Bamba”! No ways was Jimmie going to bamba while there was no race official present, so this would-be rescue team called it a day.

Somehow word got out that there was an umLungu stuck on a rock in the river and a race official was dispatched on the road on the south bank. Story has it that Jimmie was there for about two hours having lodged himself firmly on the rock. Story has it that Jimmie caught the throw line first time once the umLungu was there to supervise.

Story goes that Jimmie said something like this “What? You think I was going to take a chance with those amateurs and their rope? I had already lost Peter, presumed drowned, and was not going to take a chance!”


3. Rowan Rasmussen – “You need to get the full truth from Pete”

So this is how stories start. I must drop in a few comments and Robbie will back me up.

The race where Pete went over and Jimmy nearly went over the falls was not all the way to the sea as I recall, but ended somewhere around Goodenough’s weir. I think I paddled a double with Rob as I clearly remember the incident but don’t think we paddled in singles. Might be dead wrong here.

I also believe Pete and Jimmy got just about to the lip of the falls when Jimmy realised what was up and, being in the front, jumped out and onto the rock while Pete was too late and went over. You need to get the full truth from Pete.


4. Robbie Stewart – “We all said ‘Bullshit – Not possible!”

Rowan and I were in a K2. We shot most of the sneak channel down the left of the falls. Pete and Jimmy were late for the start and did not realise that they were on the inside line heading straight for the falls! Jimmy who was in front must have turned the boat and was able to grab onto a rock. Pete went over the falls backwards – trying to swim up stream. His only injury a broken toe!

They had a job getting Jimmy off the rock in the middle of the falls. A local guy helped using his belt to give Jimmy to grab onto and then they grafted him to safety.

The race ended at Goodenoughs Weir. When Frank Emmet told us at the end that Pete had gone over the falls but that he had seen him afterwards at the bottom we all said ‘Bullshit – Not possible!’


5. Rory Lynsky – “for some unexplained reason”

The Waterfall – at the time called “Kingfisher Rapid” – the only compulsory portage. The story behind the picture is back in ’73 or ’74 in one of the preliminary races, Peter Peacock and the late Jimmy “Iron Man” Potgieter were approaching the rapid and for some unexplained reason found themselves drawn into the vortex. Potgieter managed to make the safety of a rock in the river, but Pete was taken over the falls, where the entire volume of the Umkomaas is drawn through a narrow gap. How he survived is a miracle. Frank Emmett was present and helped rescue Potgieter. I was a reporter, and persuaded my news editor it was worth a story, so we drove to the waterfall with the resultant photograph. I’m the guy on the rock.

[ PIC – Kingfisher Falls and Rory Lynsky soon after the happening ]


6. Frank Emmet – Ah! Our first eyewitness

This was my first Umkomaas River race. Tony Scott was competing in Australia and he loaned me his white water canoe to do the Waterfall to Goodenough’s race. Before this I had only completed one Dusi in an old borrowed boat with Bruce Webber.

I got a lift to the race with Rory Lynsky and Dave Biggs. They told me to get out on the left bank at the waterfall around the bend and portage round. When I got there no-one was in sight and I ended up leaving getting to the left bank a bit late, so I abandoned Tony’s canoe mid-stream and struck out for the safety of the bank.

There was no sign of the canoe at the bottom of the falls. My search was distracted by a canoe followed by a body crashing over the falls. Peter surface 100m or more down stream and promptly hurled up gallons of Umkomaas water.

He and I then searched the banks below for remnants of our boats but to no avail. Returning to the top of the falls we found Jimmy still clinging to a rock on the lip of the falls cursing out loud and making sure we understood that he would not budge without the assistance of a helicopter. A group of local umfaans fortuitously appeared with a length of conveyor belt. A branch was tied to one end and after many attempts the belt was hurled to within Jimmy’s reach. With the umfaans’ help we pulled Jimmy to the safety of the bank.

Tony was fairly understanding about the fate of his white water boat.

——— 7 ——————————————-

NOW – and only now – we’ll ask Pete Peacock himself!
“In February 1972 the first Umkomaas waterfall to Goodenoughs weir was held. A road had been put through on the north bank of the river. Jimmy Potgieter and I decided to race in a K2 but unfortunately arrived late at the start. Drivers were already climbing into vehicles and leaving. We hurriedly jumped onto a full river and took off to try and catch everyone.

Neither of us gave a thought as to whether we were above or below the waterfall. We went around the first corner on the right hand side and I looked up and saw vapour above the river. I shouted to Jimmy who was in the front of the boat and he took immediate action. We U-turned and attempted to paddle away from the falls as the strong current was running hard against the steep right hand bank preventing any escape there.
We sprinted for all we were worth and went precisely nowhere. We were just metres from the edge of the falls. The front of the boat suddenly veered off to the left and we both jumped for the nearest rock.

Being at the back I was closest to the edge and all I managed was a desperate grab at a very smooth rock on the lip of the falls and I was over and on my way. I distinctly remember thinking This Cannot Be Happening and looking up and then down which confirmed I was on my way down. I hit nothing on the way down and, as in those days we had no lifejackets, I began swimming up as soon as I could. I seemed to be going nowhere and the thought crossed my mind that perhaps I was disoriented and swimming down instead of up so I stopped swimming for the surface to see what direction I would move in. It didn’t help, time passed, I suppose seconds, and air was becoming urgent. I started swimming for the surface again thinking I would rather go out trying for the surface, even if it was the wrong direction. I have no recollection of surfacing and was woken by water splashing in my face at the top of the first rapid after the falls. Luckily for me I was alongside a submerged rock and I just had to throw an arm over it to get my head out of the water. I was exhausted and had it been any further away I would have drowned in the rapid. I lay there retching until I recovered then ran back up the gorge to see where Jimmy was.

As I climbed up I was relieved to see a figure sitting on a rock right on the edge of the falls. In my haste I stubbed and broke my big toe. Once back on top Jimmy indicated he would wait for a helicopter. Looking around I saw some cattle and two herdboys watching. The cattle had rope (asbestos belting) around their necks. I asked if I could borrow it to pull Jimmy off the right hand edge of the falls. I duly knotted two pieces together, tied the end to a large log of wood and walked upstream and threw it into the current to float it down to Jimmy. It proved impossible and the current kept pushing the log to the left of the falls. At this stage I was shivering with cold or perhaps shock and was wondering what to do next.

The herders had watched with interest and at this stage asked how much money I had. I happened to have a R1 coin and for this princely sum one fellow agreed to take the log much higher upstream and swim it down to Jimmy, from where his friend and I would pull them both back to the bank.
I checked the knots, held the end running down the bank while he swam for the falls. Once together on the edge of the falls they both held on and jumped while the friend and I ran back with the rope. It worked and they both virtually bounced on the surface of the water to safety.”

Yo! So now we actually know all about this incredible saga – every paddlers worst nightmare – which attained legendary status over the years!

(A few years later in 1977
Canews emphasised that the race that year would be starting BELOW the falls (capital letters and underlined) and editor Kelway Tanner added a comment: “If you guys don’t know where the waterfall is ask Peter Peacock! Actually, this is most definitely a compulsory portage – if you don’t take out you probably won’t be around to be penalised anyway!”)


On 2015/11/11 20:33, bernice@idodreams wrote:
Hi Pete,
Yet again I am thrilled with your emails… tears rolling down my cheeks… these are just fantastic accounts of a man and my husband will love them.  Thank you so much, I was really nervous sending that first message, but reading this story has made a dreary UK day, enthralling.  What a guy he was,  these tails are even helping me understand my husband and his stubborn, never give in and competitive nature.  The photo you sent of Jimmy’s side profile to has brought us much to chat about.  Showing in to our son and also Jody drawing many comparisons to his looks.
I really hope we can hear more from Hugh and even Pete Peacock as he sounds like he would have a few stories to tell.
Thanks Again
Sent: Wednesday, November 11, 2015 5:01 PM
Subject: Fwd: Umko insight
Hi Bernice & Jody

Hugh Raw is another Pietermaritzburg Dusi and Umkomaas paddling legend who paddled with your Dad and saw him through his highs and lows.
Out of the blue he has sent me this for the Umko book (I hadn’t sent him your letter – I will now):
——–Forwarded Message ——–

This is one of many memories I have of one of the great Umko characters, Jimmy Potgieter. He was the first ‘Iron Man”, so called by the International Canoe Federation bigwig who watched him pounding up Burma Road with his boat and with a good chance of winning that other less famous race (Dusi). I met him after he had given up competitive racing in boats and was rehabilitating after a year spent as a professional punter. He lived on meat pies and brandy and coke while he hung around bars picking up tips and strategising the “big one”. He was as strong as an ox but mild and gentle in manner but quite “woes” when pushed. I saw what he could do to his friends in the pub so I guess he had no enemies.

Jimmy was good with novices, he won the Dusi with Clive Hough in 1968 but my story took place on the Umko in the late 1980s. We paddled at the back of the field on many occasions but one stands out. After patting ourselves on the back for surviving rapids #1 and #2 our Accord was in need of an empty so he turned the boat towards the bank on a quiet stretch of the river. As we drifted silently in, a large head popped out of the water just in front of us and then submerged as we drifted over it.

Two things happened simultaneously. Jimmy exploded out of his cockpit and nearly landed on my lap making puffing noises and I, trying to ease his distress said, “It’s OK Jim it’s just a leggevaan” when I caught sight of big coils under the boat slowly moving away in the current. Beautiful colouring told me what it was and what I saw was a girth as big as my thigh. Jimmy, the victor of many a bar fight was difficult to get back in the boat still breathing heavily and desperate for a smoke. There was quiet for a while in the boat and then Jimmy spoke to no one in particular , “I don’t care what it was, it was bigger than me”.



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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