CHAPTER SIX – On The River Bank

“The gravy consisted of river water, coloured and thickened by the mud that washed off the pick handle, and tasted accordingly.”

– Don Johnston, early world-class caterer, Umkomaas River Bank Restaurant

The people who REALLY make the race happen.

Listen up paddlers! Paddling the Umko is actually the easy part. You put your boat in the water and make sure you aim it in the same general direction that the water’s flowing. When you see pale people shouting on the bank, you stop. How hard can that be?

The REAL work happens months, weeks and days before the paddling starts. In fact, you could say each two-day race is 363 days in the making!

There are many of these stalwarts, the KCC chairmen, the KCC Race Co-ordinators, Ernie Alder, Doc Curson, Dave Williams, Rennie (surname?) , please send in more –

Umko Camp

A Food Official Looks Back – by Don Johnston

UMKO food tent
If it is correct to say that the standard of canoeing has improved tremendously over the past decade, then this must be doubly true of the standard of organising and seconding. The situation today is a far cry from when your scribe first . . .

. . . served stew that had been cooked in a 25 litre drum (found on site) and stirred with a pick handle (also found on site). The gravy consisted of river water, coloured and thickened by the mud that washed off the pick handle, and tasted accordingly.
At the second overnight stop the boys were not so lucky. . . (and yet) . . not a single complaint was made about either supper or the next day’s breakfast, both consisting of bread and cereal without the benefit of either butter or milk.

In 1970 a generously proportioned – and correspondingly thirsty – official (a man with some records of his own, including once having consumed a full case of beer at one sitting) was overcome by the oppressive heat and retired to the tent under doctor’s orders. Doc Curson bade him stay undercover until sunset. There he lay with both arms dangling in the ice bath containing the beer stocks, occasionally mopping his fevered brow.


That was the same year that Porky Paul went missing on the second day. Since it was clearly impossible to start looking for a pint-sized schoolboy in the middle of the night, it was decided to report the matter to the SAP at Umkomaas.

Ernie Alder arranging last minute replacement food supply – the food “went off” and Ernie had to find last-minute replacement – which year? Rumour has it Ernie walked into the Royal Hotel take-away on Smith Street and shouted “Food to go, please – for 200 hungry canoeists! And make it fast!” Yes, Ernie?


Officials over the years: – (Also people whose names have popped up and we would like to hear from!)
Charles Mason
Steve Jourdan (KAHLUA)
Geoff Dyer
Colin Roets “Ballie” – Crusaders
Peter Mountford
Hamish Hean
Alli Peter
Rick Whitton
Rob Davey
John Lee
Ernie Alder
Butch Aylward
Colin Mercier
Doc Curson
Dave Williams

Rennie of Supervison Services






Official Capers

Doc Curson, starting the race with the loud-hailer on the 2nd morning, spied two exhausted paddlers dragging their boat over the rise having finally made it to the overnight stop after a night out in the valley. “If you guys hurry up” he hailed them mischievously “I can start you in the next batch.” History draws a discreet veil over what their *&^%! reply was!


The starter at a shorter pre-Umko race at Hella Hella or No. 8 one year was the ever-colourful Arthur ‘Toekoe’ Egerton who loaded his own ammo for his .38 special. Deciding he wanted a louder bang than usual to be sure all paddlers would hear him he overloaded some ammo specially for the day. This resulted in the revolver exploding sending shrapnel and metal projectiles in all directions and leaving paddlers in no doubt that the race had truly begun!


Some of the dangers were far from the swirling waters. Alli Peter & Rob Cunnama entered the annual negotiating / wooing ceremony in which farmers were politely asked if we could use their land for the overnight stop. They took along two bottles of whisky to lubricate the transaction (Allie: “Not a bribe, a present”). Hours later, Derek ‘Whisky Canyon’ Freeman took affront to their wanting to leave – for while the negotiations were finished, both whisky bottles were not. We’ll let Allie Peter tell the story:

THE (thirst) SPIRIT OF WHISKY CANYON (it’s in the book . . . )
Lots of mirth and laughter and camaraderie, but always remember the officials still have to do the challenging work: Besides all the organising and logistics there’s the rivalry where some paddlers (or their Dads!) shout “unfair!” and the officials have to mediate, placate and rule. Then there’s the safety aspect: Making the calls on when and where – and whether – to paddle. Worst of all was the lot that befell Pete Mountford and Allie Peter when they were in charge: They had to go up in a helicopter to look for a missing paddler. They found Peter Marlin’s body below Gulley rapid the next day. The only Umko race fatality to date.


Officials are sometimes asked serious questions that puzzle Kahlua-soaked paddlers:


Dear Ernie
On last year’s (1998) Umko I spotted two elephants behaving in an odd manner (see photo).

Umko eles 1999 program

Please can you forward this picture to the Natal Parks Board and see if you can get some answers for me. Due to the strange behaviour it was rather difficult to determine the age of the two specimens. Would it not be kinder to put them out of their misery? I look forward to hearing from you.
Concerned Canoeist.
PS: Can you also explain what the small balding fellow with the Aqualung strapped to his back was doing.

UMKO Kahlua

Dear Concerned Canoeist
As can be seen by any observant and experienced Elephant Watcher, these are in fact very mature bulls who know when and how they must musth. They also appear to have consumed vast quantities of marula extract which leads to the sloppy trunk syndrome – the same effect can be induced by Kahlua injected by means of a dose gun.
NOTE: The most desirable shot when culling is to the brain which is administered on an imaginary line from the bore of the trunk through the eye to the top quadrant of the ear. If this shot were delivered in the above case a balls-up would be on the cards.

As to what the small balding fellow was doing, I don’t think he even knew in the end.
Regards – Ernie Alder
Besides Ken Goodenough and Derek Freeman already mentioned, there were the Payn’s, Lynne & Barry Porter, Johan de Bruyn, Mr Te Rielle, Mr du Toit, Johnny ‘the greek’ Sfaelos, Mr Crause downstream of Josephines who had a lovely orchard on the left bank, a scene so beautiful it brought deeply romantic thoughts to Roelof van Riet’s mind when paddling with Charlie Mason one year.

(Rob Davey to fill in pls) – Richmond, Hella Hella new Highover people, etc

NB: Must put in how important it is to keep in farmers’ good books. More than once farmers have banned paddlers from their farms (for misdemeanour’s like shitting under their favourite shade tree. Hello, Matt?).


Catering at the stop the year Brian Hoogewerf provided the meat and the fire. And no tongs or braai grids! Young novices milled about, drooling. Old hands (one old hand in particular) marched down to the river, found some smooth flat rocks and placed them in the fire. Soon the smell of sizzling hot rock steaks filled the air. You’d pay a fortune for those at a restaurant and they were thoroughly enjoyed. So much so that when Doc Curson ventured to criticise the catering at the post-race evaluation in the Oceanview Hotel, a fiery Rob Bourne-Lange made it known in no uncertain terms that the catering had, in fact, been World-Class!!

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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