“That’s as rare as rocking horse shit” – Charles Mason

NB: TREAD WARILY! THIS CHAPTER IS BY THE PADDLERS THEMSELVES. Entries from around 120 paddlers have been edited and selected for the book (which has gone to print), but all entries will go unedited onto the website! – write to

2957 paddlers have successfully completed at least one Umko in the first 49 events. Some got hooked: 189 have done the magic ten that gives you your Umko Number forever!

1493 have done only ONE Umko and no more! Maybe they think of the Umko what Charles Mason thinks of the Berg? “Anyone who does more than one Berg is certifiable, you know”.

Probably an unknown number have attempted one, failed and hung up their paddles (would’ve hung up the boat, but couldn’t find it)? We’ll never know.

Ladies have got their green numbers, too: Antje Manfroni has completed 16 marathons, Debbie Germiquet, Penny Meakin, Diana Rietz, Patricia Stannard and Colleen Whitton have all done 10 or more. Colleen was the first lady to attempt the Umko, Jane Pennefather was the first to complete an Umko, Marlene and Jenny Boshoff were the first to do it “without a man in the boat” and (as as far as we can fathom) Lorna Oliver was the first to complete it in a single.

Umko winners who have also won the Dusi (these lists to be checked):
Charles Mason
Ken ‘Tank’ Rogers
Graeme Pope-Ellis
Tim Cornish
Hank McGregor
Andy Birkett
Ant Stott
Deon Bruss

Umko winners who have also won the Berg
Paul Chalupsky
Sunley Uys
Hank McGregor
Andy Birkett

REFLECTIONS by paddlers 

(Brief excerpts from some of the contributions so far – we need yours!)

1. Charlie Mason – “No better laxative . . .


Paddling a dreadnought

Charlie Geoff

Paddling a submarine

“In true canoeing style we arrived late at the start (but nevertheless still before the officials) to see a handful of hardy souls anxiously pacing the bridge and others heading purposefully for the nearest bush, toilet paper in hand.”


“Our tipple of choice was brandy and lime juice. Mixed at a sufficient concentration it served to:
– Disguise the look (it was a similar colour to river water);
– Disguise the taste (you added till it did);
– Contribute meaningfully to conversations related to the deeper meaning of life.”


2. Rob Bourne-Lange – One Man’s Race


“We dragged, carried and cursed what was left of our Accord for 7 hours and finally laboured into the Day 1 finish at Josephine’s Bridge. . . . . . Having shot all rapids, still emptying the boat at regular intervals we finally arrived in Umkomaas, a hundred years older, in an overall time of around 25 hours. Only one other double completed the course so we basked in the glory of “2nd place K2” – but stone last overall. Little did I know an addiction had been created by pain, fatigue – no, utter exhaustion – anger, frustration and embarrassment – but also the glory of silverware.”
3. Geoff Caruth – and a hero you will be if you finish the Kahlua (the race that is – not the drink in your hand)

Charles Geoff Prize
So China, you want to paddle the Umko?
My first encounter with said river was back in 1978. The canoe calendar of the day described the No.8 to Josephines section as “an easy stretch of fast flowing water!”. As we arrived at No.8, even my rookie eye could see that this was a very different river. The other omens also were not good – the river was full and my partner and I had the following conversation before the start – “You were supposed to bring the buoyancy!”. “No ways – I thought you were bringing it!”

5. Travis Wilkinson – “Shit, this is a beautiful valley!”
Alan Paton recounts the stunning beauty of the rolling hills and sheer cliffs of the Richmond area in the first few lines of his famous novel “Cry the Beloved Country” and it was his words that came to my mind as eight sweaty men chaired me toward the waiting helicopter. . . . (they had) quite simply, saved my ass!

(after the 1998 Umko in which he was pinned in his boat shortly after the start. Race Organisers thanked NAC Helicopters, Greg Frizelle, Brad Nicholson, Brian Slater, Bruce Jacobs, Colin Roets and foe Torlage for their part in helping to avoid a grievous tragedy).




One of the great Philosophers once claimed that the only fear is “The Fear of the Unknown”. Methinks when one bobs around on a full Umkomaas at Hella Hella it is Fear of the Known which results in an urge to visit the toilet.

  • My first race with a lot of useful (and useless) advice given to me by the late Arthur Egerton.
    The wonderful overnight stops with all the camaraderie.
    Paddling with greats like Chris Greeff and the late Lance Park.
    Listening to Charlie Mason’s insightful philosophy “No Better Laxative than a Full Umkomaas”.
    Elephants raiding the overnight campsite.
    Ernie Alder’s incredible and timeless help when organising the race.
    Umngazi River Bungalows coming to our rescue thanks to Hugh Bland.
    Hugh Raw’s patience, help and friendship under adverse conditions.
    All the unselfish help from the many, many backroom girls and boys who make the event what it is.
  • ===============================

7. Brian Moore – Long Lips

Brian Moore 2

As the river rose from 3½ feet to 6½ feet “To Go or Not To Go” became the question. As fickle as a maiden pulling petals from a daisy, I change my mind a hundred times.. . . Eventually my heart beats my common sense into submission and I join the other lambs as we are led to the slaughter. From Hella-Hella bridge we hear helpful, confidence-building comments, such as: “Ladies and gentlemen, half the ‘A’ batch is either swimming or on the bank at No. 1 Rapid!” – Heart-warming stuff!
A smooth, casual and confident Rip Kirby has the time to enquire after my good health as he flashes by. . . . . With more tape than boat and more right than nerve I pat-paddle down to Josephine’s. There I joined a number of shell-shocked survivors. SABC TV like my story, I become famous and go home to watch the rest of the Umko from the safety of an armchair.

8. Hugh Raw – K3 madness on Number One

I needed paddling partners for my K3! My old mate Dickie Edwards had declined after I swam him through No.5&6 and suddenly I discovered I had no friends. Luckily, two adventurous and possibly too-trusting young ladies took the bait and pitched up at Hella-Hella to take on the Umko with me. . . With the Umko running at 1,8m . . .

”We’re going left”. MISTAKE # 1
So with no real plan, at a comfortable 25 knots, like a destroyer trying to ram a U-boat we arrived at the lip of No.1. MISTAKE # 2. . . About now MISTAKES #’s 3 to 5 kinda blurred together.
Di Rietz and Patricia Stannard were the first to learn the Golden Rule when paddling the Umko: Don’t follow Hugh! So Hugh says – But were they?

For the full gory details of Hugh’s misogyny read the book!


9. Chris Greeff – a four hour walk
2.       The saga where Hubby Sandberg jumped on my partner Tim Biggs at the overnight stop and broke his collar bone.  We were lying third at the time, and I wanted to finish the next day to get my count up to 10 Umko finishes. Doc Curson strapped Tim’s arm up.
3.       The win with Lance Park was memorable, especially against Tony Scott and Rory Pennefather.
6.       Wrapped with Dave Walker at Robbie’s Special, and only the front 4ft of the nose appeared. Herman Chalupsky and his partner also wiped, and the front of their boat was smashed. We “lent” our piece to them (duct taped it on) and they went to the finish like that –coming 3rd I think.
8.       Overnight joke-telling sessions with Trevor McWade.
9.       Trevor McWade swimming kaalgat in the pool at the Lido, and only showing his willy (not his face) through the glass to the people in the prize-giving room. Most of the chicks exclaimed “That’s Trevor!”.

and more . .


10. Ali Maynard – But you know what? We were getting used to it and we started to enjoy it!

Porky and I stuck together and went fine till No. 8 when Porky swam.We were getting his boat out when Charlie arrived still unphased. We then had a pleasant paddle to St J. . . .Spent the afternoon listening to war stories but the river was dropping they said. At about 6 pm we realized that the small number of paddlers at the stop was it. No more would be arriving. About 11pm we awoke to pouring rain and funny noises.We all got up and taking a torch went to see what the river was like. Couldn’t believe what we were seeing! River was now up – seriously up!
Boats got washed away. In the water huge trees were hitting the bridge (the strange noise we heard) and cows were going downstream very fast. . Dave Biggs was still in, Hamish Gerrad was still in as was Hubbie Sanderg, but all would lose their boats later that day.
Word got around that “They will never hold a race  at this level”.

11. Rowan Rasmussen – tea for the umlungu, he can’t drink tshwala! 

One year I had a personally memorable finish in a yellow hulled experimental single I had built for the Duzi in the woodwork room at pinetown high school. . . It lasted 2 days and three quarters of the last day but going into something heavy near the end somewhere both gunwales snapped and the boat folded up around my knees.
Remember how that water below Saaicor Rayon Factory was so polluted with something that ate and burned your skin?

12. Robbie Stewart – first Sabre; Sneaking a waterfall

I remember in that race a bunch of us were approaching Goodenough’s weir together and Clive Curson was not sure where to go – we had all slowed down doing the “swan neck” craning our necks trying to see what was on the other side when Clive got too close to the drop turned round to try to paddle away and shot the weir backwards! Being good friends we all shot the weir and paddled off leaving Clive swimming on his own.

One of the best features of the Umkomaas was the overnight stops – the camaraderie from the shared experience was amazing. Everyone had been through a lot of excitement and was pretty hyped up!


13. Rory Lynsky – paddling across flooded fields

Looking back over more than 40 years for me the defining moment of the Umkomaas was the start of the ’72 marathon at Hella Hella. It was a first time for me, both on the river and in the marathon. Quite frankly it was a case of ignorance is bliss. If I had known what lay ahead on a flood-level river over the next three days I may well have had second thoughts. As it was our little band of singles stuck to Charlie Mason like pilot fish for the full 130 km. I recall being told we had paddled over Goodenough’s Weir – I don’t think there was even a dip in the river at that point.


Over 100 paddlers and officials have sent in stories – WE’RE MISSING YOURS:

Robbie Herreveld

Oscar Chalupsky

Rip Kirby

Willem van Riet

Sunley Uys

Elle de la Porte

Mark Perrow

etc etc

Vaalie Legends have now sent in some wonderful tales of derring-do.


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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