CHAPTER FOUR – – – A High River

“There’s no better laxative than a full Umkomaas” – Charles Mason

Pooch No.1

The longest ‘playboat’ in history? A 21ft double does an ender at No.1! (pics by Pooch Overstone)

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THE 50th RUNNING OF THIS GREAT RACE HAS GONE TO PRINT)
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The first three races started at Josephine’s Bridge. In 1969 the start of the fourth race was moved upstream to Hella Hella, adding a faster-flowing, tighter 32km to the course. And let’s get one thing clear right here: “The Umko” as it is spoken about in awe and raved about means the Hella Hella section included. That does not mean Josephines to the sea is not a wonderful stretch of river, nor does it mean there aren’t any fearsome rapids on it. But if we ARE talking about the wisdom of paddling lightweight, narrow, unstable, fragile modified sprint boats on a wild river, it’s the Hella Hella to No. 8 stretch that asks the most questions.

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In 1972 the river flowed even higher. The last time the river was this high was 1959/60, the year of the disastrous South Coast floods, and to our knowledge no-one ventured on it under those conditions, certainly not in sprint boats, and definitely not as an official race. The old Hella Hella bridge had washed away that year. The bridge the nervous paddlers now stood on had been built since then. The roar in their ears as they surveyed the seething maelstrom, bouncing right across the valley was never to be forgotten. And just around the corner at The Approaches it got louder. Rocks rumbled along the riverbed as the torrent roared towards the bend at the famous No.1 crashing against the cliff on the right bank.

People walked out with the wreckage of their boats, some with no boat at all. Others were suspected of sacrificing perfectly good craft to the river gods while yet others sensibly walked out with boats intact if they thought the level was a danger to them.

img_2312_std Going home

At the second day’s start one schoolboy was seen quietly vomiting into the swirling brown water over the side of his boat as he clung to the bank waiting for the gun. He finished the race and some years later – even though he had since served in the Rhodesian army and rescued a comrade under heavy fire in the Zambesi Valley – he still swore he had never been as afraid as during the Umko of 1972! We’ll hear more from Duncan Porky Paul in the book.

WHICH WAS THE BIGGEST YEAR EVER? – READ THE DEBATE!

Chris Watts Umko 87

To show just how tough it can be to finish this race, Trevor McWade – no slouch: he’d finished in the places more than once in “that other race”, the one on the Umgeni river! – completed two Umko early on, then broke five times in a row before completing his third! That’s perseverance! Chris Greeff remembers Trevor’s masterful joke-telling on overnight stops as one of the highlights of his memories.

At the KCC meeting after one of the higher-level races Peter Gladwin announced he was selling his boat for only R5. All ears pricked up until he explained the lucky buyer would have to salvage the boat at the bottom of Arthur’s Rapid!

Herve Save

A big Herve-recovery by de Rauville, Colorado-skills to the fore!
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THE FLOODS OF ’72 & ’88 – A Comparison – by Charles Mason

I have been asked on several occasions how the river level for the 1988 marathon compared to that for the legendary 1972 event. “Surely 1988 was the highest ever for a race? It’s not possible for there to have been more water than 1988.”

READ CHARLIE’S VERDICT . . .
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After the FLOODS – HELLA HELLA REVISITED (by Geoff Caruth)

“The summer of ’89” sounds like a good title for a book and perhaps I’ll be inspired enough to write it one day.

The 1989 Umkomaas will start below this stretch of river. In some respects this is a good thing as the Hella Hella to No. 8 section is now definitely the most technical non-plastic stretch of water in the SA Canoe calendar and as such would probably have demolished half the field (two out of our three boats would not have made the first day).

Yet Hella Hella is part of the great Umkomaas tradition and hopefully the section will be included next year. So gird your loins and stick your courage to the sticking post – Hella Hella is here to stay!

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Why the Numbers?
When this stretch of river was being pioneered in the 60’s the number and frequency of big and biggish rapids made the allocation of specific names problematic. Some had original names – eg No. 5&6 was called ‘The Esses’ because of the zig-zag course needed to negotiate it at certain levels. After a certain young paddler (who later became President of Canoeing SA) had several early canoeing career problems and boat losses here it was also called “Robbie’s Special” by some, though not often by President Stewart himself!

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.

Everyone knows this story! In fact in the book we have five versions of what happened – followed by Pete Peacock’s version (him being the only eye-witness now that Jimmy has paddled that final rapid we’re all headed for).

TO SHOOT OR NOT TO SHOOT?

In the marathon one is allowed to portage any rapid, each paddler decides for himself whether he feels confident enough to shoot a rapid or not, but only on the riverbank. No overland portaging is permitted as This Is Not The Dusi. The Dusi is a wonderful race, but the Umko was specifically meant to be different.
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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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