About the pioneers who sought a new type of race on a new river
“We paddled quietly, afraid to speak for fear of breaking the wild peace”
– Ian Player 1952
“I thought of how privileged I was to witness this event.”
– Rob Gouldie 1961
“Nothing could take our minds off the beauty of the valley with its magnificent cliffs and continuous rapids”
– Charles Mason 1965
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In the nineteen fifties and the early sixties canoeing in South Africa was “The Dusi”, that iconic three-day race from Pietermaritzburg to the sea, started in 1951 and ideally suited to people who thought running with a canoe on your head was as good a way of getting downstream as paddling. And perhaps for Vaalies it was “The Vaal” started (we think) in 1955, and for Capies it was “The Berg”, started in 1962 and held over 240km of flat water in the Cape winter for polar bears who liked their river water flat and freezing. The Dusi, of course, parallel’d the much older Comrades Marathon, the famous footslog with the same beginning and endpoint.
But in Natal there was another breed of paddlers. People for whom sitting in your boat and shooting rapids was the ultimate thrill. These “paddling purists” hated the fact that they could beat someone on the water only to have them run past them on a new portaging “sneak” pathway recently discovered – or even specially cut through the valley bush. They started thinking: There’s got to be a better way than the embarrassment of scurrying about the Valley of a Thousand Hills with a canoe on your head causing mirth among normal non-paddling citizens.¹
THE SEARCH FOR NEW WATERS
A few of these paddlers of Kingfisher Canoe Club in Durban decided that instead of looking for new shortcuts they would look for new rivers. Rivers where they could launch their boats at the start of a race and pick them up again for the first time after the finish line. The search was on, and they headed south to where they had heard from famous former winners of the Dusi about a wild and wonderful river: The Umkomaas.
FIRST KNOWN UMKO TRIP – 1952
“We paddled quietly, afraid to speak for fear of breaking the wild peace that is only Africa’s. From the top of one of the green hills a man’s voice broke the silence with a plaintive tune, a woman took up the refrain and together they harmonised. The music was beautiful and I stopped to listen. This was the music of old Africa.”
On the 5th April 1952 Ian Player and Fred Schmidt paddled their home-made singles from Josephine’s Bridge to the sea at the village of Umkomaas on the South Coast. Theirs was a pure adventure trip, Player, having won the very first Dusi just four months earlier, using it to see if Schmidt would make a good Dusi partner. They had no intention of racing the river.
Find out what Fred’s favourite song was – and who he sang to . .
A longer account of Player and Schmidt’s trip (from his book Men, Rivers and Canoes), will be here
NEXT KNOWN UMKO TRIPS – EASTER WEEKENDS 1960 and 1961
“Rapid after rapid with unbelievable scenery as we paddled past kraantz after kraantz. We were totally stoked. Again we chose a suitable spot on the riverbank with plenty of driftwood for our campfire. We soon had a roaring blaze going. For supper we ate like Kings.”
Rob Gouldie, Peter Marriott, Dereck Antrobus, Don Cobbledick, Norman Dyer, Graham Hall, Peter Gladwin and Denny Sterling also paddled from Josephines bridge to the sea.
Rob Gouldie writes (in his wonderful book “Duzi Fever”):
“Peter Marriott’s Father Geoff had a trailer with a multiple rack . . . .
. . . many miles down river, stopping occasionally for a smoke break and to stretch the legs and ease our bums.
They spent the night at Fishy Fish trading store (now known as Riverside Store) where they got uproariously drunk on their “half jacks of Cane, Vodka, Brandy and whatever the individual preference. The mixers were packets of Cool Aid topped up in a billycan of river water” and, as canoeists over the years have been known to do occasionally, they drank the whole trip’s supply in one night – plus some meths from their camping stoves! Then they caught a bus home.
The next year, Easter 1961:
“We chose an ideal spot opposite a gently flowing rapid and a flat sandy bank to pull our canoes on to. Behind this was a nice grassed area to camp on. The river must have overflowed its bank in the past as in receding it had left behind a plentiful supply of driftwood, bleached pearly white by the sun. Perfect for our camp fire.”
“For supper we ate like Kings, feasting on vacuum-packed braai chops, baked beans and potatoes wrapped in tin foil and cooked over hot coals. We washed the meal down with Castles cooled down in a cairn of river stones we had built in the riverbed.”
“We asked them if they would help carry our canoes around the waterfall . . . . we were inundated with more willing bearers than Dr. Livingstone and Stanley must have had. Watching them portage was sheer pleasure as we strolled along like gentlemen behind, admiring the countryside.“
They spent the next night at a church mission:
“Then horror of horrors, the missionary asked whether we would like to sing one of our hymns. There was a hush of silence as the congregation eagerly awaited our rendition. We looked from one to the other. Sad to say not one of us knew the first words of any hymn and felt that “Barnacle Bill’ or “Mother McGinty” might not be suitable.”
The Lido Hotel . . manager asked them to carry their canoes up the stairs to the pool terrace. . . . . I peered out from under my canoe and there I stood like a prize prick . .”
The manager then asked them to say a few words to the crowd. “My knees were trembling and I felt as though I had swallowed my Adams Apple. As I got going my nervousness left me and was replaced by verbal diarrhoea. I embellished my tale with what I hoped was poetic license (another name for bullshit).“
Gouldie’s account of the ’60 and ’61 trips (from his wonderful book ‘Duzi Fever’) will be in this chapter. – (Find out how Captain Honks rapid got its name!) –
THE DECISIVE UMKO TRIPS – From 1965 leading up to the first race in 1966
“Some umfaans on the bank told us the name of the next big rapid, saying it was named for the sound of the boulders rolling underwater when the river was full: “Mpompomani”.
In 1965 Charles Mason, Barry Willan, Tom Howcroft, Peter Hammond, Colin Wilson, Ken ‘Tank’ Rogers and Hamish Gerrard were authorised by Kingfisher Canoe Club to seriously consider the Umkomaas as a new race venue.
The Umkomaas had been tripped in the time after Gouldie and before 1965. Many shorter (mainly two-day) trips had been undertaken, eg. from Deepdale to Hella Hella and from there to to Josephines’ Bridge.
The 1965 trip started with them all meeting at the Richmond Hotel from where they were going to proceed to Josephines to sleep under the bridge before setting off early the next morning.
Charles Mason takes up the story:
“We met a local farmer in the pub and over a few beers he kindly invited us all back to his farm for dinner and to sleep the night. This offer was gratefully accepted and at 9pm we all followed him in convoy to his farm. However he had obviously not sought nor obtained government permission as when we got there his irate wife told us in no uncertain terms that she did not think his offer was appropriate and suggested we leave forthwith. We all suddenly agreed among ourselves that Josephines Bridge actually seemed a far better idea, despite the light drizzle!”
“Old hands by now, we set to our camping chores with gusto: A fertilizer bag would be filled with river water and propped up between rocks to allow the silt to settle (an early form of water purification, maybe?). This would serve as the basis for the tipple of choice: 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 fortified it until it did);
– Contribute meaningfully to conversations related to the deeper meaning of life.
Colin Wilson, Charles Mason, Dave Cobbledick & Hamish Gerrard on the south bank at Old Buck Rapid (Sept 1965).
“Peter Hammond misjudged the strength of the flow and got sucked into the wave. Thrown out of his boat he managed to escape the stopper wave only by diving deep (fortunately in this instance he had no lifejacket!) and being pulled downstream by the underwater current. His boat, however, was held fast.” Find out what happened to the boat . . .
“Our third campsite was next to another unnamed rapid (to be named No Name Rapid in time to come!) in a well-protected glade of trees. This camp became the scene of a tragedy: The river rose half a metre and washed away some beers we had placed in a rock pool to cool down. Despite a careful search, we never did find them.”
Dave Cobbledick, Peter Marriott, Colin Wilson & Hamish Gerrard on the south bank in the Whirlpool area (Sept 1965).
“I had heard of Rob Gouldie’s trip and his activities at the Lido Hotel in Umkomaas. So when I phoned the manager and he agreed to provide us with lunch on our arrival I was not surprised when he made one strict proviso: No boats in his pool!
Charles goes on to tell about their overland trips scouting for campsites – and how Old Buck rapid got its name!
“Back at KCC the announcement of our findings was met with . . . .
- Find out in Umko – 50 years –
Charlie Mason’s account of the decisive trips that led to “The Umko” as we now know it – AND MUCH MORE – will be included in this opening chapter of “UMKO – 50 years”.
- Read how Umko paddlers are actually rather fond of the Dusi, and how the Dusi King is “one of us” *