This Umko Website

This website is a ‘parking spot’ for Umko stuff. It consists of most of the stuff that made up the Umko 50yrs book.

Its purpose is:

  1. To store Umko memories;
  2. To give you space to have your own Umko page;
  3. To publish a better book for Umko 60yrs in the year 2026;

Add your bit in here by writing in the comments of any post, including this one; 

or by emailing – pictures also welcome;

Already have a page? You can fix what’s wrong; add to it each year; add pictures;

Your story will be saved and the best – or most embarrassing – stories could make the next book.

Just do it.

Umko valley cliff

Umko race meeting on riverbank

The Umko Book

The book has been published.

All 300 copies were given to paddlers in the 50th race in March 2016 and to the sponsors (notably STIHL) who paid to make the book happen.

The book is online at so all can access it. Find it here . You could even have joomag print you a hard copy if you like.

Meantime, this site has most of the rough copy sent in by all you good people. Search for your contribution under your name or surname and feel free to post additions, changes, suggestions and denials in the comments – or by email to

Although the paper book is now ‘cast in stone’ like Moses’ tablets, the ebook can always be fixed, improved, updated, fudged.

Add your own story – new or old. Tell us about “Your Umko” in the COMMENTS below.


“50 Years of the Umko 1966 – 2016” This is a fun record of some wonderful adventures enthusiastically told. Its not that paddlers exaggerate – they just remember big.



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


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

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.


“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 . .

Fred Schmidt & Ian Player_cr_cr

A longer account of Player and Schmidt’s trip (from his book Men, Rivers and Canoes), will be here

“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.

Trip Rob Gouldie Umko boats

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.

Trip Fishy Fish Rob Gouldie Umko

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.”

Trip Rob Gouldie Umko campfire

“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.”

Trip Rob Gouldie Umko camp
Day three:
“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.“

Trip Rob Gouldie Umko Falls

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.

UMKO Trip 1965 Cobbeledick, Mason, _, _

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.”

UMKO Trip 1965 Below Waterfall

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”  *


CHAPTER NINE – Keep the Umko Running Free


Lakes and rivers are the most severely degraded systems on Earth (worse even that rainforests). And look at just how precious that fresh water is. The globe below shows three blue bubbles over the USA: The biggest one is all the water in the world (the seas, lakes, rivers, ice caps, underground water and even the water in all plants and animals – and in you!); The second bubble shows all the liquid fresh water, 99% of which is underground; The tiny third bubble below the second is the fresh water we know, in rivers and lakes. We really need to look after it better!


Read about it here:

“Keep the river running free from the mountain to the sea” – Ian Player

Our duty to save the river for our kids and grandkids

A report on damming the Umko many years ago was of the opinion that the river “will almost certainly be dammed”. We – anyone who loves nature, loves this valley and this river, and cares for our environment and our future – should not let this happen. For very sound reasons. Please don’t be misled: There are very good reasons NOT to dam rivers1.


Compare paddling 25km from No.1 to No.8 and 25km across Inanda dam. No comparison as far as us river paddlers go, but we would readily admit that’s a biased view. So we have to look deeper into the pros and cons of damming rivers.

And the cons are far greater than the pros. There are often better, cheaper, less-destructive alternatives to building a dam, whether to meet energy or water needs, or to reduce the impacts from floods. These solutions – from small-scale, decentralized water supply and new renewables, to large-scale efficiency and conservation options – are real solutions, but they have frequently been ignored or dismissed out of hand by short-term thinking when a large dam project is on the table.


Paddlers have fought to keep the Umko running free before. We need to keep that spirit alive. The UMKO TRUST was established . . .

– INSERT INFO HERE – Jacques de Rauville looking for the old documents

Geoff Caruth was on the Trust, as was Sappi/Saiccor, Dept Water Affairs, Natal Parks Board, Aliwal Shoal Divers, Umkomaas village


Before even thinking of damming the Umko we need to ensure we:

  • Fix problems in our existing dams;

  • Fix leaking pipes, reduce wastage, educate all on efficient useage and recycling, especially big users like farming;

  • Assess all available options for meeting water and energy needs before proceeding with a dam project;

  • The Commission was chaired by South Africa’s water minister Kader Asmal and consisted of twelve members from governments, industry, academia, and civil society. During its two-year lifetime, the WCD carried out the most comprehensive evaluation of large dams ever done to date. It commissioned 130 technical papers, studied seven dams and three dam-building countries in great depth, reviewed another 125 dams in less detail, carried out consultations in different parts of the world with 1,400 participants, and accepted 950 submissions from experts and the interested public. Altogether, the WCD reviewed experiences from 1,000 dams in 79 countries.



Long after you have stopped racing the Umko you may still want to paddle it. Or raft down it. Or take your grandkids down it.

Here’s a 2015 Deepdale to Hella Hella trip about to launch

158 Umko marathons between them – and two grandkids along for the ride!

Deepdale trip 2015

Go and explore sections you’ve not paddled on before:

Impendle to Lundy’s Hill

Lundy’s to Deepdale

Deepdale to Hella Hella


Dams bring more problems than they solve. They flood large areas, force people to relocate, threaten freshwater biodiversity, disrupt subsistence fisheries, drown our beloved rapids and leave rivers dry – substantially affecting the ecosystem. America is now undoing the damage they caused by starting to remove dams2. However, the developing countries that are planning to build dams should not repeat the mistakes developed countries made. Instead of building dams that provide quick fixes without really solving problems, they instead invite newer problems. Developing countries should be looking to invest in reducing wastage, looking after wetlands, small water schemes, plus true energy renewables like wind and solar (as coal and nuclear energy also uses huge amounts of water).

“The stakes are high, because healthy rivers, like all intact ecosystems, are priceless. The alternative, quite simply, is a persistent legacy of human and environmental destruction.”

Let’s keep the Umko running free from the mountains to the sea.

For our grandkids.




Data from Alex de Sherbinin (CIESIN, University of Colorado), and Bernhard Lehner (Department of Geography, McGill University.

2. The United States, whose 5,500 large dams make it one of the most dammed countries in the world, has stopped building large dams, and is now spending great amounts of money trying to fix the problems created by existing dams. Many US communities are revitalizing their rivers by taking down or otherwise “decommissioning” dams that are no longer safe or serving a justifiable purpose. Over the past decade hundreds of dams have been removed from US rivers, opening up habitat for fisheries, restoring healthier water flows, improving water quality, and returning aquatic life to rivers.

72 Dams Removed in USA in 2016

Removal of Dams Improves Safety for River Communities

2,100 miles of streams restored across 21 states to improve public safety, local economies, river health

February 16, 2017 By


(Washington) – Communities in 21 states, working in partnership with non-profit organizations and state and federal agencies, removed 72 dams in 2016, restoring more than 2,100 miles of streams to benefit public safety, local economies and our nation’s natural heritage. In the past 30 years in the USA 1,173 dams have been removed .

Dams were removed in the following 21 states in 2016: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

In 2016, Pennsylvania had the highest number of removals for the fourteenth year in a row. The top three states removing outdated dams in 2016 were:

  • Pennsylvania – 10 dams removed
  • North Carolina – 7 dams removed
  • Minnesota– 6 dams removed

“Removing outdated dams has become so popular across the country because it gives communities improved public safety, better water quality and more opportunities for local business and recreation,” said Bob Irvin, President of American Rivers.

According to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, America’s dams are degrading faster than they are being repaired, the number of high hazard dams has increased over time, and the cost to rehabilitate dams continues to rise. By 2020, seventy percent of dams in the United States will be more than 50 years old. Aging dams can pose a serious safety threat for individuals and entire communities.

“Removing a dam can save lives,” Irvin said. “Whether it’s a small dam that presents a drowning hazard to swimmers and boaters, or a old dam in disrepair that would threaten downstream communities if it failed, local leaders are looking to dam removal to address public safety hazards.”

River restoration delivers economic benefits. A 2012 study found that every $1 million spent on Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration projects resulted in 10 to 13 jobs created or maintained. A 2010 study in Oregon found that every $1 million spent on forest and watershed restoration resulted in 15-23 new jobs and $2.1-2.3 million in economic activity. The economic benefits of dam removal are summarized in a 2016 report by Headwaters Economics. See

“Americans love their rivers, and dam removal is a win-win solution,” Irvin said.

American Rivers is the only organization maintaining a record of dam removals in the United States. The database includes information on 1,383 dams that have been removed across the country since 1912. Most of those dams (1,173) were removed in the past 30 years.

American Rivers played a role in 18 of the dam removals on this year’s list. The list includes all known dam removals, regardless of the extent of American Rivers’ involvement.

To accompany the 2016 list, American Rivers updated the interactive map that includes all known dam removals in the United States as far back as 1916. Visit