Everyone needs to see the movie Ground Hog Day. It's Bill Murray at his best and digs into the psyche of Man and his mundane existence of a day which repeats itself in perpetuity until perfection is attained. It's pretty deep for a comedy.
One of the character's, Ned Ryerson, keeps meeting the main character Phil (Bill) and at the end of each encounter says the sticky words "It's a doozy!" For Americans that means one thing, (click on doozy above and you'll understand why). For South Africans, we all think of The Dusi - South Africa's premier Canoe Marathon which is an epic three day journey from Pietermaritzburg to Durban along the uMsunduzi and Umgeni Rivers. A must for any hard-as-nails, born-and-bred South African.
I wrote a while ago about the legendary Eric Tollner , the Tuffer Puffer 100 miler running champion. Eric, the rolling stone, does not gather moss and is on the move again, this time undertaking the Dusi. Here is the next extract from his adventures. Eric is a wordsmith to be reckoned with and wasn't certain whether he should include the last paragraph or not. I thought it was very insightful and gave us a glimpse of what makes the man tick-tock.
Day 1 in its moer. Boat in ship shape, no swims for the crew today. Spirits still high in camp, great rapids, captain guided us safely through & troepie had to make up for it in the portages (during which captain couldn’t keep up… hah!) No jippoguts & no crocs yet. Over from KZN
Growing up in Natal it is not difficult to get swept away by the dream of the two most novel ways of getting from Maritzburg to Durban – by foot in the Comrades, and by boat in the Dusi. I cant remember how it eventually got cast in stone because the plan started 5 long years ago – Dusi 2010, lets go for it! Off to buy a canoe and learn how to paddle, easier said than done. It was like trying to stay afloat on a rolling log in a tub of oil. The Zim economy is more stable than these things. Eventually a friend recognized the distress on my face and put me in the back of his double to experience what its like to be upright for more than 10 seconds. Confidence gained, still cant roll my eyeballs or sneeze without falling in, but I’m upright and the water wings can be shelved. 5 years seemed a long time to race day until suddenly it was 1 year, then 6 months, then counting down the sleeps. Gulp.
Arriving at the start was mind-blowingly intimidating – I’d made the unthinkable mistake of getting to race day on an absolute minimal amount of river experience. Now I hear talk of the first obstacle of the day being a thing called ‘Ernie Pearce Weir’. I don’t do weirs. Full stop. They are mans way of bringing a flowing river to a halt and in my mind can kill you. Five minutes later I find the start canon still ringing in my ears while we start queuing to do the drop. Something wrong with this picture I think while nervously peering out from behind Captain, in whom I have complete trust to get me through this alive. I’m watching boats up ahead, the back tilts up as the front disappears into the invisible hole and the paddlers rocket their way down. 10 boats to go… 9… 8… I’m watching in horror… 3… 2… 1, then its suddenly our turn as the marshal signals for us to approach. We get to the top and I could feel my eyes like two giant saucers taking in the sight below. Thank goodness I had not seen this before, sometimes a trial by fire is the best option. The world dropped away beneath us and we raced down the corrugated strip into the churning froth beneath, Captain taking the full force of it out front but we kept it upright and swept through with flying colours. Not so bad, but my mind is a blur of action and excitement. And this is only 10 minutes into day 1. A few minutes later we approach the Witness weir, and I’m hearing Captain picking up tips from the locals on which line to pick as he usually portages here. I could’ve sworn a few days ago he told me he knows this river??! Again the river drops away beneath us and we’re shooting down, deep into the rapid below, making sure to keep left and avoid the rocks we’ve just been warned about. Flying colours for our efforts again and we are now gliding down the Umsinduzi river like a well oiled machine. Pats on the back and nicknames well earned, ‘Captain’ in the front steering us safely through rapids, and him bragging aloud to fellow paddlers about his ‘Outboard’ engine at the back. Outboard smiles and takes in the excitement of actually being in the Dusi. The dream coming true.
More rapids fleeting by and confidence rising with each one successfully through – Taxi (local legend has it it’s a new rapid, ever since a taxi ended up in the river), Mussons and Low level bridge. Past the infamous sewerage farm and take-out for our first portage over Campbell’s farm. Captains choice of a lightweight boat, combined with those morning runs through Muizenberg traffic looking like complete idiots with a boat on our shoulders, is paying off as we style past fellow paddlers on the hill. It’s a huge success and we’re back on the water at least twenty boats ahead. Round the next bend and we’re facing up to the next portage, Guinea fowl and into the hell known as the Devils Cauldron – a naturally shaped bowl in the mountain through which humans and boats must pass. Slipping and sliding down into the hole on one side, and up and out the other – slithering through the mud and slush, and Outboard is thankful not to be coming through here in 2 hours time when the ground is even more churned up.
Back in the boat and feeling better to be on the water, through some no-name rapids, getting caught on rocks in ‘the Maze’ – a serious of low-lying confusing channels in the river. A quick stop on the side to get refreshments from our faithful seconding team, and then downstream for the biggest moment of fear of the day – Mission Rapid (see pic below). My heart starts pumping and I can feel my palms sweating as the roar downstream approaches. The crowds lining the bank are a give away sign of the impending doom. Navy divers ready for rescue, and suddenly we’re sucked into the narrow channel. Shooting down Captain steers us like a champ and we’re through. “It’s not over” I hear him shouting a warning to Outboard whose hands are already half raised in celebration and waving to the crowds. Quickly regain focus and down into the next white water – bouncing through this raging fountain that rises up in front of us, and we’re through. Drift downstream and Captain and Outboard celebrating. Take out at Finger Nek for another portage and I can feel we’re strong. Invincible. Striding out on the tar road alongside the spectators, like a slow-motion replay, boat bouncing effortlessly on our shoulders. Outboard is filled with pride. Staring at the ‘Dusi’ stickers on the boat and realizing the dream. Feeling at last like one of that rare breed, ‘the Dusi man’. Back on the water, and down to the finish of day 1, no crocodile sightings and no Dusi-guts, Captain and Outboard very pleased, and cross the finish line beaming confidence and flashing broad smiles of the team from Cape Town who have come to conquer the river. The long road back home provides moments of light-hearted banter and joking – two more days to go, Outboard weary now but looking forward to another smashing day on the river tomorrow. Drift off to sleep dreaming of rocketing through rapids and high-speed portages.
6hr haul. Major contrast to yesterdays streamlined effort. Many swims, broken paddle, & repairs to rudder. Not even any heroic excuses like crocs or jippos to blame when we limped home. Respect for flowing water from now on. Stiff whiskey to settle nerves and revive sense of humour for tomorrow. Over.
Captain, Outboard and faithful seconding crew up before sunrise and return to the valley, another early start and ready for the long day in the saddle… or should that be paddle. Outboard is informed of tactics to start the day with the portage option, a good omen indeed Outboards thinks, considering the success of our portages the day before. Quietly wondering inside about those guys back there who called yesterday ‘just a warm-up’(?)
Suddenly we’re off again, and immediately Outboard notices that power isn’t quite the same as Day 1. Up the hill, and into the river, downstream of Dusi bridge, but nothing feels comfortable today. Eager for first portages at the ‘Saddles’, which simply cuts off a big winding s-bend in the river by running over the mountains.
Next mental landmark is ‘Confluence’ where the Umsindusi meets the mighty Umgeni. With big water having been released upstream from the dam on the Umgeni, the words ‘fun white water’ were flying around the field that morning. Outboard’s palms begin sweating in anticipation. Still not comfortable but sure it will ease up as the day goes on.
We reach Confluence without incident, but then things start going wrong. The water is immediately bigger, churning, and fast. Its like driving from a small dirt farm road onto a 3 lane freeway. We’re bouncing through Confluence when suddenly the boat leans too far left and we’re in, our first swim and I cant believe how fast and how out of control things are – rolling downstream at an alarming rate until we eventually get to the side, empty the boat and start again. Psychologically good – Outboard’s been told you’ve haven’t done Dusi until you’ve swum, so this was it. Good, splash covers on and we’re off again. Suddenly I spot people with helmets standing on the rocks ahead. This could mean only one thing – navy divers & rescue crew. Which means one big rapid. No word from Captain, we just plough ahead, reaching the lip of a drop, and then another and another, a series of shelves hewn out of the landscape disappearing beneath us. Suddenly there’s water all around again and we’re over, bouncing down, rocks everywhere and getting battered as we hit each shelf then drop down to the next. Every time I come up for air I look around in near-panic for Captain, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Just more boats, more swimmers, (glad we’re not alone). Eventually the river bed stops falling away beneath us, and I feel the world slowing down. Come up for air again and look around. Captain who had bounced down under the boat now safely up and informs me very casually, well that was Washing Machine rapid. Outboard glad he wasn’t aware of that before. We look back up to the rapid and its carnage – some make it through but the river is now spitting out boats, paddles, and swimmers in to the swirling eddy beneath. We’ve smashed a paddle, so out with the spare and stash the broken one. Outboard a bit shaken by recent events but yesterday’s confidence still overriding the fear. Empty the boat, hop in, flash a brave smile to the spectators, splash covers on and we’re off.
We’ve barely left the safety of the eddy when the sound of roaring water approaches us again. Around the next corner the river forks, the guy up ahead takes left so we follow and disappear down a rock slide, hold it, hold it, then over again and swimming, this time we get sucked right back upstream at a frightening speed into the rolling water at the foot of the drop. We’re grabbing onto reeds on an island in the river. Out the corner of my eye I see more navy divers starting to make their way towards us but they see we’ve now clawed our way onto the island. Empty boat, climb in, splash covers on. This is starting to feel like routine but we’re off into the calm right fork in the river. Outboard starting to question his intelligence in committing to this.
Out on the right for a slip and slide portage alongside an un-shootable rapid called ‘Willems chute’, and our next stop is at Gauging Weir where a very welcome refreshment station brings back much needed sanity to our day. Back in at the bottom of the weir and we make it safely downstream through the Marianne Foley causeway, under the bridge in amongst a throng of spectators eager for some spills and drama (if only they had seen us upstream thinks Outboard) and off downstream to the Nqumeni portage. I was not disappointed to leave the raging water behind for a while, even for this giant slog uphill in the ever increasing heat that was starting to come to the boil in the valley. I’ve since done some research into the Zulu language and the closest I can find for this hill is ‘faka nqumeni’. I recall repeatedly muttering something along those lines around then, though I can assure you mine was not Zulu. Apparently the translation has something to do with taking the rubbish out. If this is local humour to describe mother-natures’ way of sorting out the riff-raff in the field it sure was working, and it was starting to feel like the joke was officially on us.
Over the hill and back into the river where the big 3 rapids of Gum Tree, Thombi, and Hippo are wisely portaged. Outboard heaves a sigh of relief knowing the big rapids are out the way for today, but completely oblivious to what is lying ahead. Swim after swim in the most insulting fashion, we slowly make our way downstream towards the Inanda dam. Outboard seriously considering changing names to ‘Overboard’. Another swim and we bounce downstream until eventually clambering out under some trees where Captain enforces a 5 minute rest to recover sense of humour and refocus. Empty boat, hop in, splash covers on (standard routine by now) and we push off feeling more confident. Start counting the rapids that we are beating now to keep us motivated, 1, 2… 6, and eventually we’re even with the ones that have defeated us, then we’re ahead and pats on the back as ‘the team from yesterday’ returns. One last swim and necessary repair work to a buckled rudder to demand some respect be returned to the river and then the mighty Umgeni finally slows down. Outboard relieved to see the bridge ahead which signals the start of the Inanda dam. Everyone dreading the hour long slog across the flat water but I’m not complaining one bit. Last refreshment station for the day, and we leave the vibey colourful atmosphere to finally bring day 2 home. Half an hour later and Outboard is pining for some action again, anything, I’ll take it. Even tempted to tip the boat and swim to get out the heat that is by now well into the 40’s. Finally round the last corner and we’re in, the long haul at last complete. Hardly done in fine style but we’re there, and home safely. The river had given us a slap in the face today and reminded us who’s really in charge out there. But misery loves company and everywhere lies the carnage of a long day out for others too. Broken boats and paddles litter the finishing area. Glad we’re not alone. The drive home is very different today, no jokes, no banter. Outboard wonders about what lies ahead tomorrow, and goes to sleep dreaming of the familiar routine of a canoe tipping over, swimming down rapids, emptying the boat. Hop in, splash covers on. Zzzz.
Mission accomplished. The whiskey clearly worked! Awesome day, flying through big exciting rapids. Captain bravely tempting fate shouting ‘we can walk on water’ to the crowds, until our only swim for the day, in ‘graveyard rapid’ (go figure!) . Troepie in the back still mindfully respecting the water. Over & out from the finish.
The team return to the river. Day 3, the last, and Outboard is secretly very thankful for that. The novelty is starting to grind away and takes its toll - sore back, butt is aching from being hauled over submerged rocks yesterday, and sense of humour not at its highest. River has earned our utmost respect and we vow not to shoot our mouths off again.
Swallowing big chunks of humble pie at the start, trying to weasel out of telling fellow paddlers about our disastrous day yesterday. 8 swims – its not something you want to speak about. Maybe to your shrink, but not to fellow paddlers. Line up again, and our starting batch takes off across the dam. Outboard deep in thought this morning. Lips are sealed and mind is swirling with thoughts of the ‘biggest rapids of the whole race’ lying up ahead. Portage down past the spectacular Inanda dam wall and back in below the fearful Tops Needle. I can see why they call this the exciting day – the water is clear, cold, and fast. The team navigate no-name rapids successfully and confidence is returning, along with the ‘team from day 1’, though we are still mindful about keeping it very respectful today.
Through ‘Side Shute’ and the enjoyment is returning now too – perhaps after hitting rock bottom yesterday (literally) nothing could go more wrong. When you have nothing left to lose you gain a different perspective and Outboard starts smiling again. Up ahead lies our deciding factor – if we swim Umzinyathi rapid (1st pic below) then we portage the monster Burma Hill. If we shoot it successfully we’ll go around, through the gorge. Captain has barely finished telling Outboard that he always swims here when its on us. Great lines, bouncing all over, bracing, paddle hard, and we’re through. Paddling past others swimming – not something I’m proud to admit but today that’s a morbid psychological booster. Shouts and high-fives (if that’s possible in a canoe?!) from the team and its decided – we’re going round. Past our seconding crew again and round the bend in the river that marks the start of the gorge. It’s a blind corner – and I’m thankful I cant see around it until we are beyond the point of no return. A churning white band of water carving its way through the gorge disappears out of eye shot at the furthest corner. The first rapid is instant, we swing in from the right and somehow emerge downstream on the left. Captain shouting ‘that was ‘Little John’ (2nd pic below) and we had made it! Next up was Graveyard, make it through and then swim right at the end. Feeling like we’re in for another hiding by the river – drift to the edge, routine follows and we’re back in and moving. Outboard’s eyes wide-open as we drift past a wrapped boat – the paddlers who had cheerfully greeted us yesterday while we were swimming are thrashing their way through head-high reeds on the side, their boat is bent double around a rock. Captain informs me that’s their game over – no way of getting that boat out other than climbing on the rock and sawing it in half. The reality of the Dusi setting in.
More portages around Island and Five Fingers rapids, and we’re almost on the home straight. Last refreshment stop at the Pumphouse Weirs and we’re off, heading home. Mango rapid provides the last excitement of the race but we shoot through unscathed and start the long drift home – the only obstacle left now are the crocs but even that fear fades as the beauty of the winding cliffs of the Umgeni valley takes its place.
The cliffs start to flatten out now, and I can smell civilization approaching. The N2 bridge approaches and the landmarks are starting to become familiar. I know what lies ahead – the Connaught bridge and the finish. The finish. We paddle past the futile croc traps (no crocs but apparently a monitor lizard was photographed sunning itself on top of one!) and eventually we’re alongside the golf course. Outboard can sense the finish line getting closer.
The birds on the islands in the river start taking off as we paddle past and I pretend I’m in a National Geographic documentary, drifting down a wilderness river. But then I hear the crowds, the music, the finish, and I know we’re there. We’re home and after 5 years and 3 torturously exciting days the Dusi dream has come true. I’ve met the faces behind the names I’ve been dreaming of for so long – Ernie, Washing Machine, Burma, and I can see why their names are hailed in the halls of legends with such respect – its like meeting a famous person, a childhood hero. I’ve been taught how to bow my head in respect for flowing water, and I’ve learnt what it is like to face something so completely daunting and unknown that the words ‘out of your comfort zone’ don’t even come close. I’ve come up for air and learnt very quickly how to gasp a mouthful of it before getting sucked back under, and I’ve realized that there’s no such thing as fighting a river because you cannot conquer it. The best you can do is try to live with it, go with it for a little while, because it will always remind you how small you really are.
But above all I’m learning that within myself lies a deeply restless spirit. Reeking of the sweat and dust, streaked by the tears of defeat from the day before. But desperate to get back out there for more. To settle the score, and put the record straight. Perhaps after so many years of running I’d started to take things for granted out there. The river has given me a new perspective. The reality is that when you go out for 50 to 80km training runs without thinking twice about it, it becomes increasingly difficult to take a 5km run seriously. But I have a whole new respect for it now, and especially for those starting out. The first 5km, or 10km or half or marathon, its all about pushing yourself, inside, and not allowing that mundane routine of daily existence to quench your thirst for being more than what you thought you could be. Being more than you ever thought you could be, because there is always more…
Harder than nails,