'Frontiersmen' pushing the white-water limits

SPORT IN ANOTHER COUNTRY Andy Colquhoun reports on a canoe trek down a raging river in South Africa
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Close to the sporting soul of white South Africans lies the need to test themselves to the limit. It may be something bred into the Afrikaner psyche since the Voortrekkers were chased from Cape Town over mountain passes and into the country's interior in their ox wagons in the 1780s.

Alternatively, their relish for herculean events may rise from the years of isolation and their banishment from Olympian events. Or it may just be the frontierland machismo. But there is plainly a need to ask searching questions of their character.

Running marathons or canoeing down wild rivers are fine as far as they go. But they don't go far enough for South Africans. There is the Comrades Marathon (a 90km race in sapping heat and humidity); the Duzi (a three- day canoe marathon in the Drakensberg mountains); the Two Oceans Marathon (a 56km run from the Indian to the Atlantic oceans), and the Berg River Canoe Marathon.

The Berg River race is a floating Tour de Western Province. A four-day, 215km paddle through glorious countryside from Paarl in the wine-growing uplands to the rich estuary and wetlands around Port Owen on the Atlantic. It is billed as an African adventure as much as a race - at the whim of South Africa's mercurial winter weather. When this year's event finished on 13 July, 35 of the 238 entrants had failed to complete it. And this year the Berg behaved itself as the rain and feared north-westerly wind held off.

When the wind blows into the faces of the paddlers, it can sap the strength to the point that exhausted men and women have to be pulled from their K1 kayaks - just kilometres short of the finish, four days of work ripped from them. Torrential rain and snow in the river's headlands can turn the Berg into a pumping beat. Bridges are engulfed and its normal width of 20 to 30 metres can be swollen to 100 metres in the flatter sections or roar up the river banks to submerge trees in the valleys.

"A couple of years ago we had a Dutch team here and one of their guys said to me, 'We have rivers like this in Holland - except that the trees are on the bank'," recalled John Oliver, of the KwaZulu-Natal Canoe Union. It is not a particularly technical race with lots of rapids, but when the river is turbulent and boils and bubbles, it can lead to wrist problems as you try and control the canoe. It is an endurance event on a river that can be a monster. Each 50km stage takes the leader about four hours to complete, with the last person usually home two and a half hours later.

Lee McGregor, a 45-year-old Durban doctor, paddled to fifth place this year as a training partner for his 18-year-old son, Hank, who finished eighth. Hank is favourite for the junior title at the world canoe marathon championships in Sweden next month. "We arrived down here five days before the race to get used to the river, and at first we were paddling among the leaves on the tops of the trees - that's how high the river was," he said.

"The next day we were down among the branches; the next day among the trunks, and now we're down among the roots - I don't know where the hell I am. You come round a bend and there's a tree straight in front of you. You don't know whether to go left, right or centre."

The event has claimed two lives (in 1983 and 1984) in its 35-year history, since when the sponsors, winemakers KWV, have tightened up the marathon's safety procedures. The army medical corps provides a mobile unit at the end of each stage. The police patrol the river with two rescue boats and a helicopter circles overhead, doubling as a camera mount for television. A tented village with mobile catering from church groups follows the race, providing competitors with three hot meals a day for their 220 rand (pounds 35) entry fee. Each night, a camp fire is lit and a mobile disco starts up while a snacks tent and the sponsors' bar tent dispense Dutch courage, free of charge. The competitors' supporters churn up country lanes in the race to the river's infrequent vantage points. At night they sleep in tents, in their cars or campers, or in barns.

For an unprecedented sixth successive time, this year's race was won by the Yorkshire-born Robbie Herreveld, who moved to Johannesburg with his parents when he was 10. He is one of some 20 full-time canoeists in the race, and each night prefers driving up to 50km to find a hotel bed.

He is nationally renowned, as is Xoloni Mngadi, at least among his Zulu people around Pietermaritzburg. He was one of five development paddlers from KwaZulu-Natal to enter the race under the tutelage of John Oliver, and the only one to finish. Never mind that he was 203rd out of 203 finishers or that it took him 10 hours longer than Herreveld's winning time of 14hr 39min. He is part of a new trek for South Africa.