Archive for July 2011
The Berg is a mighty race, with no-where to hide, paddling 240km from the vineyards of Paarl to the Atlantic Ocean on the west coast at Velddrift. For my Zulus, this trip went beyond just racing down a river, but was more of a life enriching experience where they got to travel across SA, learnt that the Afrikaners of the Cape are a warm and friendly nation, wine comes from a leafless (currently winter) dry little twiggy bush called a vine, and that the coloured woman make themselves ‘pretty’ by pulling out their front teeth.
The Change a Lifers caught the bus Sunday, arriving Monday – checked into the Lemoenkloof B&B for Mon & Tues night, which was a real treat. They sat stiffly upright, whilst the waitresses served them delicious meals, then awkwardly used their knife & fork – the spoon is the choice of eating utensil/tool down in the Valley.
I had to hesitate in Pmb till Tuesday afternoon, so I could hand over the Callum baton to Jeannie upon her return from competing in the World Trail running Champs in Ireland.
Day 1 – Driving to the start, we passed Stefan Hugo (5 x times winner in the ‘80s). I quickly stopped and asked, “Stefan, what advice can you give my novice Zulus, novice Berg Paddlers?”. His reply was simple, “NEVER GIVE UP, if you damage your canoe – fix it, if your body is blown, find the answer but never give up.”
The trees galore became their nemesis, snagging their lifejackets and catching them unaware when their paddle blade would strike an invisible branch just below the surface, throwing them off balance and into the drink. With the Dusi having not one tree on its banks, if you take a bad line, you can correct it as the water flows around a rock and so you can deflect off it and continue on your merry way, whereas on the Berg, rocks are replaced by trees. A gnarly situation arises as water flows through a tree and so the unwary paddler can easily get trapped against it (like a tea strainer), as you don’t deflect off a tree like you would a rock. But this is all part of the initiation/learning curve of being a first time Berg Paddler.
Zonele and John retired to their sleeping bags at 3pm already, shattered from the Days exploits, rose briefly to eat supper and then crashed again.
We stayed in the Barn accommodation at the end of each Day, where mattresses lined the floor – wall to wall. The vibe was lekker with a central massive fire to congregate around, where tales of the days endeavour was the main topic of conversation. At the fireside in Bridgetown, I heard Thomas saying to a fellow paddler, “those last two tree block portages today were a great relief as it was good to stretch my legs”. “What, you portaged today – I never got out my kayak at all,” was the response of a top twenty placed paddler. Such is the advantage of ‘local knowledge’ at obstacles, where your approach of attack is precise. If this conversation was at Dusi, the roles would have been reversed.
Riaan Manser enlightened my Zulus with tales of his Madagascan sea kayaking journey, where he circumnavigated the Island, paddling 5000km over 11 months. Even Riaan struggled, swimming 27 times on Day 2 alone….
ZONELE MIXING HIS MAGIC POTION THE FOLLOWING MORNING….
Day 2 – The boys settled into a smooth rhythem, although a shorter, still longer than they had ever paddled in a race – all the ‘Change a Lifers caught up positions. Kwanda was telling me of Richard getting this special ‘blown kiss’ by a most beautiful young coloured girl, walking past. He gasped in disebelief…. Seconds later, she gave her biggest toothless smile – Richard couldn’t contain himself & packed up laughing – thinking this is some sort of a joke or something. The next day I got a different Coloured woman to explain to them that it is a cultural phenomenon – “Us woman do it to look pretty for our men” was her explanation.
I added, “a cultural thing, similar to Lucas (Mthalane family) having cuts (later forming scars) made on his forehead when he was a baby. Like you John, you have many black needle holes below your eyes.”
Then Thomas added, “one of the families in the valley, cut off the top of the little finger on the left hand at birth….”
Day 3 – monster day
If there was to be any physical benefit from paddling the Berg (excluding the overall experience), it would be that this long, hard , absolutely flat 74km grind, would redefine their limits of what is possible – from aching muscles to the discomfort of sitting in one position continuously. Because now in the Valley, the 3hr weekly long paddle in training, will not seem so long – maybe we should bump it up to 4hrs.
After 5hrs in his kayak, Thomas snapped, his discomfort had become unbearable so he turned 90 degrees to the flow of the river and to the amusement of his fellow paddlers, headed for the bank – running alongside the group whilst they paddled. No way was he getting back into the water, however the bank became unnegotiable and he had no choice but to return to his painful sitting position.
The landscape is so different because there is no scattering of huts, plus its lush green. Driving home to Paarl, staring out the window, Nhlanhla says – “my cattle would like this grass very much”
Day 4 – Windhoek’s slogan – ‘Keep it real’ was made even more so, by the nasty ocean head wind that developed as the day wore on, substantially slowing down forward progress. Asked “why there foreigners working in SA”, referring to the Farm Labourers who were speaking Afrikaans, working in the vineyards.
The finish was spectacular, a massive marquee tent that housed 400 plus people and a band to entertain….
This race is not possible for just anyone, a certain ability to suffer is an important ingredient for success. Thank you to Windhoek for the invitation to my ‘Change a Life’ Zulus, to paddle in the Berg’s 50th Anniversary, the greatest Berg to date, with a record entry of 365 paddlers (previous record 1986).