South Africa is blessed with three world-class canoe marathons, each offering the paddler a supreme challenge along with genuine camaraderie in a field that includes not only those trying to win, but also those who come to compete with themselves and the river.
The Fish River and Berg River canoe marathons are more traditional races, consisting mostly of paddling with a little portaging, but the Dusi Canoe Marathon, raced between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, offers a unique challenge, with portaging making up a significant part of the race.
DUSI CANOE MARATHON
The Dusi is the longest running of the three races, having been contested for the first time in 1951, when world-renowned conservationist Ian Player, the brother of golfing legend Gary, was the only finisher out of a field of eight men.
It took Player six days to complete the epic journey – during which time he was bitten by a night adder. Player crawled to a nearby road and managed to get a lift to a police station, where he collapsed. Anti-serum was administered, and he continued on to Durban.
The first four editions of the race were contested on a non-stop basis, but in 1956 the race was changed to its present three-stage format, bringing an end to non-stop racing, through-the-night paddling and sleeping out in the open.
Toughest canoe race in the world
For many years the Dusi remained an elite event feared by the average paddler, and it wasn’t until 1967 that the 100-entry mark was finally achieved. By 1970 it was being billed as “the toughest canoe race in the world”.
In the words of Ian Player: “No man who has done the 110 gruelling miles can ever be the same again. The memory of the rapids, the steep hills and torturous paths, the aching backs and dry mouths, the burning sun and cold mist and rain, will forever remain in the mind.”
The Dusi King
Many great paddlers have taken turns to dominate the Dusi over the years, but one rose above them all; known as the Dusi King and “The Pope”, Graeme Pope-Ellis recorded his first victory with Eric Clarke in 1972. He won for the last time with Tim Cornish in 1990.
In those 19 races since 1972, Pope-Ellis had won 15 times and placed second on three occasions. Only a broken boat in 1979 had prevented him from achieving another top-two finish. He has completed the Dusi a record 44 times.
The race regularly attracts well over 1 000 contestants nowadays, with the record standing at 2 127 in the first race of the new millennium.
The Non-Stop Dusi
The Non-Stop Dusi has also been introduced, reviving the tradition of the race as it was in its early days. Only the excellent, the brave – and sometimes the stupid – attempt the Non-Stop Dusi, which has taken over the mantle of “world’s toughest canoe race” from the three-day Dusi.
It is interesting to note that Non-Stop Dusi competitors start and finish on the same day – a reflection on the extent to which training, equipment and support have changed since the first race in 1951.
FISH RIVER CANOE MARATHON
The Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon was first held in 1982, when 77 competitors took part. In 2000 it attracted a record entry of 1 564 paddlers, ranking it among the five biggest canoe marathons in the world.
One of the main attractions of the event is that it is held in Cradock in the Eastern Cape, a central location that makes the race accessible for participants from all over the country, not to mention those who travel from overseas.
Another plus for the paddlers is that the river is artificially regulated, guaranteeing them challenging and exciting rapids, fast-flowing water and testing weirs.
The Fish River Canoe Marathon takes place every year during the September school holidays – which sometimes means it happens in October!
Coelacanth, Fish Eagle awards
As with many long-distance events, people competing in 10 or more editions of the Fish River Canoe Marathon are recognised. While the Comrades Marathon has the much-prized green number, the Fish has the equally sought-after Coelacanth award. The even more prestigious Fish Eagle award is presented to paddlers who have completed 20 or more events.
The event has regularly been awarded the South African Canoeing Marathon Championships, another indication of its standing as a fine, well-loved event.
‘Twinned’ with the Avon Descent
The Fish has also been “twinned” with Australia’s famous Avon Descent, which is billed as “the world’s greatest wild water event”.
The twinning agreement sees the winners of the two events being flown to take part in the twin event, and has led to stunning success for South Africans in the Perth race:
Wayne Volek won in the K1 category in 2000, followed by Martin Dreyer in 2002, and Sven and Deon Bruss in the K2 category in 2003.
Daryl Bartho scored successive K1 victories in 2004 and 2005, and Sven Bruss was the K1 champion and Daryl and Brett Bartho the K2 winners in 2007. In 2008, Barry Lewin was crowned the K1 winner in a record time.
BERG RIVER CANOE MARATHON
The Berg River Canoe Marathon has been contested since 1961. It is an extremely tough challenge, taking place over four days and covering an astounding 228 kilometres, making it the longest race in South Africa.
Compounding the challenge posed by the distance is the fact that the event takes place in winter – the weather can be a fierce opponent, not to mention the tricky nature of the river. The water tends to be fast-flowing, but the channels are narrow, and overhanging trees give another angle to the test.
Due to the extreme test that the race poses, the size of the entry doesn’t approach the size of the fields in the Dusi and Fish River Canoe Marathons.
The King of the Berg
Former Springbok paddler Andre Collins is known as the King of the Berg. He has completed the event an astounding 40 times, a figure that has been matched by Giel van Deventer.
Five-time champion Hank McGregor, who has won every big race there is to win in South African canoe marathon racing, as well as the World Marathon K1 Championships in 2003 and the Durban Surfski World Cup (twice), has often said that the Berg River Canoe Marathon is the toughest race in the world.
In an interesting innovation, the Berg introduced a professional team race in 2008, which employed an original and exciting format.
Each team consists of three or four paddlers. To ensure that the competition is competitive, no team may include more than one paddler who has achieved top three places in the previous three editions of the race.
The top three times are added together for a cumulative time, but that time can be reduced by one of the team’s paddlers winning “hotspots”, which are worth two minutes off the total time.
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