“There are three significant elements those who have competed in the Dusi Canoe Marathon will be familiar with – the encounter with nature, self-actualisation, and the awakening of a spiritual sense,” wrote Graeme Pope-Ellis (Image: Matt E/Flickr)
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When Ian Player pushed off into the Dusi River in Pietermaritzburg in a canvas and wood boat in 1952, and paddled to Durban, taking 152 hours and 15 minutes to finish, he never imagined he would be creating one of the country’s top endurance races, the Dusi Canoe Marathon.
He came back the following two years, and paddling alongside F Schmidt, reduced his time to 86 hours, then 36 hours and 41 minutes.
These days the race is paddled in eight hours, in a one-person fibreglass boat, or seven hours and 40-something minutes in a two-person canoe, over three days.
Known colloquially as the Dusi, the 62-year-old race attracts more than 1 500 canoeists paddle and portage their slim canoes from Pietermaritzburg to Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, a distance of 120km. Often being carried in grinding heat and paddled through raging rapids, the fragile, fibreglass boats can be wrenched against rocks and torn open, or worse still, wrapped around rocks, leaving the canoeists to carry sorry pieces of boat out of the steaming valleys to the nearest road, marking the end of their race.
The first day consists of 42km of paddling and running with the boat, the second 46km and the third, 32km.
The Dusi consists of several portages on each day, in which the boat is placed on the shoulders, and paddlers run around or over hills, or take shortcuts to circumvent bends in the river. The longest portage, on the first day, is eight kilometres, up and down several hills. This means it’s not only a paddling race, but a running race too. But this challenge is taken up enthusiastically as paddlers come back year after year, with 1 650 entries for the 2014 race, which took place in February.
What makes the Dusi different from road running races, or even cycling races, is that there is one unpredictable factor: the level of the water. If the water is flowing strongly, records will be broken, and sometimes, boats. Entering rapids is always unpredictable as the strong flow or other boats can push a boat on to rocks, or into side shoots that can force it backwards down a rapid, or push it into wrapping around rocks. But generally these days the level stays consistent, as water is released from several dams up river. But if it rains during the race, the water level can rise suddenly.
A marathon rite of passage
Player recounts in his enchanting book, Men, Rivers & Canoes, the reaction of others to his idea of paddling to Durban: “Before our first contemplated departure in 1950, Desmond Graham and I were told that we must be daft – exactly what thousands of subsequent canoeing initiates I’m sure are told.” He wasn’t put off for a moment. “The annual Dusi has become a rite of passage for hundreds of newcomers, and a deep, inner exploration for many veterans,” he wrote.
“Great and enduring friendships have developed through canoeing and, sadly, sometimes other friendships have fallen apart. Such is the profound challenge the Dusi presents.”
Player, now 87, is today an environmental educator and conservationist.
The race has produced legends, in particular Graeme Pope-Ellis, who did his first Dusi in 1974 at the age of 17, and went on to complete 46, winning 15 of those, before he was tragically killed in a farming accident at the age in 62 in 2012. His formidable record earned him the title of Dusi King, and many young paddlers saw him as their role model. He willingly took them under his wing, teaching them the secrets of the river he had learnt over the decades, welcoming them into his home to help them train for the race.
He used to compete with paddlers 20 years his junior. He was an exceptional runner as well, picking his way over rocks and across the veld at amazing speed, with a boat on his shoulder.
“There are three significant elements those who have competed in the Dusi Canoe Marathon will be familiar with – the encounter with nature, self-actualisation, and the awakening of a spiritual sense,” wrote Pope-Ellis in the 2006 foreword to Player’s book.
Extreme athlete Martin Dreyer, who has won seven Dusis, was one of those paddlers taken under Pope-Ellis’s wing. Dreyer described Pope-Ellis as “a special breed of athlete”. “He made me the Dusi paddler I am,” he told the Mail & Guardian in 2010.
What makes the Dusi different from road running races, or even cycling races, is that there is one unpredictable factor: the level of the water (Image: Clive Read/Flickr)
The race is as competitive for the women as for the men. Abbey Ulansky won her ninth Dusi together with Robyn Kime this year in a time of eight hours, 50 minutes and 59 seconds, just more than an hour behind this year’s male winners, Andy Birkett and Sbonelo Zondi, who hung up their paddles in seven hours, 43 minutes and 50 seconds.
The Dusi is also done as a non-stop, one-day event, several weeks after the three-day event. Zondi won this year together with top canoeist Hank McGregor in a time of seven hours, 44 minutes and 45 seconds.
The Dusi Canoe Marathon takes its place among South Africa’s other top endurance races: the Comrades Marathon, the Midmar Mile, the Cape Epic, the Freedom Challenge, the Berg River Canoe Marathon, and the Cape Argus Cycle Tour, among others.