Doing the Dusi – in wood and canvas canoes

27 November 2013

Early on Friday morning a hardy band of 16 canoeing enthusiasts will set off on a four-day journey from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, following the original Dusi Canoe Marathon route and paddling replica canvas and wood craft of the same design used by Dr Ian Player when he won the inaugural Dusi in 1951.

The Dusi Canoe Marathon is one of the world’s largest canoe marathons and an iconic South African endurance sporting event.

The Commemorative Dusi Canvas Journey was started by paddling stalwart John Oliver in 2002, with the intention of replicating the pioneering feats of the race’s founders, right down to the construction of canoes made exactly to plans used in the 1950s.

Boat builder

Anton Venter, one of the race’s staunchest supporters, has fine-tuned the skills needed to build these boats from suitable timber and canvas, and is able to supply the replica craft to keen paddlers from around R1 500, roughly 25% of the cost of a simple modern fibre-glass craft.

The Canvas Dusi participants wear the typical 1950s uniform of khaki shorts and shirts. Those who have done at least one Canvas Dusi get to add a leopard skin band to their hats in memory of the first Dusi when Ernie Pearce, one of the Dusi’s most important historical figures, cut up a leopard skin carpet at home and added it to his hat.

The four-day adventure has seen a gradual turnover in personnel since it was first run in 2001, with more and more younger paddlers joining the trip.

“In the beginning it was just a bunch of us old ‘balies’,” Hugh Raw, one of the Canvas Dusi’s most passionate supporters, said this week. “It is great to see the younger paddler joining us, like the Wright brothers, which helps to bring down the average age.”

Annual event

The race is run on the first weekend in December to coincide with the good water releases for the two-day 50 Miler race, which is a major build-up race to the Dusi Canoe Marathon in February. However, it does mean that the first and last days of the Canvas Dusi trip are often paddled on low rivers.

On the final stage from Molweni to Blue Lagoon in Durban, the paddlers will not carry their craft over the notorious Burma Road portage, but instead face up to the big rapids on the paddle around.

“Peter Peacock [a former Dusi winner] has started shooting the big stuff in these wood and canvas canoes, which have open cockpits with no splash covers,” said Raw. “Last year I shot Island One and Two Rapids following Peter’s lines and we both made it!”

Typically, both rapids are studiously avoided by the Dusi paddlers of today.

“These wood and canvas craft can be quite hard work to maintain and they don’t have a very long lifespan,” Raw added.

“If you pick up a rip in the canvas, that’s quite easy to fix because you can patch it with contact adhesive. But when you break one of the wooden ribs in the boat, then they become quite weak.”

Support crew

The 16 paddlers, accompanied by a support crew of four, now stay overnight at the Mfula Lodge operated by John Graaff from the Mfula Store premises, close to the halfway point of their journey.

Day One will take them to Yellow Rock, close to the first overnight stop of the normal Dusi Marathon. Day Two overnights conveniently at Mfula Store, while the third stage ends at Molweni, below the Inanda Dam wall, and the final stage on Monday ends at Blue Lagoon in Durban.

“It is a totally social trip, and we all stay together and help each other out whenever necessary,” Raw explained.

“We did lose one of our number last year. He somehow got lost on the Guinea Fowl portage and we were enormously relieved to see him stumbling out of the bush several hours later. But generally speaking the group that starts is the same group that will finish the trip in Durban.”

2014 Dusi

The Dusi Canoe Marathon, which takes place from 13 to 15 February 2014, is focussing on the pioneering feats of the characters who started the race 63 years ago and profiling the contributions that icons like founder Dr Ian Player, Ernie Pearce, Graeme Pope-Ellis and Robert Lembethe made in helping the famous race become what it is today.

SAinfo reporter