Volunteers are the heart of the Dusi

28 January 2013

For every two paddlers that start The Unlimited Dusi Canoe Marathon on 14 February, there will be a volunteer working behind the scenes to make sure that South Africa’s oldest, most famous canoe marathon runs without a hitch.

The Dusi is also one of the largest canoe marathons in the world. When one takes into account the seconders, the numbers – usually between 1 600 to 2 000 – leap significantly. Overseeing it all on the 120-kilometre, three-day race are 800 volunteers, without whom the race would not be what it is.

Apart from providing a cost saver that would otherwise have to be added to paddlers entry fees, these 800 men and women have a history and tradition that is deeply woven into the fabric of the race, with many of those volunteers having returned to the race year after year for a remarkably long time.

Ivan Willmott is the longest serving volunteer to date. He began his Dusi work in 1965 and has become known not by his name, but by the vehicle he drives, “The Yellow Van”. Ivan’s family has been involved in the event for many decades too.

“We used to paddle when we were younger. I suppose we just got into the Dusi because I enjoy it. It’ a good break from work and you meet a lot of guys,” he explains.

‘Howzit Yellow Van’

He’ been driving the Yellow Van, a 1965 Ford Transit Van, since the 1981 Dusi. “he paddlers all greet you ‘Howzit Yellow Van’, it’s not Ivan, I am just called the Yellow Van,” he laughs.

His sister, Colleen, together with her husband Dave Brymer, has been part of the Dusi almost as long as Ivan.

“In the beginning, my husband Dave and Ivan were boat boys [helping paddlers put their boats in the pounds]. They had their different jobs and I was in the tea tent. In those days, we had to peel a pocket of potatoes and cook 10 kilograms of rice and take that down, but now it is all done differently.

“About 12 years ago, we were brought onto the committee to do the second night stop, and that’s what we’ve done since then.

‘One of those things you don’t miss’

“None of us have missed a year since we started. It’s just been one of those things you don’t miss,” she says.

Having been a part of the iconic race for so long, Colleen says she has seen many changes. In the early days the roads were not tarred and that presented some challenges.

“The one time,” she recalls, “we had a little Datsun, and it rained so much when we opened the door of the Datsun, the mud pushed away from the side of the car. The army had to pull us up the big hill by Inanda Dam. We had a larny car with a scoop on the front. They couldn’t pull us forward. We had to be pulled out backwards!”

‘You sometimes wonder…’

Brett Austen Smith, general manager of the Natal Canoe Club (NCC), the organisers of the Dusi, says: “You sometimes wonder why volunteers come back year after year when you hear some of the stories.

“These guys deal with a wide variety of problems, including some very rude people who seem to lose all sense of responsibility the moment they head into the valley. But clearly, there must be some fun involved too, otherwise they wouldn’t keep coming back,” says Smith.

“We have also invested time and money in many of these guys, sending them on swift water rescue courses among other things.”

The Dusi Bikers

Brad Gardiner oversees the Dusi Bikers, whose job it is to provide marshalling duties along the route where it is difficult or impossible to access with other vehicles. The bikers are the link between the static marshals like medical posts and water tables and the paddlers who are in remote areas. They deal with all sorts of incidents ranging from security and safety issues to assisting paddlers in trouble in the water.

Never a paddler himself, Gardiner, even though he now lives in Johannesburg, has been a part of the event for a long time. When he was transferred to Johannesburg, he used to time his business to Natal to coincide with the Dusi meetings. “Without people like that, the event just wouldn’t happen,” says Cameron McKenzie, the race organising committee chairman.

Gardiner got started in the Dusi when he acted as a second for some friends. “The one year I saw the guys riding their bikes. I’ve always ridden motorbikes and I put my name down and it took me a long time to get on the list of volunteers. In fact, the bikers for Dusi, they’re probably the only portfolio for which there is a waiting list. In fact, if you drop out and you can’t participate for one year, you basically go back onto the waiting list because there are so many people on the list. Eventually I got my chance and this will now be my 16th year.”

Why keep coming back?

So why does he keep coming back to help out? “It boils down to the people that are involved in the race, from the paddlers through to the marshals that give of their time to do it for free,” Gardiner explains.

“There is something about the Dusi that is just incredible. You can speak to many different people, they will all have their own opinions, but for me, I do the Dusi Bikers. The guys will give of their time for free. They don’t expect anything back in return. They get a little bit of petrol money. They get some free beer. They get a t-shirt. But they do it for the love of it.

“Just to sit on the side of the river and the guys coming past saying ‘thanks a lot’, it’s an amazing feeling. It’s something that I don’t think any other race has.”

The Land Rover Owners Club

George Goswell is a part of the Land Rover Owners Club. “We have 140-odd members and have been going for coming up for 25 years. This is the 23rd year that the Land Rover Club will be involved with the Dusi,” he says.

“In the early years, we were responsible for the start, all the boats and the scrutineering of the boats at the start in the pounds in the morning on day one. For many years we did that. The last 13 years, we’ve been going down river as well. We do traffic control at key spectator points,” Goswell adds.

“On each day we have guys at at least three keys positions and they are key spectator points, with one-way bridges and narrow roads. There are a lot of cars coming down and the Dusi organisers would like the locals to be happy getting in and out of the valley and in and out of their homes, so that’s what we do, we do traffic control where there’s normally a big gathering of seconds and spectators.”

Times have changed

Times have changed, but the enjoyment remains, Goswell continues: “In earlier years, it was all dirt in the valley. Now all the roads are tarred and you can get through there with a car. But we, as members, we’re up early and we spend the whole morning working and when we’re finished we take the real back roads and the dirt tracks to get back to the overnight stop. So the guys go down there and have a bit of fun in the afternoon and do a bit of 4×4 driving as well. It’s all-round fun and a bit of work in the morning, and that’s why the guys enjoy it.”

What would the monetary value be of the work provided by volunteers? “You’ve got 800 people giving freely of their time. You just work out the cost of the man hours,” says Dusi Chairman Cameron McKenzie.

Almost all the volunteers struggle to clearly put into words why they love The Unlimited Dusi so much.

“You’ve got to be part of the Dusi. It’s very hard to describe. It’s just that whole atmosphere of the Dusi. It’s a unique race. We’re up early. We’re part of it. Okes just love it and enjoy it,” says George Goswell.

Fathers and sons

“We’ve got guys that keep coming back year after year. This is my 14th year that I’ve been involved in the Dusi. Some guys have been doing it for 17 years. The guys just enjoy it. We’ve got a number of guys that are doing their 10th. It’s my son’s 10th year that he’s been involved with the Dusi. The guy’s love it.

“It’s a Thursday, Friday, Saturday in the valley. You get to go into areas that are 4 x 4 sort of territory, so the guys love it. You get to watch the paddlers, you get involved with the spectators, and the whole atmosphere around it is excellent.”

Volunteering is something that can be passed on from generation to generation, as Tony Barrington, who is in charge of the first overnight stop at Dusi Bridge, explains. “There are some who come along year after year, like Dudley Price who did it for 43 years, and his son is now going to continue the tradition. There are many folk like that, who just don’t like to break the tradition.”

“People are very proud of what’s goes on here’

Barrington says KwaZulu-Natal and its people have a lot to do with the success of the Dusi and the province’s other big endurance events. “If you think about it, we actually live in a province where a lot of people are very proud of what goes on here and want to be associated with it.

“You think of Comrades, there are some people who have never run, who come back year after year to be a marshal,” says Barrington. “They stand on the same street corner that they’ve stood on for 20 years and they stand there for six hours and they wouldn’t let anyone else take that job.

“It’s the same with the Midmar Mile, the AmaShova as well, and I think it is KZN culture really. You want to see things like that succeed, and you understand that they will only succeed if we all lend a hand.”

Barrington says others, who are not associated with the Natal Canoe Club, should also be praised for the role they play in the race. “Bruce Acutt, for example, has done the start year after year. He belongs to the Fezela Canoe Club. There are people who are associated with other clubs who still give generously of their time to the NCC. They’re not going to get anything for it. They’re not going to get a reduced club fee. It is actually quite something.”

A monumental task

NCC General Manager Brett Austen Smith, like Barrington, was a paddler before he helped run the event. “Although I have done 17 Dusis, I have only recently been involved on the committee – three years now,” he says. “As a paddler, I had no idea of the monumental task of organising the Dusi. There is no other event like it that can compare with the logistical and social issues we have to deal with.

“As a paddler, you also have no real idea of the role played by the various groups of volunteers,” says Smith. “It is really humbling that so many people who never get into a boat feel so passionate about the Dusi, and are prepared to donate their time and energy so freely to retain the tradition and integrity of this great iconic event.”

The last word goes to Ivan Willmott, the Dusi’s longest serving volunteer. Has he ever thought of stopping? “No, never, never,” he replies. No hesitation. No pause for praise. No pause to show that quitting is even an option.

The Unlimited Dusi Canoe Marathon starts on the 14 February at Camps Drift in Pietermaritzburg and ends at Blue Lagoon in Durban on 16 February.

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