Spoilt for adventure choice

Kevin Davie

It is hard being an enthusiast who enjoys outdoor sports such as running, mountain biking and canoeing in South Africa these days. The problem is that there is just too much choice of excellent events to do.

The calendars for endurance sports are chock-full with outings in spectacular parts of the country. Hardly a dorp these days does not boast some festival or other where you can trail run in the wilderness, bike through indigenous forests or paddle pristine rivers.

As a country we always had defining sports such as the Comrades and Dusi which set the standard for endurance events. These two events made Pietermaritzburg the home of long-distance sport. On the nearby Midmar Dam you can swim a mile while the forests and hills of the area host numerous other events including, shortly, the world downhill mountain bike championships.

A little up the road is Underberg which boasts two major events, the Drak Challenge on the Umzimkulu River and the Sani2C, both held towards the end of February this year.

The Sani2C is only five years old but is so excellently organised, takes place in such splendid surroundings and is such an adrenalin rush that every year the available places are quickly taken up. There is also a long waiting list of people queuing to be able to cycle from the Drakensberg to Scottburgh, including on seemingly endless sections of forested single track.

I was doing the Dusi a few years back when I first heard of the Sani2C. It was to be held in a few weeks’ time. I was untrained from a cycling point of view, had no partner (you go in pairs) and had an unsatisfactory bike (its brakes turned out to be useless), but I signed up because I didn’t want to miss the chance to hurtle coastward from berg to beach.

New Zealand has a race called the Coast to Coast, across one side of the country to the other over the mountains in the middle. It always seemed to me that we needed to have at least one event linking the coast and mountains, and farmer Glen Haw, the Sani2C organiser, had just done just that.

Within a handful of years the Sani2C came to define endurance sport in terms of the standard of organisation competitors came to expect, with Haw and his team each year raising the bar in terms of the total experience offered to the athletes.

Once in, you were an insider and could find yourself being courted by wannabes trying to get an entry. There were rumours before this year’s event, held in the last week of February, that entries were being traded on the black market for R11 000, excluding the entry fee.

But I gave my entry away, not because I do not enjoy the event or marvel at its organisation, but because I had other things I wanted to do. While it was summer and the rain was still falling, I wanted to paddle.

If you’re signed up to do Sani2C you’ll be in cycling training during January and February – two of the primary months of the canoeing calendar. Specifically, I have not done the Drak enough in recent years because of a focus on the Sani2C.

True, I could have paddled the Drak the first weekend and then returned the next to do the Sani2C, but this seemed a bit excessive. It is a seven-hour journey from Johannesburg to Underberg.

For this year’s Drak I had agreed to paddle as a K2 with my Dusi partner, Mike. This was on the strict understanding that if the water was low, we’d change our entry to K1s.

The thing about the Umzimkulu in these parts is that it is not dammed. There is no water release to fill an empty river. In these conditions you’ll want to be in a K1, particularly for the rocky gorge sections. But at this time of the year the berg can get big rain and the river can quickly fill to full, even monstrous levels. Here you’d probably prefer to be in the larger, more buoyant and more stable, K2.

Paddling most South African rivers, you know where rocks are because they create a wave or disturbance on the surface. Not so with the Drak. You can see the rocks, so clear is the water. This is a little unnerving the first time, to say the least. You keep on thinking you are about to smash into rocks

The Drak website keeps paddlers informed before the race on the water level. Emails go out. The story, even up to the day before the race, was that there was water in the river.

But when we arrived at the start (without our K1s), the level was very low, fine for a K1 but not nearly enough for the much longer K2, especially one where the combined weight of the crew is above 200 kilograms.

So there we were. The day was glorious, the surroundings spectacular, but we had to ease our boat down the rock-strewn river. Most rapids were just carnage with broken, snarled boats.

At one point we ran out of water and managed to fill up the boat with water getting out of it. We were seconds away from seeing the boat destroyed in front of us, but managed to wrest it over a rock, opening an old war wound in the boat in the process.

At the same time another K2 smashed into us, hitting Mike behind the knee and then me on my shin and calf. We had some choice words for the paddler, who had not followed the simple courtesy of screaming for us to get out of the way.

But now the damaged boat had to be nursed down the river. We taped, we glued. We walked to let the glue dry.

We taped and glued again. And again, for four and a half hours nursing (and cursing) the boat down the river to the finish.

There were storm clouds brewing as we repaired the boat, but if the rain falls in the wrong valley, it would not help the water level for day two of the race.

The rain was pattering down as I fell asleep, hopeful that day two would not be a repeat of day one …

The level at the start was definitely up the next morning, paddlers saying they thought it was up by half a metre. A good paddling level.

We started and paddled the flat water for a few kilometres to the first weir. This is Taylor’s weir, which is a drop of about half a metre to a metre, depending on where you shoot it. This is normally on the left, a metre from the edge, but a marshal waved us towards to centre of the weir.

We duly shot the weir here. As the boat hit the water it broke in front of the front cockpit. The break was too bad to fix with tape, and finding resin and fibreglass would take too long.

It was the end of our Drak, us unhappily having to listen to stories at the end of the great water level and how much fun the paddlers had had after a water challenged day one.

I’ll be back, but in a K1.

As a journalist Kevin Davie is a Nieman Fellow and editor of numerous South Africa business magazines and newspapers. As an Internet entrepreneur he co-founded South Africa’s first online stockbroker and WOZA, the first news portal which was independent of a traditional publisher.

He divides his time between the Mail & Guardian, where he  runs the business section and pursues the twin interests of economics and environmentalism, and projects in construction (particularly green building) and a better way to search the Internet. He also makes time to paddle and ride his mountain bike.