Dusi Klutz Blog 5: True Spirit of the Dusi

2009-01-18 00:00

Looking from the banks of the Dusi at the carcass of boat 9071 wrapped neatly around a rock, I found myself torn between my ego’s humiliation and mind’s philosophical understanding of what it means to experience the Dusi spirit.

I did two Dusi marathons when I was back at school. That was nearly 10 years ago. I experienced the glory of finishing, of being welcomed in by the Hansa girls, of getting a lovely, shiny medal. It was a good experience.

At school, the Michaelhouse Canoeing Club had turned from quite a casual affair into a competitive club during my time. Although I was not one of the most competitive of paddlers, I enjoyed conquering the technical aspect of the river rather than the canoeist by my side.

So it was this year. I loved the first and second day of the 2009 Dusi. The portages were tough on the body, as were the long stretches on the dam, but the rapids gave me energy and focus. The fact that I was using the same boat I had used 10 years ago seemed faintly nostalgic to me. I enjoyed being on my old horse. And it did need a little care, but I had looked after it well enough at school that it was still going strong. That, except the patch on the front of the nose which once got bent backwards. The Achilles Heal as it were.

So there I was on Saturday, on the most glorious section of the river, the flagship rapids of the Dusi. The brown, warm, E-Coli infested waters above the dam were no more. It felt as if we were paddling in ice-cold drinking water. A lot of it. After portaging down from the dam, I got into a stream off the main river and paddled down into the dragon’s mouth. Suddenly I was swept off into the mayhem of Top’s Needle, a flurry of water sending me around fatal rocks. It was the most exciting moment of the race. All the hard work of training was paying off. All those months paddling down the dull upper Umgeni were gone. All that remained was this pure magical water.

Perhaps it was too good to be true. About four kilometers later, I came to a place I know well. It is called Side Shoot. My brother and I once broke the nose of our double canoe here. We portaged the ancient vessel to where our seconds were waiting at Burma Road Bridge and did a "hot job" fibre glass effort. We waited half an hour for the repair to dry and then ran over the dreaded mountain and paddled our way to the finish.

This time, I was not so lucky. As I approached the rapid, a marshal pointed in another direction. I asked him, "Can I go down this way?" He shrugged as if to say, "Be my guest?" But I had conquered the rapid five times before, par the above incident, and I was feeling in high spirits. I wanted to go down the tough section. I wanted to conquer the rapid once more. So I slowly crept forward, each stroke in the water signaling my death knell. It is one of those rapids where you can only see rocks once you’re in the thick of it.

I felt relaxed as I begin going down the rapid. A bit a like a pilot dodging enemy fire. I seemed to be doing fine, when "bang!" Instead of bouncing back after striking a rock that was under water, my canoe went forward, the Achilles Heal caving in and bending back towards me. My boat was breaking right before my eyes. I jumped out. The boat was suddenly facing up stream, its nose ripped and buckled. The boat was full of water and the fast, fresh current was running past at high speed. I tried to lift the boat; I tried to empty the water. But all in vain. It was taken from me and thrown against a rock. The force of the water wrapped the kayak around a lonesome rock. I looked at the boat. "The race is over," I said to myself in disbelief.

It wasn’t over. I had to swim down the rest of this rapid. I crashed into a rock, then I let the current sweep me into another, and another. Then I was in the pool below. All was calm. My wing man, Jono, who had been in front of me during the whole Dusi, was now behind me. He came down the rapid, dodging my canoe. His face said it all. "After all we did this year, how easy it all ends." I held onto his boat. He paddled me to the edge. Somehow, I still had my paddle: A pilot with nothing but his steering wheel.

For some reason, I was strangely upbeat when I reached land. Upbeat and in shock, but hiding my shame and my humiliation. All with a lovely smile. And then something happened which I have never experienced before: The Dusi Spirit. You can only truly experience this if something bad happens to you on the river. That is when the people that make the Dusi so special jump forward to help. Anything you want: A cellphone to make a call, a beer to celebrate your failure, a towel to dry your misery.

This is where my philosophical experience takes off. After failing to find my seconds – they had already started the drive to the end of the race – I was confronted by a remarkable person, who made my Dusi experience far richer.

I had walked to the next rapid, where I thought I’d find my seconds. But they weren’t there. "Why aren’t you paddling," demanded Courtney Hill (19), her funky bracelets hiding her watch and her brown hair streaking haphazardly from under her emo-style hat. "I would if I could, but I’ve broken my boat," I replied. "Well, let’s go back and get it out. You have to finish the race; you’ve come so far." I was taken aback. I had been such a coward. I had given up so quickly. I just assumed I couldn’t paddle on and that was that. I forgot that I could get me boat and run with it on my back for the remaining 30 km. If I did that and swam my boat passed the finish line, I would have completed the Dusi. I would have received a medal and an applause. But doing that is quite a feat. Rather Shackleton if you ask me. Par the ice bergs.

I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into when I agreed to salvage my ship. I didn’t then know the family I was meeting was one who lived for the rivers of KwaZulu-Natal and who loved to help people in need. Courtney’s dad, Rob, was a sweep on the Dusi. That is a team of people who paddle down behind everyone else and help paddlers in need. Rob also knows the Dusi intimately.

When we return to the ill-fated Side Shoot, Rob was already there. "Dad," Courtney bellowed, "we’re going to get that boat out so Matthew can portage to the end." She was more determined than I was. "I’ve already tried to get it out and it’s not going anywhere until tomorrow," Rob replied, his expertise lending a rather final tone to his voice. "Well, we’re going to try anyway." So we waded through the water and got as close to it as possible.

"Jees, I didn’t realize how badly it was wrapped," she said to me. Her optimism was faltering. Reality was settling in. We looked at it for awhile and then she started telling me where I should have paddled. "There is channel just to the left of your boat," she says. "There are no rocks there." Courtney did her first Dusi when she was 14. She knows the river well. We turn, say farewell, and head back to the car. My attempt at being a hero is over. I am now a mere mortal who has abandoned his boat. I look at my boat. It seemed wuite fitting for my poor old horse. It died, heroically, in action.

As we were standing there, a canoeist came past with a broken paddle. I felt sorry for him, but I didn’t think I could help. "Give him your paddle," Courtney said. Immediately I waved for him to come to me. "Take my paddle," I say. "Thank you, thank you," the man replies. "I can’t believe what has happened. I broke a paddle a few kilometers back and then I was given another one. Now I have broken this one too." "Well, try look after mine," I reply, swapping his broken one for mine.

I was slowly being educated about the true meaning of the Dusi spirit.

Deidre, Courtney’s mother, agrees to take me to Durban. As we drive along the road, we see Martin on the side of the road, his boat folded in half. He’s doing what I now realize I should have done. He is taking his boat to Durban. There are four paddlers alongside him, all doing the same thing. "I’ve never seen this," I say, quite shocked. "I’ve never seen the true Dusi spirit." It was incredible. It is not the people who paddle gloriously into Durban who are the true heroes of the Dusi. They have been lucky. They have had a good run. No, the true heroes are the paddlers who never give up, who have the will and courage to carry a burden through bushy terrain so they can complete the marathon.

I had to go to the information booth at the end of the race to tell them I had broken my boat. A woman, who had helped me with my water bottle woes a day before and who saw me sweat out some more klutziness before the start on Saturday, shook her head. I was holding the other canoeist’s broken paddle in my hand and she assumed – correctly - that I had pulled out. She wrote "withdrawn" and my boat’s number, "9071". It sunk in. I had failed. That’s when my ego set in. I felt bruised. Then Jono, his mother and his girlfriend emerged. Victorious. Ululations. Smiles.

I felt down all of a sudden, but happy for Jono. It was his first Dusi and he had experienced the full glory of it. I had experienced another Dusi, one that I will treasure for life. For, although I do not have the Dusi medal in its true form, I have a more meaningful representation of it in my heart. My finish was at Side Shoot, and what a glorious and stylish finish it was.

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