Emotion, pain, fatigue and fun

2011-02-25 00:00

THE first time I had to fly overseas on business I made sure I set four separate alarm clocks in case I somehow overslept and missed the flight. There was no need to worry because I woke up at 1.30 am, 2.17 am, 4.12 am and finally at 4.55 am — five minutes before the alarms — and arrived at the airport absolutely exhausted, which is the perfect frame of mind to deal with travel bureaucracy­.

Missing a flight is not the end of the world — at worst it’s an expensive inconvenience — unlike missing the start of a race that happens only once a year. The Wednesday night before the Dusi I slept badly, dreaming that John Oliver was calling out batch after batch of canoes to the start while I hunted frantically for duct tape to repair several large holes in the boat that had mysteriously appeared overnight. The more duct tape I applied, the more the boat fell apart until eventually dusk set in and I realised I had missed the race entirely. I woke at 4.39 am with my shirt drenched with sweat.

Not being the type to read too much hidden meaning into dreams I immediately sent Doc an urgent SMS to buy more duct tape, then got out of bed; after a week of no exercise I was dying to get out onto the river and start the journey to Durban.

There is a sense of occasion at the Natal Canoe Club at the start of the Dusi, with the music blaring, announcers shouting out batches and general confusion as seconds scurry about readying their paddlers for the race. Coach and Halfway Harley in their new boat were in the same batch as us and the four of us paddled gently to the middle of the Drift to wait for the start. I looked at the eager faces around us, hearing the pent-up excitement in every laugh that bounced between the boats, hundreds of people doing something they loved, the normal world held at bay for three sacred days where pain and fatigue are a small price to pay for so primeval­ an achievement.

And then it began, the culmination of months of training and preparation in that one short word, “Go!” It was easy to feel relaxed paddling down a home stretch so familiar­ from many a Dice and we chatted to the boats around us — from Johannesburg, Cape Town and even Swaziland. Friendly faces lined the banks and the bubble of excitement in my chest seemed to grow larger as I spotted my own family, friends and colleagues cheering us on, each rapid successfully negotiated giving us more energy­ as we hurtled through the city.

Okay “hurtled” is a little strong — we took nearly five hours that first day — nonetheless, we sailed through, conserving our energy­ and only taking one swim. We slid into the Dusi Bridge finish to be congratulated by our firsts and greeted with the chilling news that Coach and Halfway had wrapped their boat — the ultimate disaster. Doc and I glanced at each other immediately — only another paddler could truly grasp the import of such an event.

“You know what this means,” Doc said seriously­, taking me to one side.

“Yes,” I said. “We are going to finally beat them in a race.”

We jumped into the air and high-fived with excitement and hurried to grab a beer and wait for them to come into sight so we could taunt them. The Dusi rules stipulate that in order to complete the day you have to paddle your boat across the line, something that would be quite tricky since half their cockpit was with us at the finish. We could hardly contain our excitement.

Coach and Halfway finally hove into view on foot carrying their shattered boat, sagging­ in the middle where it was lashed together with two paddles, some branches and a lot of duct tape. Clearly the canoe would not stay afloat for long so they put in as close to the finish line as they could, but as fast as they paddled the boat sank faster. When they crossed the line Coach only had his nose in the air while Halfway was back-pedalling like a cat getting its feet wet. Broken­ as the boat was, by 7 am the next morning it was good as new thanks to the repair crews at the finish.

Day two is traditionally the hardest, but we had a flawless run before starting the long, lonely hour across the dreaded Inanda Dam with the wind whipping the water into our faces … organisers, how about a Duzi Floozi pontoon at halfway for next year? It was with great relief that we finally climbed wearily off the water to join our trusty firsts­ at the camp site to settle in for a quiet evening.

The biggest decision that faces you on the final day is Burma Road. If you choose to “run Burma” then you cut out many dangerous rapids and are almost guaranteed of finishing­ the Dusi safely. Paddle around and you have to negotiate Island Rapid, Five Fingers and (how’s this for a name) Graveyard Rapids­. We picked the safe route, and for those of you who have not done it before, I highly recommend the experience. The scenery is stunning and because it’s pretty flat all the way you have lots of time to admire the views. The cool shady paths are well marked and dotted with drinks tables and physio tents run by young Swedish masseuses. They also have small air-conditioned booths where you can use the Internet to check Facebook and reply to any urgent e-mails, or simply relax for half an hour and watch a movie.

I’m sorry, I had to make something up because­ I have blanked out the real details of Burma Road, but please, for the sake of your sanity, don’t do it … it’s long and very, very hot … so dry you start hallucinating about cool waterfalls … you will get hopelessly lost … twice … and by the time you get to the river you will be ready to clout the first cool, refreshed looking paddler who tells you how easy Graveyard is at this water level. Burma?­ Never again.

The final 15 kilometres are easy paddling, and as we put in after the final portage through the golf course, Doc’s ears twitched and his body tensed: he was in full-on hunt mode now. With only a few kilometres left we could afford to push it a bit.

“Ten boats,” he said. “We have to pass them all by the end.”

I was keen — the muscles were still strong from all our conservative tactics and I was ready for war, so we hit the water hard and paddled like pros, seeing boat after boat fall behind us. We rounded the final bend to see the finish flags fluttering in the air and both burst out laughing — with sheer elation more than relief — and hunkered down to drive the Croc searing over the final few hundred metres towards our waiting friends and families …  and Coach and Halfway, who unfortunately had managed to make up lost time and beat us in the end — only just.

And so the questions flooded in, how was it, would you do it again? The short answer is that I enjoyed it far more than I ever expected to and took more from the experience that I ever dreamed. The training was a lot of fun, we did it all really slowly and didn’t expect very much of ourselves, we had a great coach and supportive families, all of which is vitally important. The amazing thing is that the actual event itself is far more than the sum of its parts — the emotion, pain, fatigue and fun are just ingredients that the Dusi valley bakes together into a delicious feast that once tasted is never forgotten. Try some, you might like it.

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