Long, long paddle to Durban

2011-01-14 00:00

LIKE many of the world’s greatest achievements, it all started around the braai. Doc had been talking about the Comrades Marathon and how his third run would be his fastest ever. Not being a runner there wasn’t much I could add to that so I contented myself with adjusting the meat into better positions above the coals. Coach then piped up with something about doing his 10th Dusi and how emotional it would be, what with Pope’s untimely passing, and we all nodded at that. There was a lull in the conversation, and I knew it was my turn. Not wanting to move the topic away from paddling too soon, and lacking anything that could compete with Comrades, I then did what so many men have done in the past — sacrificed my future comfort for the sake of current entertainment.

“I’m doing the Dusi next year,” I said casually as I turned someone’s chicken for the tenth time. Who brings a whole chicken to a braai?

“About time,” said Coach promptly. “Doc, your partner has pulled out, so you and H can just join up. We can hit the Drift tomorrow and find you a boat, then get proficiency done this weekend. You need to join a club quite soon, but luckily they have moved the race to February so you have more time for qualifiers. I promise you guys, you won’t forget your first one, you’ll be hooked.”

Doc and I looked at each other. It was all very sudden. What were we getting ourselves into? How would I find time to play golf? When would the chicken be cooked? There was so much we didn’t know.

Coach is like a sport Yoda. He seems to put in very little effort but competes in a staggering array of disciplines including squash, surfing, golf and of course paddling, and his enthusiasm is infectious. Doc and I knew we would be in good hands, but at that stage I didn’t really have any idea of what lay ahead.

That night, should anyone have asked what I thought of the Dusi, I would have replied: “Nice scenery, dirty water, big party at night. You basically let the river carry you down to Durban. It’s pretty cool, but not, you know, all that hard.” And that was really what I thought.

I was horribly wrong.

Things fell into place with surprising ease at first: we bought a great second-hand Accord for only R800, and christened her “Croc” for her fine, green colouring and her fat, soft belly. The amount of gear you need to paddle is a little surprising: life jacket, splash cover, paddle, hydration system, lycra paddling shorts (under no circumstances should you be tempted to wear old Teesav rugby shorts — they have a thick seam, say no more).

The final and most important hurdle was still to come. Training takes time, and time is something that is jealously guarded in families with small children. It is shared and traded with uncanny skill and craft, and throwing something like Dusi into the pot was something that had to be handled with a deft touch. I was still planning my approach when the wife beat me to it.

“So I hear you think you’re doing Dusi.” She had the immediate upper hand; I was home late from work and she was knee-deep washing screaming children. The subtext was clear: go ahead, leave me to raise your children while you go and have fun in a river.

Damn she’s good.

“It’s a family activity,” I countered. “Coach’s wife has a ball when he’s paddling.”

“She’s from New Zealand,” came the cutting response. “She always has fun as long as there’s no rain. Besides, she can talk to anyone. Sitting on the side of a river stopping crocodiles from eating your children is not my idea of fun.”

I could see I had arrived at a gunfight with a knife. Woefully underprepared, I stammered something about fitness and stress but she brushed these considerations aside without so much as pausing for breath.

“There are conditions,” she said.

“Ok?” I said cautiously. I was used to the conditions, but sometimes they could be a little out there, like the time I was expected to watch a live opera performance. I had laughed that one off contemptuously, and as a result I missed out on a fishing trip to Jozini, not that I seriously believe that Tiger fish exist — I think they are a myth designed to lure me to remote places on fruitless quests to catch one. Mark my words, any image of a Tiger fish has been Photo-shopped. It’s a carp.

I was in danger of losing more ground if I didn’t focus. She was talking again: “From now on, the days of the week in our house will be: Monday, Mom-day, Wednesday, Mom-day, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. A Mom-day means you do everything and I can read in bed until the children are fed and dressed.” I digested this for a few moments while I snagged an errant child who was trying to sneak out of the bathroom and deposited it absent-mindedly back in the bath.

“I had just dried her!” yelled the wife. Damn.

“There’s more,” she said sternly, clearly thinking on her feet. “If I come and watch your races I am not your ‘second’, I am a ‘first’.”

There were some additional terms and conditions — I think I had to alter the terms of my will slightly and up the life insurance, I wasn’t really paying attention — but Dusi was on.

Our first race was the 21 km Nobby Nel Memorial a few weeks later, an “easy” paddle down the Umgeni River (I found out later this means it’s unlikely you will die).

By then Coach had done our proficiencies and shown us the basics in the river, and we had done two laps in the Drift. Our two “firsts” (the Croc-ettes) had packed cold beers and sandwiches; how hard could it be?

The two hours we spent on the river have blurred in my memory. There was a crocodile at one point, a lot of swimming, some wrong turns and quite a bit of blood. My arms started screaming in violent protest at kilometre three and things never improved in that department. Many children and old people paddled past us like we were standing still.

We narrowly avoided coming in last thanks to a great effort by an old school friend, who was considerate enough to break his boat on the first rapid and had to stop to empty it every few hundred metres; even so it was a close thing. After the race I was so exhausted that I drove straight home, ate everything I could find in the fridge and slept for six hours straight. The next day I could hardly walk. Doc was no better off, though he wouldn’t admit it — but his wife loves Facebook and he has no secrets.

That was a beginner’s 21 km race. Dusi is 120 km and takes three full days to complete. It’s a big deal.

The clock is ticking, five weeks to go. I need to get in all the paddling and running I can, but I can’t train early tomorrow morning, it’s a Mom-day.

• The Dusi Marathon runs from February 17 to February 19. Chris Hornby will be writing a weekly update on his training progress and a post-mortem of his race.

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