Paddling our province’s rivers is not for sissies

2011-01-27 00:00

IT’S easy to see why people start paddling — our provincial rivers meander through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country. Drifting slowly through a valley you are dwarfed by towering cliffs and shattered rocks. Sometimes you are forced simply to shake your head at the magnificence of it all. When you add in the challenge of the big rapids and the thrill of chasing down an opponent, you have an offering that is hard to beat in sporting circles.

But let me be very clear about one thing: paddling is not for sissies. It’s all fun and games on the water, to be sure — but on dry land it can be a long, hard grind.

“Doc, where are the paddles?” I asked anxiously at the start of our first race. “I thought they were in the boat.” I looked again, hoping they would magically appear, feeling the sweat beading on my brow. Our race was starting in half an hour.

Doc’s ashen expression told it all: they were still in his garage back in Maritzburg.

And so began the first of many panicked phone calls to our long-suffering wives.

“Babe (honey, darling, love) please will you quickly get the (paddle, splash-cover, helmet, CamelBak) from the garage and bring it out to (Albert Falls, Richmond, Underberg)? The race starts in (15 minutes less than it will take you to drive here). Thanks!”

Or, another favourite: “We have a race tomorrow in the valley. We need to leave home at 4.30 am and we should be off the river sometime after lunch. Would you mind driving us down and sitting in the car until we finish?”

And they always come through for us, but it does come at a small price. There are times when I will arrive home to find a gaggle of wives sniggering over their cups of Nescafé Cappuccino, and catch the tail end of the conversation:

“… and so they had to do the whole race with NO numbers on their boat because they were too disorganised to … oh, you’re home. Can you mow the lawn?”

Even this is relatively plain sailing — the fun really starts when you break something. It could be anything, a paddle, the rudder, your rib (try to avoid the rock next time, Doc), or more commonly the boat itself. Now obviously “break” is a relative term. Sometimes it can be the worst of the worst, a “wrap”, which is where your beloved craft literally wraps itself around a rock in the river. Even then, all is not lost thanks to the fantastic invention of duct tape, which along with Q20 is all you need in a tool bag. If it moves and it shouldn’t, use the duct tape; if it doesn’t move and it should, use the Q20. But the most common boat damage is superficial and can be fixed in the comfort of your own home with a sheet of fiberglass and a bottle of resin.

Like any other partnership it is important that members of a paddling team know their strengths and weaknesses. For example, I am good at arriving late, forgetting things and losing sunglasses in rivers, whereas Doc brings to the table his unique dress sense, the inability to eat without a table and a wife who makes a mean broccoli salad.

On the technical front (all modesty aside), I can wield a roll of duct tape like nobody’s business; my younger daughter was getting a bit out of hand one evening, and I am proud to say it took the police and ambulance services almost an hour to free her from the “fancy dress costume” I taped her into. I am of course kidding. They never arrived — I had to cut her free myself, but I think you get my point.

Doc, on the other hand, is your average strong, silent Iron Man athlete (Dusi, Comrades, Midmar Mile in a single year), but bung a can of resin in his hands and point him to a damaged boat and he undergoes a transformation into an artist of the highest order. No crack is too small, no seam unworthy of attention, and as he bends himself to his work and forgets his surroundings you can often hear him start humming happily.

Even Coach was impressed after a particularly delicate repair on a boat that had hit a rock headfirst. “Nice nose job,” he said. “I see why they call you Doc.”

I greatly admire Doc’s skill but I am not sure which he considers more of an achievement — to avoid hitting rocks in the first place or to do a really great repair job afterwards. Since he is the driver this worries me greatly. This weekend is Dash and Crash, a manic 10-kilometre race through tricky rocky rapids, and I swear I could hear him humming during last night’s Dice …

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

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