Remembering the first Umkomaas Marathon

2010-03-11 00:00

COMPETITORS in the 2010 South African K2 championships being held on the annual Umkomaas Marathon this weekend, would do well to reflect on the humble beginnings of this race through the rugged valleys of southern KwaZulu-Natal 44 years ago.

On the December 16, 1966, long weekend, a small group of Pietermaritzburg and Durban-based paddlers assembled below Josephine’s Bridge where the Richmond-Ixopo Road crosses the river for the start of the first long-distance race on the lower Umkomaas River. There were no seconds, advertising logos or spectators — just a solitary timekeeper driving a World War 2 Jeep backed up by a vintage short-base Land Rover. Other sedans were laden with tents, dry clothes and provisions.

The 40 paddlers were setting off on a 112-kilometre three-day adventure with the finish at Umkomaas on the south coast where the river meets the Indian Ocean. Exploratory expeditions had been held by Ian Player, Pete Gladwin and the late Don Cobbledick, but no one had raced the full length. Incredibly, of those original 40 canoeists who took part, three are still active in canoeing — the legendary Graeme Pope-Ellis, Charles Mason, who won that first race, and Paul Chalupsky now in Australia.

In the sixties all the races held in KwaZulu-Natal were either on the Msunduzi or the Umgeni rivers and before the days of guaranteed water release, these two rivers were already under pressure from holding dams. A series of low Dusi Canoe Marathons persuaded the Kingfisher Canoe Club (KCC) to look at a new race which would provide both an adventure akin to river trips and keep to the original spartan philosophy of the Dusi founders.

Thus it was at a KCC meeting held in the old Central Hotel in Durban that chairman Derek Antrobus and committee members Barry and Ken Willan, Hamish Gerrard, Cobbledick and Mason thrashed out the format of an Umkomaas race to bring before the then Natal Canoe Union. Some wanted a four-day race starting at Hella Hella and ending at the sea, but this proposal was scrapped with fears that no one would finish. Finally, they proposed a three-day race from Josephine’s Bridge to the sea.

Mason, about to enter his 44th Umkomaas Marathon, remembers those early days. “Getting the race going required a considerable amount of planning. During the apartheid era when entry into rural areas was forbidden without a permit, we had to endure a lengthy bureaucratic paper chase which happily is not required today. We were also very fortunate in that Ken Goodenough, who farmed on the river, had been involved in a census collection there and assisted us in finding suitable overnight stops, making all three days roughly the same — 35 km, 37 km and 40 km.”

Kingfisher members secured refreshment, food and fuel sponsorships from local firms and the necessary trophies, and for the princely sum of a R2 entry fee, the 40 competitors were to be fed, housed and transported for the next three days, courtesy of the river. Mason recalls that the rules set then are still applicable today: no access to the river by spectators and no seconds allowed.

In those days before life jackets, helmets and cellphones were made compulsory or invented, single canoes had to paddle in pairs for safety reasons. Most of the entries were singles with a few doubles. Mason says: “The late Ozzie Gladwin was the starter, doubling as official timekeeper and our communications fundi as he was a radio ham.”

Mason recalls that wet weather set in as the paddlers headed off downstream and out of sight, enjoying the rapids cutting through the Table Mountain sandstone cliffs that dominate the river-bank scenery past St Elmo’s and Cunningham’s Drift.

As a result of the wet weather, the canoeists reached the Riverside overnight stop to find that only the timekeeper in his Jeep and one other vehicle had managed to conquer the muddy and slippery descent to the river. All the other transport was stranded 15 km away near Highflats. “Realising the predicament, two schoolboy competitors hiked out of the valley to locate the vehicles. They secured a wooden sledge and two oxen from a local man, loaded a few essential supplies on the sledge and dragged it down to the overnight stop.The competitors had to tighten their belts with no food, tents or clothes. Riverside Trading Store was very popular before everyone bedded down to sleep in neighbouring homesteads.

Charles and partner Tank Rogers had come in at the end of the first day just ahead of Paul Chalupsky and the late Jimmy Potgieter who were paddling together in singles. At the start of the second day the sun came out and after setting off without breakfast, the two leading groups continued their struggle until the second overnight stop at the notorious Mphompomani rapid.

Before the start of the third day, the stranded transport arrived and the paddlers were able to benefit with double rations. The titanic tussle between the two top pairs continued as the river widened its course on the final day through granite-strewn boulders. Rogers and Mason managed to break away from Chalupsky and Potgieter, maintaining their lead to Goodenough’s Weir where Ken Goodenough was on hand to hand out pilchards and loaves of bread before the final sprint to the river-mouth finish.

The new race had proved extremely successful with few of the contestants dropping out. Today the race is still seen as one of the iconic races on the South African canoeing calendar. It’s slightly ironic that the last time the race went to the sea was more than 18 years ago and the reasons were security considerations and the length of the race. Today, the marathon has reverted to a two-day event from Hella Hella to Riverside.


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