The Dusi experience
Well for us South Africans the Dusi is simple, a canoe race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban..
For the rest it can be a little confusing- Canoe? Down a river? Oh you mean like Pocahontas on a river cruise…LOL
Not at all ,the Dusi is a 3 day river race where we paddle and run- yes run, walk however we can from one town to another. Not in a canoe as some people understand it but a Kayak, yes a kayak like a K1 or K2 used in the Olympic sprint events. Only in our case the “canoes” are modified for the river with kick up rudder systems and easier to operate pedals for steering. Most K1 and K2 kayaks have a t-bar system for steering so pedal systems are not as common in the rest of the world just us SA boys making a plan…as we do.
The Dusi Canoe Marathon was founded in 1951, and covers roughly 120km between the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, on the East Coast of South Africa.
It is the biggest canoeing event on the African continent, and one of the world’s most popular river marathons, attracting between 1600 and 2000 paddlers each year.
3 stages as follows-
Stage One of the race is 42km long, from Camps Drift in the city of Pietermaritzburg to Dusi Bridge, a remote area outside Cato Ridge close to Nagle dam.
Stage Two is the longest and hardest stage, 46km from Dusi Bridge to Msinsi Resort on Inanda dam outside Hillcrest, and ends with 11km of flatwater on the dam.
Stage Three is 36km from Inanda dam to Blue Lagoon in Durban, starting with 4km of flatwater on Inanda dam and ending with 10km of flatwater on the tidal estuary into the finish.
The race is unique in that it includes numerous portages where the paddlers carry their craft over hills, either to cut out unrunnable rapids and cataracts, or to eliminate long loops in the river. Most of these portages are through thick bush on steep and undulating terrain, and several of them are around 4km in length- yes that’s right you read correct, we run and portage our canoes on our shoulders..
So that’s a little of the History but here is my first hand experience of the race this year..not my first one but rather my 17th dusi since 1992.
So why write about it all now, well why not I know there are numerous guys around the world who like to follow the adventures of Stealth so here goes and as promised I will keep sharing my many paddling adventures over the next 12 months.
It all started with a phone call from a friend- Challie are you paddling dusi this year?
Nervously I answered umm not sure why? Mark: oh good then we paddling…
ME: oh really now… the last time I paddled further than my local fishing spot was 2 years ago(Dusi 2014)… oh ok lets do it…(not my brightest decision but I had visions of training and getting fit again)
Yes.Me the human being- the eternal optimist believing that I have so much time and of course I can get fit. At that time I had exactly 9 weeks to go before the race… surely that was enough.Well at least I convinced myself..worked out a few things and took the plunge.
Ok so the first 2 weeks went like this – Monday- umm weather is a little dodge so I will start tomorrow, Tuesday stuck at work, Wednesday oh well I may as well start on Monday rather.. you know the I will start on Monday excuse well the same one.
2 weeks were gone and nothing done.. then Mark made his way over for his annual xmas holiday with the family.No paddling partner excuse was now valid and in full use…well in my own head that is.January arrives and I have a short break with my family so still the paddle stay dry.Finally on the 12 of Janaury the excuses dry up and we hit the water… we have a month surely we will be fine.
Paddle feels good and we convince ourselves that we actually fitter than we think.. let’s paddle the crusaders night race tomorrow night.Race entered and we ready to go…and we’re off like a dog chasing a bone( bad move)still thinking we fitter than we actually are.
About 8km into the paddle we realise this was not what we pictured… as we eased up to the finish ramp and turn around area we quietly slipped behind the scenes and recorder a DNF.
Not sure if this meant “did not finish” or more along the lines of “definitely not fit”
OH s… we need to train. Those words we all dread. Reality check 2 I am no on my way to the USA on 20 January for a work trip. Lets just say we paddled another 5 times before I left including a”qualifying “race to secure a decent starting batch.
During the dusi you start in batches of 60 paddlers according to your qualifying times from various races- we did one just in case… and lucky we did.
Ok so I travelled from one side of the USA to the other and back home again over 10 days.Had a casual paddle for work and a fishing event that in the end was a paddling one for me with no fish to report of.All this time however I kept on running between 3 and 5 times a week.At least I will be able to run I thought.
I landed back home on the 2nd of Feb and time with my beautiful girls and special wife was prioritised. Lets just say I only paddled again the following week and miserable twice as well. Plans kept on going haywire and excuses were flying around like money in a strip club…
Ultimately we managed to fit in another 2 paddles including a Thursday night time trial and a paddle to make sure all our pumps and set ups for the race were in order.
On the positive side my running had been feeling a lot better than the last 4 months and I was actually feeling confident about being able to run with the boat.
SO the big race arrives… we about as ready as 3year old on the first day of play school.The weather gods have been kind or at least we think so and lots of rain and water around in what was supposed to be the driest dusi in 25 years…
We make our way down to the start of B batch, off nice and early at 6 10am.This ultimately meant that I had a 2 45am wake up call to make sure we got to the start on time.From pick up at home to the start is about 100kms plus a few able seconds need to be collected so this will make sure we do not have a panic rush morning…personally I would have rather slept for longer…
We are off with a very strategic race plan..My instructions were .. I am the driver of this ship so we start slow and get slower… agreed.Well too bad if you don’t just keep in time smile and enjoy the ride.I kept saying to Mark listen bud, we just relax stay calm and enjoy every moment. No need to get worked up ,start chasing someone ( we too competitive) just set our own relaxed pace and make sure we finish strong .It is 3 days after all.
So off we go a mere 5 minute paddle to the first obstacle which is Ernie Pierce weir.. a nice quick fast 10ft drop down a stepped weir.Everyone jostling for position with about as much politeness as free buffet for hungry people.As we make our steady descent and hit the pool we bump off some splashing swimmers… aaagh yes its my old friend and world surf ski champion Dawid Mocke, maybe a little hot or possibly just checking the buoyancy on his Mocke PFD..
We settle into a nice pace and make our way down the river..soon reaching the first portage of the day.A quick dash down a bank and over the low level bridge.The start of an eventual day… as we rounded the corner and went down the first bank the rain showed us it had done no favours, the grass was super slippery and a solid wipe-out from mark was the order of the morning.
Lets just put it this way…the nest 2 major protages were a mudfield of sludge, and slippery surfaces so difficult that it was even hard to walk and not fall..once you started running especially down hill the brakes were non existent and you just had to keep going.The mud on the devils cauldron, An aptly named portage for the wicked hills and usually scorching hot conditions was worse than an ice rink.I had 2 spectacular wipeouts.One to realign my shoulder and back and another for a perfect face pant.Remember when you running with a canoe on your shoulder you have no hands to break the fall and shortly followed by the wipeout is your double canoe smashing you a little more.
I distinctly remember trying to climb the hill out the cauldron and mark shouts- pull man pull the f… boat(no please and thank you’s here) while I shout push … come on push.Even trying to stand still we were sliding back down the hill.As we exited the path some lady says oh look you look like you been rolling deep in the mud…No S… Shirley have you even seen that mudfest…I just smiled and said yes I was trying to impersonate a pig.
So a long story short Day 1 was tough, on the last portage I moaned to Mark and said ok I am tired now lets just get this over with. We had completed the 42km first stage in 51st position overall. Plenty of hang tough paddling but hardest of all were the slippery slimy conditions that never really allowed us to run properly but rather just survive along the way. 6 Portages totalling about 16 km with a nice chunk of fibreglass on our shoulders… most importantly though we kept our sense of humour in tact…
Day 2 dawned .. tactics discussed and we were now leaving in an elapsed time batch so basically you leave relative to the time you are behind the leaders.Start plan was relaxed off the line smile as all the racing snakes chased after us and let them pass. We were in the zone of make sure we still have arms left when we get to the 12km Dam paddle at the end.A fairly uneventful first 2 hours breezed by with a few portages thrown in.To give you an idea of our “zone” we were in I had just politely said heh bud is all good, you relaxed , we sitting straight?? Then a boat with 2 of our friends raced up and passed us and it went like this…Pete sit straight. I am he shouts, no you not we leaning man.Its you ,you sit straight… clunk as they bounce off a rock..aaagh f… man come on..muffled reply’s a few moans and then I could not hear anymore.
Finally when we reached the big 3 rapids of day 2 we were still comfortable and cruising along. As we approached gumtree rapid I saw the line I had chosen but there was a boat already in the channel. Plenty of time ..not so lucky as they got stuck swung sideways and jammed it up. Committed we just held our line and crashed into them solidly throwing us around a rock…panic stations and a rapid pull of the boat and we survived a potential race ending disaster. Before it was too late we manged to quickly get to the bank..
I could see a large crack across the nose of our Kevlar boat and I had also seen it stretch and creak around the rock… I chose to pretend all was good. As we dropped into hippo rapid the nose did a quick 180degree peak at me…oh s… I thought. We mastered the rapid hit the bottom pool and carried on..All good I asked Mark…yup all good.. to put it simple the nose of the canoe had basically bent completely to one side and then bounced back… the joys of a full Kevlar canoe.
We carried on and a very very slow leak was all we had. Mark had to just pump using the foot pumps for the rest of the day. We hit the dam for the home stretch for day 2 which consists of a long 12km haul across flat water. Quickly a bunch of 3 boats formed and we soldiered on each taking turns to pull the other along. About 4 km from the end I hear a muffled.. Challie.. I am .. and before he could continue I said politely shut up we getting a free ride here and we aint slowing down..We hung on grimly to the end of the day. Our engine that was once a purring V12 was now running like a choking 1300.
Thankfully day 2 was done and so were we…somehow still hanging on in 54th position.
Day 3 dawned and a nice 11h40 am start was in order…perfect midday heat. On day 3 there is a reverse start so that the rest of the field can watch the winning boats finish the race, where as a few years ago they would finish before most people had even started.I still had to wake up fairly early as I needed to get to the factory to sort a few things.
Beep beep… it was my phone and it was Mark… challie my paddling arms are not working lets run over Burma…Now if you consider that I have done 16 dusis before this one and never run over this monster it was a oh s… moment.
Fair is fair lets go over and besides the river level was ok but the portage should be quicker. Decision was made. As we arrived at the Dam we were greeted by a nice calm and flat dam.It was only 4 km to the dam wall a short portage and then back on the river. Almost as if planned 5 minutes before start time a buster westerly wind arrived turning the dam into a 2ft standing wave..A simple paddle was now survival trying to stay in the boat and not sink from all the waves crashing on our laps.
We managed well and were in the front group. I completely messed up the take out and went from sitting in the front group to getting stuck behind about 20 boats.. Elementary error.. but I will blame it on fatigue..LOL.
Back in the river after a short portage a terrible path taken back to the water and I had handsomely undone all our nice work across the dam. On the put in we bent our rudder so badly we were basically steering by paddle power. We decided to keep going and made our way without incident to the Burma road take out..Lets just say Burma road is one super steep horrible portage about 4km long It gets so steep near the top you actually think you going to break out through the clouds…
The dash down the other side is eventful and we ran hard and made some good speed bouncing off rocks and dragging the boat down the tar road.When we arrived at the river I saw a boat paddle past that was a good 3 minutes in front of us, so we had made some good time.
A frantic jump in and an even faster exit as we did the school boy error of falling in and filling the boat with water…Stop slow down, empty, climb back in.. all the hard work undone again..Boy we were having fun…
A few interesting words were mumbled and the 1300cc engine spluttered away from the bank.One more major weir and rapid and then flat water all the way home.in the morning we had said we would run the portage around the weir and rapid but after my 2 navigational and school boy errors it thought lets just wing it.We bounced off the bottom of the weir hard, threading our way nervously through the top section , dropped into the main rapid, hit a rock went from 30km/h to minus 5km/h managed to somehow stay upright and filled up with water while successfully getting through the rest.We went to the bank emptied the boat and settled into our not so rapid pace.Day 3 was not being so kind to us.
All that was left was about 12km of gentle flowing water all the way back to Durban.Unevetful they say… oh yes around the corner we go bobbing into dogs leg rapid and the next minute rocks, stones and branches come flying hitting us and the boat as well as knocking us out the boat…There they were a group of about 15 little school boys throwing rocks and whatever else they could find at the paddlers.To say it was dangerous is an understatement as the size of some of the bricks they were throwing would do some hectic damage.While emptying the water out on the far bank they kept shouting and throwing rocks not just at us but at every boat that came past.
A rapid exit from the war zone and we limped back into the finish..Mark was shattered and was struggling to keep pace in the group we found but we eventually crossed the line and completed the race.We somehow after all the interesting events still managed a 54th overall position.
It was another eventful race but I know for sure, that next time fitness will be the first priority…
This weekend I will be heading up to Cape vidal with the kayak fishing club so hopefully I will get a chance to hit the water and sneak a fish or two but I do have my 3 daughters in tow while Mom gets a deserved rest… stay tuned for my next adventure in the world of paddling and fishing.