50 Years of Umko 1966 - 2016 1966 - 2016 - Page 13

C HA P T E R O N E the idea The pioneers who sought a new type of race on a new river “Nothing could take our minds off the beauty of the valley with its magnificent cliffs and continuous rapids” I - Charles Mason 1965 n the nineteen fifties and the early sixties canoeing in South Africa was “The Dusi”, that iconic three-day race from Pietermaritzburg to the sea, started in 1951 and ideally suited to people who thought running with a canoe was as good a way of getting downstream as paddling.1 And perhaps for Vaalies it was “The Vaal” started later in the fifties, and for Capies it was “The Berg”, started in 1962 and held over 240km in the Cape winter for polar bears who like their river water flat and freezing. But in Natal there was another breed of paddlers. People for whom sitting in your boat and shooting rapids was the ultimate thrill. These “paddling purists” hated the fact that they could beat someone on the water only to have him run past them on a new portaging “sneak” pathway recently discovered - or even specially cut through the valley bush. They started thinking: There’s got to be a better way than the embarrassment of scurrying about the Valley of a Thousand Hills with a canoe on your head causing mirth among normal non-paddling citizens. On the 5th April 1952 Ian Player and Fred Schmidt paddled their homemade singles from Josephine’s Bridge heading for the sea at the village of Umkomaas on the South Coast. Theirs was a pure adventure trip, they had no intention of ever racing the river. Player had won the very first Dusi just four months earlier and was using the trip to see if Schmidt would make a good Dusi partner. Just maybe Player had read The Hobbitt? “I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.” “I should think so — in these parts! We are plain qu iet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!” The search for new waters A few of these paddlers of Kingfisher Canoe Club in Durban decided that instead of looking for new shortcuts they would look for new rivers. Rivers where they could launch their boats at the start of a race and pick them up again for the first time after the finish line. Where the fastest way to get to the finish line was staying in your boat. The search was on, and they headed south to where they had heard from famous former winners of the Dusi about a wild and wonderful river: The Umkomaas. First known UMKO trip - 1952 “We paddled quietly, afraid to speak for fear of breaking the wild peace that is only Africa’s. From the top of one of the green hills a man’s voice broke the silence with a plaintive tune, a woman took up the refrain and together they harmonised. The music was beautiful and I stopped to listen. This was the music of old Africa.” Fred Schmidt and Ian Player 13 The valley near St Elmo’s, downstream of Josephine’s Bridge UMKO 50 Years