50 Years of Umko 1966 - 2016 1966 - 2016 - Page 45

C HA P T E R F O U R A High River “There’s no better laxative than a full Umkomaas” - Charles Mason S ometimes the Umko is low and bony, and this can make for a tough and boat-breaking race. But the thrills and spills of high water is what really sets the Umko apart and gets paddlers talking. For those that ask Why Do You Do It? we offer Lewis Carroll’s reason in Alice in Wonderland: “No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.” In 1969 the start of the race was moved upstream to Hella Hella, adding a faster-flowing, tighter 32km to the course. And let’s face it: “The Umko” as it is now spoken about in awe and raved about means the Hella Hella section included. That does not mean Josephine’s to the sea is not a wonderful stretch of river, nor does it mean there aren’t any fearsome rapids on it. But what really sets “The Umko” apart as a river to paddle sprint boats on big wild water is the Hella Hella to No. 8 stretch. The Umko had been designated as the 1969 SA K2 championship and that brought leading paddlers from the Transvaal and the Cape to the notorious Hella Hella bridge for the first time. Many blanched at the sight of a pumping Umko, all having heard of its reputation. Reports read dramatically: “The Umkomaas at Hella-Hella was in full flood, a really terrifying sight to even the most experienced canoeists. Figures speak for themselves, on the first day more than a third of the field was forced to retire from the race. The river was littered with smashed canoes.” In 1972 the river flowed even higher. In fact in 1972 the water was the highest the race has ever been held with a Hella Hella start and Charles Mason regards the 1972 race as the highest ever. Years later, after a high 1988 race, many paddlers said to Charles, “Surely 1988 was the highest ever for a race? It’s not possible for there to have been more water than 1988!?” Charles’ measured reply - given in full in the next chapter - was that the 1972 event was the more difficult and challenging of the two. Mr Umko has spoken. So this chapter speaks of high water, but the epic “Summer of ‘72” gets its own chapter. Before the floods washed away the vegetation and widened the river bed many bushes and trees on the banks (all “with thorns” of course) were a real factor when the water ran high. This was clearly demonstrated one year by this exchange in a Stewart/Rasmussen K2 near No.8: “Paddle Rowan!” 45 “I can’t paddle I’m in a tree!” The 1984 race saw the longest first day and the shortest second day ever as the campsite had to be moved due to inaccessibility of the preferred site. And - naturally - those who paddled had a ball and are STILL talking about the wonderful race to this day! And this includes some who swam or broke or lost their boats. Like most Umkos though, most made it and most enjoyed it and most would not want to change the basic premise of the race: It’s a wonderful adventure, it’s tough, it’s best if it includes Hella Hella, it has danger, you do it at your own risk and it always feels better afterwards if you refrained from whinging! Losing a partner in the Umko could be described as unlucky. Losing two smacks of carelessness. Big B Longley (who says that after 25 starts and 20 finishes he has swum in every rapid worthy of a name (“and some not worthy!”) from Hella Hella to Josephine’s Bridge. He makes this kind offer: “If anyone wants a map of how to walk out from No.5&6, give me a shout. After all this experience, there is only one rapid that I am worried about on Umko – the one coming next!” In 1981 he and “Pommy partner John” wrapped their boat. “It could still be paddled by one person sitting in the back, so we set out one guy paddling and the other running over the hill, to rendezvous on the other side of each loop in the river. Sometimes we didn’t rendezvous perfectly and then echoes of JOHN!, JOHN!, JOHN! could be heard ringing through the valley.” In about 1991 he and Bruce Clark took up the challenge of a fullish Umko. “There was a ledge along the bank at No.8 where the river had eaten into the cliff, so that the water would push the boat under the ledge if you got too close. We got too close! Some way downstream I got the boat to the left hand bank. After beaching the boat I walked back upstream and echoes of BRUCE!, BRUCE!, BRUCE! could be heard ringing through the valley. (Are you beginning to pick up a pattern here?)” Meyer Steyn lost his Umko partner in Hillbrow My partner broke his hand in a brawl in Hillbrow a week before the race (yes UMKO 50 Years