50 Years of Umko 1966 - 2016 1966 - 2016 - Page 51

C HA P T E R F I V E The Summer of 72 “The Umkomaas is a great leveller” T - Charles Mason he ‘72 race was the most challenging to date: - The water was the highest; - It was one of the Long Four - 145km; - It started from Hella Hella; Water levels may be debated, other races had high water, but ‘72 was likely the highest - and then it rose. Also, no other highlevel race fulfilled the other two criteria, putting the Summer of ‘72 in a category and class of its own. Very high, very long and it started with the most challenging part of the course. Case closed. The Summer of ‘72 River stories, like fisherman tales, usually manage to get bigger with the passing of the years. But for those canoeists who took part in the 1972 Umkomaas Canoe Marathon no exaggeration is needed. The Umko that year hosted the SAK2 Champs and will be remembered with more than a trace of nostalgia. This river has many moods and in the late summer of 1972 it showed just what it is capable of. The race was a three day event starting at Hella Hella and going 145km all the way to the sea. The first overnight stop was Josephine’s Bridge and the second near Mpompomani Rapid. A week before the start the Drakensberg experienced heav y soaking rains. By the start on Thursday morning the river was up at a very high level - its highest since the disastrous 1959 South Coast floods when the Hella Hella and Umkomaas Mouth road bridges were washed away. The metal remains of the old bridge can still be seen at Hella Hella downstream of the new concrete bridge on which the nervous paddlers now stood on that morning. It was a sight and sound never to be forgotten, whether one was an experienced canoeist of the ilk of Springbok veteran Paul Chalupsky or one of the band of nervous novices. Looking downstream the river was spread completely across the valley. Ali Maynard remembers Colin Wilson “walking up and down on Hella Hella bridge trying to get people to pull out of the race.” Duncan Porky Paul remembers him too: “Colin put his boat in the water and back on the car twice before declaring he had received a ‘Direct message from God not to paddle’ and left his boat securely strapped on his car. I was very impressed and I wondered why he alone got the message and not the rest of us!” The Approaches to No.1 were a roaring torrent and one could hear a dull roar as river stones rumbled along the bed. That was to be the pattern for the whole route to the Indian Ocean. Previously recognisable rapids were submerged beneath huge volumes of water. The water at No.8 covered the 51 entire river and left bank and new waves appeared where none had existed. The river was flowing over farmland and through fences while riverside vegetation was submerged beneath the flooded Umkomaas and trees were uprooted. Those who made the first overnight stop at Josephine’s Bridge were elated, then apprehensive and fearful all over again when the river rose yet higher overnight with the continuing rains. There was considerable discussion on the prospects for the rest of the race. One canoe which had been left too close to the river bank was swept away overnight and there was some suspicion that the owner had actually thus avoided having to paddle on the next day! For most competitors still in the race the prospects for the next two days were frightening indeed as the loss of a canoe between Josephine’s Bridge and the finish would mean a long trek out of the valley. Lifejackets were the order of the day. One schoolboy competitor was seen quietly vomiting over the side of his boat into the brown swirling waters as he sat clinging to the bank waiting for his time to start. He finished the race and some years later, whilst serving in the Rhodesian army, rescued a wounded comrade under heavy fire in the Zambesi Valley. He still maintains he has never been as afraid as during that 1972 Umkomaas Marathon. Porky Paul would go onto great things in paddling and in life. Canoeists, depending on their skill and nerve, had two choices, they either bank crept, keeping to the inside of bends with a wary eye out for fences, or took their chances in the midstream torrent, reaching high speeds as they were swept along by the current. In fact the average speed of the leading doubles teams was just over 21km per hour for the second day. Impassable roads forced race organisers to change the second overnight stop venue at the last minute to Mpompomani Rapid. Paddlers had been advised of this possibility at the start of the second day and when they arrived at the originally intended site and found no camp they had to continue downstream to below Mpompomani Rapid until they got to where the support vehicles and officials had been able to reach. Paddlers’ memories of the river during those three days include the constant sound of rapids; the dull overcast conditions; the flotsam and jetsam floating downstream; a flooded Mpompomani and Waterfall and - especially - the camaraderie that bound the small band of canoeist/ adventurers at the two overnight stops. Seconds and officials will also remember the treacherous conditions of the roads; bogged down vehicles and muddy tents. UMKO 50 Years