50 Years of Umko 1966 - 2016 1966 - 2016 - Page 53

The race will also be remembered for the challenge at the front between Springboks Tony Scott and Paul Chalupsky and Rob Stewart and Rowan Rasmussen, and how the latter led until after Goodenough’s Weir and then were overtaken on the swirling flat water en route to the finish by the Scott/ Chalupsky combination. Dave Biggs was an hour ahead in the singles class until he lost his boat soon after the start on the last day and gave the lead to Koos Kruger from Transvaal. (Kruger was tragically drowned the next year while training on the Orange River). Trevor McWade and Denis Banks wrecked their double at the side shute at Waterfall in what would have been Trevor’s third Umko, beginning a series of unfortunate breakups on the Umkomaas that persisted for many years, culminating in Trevor Scales McWade winning the KCC wreckers Trophy in 1975. That year Stewart and Rasmussen actually managed to shoot that side shute which in average years is a dry slope on the left bank above the falls. In fact, apart from one very brief swim (‘hardly got our hair wet’) and one push in the shute the only time these two left their boat in the race was to portage around Goodenough’s Weir. There were not many casualties, but those who came out in rapids rarely saw their boats again let alone managed to hold on or repair breaks. McWade and Banks were lucky in one swim. Robbie Stewart reminds his partner Rowan Rasmussen: “Rowan, remember coming round the corner into that long straight on the second day and we saw the long splash right across the river? It was the cable from the punt that was dragging in the water, getting pulled downstream, then releasing and flying twenty foot into the air and then crashing down again with a huge splash. It would have cut a person, let alone a boat, in half! And who should be midstream, swimming with their boat but Trevor McWade and Denis Banks? Heading straight for the cable! We offered to help but could not do much as the river was going too fast – and we were winning the race at that stage and had ourselves to worry about. We headed straight for the pole supporting the cable and went under it there. It was a bit tense!” For all finishers, from the leaders to the backmarkers it was a race to be remembered and helped make the Umkomaas one of the country’s legendary canoe events. Was it the highest? Pushed for a comparison by paddlers fresh off the high water of 1988, Charles Mason said: “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 I regard the 1972 race as the highest ever. “In the weeks preceding the 1988 race the Umkomaas was flowing strongly and reports of rising levels were circulating faster than fleeing Egyptian soldiers during the Six Day War. “Prior to the race KCC Chairman Allister Peter was under considerable pressure to cancel or postpone the race and as a result, an inspection of the river was undertaken by myself and other KCC officials over the weekend prior to the start. In my opinion, at that time, the Umkomaas was running at a level roughly comparable to that in 1972. However, it must be remembered that by the time the marathon started a week later, the 1988 level had dropped by about a metre.” “In addition, two major changes to the river affecting paddlers had occurred thanks to the 1987 flood: Firstly, the river bed is much wider than previously in many places, which has tended to reduce velocities and turbulence in many areas. Secondly, the river banks now are virtually denuded of vegetation which makes if possible to paddle far closer to the edge under flood conditions than was the case previously: Prior to the 1987 53 flood it was impossible to avoid many areas of turbulence due to overhanging branches and other vegetation particularly in the upper reaches of the river. Consequently ‘sneaking’ on a full river is far easier now. “Also: The 1988 race started at Josephine’s where the river widens out anyway after the Hella Hella section. In 1972 the race was run from Hella Hella to the coast over three days with the first overnight stop being at Josephine’s Bridge. The level for the first day was very high indeed and of the forty-odd entrants only thirteen made it. At Josephine’s Bridge there was considerable discussion on the river level and the prospects for the remainder of the race. Little did we realise that continuing rains would swell the river still further and make the level of the first day fade into insignificance. One canoe which had been left too close to the riverbank was swept away overnight and there was some suspicion that the owner had taken the easy way out and sacrificed his boat to the river gods.” A comparison of race times for the two events is pretty conclusive: The fastest time from Josephine’s Bridge to the coast in 1972 was around 5½ hours, whereas in 1988 the winner recorded a time of 5 hours 45 mins for a course that ended a few kms upstream of the mouth. Charles sums up diplomatically: “Although I personally, was somewhat apprehensive before the 1988 race, I found the conditions less frightening and demanding than in 1972 and, on reflection, feel that the earlier event was the more difficult and challenging of the two.” He added: “It is interesting to note that 10 of the 13 paddlers who finished the 1972 race are still active competitors to a greater or lesser degree some seventeen years later.” (And ten of those thirteen are STILL around forty three years later, nine active enough to have contributed to this chapter. Some intend paddling the 50th Umko in 2016!). Rory Lynsky - the only novice to finish that highest year - wrote: “Looking back over more than 40 years for me the defining moment of the Umkomaas was the start of the ‘72 marathon at Hella Hella. It was a first time for me, both on the river and in the marathon. Quite frankly it was a case of ignorance is bliss. If I had known what lay ahead on a flood level river over the next three days I may well have had second thoughts. As it was our little band of singles stuck to Charlie Mason like pilot fish for the full 145km. I still have vivid memories of paddling across flooded fields to bypass those monstrous walls of water where the river does a wicked 90 degree turn; Of being ensnared in thorn trees normally high up above the bank; Of the roar of the river and the sound of boulders moving - all under a leaden sky. The fear of falling out and being left behind on the second and third days especially wasn’t a good prospect. I recall being told we had paddled over Goodenough’s Weir - I don’t think there was even a dip in the river at that point.” Rowan Rasmussen said: “It was all quite stupid really. We had no idea what we were going to come up against but probably thought that each of us personally would be fine. A bit like young troops marching towards Waterloo!” Charles remembers: “All along the 145km course the river looked different. Bigger, old rapids flattened and submerged, the only trace of them huge standing waves a hundred metres below their usual position. New waves and whirlpools appeared where before one had paddled by tranquilly. Riverside vegetation was submerged and the waters flowed through fences onto farmland.” People walked out with the wreckage of their boats, when they could recover the pieces. Others lost perfectly good craft to the river, never to be UMKO 50 Years