Green Kalahari Canoe Marathon

The longest dirt road in South Africa is the R355 between Ceres and Springbok via Calvinia. Sharp stones and stark isolation (there are no towns or fuel stations on the route) have given this stretch of road a reputation as the stereotypical “dangerous shortcut”. Break down here and you may be spending the night in your vehicle. There’s no cell phone signal and passing vehicles are almost as frequent as rain in the desert.

  Longest dirt road in South Africa, the R355

Longest dirt road in South Africa, the R355

It was on this road that our journey began. With a K2 Kayak on our roof we made the perfect juxtaposition to the dry and waterless landscape. Juxtaposition: an act or instance of placing close together or side by side, especially for comparison or contrast. What a great word to describe this adventure that we had embarked on. My paddling partner, Stu Maclaren, and I had signed up to do the Green Kalahari Canoe Marathon in South Africa’s Northern Cape. Derived from the Tswana word Kgala, meaning "the great thirst", the Kalahari is one of the hottest and driest regions in South Africa. Vast areas of red sand, low preciptation and the absence of permanent surface water are a few of the things that qualify this region as a desert. It’s harsh, arid and probably isn’t the first place you would expect to do a paddling race.

 Typical Northern Cape Landscape with Quiver tree

Typical Northern Cape Landscape with Quiver tree

So what makes it possible to do a 3-day canoe marathon in such a place? Well the answer is the mighty Orange river, South Africa’s longest river. Rising in the Drakensberg Mountains, it flows 2200km westward across the country, emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. The Orange supplies the majority of South Africa’s water and plays a vital role in supporting agriculture, mining and industry. For Upington and the smaller satellite towns in the Kalahari region, the Orange is life. Without the regular supply of water that it provides, they simply could not survive.

We were indeed only racing on small section of the Orange between Upington and Khamkirri, a camp just above the Augrabies falls. Small being a relative word, it was still going to be 100km over 3 days. Neither Stu nor I had done this race before, so we had no idea of what to expect. Lucky I was able to get some valuable input and advice from my good mate Jasper Mocke, who won the race last year.

  A vein of life in the desert, the Orange River

A vein of life in the desert, the Orange River

Jasper talked me through the obstacles and channels on the river via Google Earth. If you’ve ever looked at a map of the area you will notice that the river splits into a maze of channels in certain areas, like the branches of a quiver tree. Go down the wrong channel and you will be kilometres away from the right line and risk missing the finish completely. Not having time to trip beforehand, I had a feeling that racing this river blind was going to be tricky.

Our first look at the river was on Wednesday afternoon at the end of our 9-hour drive from Cape Town. A lower than usual water level meant that the granite boulders that usually line the riverbed were sticking out like hippos in a drying up watering hole. It was a maze of boulders, channels and flat pools. There wasn’t much flow to speak of and the air was dry. Racing in these conditions was going to be tough.

We lined up on Thursday morning next to some very competitive crews. Dusi Champions Thulani Mbanjwa and Sbonelo Zondi, the doggedly evergreen Graham Solomon and his equally tenacious partner Ivan Kruger as well a crew with probably the best knowledge of this section of river, Louw van Riet and Luke Stowman. There were also two crews from Europe, most notably the Czech crew of Michael Odvarko and Kamil Mruzek, who both have world championship medals in whitewater paddling. Kamil is the current World Champion.

It was apparent from the start gun that this Czech crew was a professional outfit. While the rest of the field headed right into the first portage, about 800m after the start, the Czech crew headed off to river left. This was the only section that Stu and I had managed to trip and we waxed the portage, sprinting off to the first bridge prize 1 km downstream. It was only 500m out from the bridge that we realized that we weren’t in fact in the lead. Having been in Upington a few days before, Micheal and Kamil had done their homework and found a much faster line on the left. They now had a 50m lead on us and took the first bridge prize.

Their lead was short lived however. They got stuck on a very low weir 500m after the bridge and the rest of us managed catch and pass them by shooting the weir on the right. The rest of the day was much of the same. With there being so little water and a myriad obstacles and channel options, it was a day of limiting mistakes and marking one another. To make things more difficult the milky coffee colour water disguised submerged rocks and sandbanks so well that you only knew about them after making contact. The lead group fluctuated so much that it was difficult to keep track.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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   Typical obstacles on the Orange River

Typical obstacles on the Orange River

The main break happened at a portage a few kilometres from the end of Day One. We got away with Graham/Ivan and the Czechs and before we knew it, the finish line was in sight. It was a sprint for the line with Graham and Ivan narrowly taking it. More importantly the three of us had opened up a gap on the rest of the field and it was most likely that the three of us would be doing battle on Day Two.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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   Day One sprint finish

Day One sprint finish

The highlight of Day Two was a decent into the Neus Gorge. But before that we had to contend with many of the same obstacles we faced on Day One, plus two rather long portages. The longest being 1.6km. I was worried about our boat. She’s a veteran of quite a few canoe marathons and was taking strain on the low river. We’d had to do some repairs after Day One and I knew that it was likely that we were going to get damage on Day Two as well. I realized that managing the damage to the boat was as critical as every other aspect of the race. We decided to play things as safe as possible. The importance of this decision came to light when Graham and Ivan suffered a race-crippling gash to their hull at about the half way mark on day 2. This was a cruel blow and ended the chances of an overall win.

Neus Gorge is an experience like no other. The river narrows into a corridor framed by massive granite walls that rise up out of the water like a dragon’s back. Water that was once slow moving and sluggish, boils and swirls as it is forced through a rocky tunnel of jagged edges and sharp bends. There are some awesome but tricky rapids in the middle of the gorge. It was at one of these rapids that we lost touch with the Czechs, a tightly snaking s-bend with a narrow exit between two boulders. They took advantage and opened up a gap of 80m. It was then a flat out chase to the finish. The narrow gorge meant that we only caught glimpses of them as we zigzagged our way out. At the finish of Day Two they had 50 seconds on us.  It was going to be a difficult task to dent that gap on Day Three, especially with a batch start.

  The Czech crew and us just before Neus Gorge

The Czech crew and us just before Neus Gorge

Day three was almost like starting a new race with everyone starting together in a batch. It was frenetic from the start gun with crews jostling for positions like they do on a 10km dice. The bunch was again large with 7 boats up front. We made some silly mistakes and lost touch with Graham and the Czechs at the major portage over a large weir at Marchant. Some damage to the boat and tired arms meant that we weren’t in it for the end sprint on the final day but we were still able to hold our overall position of second. Graham and Ivan had a great day taking the stage win and the bridge prize. Thulani and Sbonelo came second with the Czechs third on the day.

 Neus Gorge

Neus Gorge

What a privilege it is to a paddler in South Africa. We are a group of a few who get to really experience wilderness in our country. They say paddling is not a spectator sport; well I kinda like it that way. The most prevalent spectator on the Orange River is the Fish Eagle and the closest you will come to a cheering crowd is the hiss of cicadas on the riverbanks.

My thanks must go to the charismatic Gawie Nieuwoudt who had the vision and drive to bring this event to life. His passion for this region and for paddling, is the driving force behind the event. The rest of the GKCM team, thank you. I have never felt more welcomed at a canoe race before. I must also say thank you to the Northern Cape Department of Economic Development and Tourism.  They know what they have in this province and it is great that they are so excited on sharing it with the rest of us.  Also thank you to Protea Hotels who sponsored accommodation for us in Upington and my company Holdfast for again allowing me the time off to follow my passion of canoe racing.

Sign up for next years race. You wont be disappointed!

Lost in the Tropics - Mauritius Ocean Classic 2011

There were two dodgy looking characters standing on the other side of the railing as we pushed our luggage trolleys out of the arrivals terminal at the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport. One of them was tall and skinny with long dark hair and pale skin. He was wearing a black leather jacket and had a motorbike helmet tucked under his right arm. The second bloke looked like the “after” picture in that advert from that nutritional supplement company which promises big muscles and rock hard abs in six weeks. It must have been week ten for him because the abs had since morphed into one single pot belly and his now sizable chest and arms were covered in a layer of easy living. Both wore gold chains around their necks and had cheesy Chinese tattoos. I wasn’t much surprised to see that Mr Muscle was holding a blue clipboard with the name “Clinton Pretorius” written on it.

Muscle Man introduced himself as Stan. He talked with a ridiculous Aussie/ French accent that nearly made me laugh out loud. As he walked us around the back of the airport to our rental car, I gave Lightie a look which made him say “What Tomo? It’s cheap.”

The stereotype I was compiling for Stan was further strengthened by the Ferrari red Hyundai Accent that now stood in front of us. It had an exhaust pipe you could block with a coconut and a racing filter which made her engine whistle. Matt black mag wheels with low profile tyres and tinted windows gave her that Blue Lagoon street racer feel. We named her “The Red Loman.”

 The Red Loman

The Red Loman

“If you geet stopped by the coppers, just tell dem you borrowing it from a mate ah.” As Stan was going through the usual pre- black-market-car-rental admin, I was desperate to know how Lightie had managed to organise this one. “Oh yeah, if you crash just give me a call ay. Ah let’s make the excess 15 000 Rupees ay?” Without signing an autograph or even touching a pen for that matter, we were off.

Racing down the windy sugarcane lined roads of Southern Mauritius I could tell that Lightie was feeling right at home. We drove through slums, dodging little men on motor-powered bicycles, with helmets that were far too big. Occasionally groups of heavies, who were playing dominoes and smoking marijuana on the side of the road, would wave at us as we sped past. It was more of a familiar acknowledgement than a greeting and it made me wonder what else Stan did for work.

Behind me sat Dom Notten, a freakishly talented 16 year old I train with back home. I’d invited him along for the ride and at that moment he was definitely getting his money’s worth. Dom doesn’t talk much at the best of times and I don’t think he did anything but breathe on that one hour drive to Black River. The antithesis of Dom, Clint “Lightie” Pretorius couldn’t stop talking. He’s an easily distracted, hyperactive freak of an athlete and one hell of an exciting person to drive with. Double clutching on every gear change and dodging livestock, people and buses with one hand on the steering wheel. I had to remind him to keep his eyes on the road a few times to. I must admit it’s the most phantom breaking I’ve ever done in any passenger seat.

The coastal road which runs between Souilliac and Tamarin is truly breath taking. Parts of it remind me of the North Shore in Hawaii. Other parts, the places I dreamt tropical would look like as a little boy. Tall coconut palms break up the monotony of rolling hills of sugarcane. Every now and again you pass through areas of natural vegetation which will make you feel like you might just bump into Tarzan and Jane. Massive fig trees rise up out of the dirt like giant green jellyfish. We had fun swinging from the thick vines which hang from their branches. Mangrove swamps clog the entrances of small rivers which run down the slopes of black rock volcanic mountains.

It is however the ocean which is truly my favourite part of Southern Mauritius. Areas of calm turquoise Indian Ocean rest in massive lagoons that stretch out for kilometres in some places. The lagoons are never more than a few feet deep and are filled with all the corals and sea life that you would expect to find in any tropical paradise. You’ll find flotillas of rickety old fishing boats all along the coast, moored in the calm waters of these lagoons.

It’s beyond the lagoons where the real treasure for us watermen is found. The deep blue Indian Ocean moves freely and spontaneously, uninhibited by bays or large landmasses. Ocean swells built in the far south unload themselves onto the islands outer crust. Find a kink in this crust and you may just ride some of the best waves of your life. Further out, the wind is free to whip up a storm. On a good day it might blow for hundreds of kilometres, tickling the ocean’s surface relentlessly all the way. You might just ride some of the best runs of your life on a day like that.

As you can imagine it is very easy to become distracted in this sort of environment. As a group of elite athletes we were in Mauritius for one reason, to race.  Months of preparation and sacrifice, combined with a desire to satisfy a fierce competitive disposition – an animal like desire to savage and slaughter our adversaries, to prevail as the dominant victor – had brought us to this point in time. We should have been edging to go but the usual pre battle atmosphere was strangely absent. Maybe we were all a bit lost in a dreamland?

Race day and that ever elusive element of nature we call WIND greeted us with the rhythmic monotony that is so typical of the tropics. It wasn’t blowing out of the typical South Easterly direction though, so the course was changed. We were to race twenty one kilometres from Flic en Flac to Le Morne along Mauritius’s west coast. This one was going to be a downwind and most of the world’s best downwind paddlers were there to fight it out.

For me all the pre-race pandemonium disappears as soon as I get onto the water. There’s nothing to think about, no body to talk to. It’s just you, your boat and a 21 kilometre of open ocean. It’s not lonely; in fact I find it quite comforting.

We raced hard. Dawid went out like a rocket and we chased him. Closing the gap was a matter of fighting for every metre. Those hard earned metres we made he took back with bursts of power and skill that were true to his title of world champion. In the end none of the field was able to catch Dawid. It was his day in paradise.

Afterwards we shook hands like gentlemen and congratulated the day’s victor. That competitive disposition was subdued for the time being and there was nothing else to do but enjoy our surroundings.  That evening we surfed together as mates on the reef in front of the resort. The majority of the top dogs were out there together and we hooted and cheered for each other’s waves like over excited school boys. After catching one of the best waves of the evening, Daw paddled back out with a smile wider than a minibus and a twinkle in his eye. “This is the best surfski race in the world” he proclaimed. I couldn’t agree with you more bru!

Molokai to Oahu and everything in between – Hawaii 2011

I arrived in Hawaii a zombie, manufactured through 12 time zones, 2 hemispheres and 36 hours  squeezed in an aluminum tube at 36  000 feet. My body which I’d been surgically sculpting for many months was stiff and sore, my mind delirious.

 View from Diamond Head towards Molokai

View from Diamond Head towards Molokai

It is a tricky thing being an international athlete. Trying to get your body to peak for an event you’ve been working towards for months is difficult enough. Dealing with the potentially debilitating effects of long distance air travel just adds to the difficulty mixture. You see an airplane full of people is a test tube full of virus and bacteria. An athlete close to his/her peak is generally the perfect host for most of the baddies found in test tube B 777.

The plan was to take my first few days easy, to shed the zombie and become human again. My enthusiastic host Zsolt Szadoski had other ideas though and was twisting my arm to do a Makapuú Run before the sleeping pills had even worn off. I submitted and that afternoon we were surfing down swells bigger than my surfski in water bluer than any blue I’ve ever squeezed out of a paint tube. I saw turtles and flying fish. The unswerving force of the tropical easterly trade winds dulled the throbbing in my head. I had to pinch myself entering Hawaii Kai’s palm tree lined bay. This indeed was absolute paradise. The perfect remedy to the torturous journey I had endured to get here.

Everybody paddles in Hawaii in one form or another. The most popular practice is six man outrigger canoe paddling, the traditional Polynesian kind. Outrigger canoe clubs are more abundant than petrol stations on Oahu. They’ve been doing the Molokai to Oahu crossing in these canoes for 60 years; it is Hawaii’s national sport. You can find crews of all ages and genders training on most stretches of water every evening in Honolulu. The famous Outrigger Canoe Club is truly something to behold. It’s more Ritz than the Ritz itself. Situated right on the water below the famous Diamond Head, it has to be the pinnacle of any paddling club in the world.

 OC 6- Mid Kaiwi channel in great conditions

OC 6- Mid Kaiwi channel in great conditions

The more modern single and double outrigger canoes are probably the next most popular form of paddle sports in Hawaii. Lightweight and easy to paddle they make ocean paddling accessible to the masses. Hot on the heels of outriggers is the infectious new trend of Stand Up Paddling (SUP). There was a race on in Waikiki whilst I was there and they had over 300 competitors in a range of different categories. Surfski probably comes in last in terms of local participation. It is however interesting to see that locals aren’t loyal to one particular brand of paddle sports. They chop and change craft depending on their mood and the mood of the ocean. This means that if you live and paddle in Hawaii you may compete in two or three Molokai crossings a year, all on different craft. All in all ocean paddle sports is a winner in Hawaii. The place is a paddling mecca.

I was here for the Molokai surfski race, famous and infamous worldwide. I’d heard all the stories and been thoroughly briefed on what to expect from many helpful friends back home. I think it’s safe to say that Molokai doesn’t have the greatest reputation for oily smooth organization. There are many things to worry about. Support boats, air tickets, surfski transportation, nutrition, accommodation, the admin list is endless! Godfrey Mocke once told me that; “Proper preparation prevents piss poor performance”. This is most definitely the slogan you need to follow when approaching Molokai, even more so if it’s your first attempt. Despite forgetting my passport at home and nearly being denied access onto the flight over on race day, I felt I had all my bases covered. I’d asked all the questions, done all my homework and to be honest I sailed through it all, with very few hassles. All that was left to do was to paddle the Kaiwi channel.

 Post paddle debrief, Hawai Kai Bay 

Post paddle debrief, Hawai Kai Bay 

Molokai Island is completely different from Oahu. It’s flat, dry and desolate. I didn’t see a soul on the 20min drive from the airport to the Kaluakoi Resort, the race start venue. I don’t think we even past another vehicle. It reminded me of places back home in the Karoo. I found myself scanning the bush for kudu and springbok. Maybe I was a bit homesick? I dunno, but I wasn’t feeling too many pre raced nerves. This place was chilled and it was rubbing off on me.

The Kaluakoi Resort is even more African than the back streets of Nairobi. The golf course has been overrun by tropical creepers and the maintenance man obviously has a wage dispute because it looks as if he’s been on strike since 1993. Strands of golden grass have long ago squeezed their way through the cracks in the concrete flooring. Roof tiles lie broken and beaten after many years of holding on too tight. I can’t dispute the setting though. The bay that was slowly filling up with 20 foot whalers is beautiful. Tall palm trees line a golden beach, framed at one end by black volcanic cliffs and filled with that mesmerizing blue Pacific. It doesn’t seem like the place you would typically start an epic journey. Rather a rest stop on a journey that you have already embarked on.

Oahu was barely visible as we lined up for the race start. The antithesis of Molokai, Oahu is distinguished by massive dormant volcanoes. The mountains trap moisture and cloud. They are the life and soul of the island, the father of the lush and fertile landscape. It was the mountains I was headed for. “You see that little valley there, to the left of Koko Head? You wanna head for that.” a word of advice from Molokai legend, Dean Gardiner. It’s a big expanse of ocean and I was told that we were lucky because often you can’t see Oahu from the beach at Kaluakoi. I’m not sure what you do on days like that. Head for the horizon and hope for the best really.

We had some wind to start with, a steady 12knots over the right shoulder. Surfing down perfectly sculpted 3 to 4 foot wind swell, I was nearly fooled into thinking that it was going to be a breeze. The fairytale slowly began to fade after about 12km though. As the wind coughed, choked and slowly died I was quickly reminded that this was going to be grueling.  Rides became shorter and more infrequent. I started to notice the heat.

The thing that really makes the Molokai tough is the heat. It is merciless. With the wind dying at my back I was drawn slowly into a heat vacuum that was sucking the life out of my body. Cramping becomes an issue because you sweat out all your body’s vital salts. Zsolt had warned me about it before. He’d told me how he had once cramped so badly that he was rendered useless. Dead on the water, in the middle of the channel, arms mangled, unable to reach his juice or hold his paddle.

I had taken every precautionary measure possible in the hope of avoiding cramp. I drank most of the electrolyte supplements available and made sure I added extra salt to my evening chow. Alas after 40km and even with 2,5 litres of fluid in me, my muscles were twitching and fragile. I was cramping in the weirdest places. I remembered someone telling me that drinking sea water was a good idea because it replenished the lost salts. It was a last resort and I tried it. I swallowed a couple mouthfuls and washed them down with fresh water from my juice bladder. It seemed to work. I actually kind of craved the taste of sea water at one stage. Your mind plays funny games on you sometimes.

It was great to come along China walls with the finish in sight. I caught a couple waves on the reefs inside the bay of Hawaii Kai and cruised under the bridge and across the finish line, satisfied. I was reasonably happy with my result but more than that I was really stoked to have finished my first Molokai.

 China Wall

China Wall

Molokai isn’t a 52km paddle across the Kaiwi Channel. It’s more than that. It’s a journey. A journey I thoroughly enjoyed rambling through. I met great people and ate great food. I surfed waves at the home of surfing and rode swells like mountains. If you love the ocean then Hawaii is a place you have to visit. If you paddle, Molokai is a pilgrimage you must complete. Aloha.