Ingwe Idla Ngamabala (A leopard eats by means of it's spots)
This is a photo of a modern Zulu warrior. In his right hand he holds not an assegai but a paddle. In his left hand is a kayak not a shield. His battleground is not a grassy plain but a meandering river. What hasn’t changed is his fearless fighting spirit and resolve. He is a fierce competitor.
The Green Kalahari Canoe Marathon is new race on the South African Calendar but it is starting to establish itself as an epic river marathon. Organizer Gawie Nieuwoudt has in recent years put big emphasis on drawing South Africa’s talented teams of development paddlers to his race in the Northern Cape. This year almost half of the field was made up of so-called development paddlers. I say “so-called” because I don’t consider these guys to be development paddlers. These are well-trained and highly motivated elite athletes. Some have proved their prowess and skills on the waters of the Dusi in recent years and you would be foolish to consider them anything but serious competitors.
Day One from Upington to Oranjerus was was 30km. I didn’t have a great start and with a depth of great top end paddlers I was scratching at the back of a bunch of 10 for the first few kilometres. The river is wide with many different channels and rapids, so choosing the right line is very important. It was very tactical and taxing for the first half of day one. When there is a big bunch of guys together, there’s a lot of testosterone and frantic jostling to get the best position at the front wash (where you don’t have to work as hard). Eventually just after the 20km mark, we managed to settle into a 4 boat breakaway at the front which I was part of. Other paddlers on the front were Thulani Mbanjwa from KZN, Stu Maclaren and Jakub Adam from Czech Republic. The chasing pack was right on our tail and had some strong paddlers with them still. We had to keep the pressure on until the end of the day, to ensure our hard earned breakaway survived. After a tricky portage (where you have to get out of your boat and run/ clamber around an obstacle) it was a relatively straightforward approach to the end of the day. The Czech Jakub took the end sprint and day victory with Stu 2nd, Thulani 4th and myself 3rd. I was happy with the day’s effort and was sitting in a relatively comfortable position going into day 2. I say relatively comfortable because my concern for day 2 was that there would be some running with the boat. Thulani is renowned for being an incredible runner and he was going to be very dangerous on day 2’s portages.
Day 2 was a 38km stretch from Keimoes to Kakamas, with 3 major portages and a total of roughly 2.5km of running. For the first half of the race, the 4 of us at the front worked together to keep the chasers off with the mindset of trying to conserve enough energy for the taxing first portage. We had to shoot a couple of great rapids and weirs. These could really end your race if you got it wrong but we all got through safely. (Unfortunately! I was hoping that maybe Thulani, Stu or Jakub would make a mistake that I could capitalize on before the portage, but they were solid and made no mistakes). I knew that it was going to be inevitable that Thulani and possibly Jakub were going to run away from me at the portage so my mindset was to try to relax and concentrate on being fresh enough to chase them down when we got back on the water. You can really hurt yourself if you run too hard on a portage. The first portage played out exactly as I had expected and both Thulani and Jakub ran away from Stu and I. Jakub did incredibly well to stay with Thulani on the run. This was honestly the worst outcome for Stu and myself. Now Thulani and Jakub could work together to get a gap on us. They had roughly a 1 minute gap on us after the portage. Stu had hurt himself too much after the run and wasn’t able to keep up a solid chase pace either, so I was essentially on my own in my efforts to chase the leaders down. Meanwhile behind us in the chase pack, Simon van Gysen had had an absolutely incredible run and had managed to close the gap on us. He is a very dangerous paddler and seems to have super human abilities especially at the end half of a race. He caught up to Stu and I not long after the portage. This was actually great for us, as we now had someone else to work with. The three of us worked together until the next portage at Neus Weir. This portage was made up of two portages in relatively quick succession with a section of paddling in a irrigation canal in between. It was a frantic scramble to get into and out of the canal and back down to the river where we would start to enter the infamous Neus Gorge. Once we were back on the river, Stu had come off and was dropping back. It was now just Simon and I chasing down the two paddlers in front. The Neus Gorge has two of the biggest rapids of the race and is an intimidating place of granite cliff walls and gurgling angry water.
Simon and I made it through the first rapid safely and and entered the second rapid called Gawie’s se Gat. We navigated through this rapid safely as well, but it was a little dubious. The force of the water made our boats feel like toothpicks in tidal pool. After this second rapid Simon spotted Jakub on the bank and told me that we were now lying 2nd and 3rd. Jakub had had a swim, it was now only Thulani in front of us. The water in the gorge boils and surges off the granite walls like an angry serpent from a fairytale underworld. Jakub caught up to us and was paddling like a man possessed. He was incredibly strong and eager to catch Thulani. It was 6km to the finish and we could catch glimpses of Thulani every now and again. Everytime we saw him Jakub would kick up the pace and charge ahead. Simon eventually relented and slipped off the back and it was now just Jakub and me. I was hanging on but wasn’t that confident that I could beat Jakub on an end sprint. He was super strong. Also on my mind was a Google earth image of the channels leading into the finish. I had been studying it the night before and it showed how the river split into a myriad of different channels, some of which ended abruptly and others that lumbered around on long bends. If you took the wrong channel it could be disastrous and cost you a couple of places. Conversely, if you took the right channel you may just secure yourself a victory. Usually I would have done some research and tripped this type of thing beforehand. I'd have worked out my line precisely and ensured that I was in the fastest channel, but I hadn’t had the time to do this. All I had to go by was a hunch and a pixelated google earth image. It was a big risk to take but I decided that I’d have a crack at it. I hoped that it might even put me out in front of Thulani. As we entered the channel section I slipped off of Jakub’s wash and headed for the channel that I thought was best. I tried to visualise the route I had worked out from the google earth image but once I got into the channel it was a maze. It wasn’t how I had imagined it to be and the options to go left and right were many. I had to make a quick and decisive change to my strategy. I made up my mind to follow the tongue of water flow that I thought looked best and hoped that it would lead me out of the maze successfully and not into a dead end.
I came around a bend and spotted the end of the channel with the main river flow ahead of it. Racing towards the exit, I caught a glimpse of Thulani coming passed the channel exit, he was just ahead of me. I popped out about 50m behind him and just ahead of a charging Jakub Adam. It was now just a 800m dash for the line. I managed to hold Jakub off and was happy to finish second. Simon had followed me down the channels but had taken a left where I had gone right. His channel closed up and he had to endure a worrying journey through a tiny tunnel of reeds which he only hoped would have a successful exit. He did manage to come out fine but it had cost him some time. He held on for fourth with Stu doing well to muscle through into fifth.
Thulani had had an absolutely great race. He raced a race that played to his strengths and skills perfectly. I can’t remember seeing him make one mistake along the route, which is very impressive because we were all racing on a course that was relatively unfamiliar. His finesse on the water matched his strength on the run and it’s safe to say that he navigated the course better than anyone else. Well-done Banji!