Out of Africa: Berg Canoe Marathon

Images and report from the 50th annual Berg Canoe Marathon, South Africa's 240 km stage race

(Ed’s note: The 240 km South African canoe stage race, the Berg Canoe Marathon, celebrated its 50th anniversary for this year’s race, July 13-16, and Martin Dreyer’s “Change a Life” Academy team was on hand.)

By Martin Dreyer
Change A Life Academy

The Berg is a mighty race, with no-where to hide, paddling 240km from the vineyards of Paarl to the Atlantic Ocean on the west coast at Velddrift, South Africa. For my Zulus, this trip went beyond just racing down a river, but was more of a life-enriching experience where they got to travel across South Africa.

Day 1: Driving to the start, we passed Stefan Hugo (five-time winner in the ‘80s). I quickly stopped and asked, “Stefan, what advice can you give my novice Zulus, novice Berg Paddlers?” His reply was simple, “NEVER GIVE UP, if you damage your canoe—fix it, if your body is blown, find the answer but never give up.”

The trees galore became their nemesis, snagging their lifejackets and catching them unaware when their paddle blade would strike an invisible branch just below the surface, throwing them off balance and into the drink. With the Dusi having not one tree on its banks, if you take a bad line, you can correct it as the water flows around a rock and so you can deflect off it and continue on your merry way, whereas on the Berg, rocks are replaced by trees. A gnarly situation arises as water flows through a tree and so the unwary paddler can easily get trapped against it (like a tea strainer), as you don’t deflect off a tree like you would a rock. But this is all part of the initiation/learning curve of being a first time Berg paddler.

We stayed in the barn accommodation at the end of each day, where mattresses lined the floor, wall to wall. The vibe was lekker with a central massive fire to congregate around, where tales of the day’s endeavour was the main topic of conversation. At the fireside in Bridgetown, I heard Thomas saying to a fellow paddler, “Those last two tree block portages today were a great relief as it was good to stretch my legs.” “What, you portaged today? I never got out my kayak at all,” was the response of a top-20 placed paddler. Such is the advantage of “local knowledge” at obstacles, where your approach of attack is precise. If this conversation was at Dusi, the roles would have been reversed. 
Riaan Manser enlightened my Zulus with tales of his Madagascan sea kayaking journey, where he circumnavigated the Island, paddling 5,000 km over 11 months. But even Riaan struggled, swimming 27 times on Day 2 alone…

Day 2: The boys settled into a smooth rhythm, although a shorter, still longer than they had ever paddled in a race—all the ‘Change a Lifers caught up positions.

Day 3/Monster Day: 
If there was to be any physical benefit from paddling the Berg (excluding the overall experience), it would be that this long, hard, absolutely flat 74 km grind, would redefine their limits of what is possible—from aching muscles to the discomfort of sitting in one position continuously. Because now in the valley, the three-hour weekly long paddle in training, will not seem so long—maybe we should bump it up to four hours.

After five hours in his kayak, Thomas snapped, his discomfort had become unbearable so he turned 90 degrees to the flow of the river and, to the amusement of his fellow paddlers, headed for the bank, running alongside the group whilst they paddled. No way was he getting back into the water, however the bank became unnegotiable and he had no choice but to return to his painful sitting position.

Day 4: Windhoek’s slogan, “Keep it real,” was made even more so, by the nasty ocean head wind that developed as the day wore on, substantially slowing down forward progress. … The finish was spectacular, a massive marquee tent that housed 400-plus people and a band to entertain. This race is not possible for just anyone, a certain ability to suffer is an important ingredient for success. Thank you to Windhoek for the invitation to my “Change a Life” Zulus to paddle in the Berg’s 50th anniversary, the greatest Berg to date, with a record entry of 365 paddlers (previous record 1986).

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