In October of 2002 a few paddlers from Wild Water Kayak CLub in Dublin

participated in the Crocodile River Marathon in South Africa. Here is their

story................

 

Crocodile River Marathon, October, 2002.

 

Just after Straffan weir in the Liffey Descent is a section of river known

as the "jungle". It is named so because of the low hanging trees, swirling

currents and deceptive eddies that have been known to upset the odd canoeist

over the years. Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, let me tell you, that is no

jungle.......if you want to experience jungle in a canoe, go to Africa. More

specifically go to South Africa and take part in the Crocodile River

Marathon!

 

The Crocodile river, flows through the Lowveld region of Mpumalanga, in

eastern South Africa and into the Indian Ocean. In its latter stages it

forms the southern border of the famous Kruger National Park. In October of

2002, a group of Irish Canoeists from Wild Water Kayak Club and Celbridge

Paddlers went to South Africa on a Canoeing holiday, primarily to do the

Fish River Marathon. After the Fish race, some people went home, while

others went touring around South Africa for a few weeks with the idea of

finishing the trip by participating in the Crocodile river Marathon. It

seemed like an enjoyable and appropriate way to end the holiday.

 

During race weekend, race organiser Paul Hay and his father Mike, welcome

people to their farm "Carisbrooke", which is both idyllic and ideally

situated on the banks of the river. It was perfect for reconnoitring the

river during the mornings and also for relaxing under shady trees in the

heat of the late afternoon sun. You share the facilities with the 60 or so

other canoeists and supporters who stay in the main building or camp in the

picturesque garden surrounded by Avocado trees and Macadamia nut trees. The

camaraderie is fantastic, with everyone eating barbequed dinner together in

the evenings, the leftovers being wolfed down by Mike's two dogs. It is as

well the dogs are there to eat the leftovers as otherwise the Baboons, who

live wild in the surrounding area, would no doubt be attracted by the easy

pickings. This typifies the place, really out in the wilderness and it  all

adds to the feel of the great outdoors. You are almost waiting for Tarzan to

swing out of the trees at any minute.

 

Although the river is known as the Crocodile, the largest creatures that can

be found in the river (besides some of the Boers) are the Hippo's. These

aggressive creatures are a cause for concern for Paul and his organisational

team. They go to great lengths to watch out for them and prevent contact

between the racers and them, although they look harmless, they swim and run

very fast and have been known to trample people. They congregate in the

river and its environs below the finish line, near Montrose falls. However

in the hot weather (the temperature on Race day 1 was in the mid 30's C),

they sense the river rising due to the dam release for the race and they

head upstream to what they believe is rainfall and cooler weather.

 

We had heard many stories about Hippo's and Crocodiles on the river before

travelling, ranging from the believable to the incredulous or ridiculous.

These stories had taken on the form of urban (or perhaps I should say rural)

legend. We had prepared ourselves for this and reassured ourselves with the

fact that the organiser would never hold the race if the Hippo's were going

to be a problem or danger. We took most of the scare stories with a pinch of

salt, trying to remember them so that we could tell friends back home,

complete with further embellishment of course. With all our bravado and talk

however we had not however prepared ourselves for the shock of seeing a

snake in the river. This unexpected and unwelcome sighting occurred the day

before race day 1. We were trying to help Paul and his team of helpers to do

some work on one of the weirs, when we spotted a snake sitting (or lying or

whatever they do) on a dry patch of concrete atop the weir. Its only way of

getting there was to swim and we watched panic stricken as it tried to swim

across the top of the weir towards us before being swept away by the river.

We thought we were out of the woods as it were but the snake battled against

the current and almost succeeded in swimming back up the weir. I don't know

if snakes can smell fear as some people say but let me tell you, there was

plenty to smell and not all of it from the Irish! Nobody knew what type of

snake it was and we were not hanging around to find out either. The Irish

men were seen beating a hasty retreat across the weir back to the car

leaving the South Africans to finish their weir work. "Thanks lads we'll

take our chances with the unfinished slide over the weir tomorrow".

 

Once the work was finished, Paul commented on how lucky (or unlucky

depending on your viewpoint) to have seen a snake as most people never get

to see one in the wild. I have to say that it did cross our minds that Paul

was just saying this, trying to convince us snakes were rare in the area

just to get us back out of the car. In fact very few snakes are seen in this

area, we still don't know if this meant that we were lucky (or unlucky) to

have seen one so close at hand. One thing is for sure, we abandoned our

typical canoeists pre-race ritual of peeing in trees in favour of watering

the largest open space available, well away from the potential dangers that

could be lurking in trees or undergrowth. Our rationale being that it less

likely that a snake could sneak up on you if you were in a clearing.

Manners, decency and bravery took a back seat as we prayed for a

reappearance of St. Patrick to banish the snakes. At this stage, Hippo's

felt like the least of our worries, as we felt that had little chance of

sneaking up on us.

 

Later that day, we got a chance to paddle the first 10 kilometers of the

race course at 6 cumec's. It proved to be very technical with rocks and low

trees everywhere (hence the reference to jungle above). I took a swim under

a tree after about 5 km's and sheer panic took over as all I could think of

was what was going to bite me as I swam like crazy to the river bank. To be

honest when I got there, I don't know if I felt any safer or not!

 

The trip took the form of a reconnaissance paddle for ourselves and also a

final tree clearing operation (Mike and his team spend a huge amount of time

in the build up to the race clearing the river and making it raceable).

Although we had seen glimpses of river before this, it was beginning to dawn

on us just how difficult this race might be. Add another 4 cumecs of water,

heat exhaustion, fatigue from 35 kilometers of racing on largely unseen

river, it made for an interesting cocktail. I was forced to revise my

comment of the previous day of "like Wicklow on a big day", which had been

made in haste after seeing the river further downstream with less of a flood

from the comfort and safety of the bank. My thoughts now went something like

"Oh my good God!"

 

The race is about 57 kms long. It is broken down into two days of racing.

The first day is from just below Kweena Dam to Weltevreden bridge, about 35

kms. The river is largely inaccessible from the bank and scouting it by car

was very difficult. Apart from the odd sighting of the river from the dirt

road that required 4X4 transport, not the Mazda 323 I had rented your only

chance to see the river was to paddle it. The cut-off point on day 1 is

after 10kms at Skerkdoorn weir. If you get to this point in good stead you

are doing well, however the hardest sections are yet to come. Once you pass

this point you are pretty much committed (and should be committed too!) to

completing the stage by river. If you broke your boat below this point and

had to walk out you were potentially in for a long day of trekking through

the bush or jungle in extreme heat.

 

Due to the nature of the river and the fact that it is so narrow,

competitors start at 15 second intervals and race in time trial format, with

about 200 hardy souls braving the river, its rapids, the countless trees,

the heat, the distance.

 

For us it was quite an anxious nights sleep. We awoke early (everybody in

south Africa gets up early - not the Irish style at all!) and prepared for

the race. We watched as one of the rescuers capsized and swam while shooting

the first weir, leaving us with the distinct impression that it was a

self-rescue scenario if anything went wrong.

 

The favourites went off first. Len Jenkins capsizing at the first weir

before rolling his K1 and carrying on. Ant Stott close on his heels followed

by the Bruss brothers (who in K2 had won the Fish River marathon 2 weeks

earlier). When it came to our turn, I think it is safe to say that we were

suitably terrified. My whole boat was shaking on the start line, I just

hoped that nobody noticed. For me the first 5 kilometers went well as I had

good lines and felt quite ok.............but then it all started to unravel,

with three swims in the next 5 kilometers. Besides tiring me out, it also

took its toll on my confidence for the remainder of the stage. I was trying

to humour myself by thinking that at least I was becoming a dab hand at this

self rescue - swimming to the bank, emptying out the boat and then

re-launching quickly. I also managed to take heart from the number of others

I passed while they too swam to shore. We all seemed to be in it together,

at times I couldn't help but think it wasn't just a race but a battle of

wits and a battle for survival. It was also beginning to dawn on me why

South African's canoeists are all so bloody fit, if all of their races are

this long, are this difficult are paddled in this heat, with so much

portaging and so much swimming.

 

After my third swim, I pulled over to the river bank to calm myself down and

collect my thoughts. Do I carry on to tackle the bigger rapids and the

unknown stretch of river ahead or do I decide to call it a day and retire to

the relative comfort of the broom wagon? After some debate I decided to

carry on and as I rejoined the main flow of the river Brendan O'Brien, the

other Irish entrant came paddling along having fared little better than me

by having only fallen in twice. I can safely say that I have never been so

happy to see the chap! We concurred that it would be a good idea to carry on

together and look out for each other. This would offer great peace of mind

and reduce the anxiety significantly. Three hours after starting, after

several swims each, numerous close calls and hair raising moments, wrong

lines, we crossed the finish line, almost deliriously happy at still being

in one piece. We had survived Rapid 14 and Carisbrooke rapid, both grade 3+

to 4 and countless other grade 3 rapids. There was still tomorrow to

negotiate but for now we could forget about that. We could relax and unwind

safe in the knowledge that we had made it. The boats were still in good

shape despite the abuse we had given them. You know sometimes when paddling

a river you have an option to sacrifice the boat to minimise the possibility

of a swim by taking certain lines. Well I did it for three hours on one of

the hardest rivers I imagine it is possible to paddle a k-boat on and the

boats were still in great condition, credit is due to Kayak Centre for

making such bomb proof boats.

 

The unknown quantity of 22kms on day two, proved to be significantly easier

than day 1. There were still a lot of trees but the water was quieter and

not as fast flowing. It gave you more time to think and react to conditions.

Also the closer you get to the finish, the more determined you become not to

be conquered by the river. Our survival instincts had certainly been honed

by the experience of day 1. Still, there were many tricky obstacles waiting

to catch the unwary paddler out.

 

Every canoe/kayak racer gets nervous at some stage in their paddling career.

Whether it be before a race, worrying about the opposition, their own

performance, the river conditions, whatever. I have gone through these

feelings on countless occasions, but never as acutely as I did before and

during the Croc marathon. However, the greater the nerves and anxiety, the

greater the high you experience and the greater the reward after the event

if it goes well. The finishers medal I got after crossing the line at the

end of day two was the hardest earned prize I think I have ever received. I

can honestly say that I have rarely felt as happy as I did after finishing

the Croc. It felt like a real achievement to have finished, something to be

proud of. Of the 200 paddlers who started on day one, only 107 started on

day two and only 103 finished.

 

During the few days on Carisbrooke, we learned a huge amount about paddling.

Firstly, that it is possible to paddle and race stretches of river, the

likes of which we have never tried in Ireland. It is actually amazing what

you can get away with while shooting some rapids, as both myself and Brendan

can testify to. When you look at your typical South African canoeist, you

can see how they develop into such a tough but really friendly bunch. They

paddle distances most of us would not consider feasible, in heat most people

think only suitable for sunning on a beach. They paddle rivers that are

challenging to say the least and what is more they do it in K1's and K2's,

sea launching into the water after portaging sections of river that are

deemed too dangerous to shoot. During some of these races they portage

distances which in some cases are longer than some of our races! There is a

pioneering element to what they do. If something goes wrong, they pick

themselves up, dust themselves off and carry on. This was demonstrated while

talking to some of them after the first days stage. Upon being asked I

admitted to giving up racing after falling in for the third time and

deciding to "trip" down to the finish. So many other paddlers had fallen in

more than three times and had simply got back in and carried on racing,

never giving up on a situation that to many Irish paddlers would seem beyond

reprieve. This is not just a bunch of crazy Boer men either! Women pit their

wits against the elements too, in far greater numbers that they do here in

Ireland. This indefatigable spirit has to be admired and is perhaps the

primary reason why they race such crazy rivers, rivers that we would

previously have considered impossible in Ireland. Suffice to say that this

river was a real eye opener and gives you ideas about rivers that we could

and should be racing here.

 

After the prize giving, we said our goodbyes and drove our rented car down

the 4X4 dirt road, clutching our Crocodile finishers medals, finally

relaxing after realising that it was all over, that we had made it

successfully, savouring one of the most memorable experiences of our lives,

the Crocodile River Marathon.