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
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
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.