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Gone fishing: The story of the fish river canoe marathon

Gone fishing: The story of the fish river canoe marathon

What is it like for a desert child to live next to a flowing river? In the mid-70s, when Karoo farmer Roy Copeman was in his early teens, the Great Fish River was linked via the Orange-Fish Tunnel to what is now the mighty Gariep Dam.  Suddenly, the water-starved Eastern Cape Midlands became a lush, irrigation region.

It was like The Wind in the Willows had descended on the Karoo. Who wouldn’t want to take to a boat to the clucking, gurgling river rush that the Great Fish had become?

The liveliest rapids

fish river canoe, karoo

Roy and his brother Louis were no exceptions. When the river came down in its new form in 1976, they hammered flat a piece of corrugated iron, attached canvas to make it more likely to float, and tried out a couple of planks for paddles. And, of course, they ended up swimming, because this new river was as boisterous as a puppy. Roy later became an irrigation farmer just outside Cradock, and is currently chairman of the Fish River Canoe Marathon.

Ted and Norman Collett were also former riverside farm boys. They made rafts by tying together inner tubes and then fending off hanging thorn branches with pitchfork handles, getting scratched to pieces in the process. They later ended up farming Adamsfontein and Grassridge farms respectively, straddling some of the river’s liveliest rapids.

By 1979, it had become clear that this river could be heaven for paddlers. The Fish River Canoe Marathon’s website records some of the history. ‘Cape paddler Dave Alexander was one of the first to see the potential of the river for canoeing. He was contacted by KO Bang, who was the Circle Engineer at the Dept of Water Affairs in Cradock, and they put an article into the Midlands News in 1979, looking for paddlers keen to try out the rejuvenated river. There was no response.

River’s reputation spread

Fish river canoe, karoo

‘But the word got out. A few months later, a few PE paddlers made the trip to Cradock, and gradually the reputation of the river spread. Thanks to their involvement, the Karoo Canoe Club was founded in 1982, and driven by the likes of Stanford Slabbert, Fox Ledeboer, John Harington and Giles Hobson, the first ever Fish River Canoe Marathon was cautiously included in the national race calendar that year.’‘Cautiously’ is about the right word. The river had plenty of obstacles – trailing willow and thorn branches, weirs, stray logs, and barbed-wire fences dissecting the flow.

But back to the Marathon’s history. According to Stanford Slabbert, “In those days the paddlers had to lift the fences, and the river mats [fences weighed down by reeds and flotsam and jetsam] took out quite a few paddlers. Getting under [or over] them was quite an art.

“I recall one double crew,” says Stanford. “The front paddler bent forward to get under the fence and flicked the fence hoping to get it over his partner’s head as well. He didn’t. The fence caught his hair and pulled him right out of the boat, and they swam.”

The race thrived and grew from its initial 77 paddlers in 52 boats (only 37 boats finished) to its present level of around 1 000 paddlers plus their seconds and supporters descending on the river for several days at the end of September.

Dash across the dam

Fish river, canoe, karoo

A Le Mans style start.

During The Fish, there isn’t a place in the platteland as sporty or sexy as the little river town of Cradock. It sees an injection of high spirits, nervous energy, loads of lycra and more broken canoes than you can shake a paddle at. The shopping centre car parks are suddenly places of large canoe-topped SUVs and toned athletes.

On the morning of Day One, there is a Le Mans-style start at Grassridge Dam, presided over by impressively bearded timekeeper and starter, John Oliver of the KwaZulu-Natal Canoe Union. He has been wielding the race stopwatch and megaphone with aplomb since 1986.

Once released, the canoeists heave off into the rising sun, heading for the dam wall on the other side, paddles churning, water droplets flying. The first hazard they tackle after portaging alongside the dam wall is the high weir and chute nicknamed Double Trouble on Norman Collett’s farm Grassridge, after which the historic dam was named. The chutes were specifically built to make things safer – and more fun – for paddlers.

Onto Adamsfontein, Ted and Ingrid Collett, part of the widespread Collett clan’s farm. Here the Fish River’s entire vigorous flow narrows to a deep, winding, rocky channel, bridged by a neat roadway called Keith’s Flyover, built by the Department of Water Affairs and named for Ted and Norman’s father.

Open gates and open hearts

Fish river, canoe, karoo

This is one of the race’s more formidable rapids. Rare is the paddler who does not go through these rapids back to front, upside down or both. It’s a perfect vantage point for spectators, with plenty of picnic spots, all offering spectacular views of daredevilry and skill.

From there, the water madness abates somewhat until Soutpansdrift rapid, where Sinclair and Mary Collett farm. Here again, chutes have been built specifically for paddlers. But even if you’re not on a boat, this part of the river claims all kinds of victims, including several of Sinclair’s farming vehicles.

After Soutpans, it’s a comparatively easy dash to Day One’s finish line at Knutsford, where farmers’ wives feed the paddlers boerie rolls and a mysterious soup that has all the seconds clamouring for the recipe. (The secret? The local women all make part of the soup in their own kitchen. Everyone’s soup is then added together in a huge tureen. It’s delicious.)

The farmers (mostly descended from the 1820 British Settler Collett clan) along the 82 kilometres of the river race are critical to its success. Their Huckleberry Finn childhoods have cemented a relationship with the river that compensates for the annoyance of hundreds of city people traversing their property.

For the race, they have to move their stock out the way, smooth roads through their farms, leave gates open, resign themselves to the dust that coats the Karoo bossies their sheep eat, make vast amounts of food and accommodate paddlers.

Every year, sheds and backyard cottages are deployed for out-of-town guests. In exchange, they exact a noble kind of toll, collecting money from paddlers via boerie and breakfast rolls, potjies, koeksisters, spitbraais, and a whole bunch of well-loved rituals and celebrations. Much of the money goes to Cradock charities.

Dangerous water

Fish river canoe, karoo

The river frequently takes victims.

Roy Copeman puckishly started a new tradition a few years back when he obtained a stuffed crocodile from a local taxidermist and placed it on a riverbank. It caused a ripple of amazement and consternation among the paddlers. Now there’s a competition called Spot the Croc. Paddlers pay to enter and can win a boat and various other prizes. Once again, Cradock’s charities benefit from the funds. The croc (nicknamed Cecilia after taxidermist Cecil Henning) spends the rest of the year gathering dust in the Fish River Canoe Club storehouse.

The highlight of Day Two is the spectacularly scary Cradock Weir manned by squadrons of lifesavers, and for very good reason. Under the V-shaped weir is a wicked somersaulting tumble of dangerous water, and in front are the lifesavers, muscular young men on a platform, who leap to the rescue of paddlers in distress. All this heroism and fun comes in a delightful package less than five kilometres out of town.

The most constant soundtrack is that of the hollow fibreglass thuds as the boats hit the bottom of the weir, often accompanied by frantic flailing to stay upright. Then the cheers or commiseration. Spectators sometimes help out by wading in and grabbing a floating paddle or offer tools and advice for a snapped rudder cable.

The sweet aftertaste

fish river canoe, karoo

Families bring laden picnic baskets and settle in along the river banks. Students in crazy costumes cheer on their racing favourites, many of them in fancy dress as well. Last year the theme was the Rugby World Cup.

Much of the social atmosphere is supplied courtesy of purple-clad Rhodes students who gather in a particular spot and, in Karoo terms, kuier lekker. They give prizes for the best costumes. It’s all a happy symphony of locals, visitors, lifesavers, river-lovers, students and farmers. Father-and-son teams bond on the river, all-girl squads, veterans and novices sharing the waters. On Saturday, there is always a huge party at the Cradock Sports Stadium, with awards, a beer tent and good live music.

Ask the paddlers why they come back year after year and they will give you variations on this answer, “There is guaranteed water so there’s not much portaging and the rapids are seriously challenging. Also, the town of Cradock really opens up to us. Everyone is so kind.”

By Sunday evening Cradock is largely emptied of snazzy vehicles and river-toned bodies. The race makes a substantial contribution to the town’s charities and business coffers and leaves everyone with a sweet aftertaste. For the rest, all that remains of the two-day marathon are the broken canoes and perfectly good paddles that wash up along the river banks for days after.

Fish River Marathon www.fishmarathon.org.za

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