Chaos, carnage and camaraderie ruled at this year’s Dusi Canoe Marathon 2022 in South Africa, with champions crowned but others struggling to cross the finish line of the 120-km whale of a race.
The Dusi Canoe Marathon was founded in 1951 and covers roughly 120km between the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban in KwaZulu-Natal on the East Coast of South Africa. It is the biggest canoeing event on the African continent, and one of the world’s most popular river marathons, attracting up to 1600 paddlers each year.
While paddlers can choose between normal marathon K1s, K2s or even K3s (yes a K4 has even finished), it’s beefy no matter how you slice it. The race starts on the Msunduzi River that runs through Pietermaritzburg and includes a number of weirs and Grade 1 to Grade 2+ rapids using water released from Henley Dam. At the halfway point of the race the Msunduzi River meets the far larger Umngeni River and the river becomes more challenging, with some rapids rated Grade 3+, and some of the trickier rapids like Island 2 portaged by most of the field. Most of the large rapids can be portaged if desired.
Safety crews and divers are stationed at some of the major obstacles and rapids. The route is not marked and the onus is on the paddlers to learn the route and the safe lines down the more demanding rapids and weirs.
The race is unique in that it includes numerous portages where the paddlers carry their craft over hills, either to cut out unrunnable rapids and cataracts, or to eliminate long loops in the river. Most of these portages are through thick bush on steep and undulating terrain, and several of them are around 4km in length.
Stage One of the race is 42km long, from Camps Drift in the city of Pietermaritzburg to Dusi Bridge, a remote area outside Cato Ridge close to Nagle dam. Most paddlers exit the valley after their stage and stay in local accommodation or return to either Durban or Pietermaritzburg. It is possible to stay in tents at the overnight stop.
Stage Two is the longest and hardest stage, 46km from Dusi Bridge to Msinsi Resort on Inanda dam outside Hillcrest, and ends with 11km of flatwater on the dam. The overnight stop is well suited to camping and also hosts some entertainment in the early evening of Day Two. Hillcrest and Durban are nearby and most paddlers leave the valley after their stage to stay in nearby accommodation.
Stage Three is 36km from Inanda dam to Blue Lagoon in Durban, starting with 4km of flatwater on Inanda dam and ending with 10km of flatwater on the tidal estuary into the finish. Each finisher receives a Dusi medal and a commemorative race garment. The race prize giving takes place at Blue Lagoon after the final stage.
This year, Frenchman Benoit Roger and his partner Bed Bradford had the crowd cheering them across the line as they dragged their shattered K2 through the water to the finish arch, while gutsy Ingrid Avidon, who was doing her debut Dusi as part of the tough 12×12 Challenge, and her partner Themba Ngcobo, had to run most of the final day with their K2 smashed and cut into small pieces.
For seasoned Durban paddler Debbie Lewis, her 20th Dusi turned into a nightmare at Confluence Rapids early on in the second stage when she and partner Gina Chiesman watched their double canoe wrap around a rock in the fast flowing uMngeni River, and felt their chances of finishing had gone. But it took the intervention of several people that Lewis has dubbed her “Dusi Angels” to get them to the finish.
“I was beyond grateful to look across the river and see our boat being happily and bravely retrieved off the rock by a group of six local young guys who immediately jumped into the river to rescue our boat off the rock,” she says. “They had to pull really hard to get the boat off the rock in a solid flow of water. They never gave up. Then two of them so kindly swam our boat back across the river to us. They say angels come in different forms—well the six guys were the first angels.”
With a shattered canoe they had no choice but to swim down the river with their damaged boat until they could get to a path that took them to Gauging Weir, five kilometers downstream.
“That’s where we found our second angel, Umvoti Canoe Club founder Peter Goble. He was there seconding his son and when he saw our plight he without hesitating started fixing the damaged K2, even though he added that he thought it was a “hopeless case.”
With makeshift repairs done Lewis and Chiesman had no choice but to run alongside the river, over Nqumeni Hill portage and then on the ten kilometer-long Pipeline Road high on the hillside above the Umngeni.
Support team member Ayanda Mtshibosi was moved by the gutsy determination of the two women. “These two women were so brave,” he says. “There is a saying “Indlela ibuzwa kwabaphambili” which means never quit, no matter how hard it is.”
Lewis and Chiesman got back to the river at Mfula Store and were able to paddle their still weakened repaired boat to Inanda dam and to the overnight stop at Msinsi Resort. “I had two stops to have a cry and question if we were being stupid and doing the right thing,” says Lewis.
“We passed a few struggling boats who were also soldiering on to get to the finish. We chatted to everyone during our horrendously long day, asking if they were thinking of withdrawing from the race or carrying on.
“Every answer was the same. There is no option. We will get to the finish. That’s what Dusi is all about. Not giving up.”
The pair made it to the finish in fading light of the late afternoon, after which they left with their support crew to start to process of repairing their K2 properly, a task that took well past midnight to complete.
“We had a golden day three with no admin,” said am emotional Lewis “I am so blessed to have made it to the finish with the assistance of all our Dusi Angels – the real heroes.”