Life as a Dusi rat

This week I set out to join an elite group of paddlers who leave Pietermaritzburg for Durban on the Dusi at 7.20am.

There are, however, paddlers who leave earlier, at 6am to be precise.

These are the seeded paddlers who have performed well in pre-Dusi races and so have a chance of winning the event, or at least doing very well.

The 7.20am group has little chance of doing well. We’re there by virtue of having earned a double-green number by completing 20 Dusis.

There are advantages to leaving early.
You spend less time in the oppressive heat. There is less chance of waiting in queues while portaging on tight footpaths. There is less chance of running into inexperienced paddlers who might get in the way and cause you to swim.

There was one year I missed because we were living overseas and another when we did not finish, because my partner dehydrated badly on the third day from vomiting and was showing signs of hyperthermia when we quit. Otherwise, for the past 20 years, I have joined the annual three-day pilgrimage by river from ‘Maritzburg to Durban.

I have paddled when the water was very high, notably in 1992 and 2007, and very low, especially 1991.

The use of the word ‘paddled” is generous here to say the least, as my partner and I carried our boat about 70km during the first two days.

We ran out of water leaving ‘Maritzburg. But the days of little or no water seem to be a thing of the past.

The Henley Dam near ‘Maritzburg can be emptied at Dusi time to fill the river, and the water authorities are also more inclined to coordinate water releases for the race, as it plays a central role in the annual cultural and sporting life of KwaZulu-Natal.

But no matter how high or low the river is, you can’t get away from portaging. In one or two places, notably Mamba Gorge on day two, it would be too dangerous to try to shoot the waterfalls. Elsewhere, where the river meanders in a large arc, it makes more sense to carry the boat over a rise to rejoin the river.

I will be a K2 again this year. The biggest challenge my partner and I face is not the distance, breaking our boat in the rapids, the debilitating heat or a lack of fitness; it’s Dusi guts.

Diarrhoea has always been a problem at the Dusi. The old-timers all spoke of it. But these days it appears more widespread and there are a number of Dusi rats who won’t go back to the river because of it.

There are efforts from a variety of sources to clean up and the organisers promise a cleaner river than last year, but one thing I’ll be trying hard to do is to keep my mouth shut.

My only complaint about the event, or adventure — it is much more than just a race — is that I did not get into canoeing earlier. I was in my late twenties and my first Dusi paddling partner was scared of water and actually jumped out of the boat in one rapid. Things were tense near the end.

Me: ‘Should we shoot the next rapid?”

Him: ‘No, and don’t ask me.”

If you are a Dusi rat you don’t ask why. You just do it. If the water is predicted to be low, you still do it.

A friend, also a one-time paddling partner, says paddling is a metaphor for life. But this is a bit highfalutin for me. For me, the Dusi is life.

Kevin Davie

Kevin Davie

Kevin Davie is M&G's business editor. A journalist for more than 30 years, he has worked in senior positions at most major titles in the country. Davie is a Nieman Fellow (1995-1996) and cyberspace innovator, having co-founded SA's first online-only news portal, Woza, and the first online stockbroking operation. He is a lecturer at Wits Journalism. In his spare time he can be found riding a bicycle, usually somewhere remote. Read more from Kevin Davie

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