Doooing the Dusi 2019
Updated: May 12, 2019
For us in South Africa, the Dusi is simple, a canoe race along the Msunduzi River (aka the Dusi) between Pietermaritzburg and Kwa-Zulu Natal. For the rest can be a little confusing – Canoe? Down a river? Oh, you mean like Pocahontas on a river cruise... LOL?
Not at all, the Dusi is a 3-day river race where people (aka nutcases like my brother, Simon Purchase and myself) paddle and run- yes run- with a canoe on your shoulders- from one town to another. Back in 1951, the first Dusi ever held, there were 8 paddlers, paddling in wooden kayaks that they had made themselves. However, nowadays, there are over 1400 paddlers, who paddle k1 or k2 canoes over 125kms of river, including large rapids, over 25kms of walking (aka portaging) and some cholera concerns 😊
So why write about it all now, well, I’ve realized lately that I have been absolutely shocking at posting about my Dusi experience earlier this year. It’s been 3 months since the race, and I’m still all over the show in terms of my emotions. I can’t decide if it was by far the coolest thing I’ve ever done, or the absolute worst, but figured that I’d share my very first experience, the highs and lows, and offer some of the advice I have for any newbies looking to take on this bucket list fitness event. Please remember that this was my first one, so anything written below is from the viewpoint of a complete novice, and you might (aka should) check some of my facts before trusting me 😊
How it started:
As all things start, I was out one night having a beer with a mate who is a paddler, and he started telling me about the race he was doing: The Dusi canoe marathon. I’ve always been so intrigued by this race, considering all the stories I’d heard from my dad, all the fun he had with his mates drinking beer and laughing about their experiences each day, seeing South Africa from a different viewpoint, and memories that would stick with him forever. After hearing all these stories, I committed to paddling the 2019 race, not the brightest decision in terms of adding scars to my body, but all things worked out well. The minute I mentioned I was doing it, the FOMO kicked in, and my brother ended up committing too😊
Living in the concrete jungle, Johannesburg, the only option is to train at Emmarentia dam, going around and round like a whirlwind. If you ever need something to null your thoughts, this is definitely it. Regardless of the pain, chilly weather or blisters, somehow doing the same thing over and over again finds a way to clear your mind, and make you feel like the greatest human on earth. So, we started going to the weekly time trials, spending hours on that damn dam, and shifting our DNF’s into small successes (still can’t work out if those were “Did not finish “or “Definitely not fit”). We were introduced to other paddlers at the Dabulamanzi club, which is so awesome by the way. Great humans, with great characters 😊 One thing they do, which has nothing to do with paddling by the way, is a tradition called 10-in-1 where you have to drink 10 beers in 1 hour, after a 10km time trial. It’s a bit of a joke, but thoroughly entertaining!
To be honest, I think it’s very challenging being a woman in paddling, as we will never be as strong as some of the men, and looking back I think I would have sacrificed some of the hours going round and round on that dam, for hours spent on my technique of carrying a boat on your shoulder (as we ended up doing almost a third of the race doing this) or patching a boat when it rips in half, or learning how to swim when all your paddling gear is attached to your body 😊 Fitness is a huge part of the race, but knowing what to do when you flip, because you will flip, is much more valuable.
SO, the big race arrived, the weather gods were kind to us, or at least so we thought, with lots of rain and water (actually floods) after 3 weeks of worrying about a drought! Who would have thought 😊 We made our way down to the start of our batch, kicked off with a very strategic race plan.. i.e. paddle like your life depended on it, keep a smile on your face, and a promise not to get competitive. I remember the feeling as we approached our first rapid, where the twinkles of excitement in my eyes instantly turned to tears (obviously that no one could see) as I heard the white water getting closer and closer. I instantly wanted to turn back and kept thinking “why!!” “why can’t I have been the girl who loves shopping malls rather than this adventure crap” “why can’t I do things that don’t require real death-threats?” I took a deep breath, and realized that there was no instruction manual on how to get through this rapid, no matter how much I tried to think my way out of it, the only way to the other side was to swim in the Ecoli infested water, or paddle like my life depended on it. So, I did, I gave it my all and “just did it” because overthinking it would actually have caused more harm than anything else. Much to my utmost amazement, we came out on the other side without a swim, perfect to give all the supporters on the banks something to cheer about :)
Obviously, the whole race didn’t go that way. We hit rocks. We split our boat. We fixed our boat, only to hit another rock, and had to fix it again. We walked with the boat on our shoulders for over 15kms, through mud, sand, rocks and the like. We paddled where we could, over rapids that felt like ocean waves. I nearly drowned after being trapped in the boat against some reeds with the river gushing against my face as I tried to hold my breath. We got Dusi guts, but survived 😊 We managed to enjoy the food (and beer) where we could. The list goes on and on, but at the end of it, I realized that the key to Dusi is to show up on the day and be ready for whatever the day brings! No 2 people will have the same race, which is where all the fun and banter of the race comes from. It’s incredible to hear how professionals ended up having some horrific days where they had to walk equally as long as we did, even if they’d been paddling for 7/8 years!! I think that is what makes the race so incredible ... you could do exactly the same course 8 times, maybe even more, and never have the same experience!
On the whole, I think loved it.. Like I said, I'm still not sure. All I know is that it was an awesome opportunity to do something with family (paddling with my younger brother, and bribing the rest of the family to come and support). It is an experience that will stick with me forever. If you have any inclination to do the race, I say GO FOR IT!!! I’m always here to tell you about my experience. If we never get to meet though, here are 6 tips for other newbies looking to do the Dusi:
1) Just do it. If you have any curiosity about this race, take a risk and do it! It’s a memory that will stay with me forever, and although tough and challenging, I wouldn’t change it at all... Ok wait, I would change a lot about HOW we did things (like using an old boat, forgetting things to fix the boat, running out of water etc.) but I wouldn’t change the fact that I did it 😊
2) Don’t swallow the water: Sadly, the Dusi river has become an infected mess. Corporates are pumping sewage into the river, and there is an immense amount of pollution. It’s very sad, because the race itself is such an incredible experience, but the post event experience was, and has been, horrific. I got Ecoli poisoning, ended up in hospital a couple of times. Looking back, I would definitely have made sure I had some drugs on standby, or worn a Scuba mask to keep me away from that H20😊
3) Stay ahead of the water: While out on the river, I often felt no sense of control over my boat. I felt it turn too much to the left or right, and in the beginning, I tried to constantly correct the direction. Several times, I almost fell in due to over-correcting. If I can offer any advice to a newbie, is to paddle faster than the water, and to never stop paddling. It keeps you stable, allows you to steer away from rocks rather than crash into them, and will actually allow you enjoy yourself rather than panic your way into a frenzy
4) When in doubt, go without. We took a chance on a couple of rapids that we were not ready for, and it ended up in blood, lots of sweat, loads of bruises and a ton of extra kms carrying our broken boat which could easily have been avoided.
5) Find your water tribe: It’s easy to get miserable on an ice-cold training morning, especially when you know you are about to have to get onto a river and paddle downstream, with a 99.9% chance of falling into the water. One tip I would give to anyone for this reason, besides for the safety elements, is to find a crew who is equally as nutty as yourself. A crew who limits the number of complaints you’re allowed on a training session to 5, or gives you a shot of sherry for negative comments, or sets a 3-minute grumpy rule to ensure positivity throughout!
6) And finally, when you flip (because you will flip, even if it’s getting out of the boat at the start line of the race like me 😊), the best thing you can do for yourself is to remain calm. When you’re calm, you’re able to think about what you need to do to get right-side up. “Ok, I need to move my paddle. I need to flick my hip. This will get me out of the water... Hopefully it doesn’t get as bad as “I need to continue to hold my breath and someone will come help me.” But panicking while upside down in the river does nothing but upset you.
So that’s all I’ve got for now. Where this white-water challenge will take me next, I have no idea, but I’m content to ride the tide, and let these river adventures take me anywhere I need to go... That's one of the joys of the crazy, fluid world I’ve become addicted to.
Stay tuned for my next adventure as ADVENTURE JUNKIE SA