The evergreen Giel van Deventer will be lining up for his 48th Berg River Canoe Marathon when the four day race gets under way in Paarl on 12 July, extending his own record for the most finishes in the iconic four day odyssey to the West Coast.
“When I was younger I never had a specific goal in terms of number of Bergs to complete,” says the popular Great Grand Master paddler. “If asked when are you going to stop my normal answer was as long as I enjoy the Berg I will be back next year.”
“The year when I completed my 46th Berg we had a terrible windy and cold third day. It took me 8½ hours on the day. I was finished and nearly out on my feet. My wife gave me one look and she said she think it is time for me to quit my yearly Berg outing.
“I said I will give it a thought which I did …and my decision was I will try to get to at least 50 Bergs and thereafter I will consider stopping if I feel that the old body is taking too much punishment,” explains Van Deventer. “But 50 Bergs will allow me to rest in peace!”
The 67 year old, who farms outside Paarl, set an example to the paddling community by lodging the third entry for this year’s race, despite the reluctance by many paddlers to commit to the tough race given the drought conditions gripping the region.
The allure of the race is simple for Van Deventer. It is tough, and widely regarded as the toughest race of its kind in the world.
“To be honest if you evaluate Berg River as a good river for canoeing it will surely not be rated as one of the best rivers from a fun viewpoint,” says Van Deventer.
“There are not many rapids, the water in July is icy cold, but the Berg as a race has something special which no other race in South Africa has: it always was and still is a real challenge. And I love challenges,” he adds with conviction.
He has scoffed at paddlers being slow to enter the race, fearing it will be extremely low. The master statistician says the Cape winter always bails the race out of trouble.
“I have rainfall records and river flow records on my computer for the last sixty years. There were several serious drought years in those sixty years but there was not a single year where there was not enough water to paddle in the middle of July,” says Van Deventer.
“A few years ago we struck a very low level but even at two cumec flow you can still paddle without portaging. In spite of the present drought my river flow statistics gave me 100% trust that there will be enough water for a race.
“The Berg both water level and weather wise has always been unpredictable,” says Van Deventer. “For example in 1973 which also was one of the driest winters we ever had in Western Cape the river flow was at one cumec two days before the race.
“But it started raining non-stop on the Monday morning and two days later on the Wednesday we started the race on 330 cumec flow!”
“Weather wise we had several Bergs in the past where all four days were fantastic windless sunny days but we also had horrendous wind storm days. Just be prepared for anything Mother Nature can present to us.
The race has often been a Van Deventer family affair, and his son Gert has also entered, which Giel believes will be a tough assignment for his son.
“Gert and his wife and children are on a two month tour through the USA. They return to South Africa the week before Berg. There is no chance that he will be canoeing fit although they are doing a lot of mountain biking and hiking which will give him a reasonable endurance fitness. But we will have to see if he can keep up with the old man!”