The first documented descent of the Berg River took place in 1952 when three Paarl adventurers Bennie le Roux, Apie le Roux and Sam du Toit set off in an outboard-motor-driven boat, and they took four full days to reach the West coast fishing town of Velddrif.
The Berg Marathon was founded in 1962 by a group of 35 pioneers who set off on a flooded Berg River from Paarl for the first edition of this four-day race. Fuelled by enthusiastic support from “Die Burger” newspaper, the four-stage odyssey caught the attention of the South African public, as only 19 paddlers made it to the finish.
Parys marathoner Nollie Meiring won that race, at the age of 42. He paddled a modern 17 foot narrow boat named Kelkiewyn, and for his efforts he won a brand new bright red VW beetle. His win was remarkable for a number of reasons. He had club-feet and had no rudder for his craft, and he came from behind in the second half of the race to assert himself.
He immediately retired and gave away his boat and paddles at the finish, which was just as well as his generous prize was deemed excessive for an amateur athlete and he was banned from future competition by the SA Canoe Federation.
Paarl farmer Jannie Malherbe won the next three editions of the Berg, as the race gradually attracted more and more paddlers. The grueling 1965 Berg that was characterised by gale force winds and extreme cold and is still regarded as one of the toughest Bergs ever.
Women were allowed to paddle the final stage of the race, on the safer flat waters into the estuary at Velddrift, until a landmark decision in 1978 paved the way for women to take part in the full race, with Cheronne Botes becoming the first female Berg champion.
Fierce interprovincial rivalry had become a characteristic of the Berg and during the 1980s strong contingents of paddlers from what was then Transvaal staged serious Berg campaigns, leading to a domination that started with Graham Monteith’s win in 1989, Mar Perrow a year later, then six-in-a-row by Robbie Herreveld before Michael Cheeseman won a hat-trick from 1997 to 1999.
A young Hank McGregor, who was to go on to win multiple world marathon championship titles, won the new millennium edition of the race in 2000, and went on win a record eleven Berg titles.
International interest in the race attracted teams of British paddler to compete against a Springbok squad, adding a new dimension to the race. After the 50th anniversary Berg in 2011 more and more international marathoners contested the race, and in 2017 Hungarian Adrián Boros became the first international winner of the Berg.
Facing dwindling numbers the race staged a novel two person team-format in 2018 which saw Boros partner Graeme Solomon to victory.
The global Covid-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the Berg in 2020, but galvanised the efforts of the new event organisers, together with support from Canoeing South Africa, to stage the 60th anniversary of the race in July 2021.