Stellies paddlers excel on tough Berg

Stellies paddlers excel on tough Berg

Twenty-year-old Maties’ student Tracey Oellermann notched up the best position for the Stellenbosch Canoe Club as the fourth lady home in this year’s Berg River Marathon, while veteran paddler Gerhard Beukes bagged his 39th marathon despite adverse weather on the last day.

The 60th Berg River Marathon, a gruelling four-day 240km event from Paarl to Velddrif, finally got off to a start on Thursday, August 4, after being cancelled in 2020 and postponed this year from July to August because of the Covid pandemic. 

The paddlers were blessed with some excellent weather and river conditions on the first three days but got hammered with an incoming tide and full frontal northwest when a cold front moved in on the last shift from Zoutkloof to Velddrif. The adverse weather conditions on the last day caused some 6  paddlers to withdraw from the marathon. 

“Day four was very tough paddling alone and against headwinds, it honestly did break me and I was beyond relieved to reach the finish line, especially after hearing that 6 boats pulled out of the race due to the conditions,” says Tracey Oellermann.

“This year’s 60th Berg Canoe Marathon was one to remember. After the race date was extended by 4 weeks due to COVID-19, many of us students were in the unfortunate position of awaiting our exam marks to return and not knowing whether we could indeed race.

“Students were writing exams the day before this iconic ultra-endurance race and we are so proud of all our Maties paddlers having passed their exams to race the Berg River Canoe Marathon. Four out of the five students paddling did not even have their families around to help with food and water on race days.  We are very grateful to the families who stepped in and helped us along the way. I was super happy with a flawless race and no mistakes,” says Tracey.

As usual with a four-day event where anything can happen war stories abound. Says Schalk Smit who completed his 11th Berg: “From the start of the third day at Bridgetown we paddled in thick fog for 15 km on Misverstand Dam. Our vision was so bad that we nearly missed the row of portage buoys right above the dam wall. One shudders at the thought of a paddler missing the buoys and paddling over the dam wall – a 30m straight drop.”

“Errors of judgment cost me a lot of time and I almost lost my canoe when it got trapped under a tree block. Without the camaraderie of fellow paddlers who helped me back into my canoe in a fast-flowing current I would not have been able to finish the marathon,” says Hanré Streicher who completed his 5th Berg this year. This “unique camaraderie” between paddlers in the Berg Marathon is also echoed by Evan Knight and Gert van Deventer.

It also helps to have a “Legal Eagle” as a second says Johann van Rooyen after his 14th Berg. Officials wanted to stop him and several other paddlers from completing the race at the last portage 10km from the finish because of the bad weather conditions. This is where their second – a practicing lawyer – stepped in and presented their case to the officials with the following argument: “Too dangerous to finish? Are you serious? These guys have been paddling for hours in a strong headwind without any problem and they can take you to court for such an instruction. The rule establishes a legitimate expectation that the organizers will be reasonable due to adverse weather conditions.”

Paddlers who stole the spotlight this year were Jannie Malherbe who finishes his 48th Berg at the age of 81 and the record of 71-year-old Giel van Deventer who finished his 50th Berg this year. 

The overall winner of the Berg this year was Andy Birkett (17:27:24) with Hank McGregor (17:29:30) second and in third position Hamish Lovemore (17:40:05) all from KZN.  The first lady home was Nikki Birkett (20:40:54) followed by Jordan Peek (20:56:38) and Bianca Beavitt (21:23:45).

Stellenbosch Canoe Club paddlers who finished this year’s Berg with their total numbers completed were:  Hanré Streicher 5; Francois Loedolff 36; Schalk Smit 11, Theuns Matthee 15, Johan van Rooyen 14, Lodewyk Rabie 5, Tracey Oellermann 2, Daantjie Malan 10, Francois Meyer 7; and Gert van Deventer, 15; Gerhard Beukes 39; Evan Knight 4; Johan Wiid 1, Shannon Parker-Dennison 1; Ross Leslie; Conrad Kriel 2; and Barry Muller 4. 

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