A Virtual Berg for All
The 2020 Virtual Berg canoe race is not a virtual race at all. It is for real! Paddling 240 km is a very real experience. On our four days of paddling, from the 8th to the 11th of July 2020, we encountered gale force winds, real cold, freezing rain, real hail and tree blocks. What could be more real than that?
The Virtual Berg Ultra-marathon developed out of the iconic Berg River canoe race that takes place annually on the Berg river, in the Western Cape. The race usually begins at Paarl and heads north to Veldrift on the west coast of South Africa. The race is world famous for the great distances covered by the paddlers, the wonderful hospitality and the remarkable scenery. The fact that the Berg is one of only two rivers in South Africa that flows due north , and enters the Atlantic ocean on the west coast, is another unique factor. The reason the race is held in winter is because the winter rainfall patterns in the Western Cape usually ensure the rivers are full enough to paddle on.
When the 2020 Berg Marathon had to be cancelled due to COVID 19 the organisers hit on the inspired idea of a virtual Berg. And what a ‘virtual’ Berg it proved. This short overview is compiled to offer thanks to all who made the virtual Berg possible. It is thus a tribute and a vote of thanks. As one engages with a challenge, like paddling 240 km, one realizes how much one’s family, friends and fellow paddlers mean for one’s efforts. We learnt to cooperate, work together and be flexible. This included adapting to the weather, the rivers and the obstacles. We also learnt to take things on one step at a time, padam, padam.
The Virtual Berg in the KZN Midlands
DAY 1 – 8th July 2020
Day one commenced at Clydesdale Cottages on the Lions River not far from Howick. The Lions River is fed with water from the Mooi River via an inter-basin transfer scheme. It flows all the year round making it ideal for canoeing. The water comes from the Springrove dam and is pumped into the mPofana river which flows into the Lions River. It then feeds the uMngeni River and Midmar dam. Midmar, in turn, supplies the whole of Pietermaritzburg and Durban with clean water. If only we could keep it this way!
The weather was rainy and cold on Day 1. After 50 metres of paddling we encountered an impenetrable tree block. It was just like the real Berg! Fortunately, Robert and Douglas Pike helped me clear the worst of the block but one still had to paddle up and over the tree trunk. Robert and Douglas then kindly let me ride their wave. For an hour I struggled to stay with them, as they reached speeds of up to 12 kmh. It was fun but exhausting. After the first hour we reached the Cascades Rapids and Midmar. I let them go ahead and tried to recover. Recovering, for me, took the best part of the rest of Day 1. Distance completed = 61.59km
Day 2 – 9th July
Day two was windy. From the start the wind just got stronger and stronger. Roland Heuff wisely offered me his Yeti, a more stable canoe. The Yeti was great. It had a really comfortable seat and coped very well in the big waves when we got to Midmar. A comfortable seat is a big deal on the Berg River or any long canoe race. Many a long-distance canoe race has been lost through an uncomfortable seat. Cramps and chafing can be a devastating.
Colin and Terry Everson joined me at Midmar. Because of the wind on the dam, and the high waves, we decided to do four runs down the Lions River. First I paddled with Terry. We soon hit another tree-block. The gale force winds had caused two more trees to fall in our way. Fortunately, Terry and I were stable enough to break our way through the branches. Colin drove the car around to Midmar and then he swopped with Terry and she drove. That was great team-work. For the last run to Midmar Colin and Terry dropped me back at Clydesdale and then met me at Midmar. Their role, and their timing was perfect. Without their help day 2 simply would not have happened. Distance = 58.99 km
Day 3 – 10th July
On the Day 3 the weather was least extreme. Little did we know it was saving itself for Day 4. Brian Land and I paddled across the dam together and he let me ride his wave. It was much appreciated. . Melissa van Rooyen joined me at around 10am and we put in some long, solid, hours from Clydesdale and across parts of Midmar dam. We paddled up Pylon Bay and did three trips from Clydesdale to the dam. At the end of Day 3, while rounding Hobi-point, Jacque Theron (a former 3 times winner of the Berg), David Evans and a few other professionals came past on a training paddle. They generously offered me the diamond wave. After 55km of paddling I couldn’t even stay with them for a minute!
Distance = 64.5 km
Day 4 – 11th July
The weather forecast for Day 4 didn’t look good. 100 % Thunderstorms! I set off at 7am and just past the first tree block my paddle got caught in a tree and I fell in. My first swim. The water was freezing cold, flowing strongly, 3 metres deep and the river banks were steep and inaccessible. I was a bit perturbed to see my cellphone and charger floating in the river, but luckily in a water-proof, Tupperware box. Robert rescued me and the box with the Strava still operating.
Later that morning I teamed up with Melissa and we paddled into a huge thunderstorm. KZN doesn’t normally get rain or thunderstorms in winter. Fortunately, the lightening didn’t get too close but then we had a major hail-storm. It hammered our hands and our heads for about 25 minutes. We even had to empty the hail out of our spray-covers! Eventually we dived under Petrostroom bridge for some protection from the hail. But then we got seriously cold. There was nothing virtual about any of that! Fortunately, Jacque van Rooyen was waiting for us and took us off for some hot coffee.
After the coffee we all assumed the weather would calm down. But it didn’t. When we finally arrived in Midmar, for the final 15 km, the waves on the dam were huge. Luckily we had no more swims.
We eventually arrived at the Midmar slipway at 4.30 pm. The wind was howling and it was freezing cold. Quite a few people, practicing social distancing, arrived to see us in. Sally Barrett painted a beautiful welcome banner which added to the fun.
We enjoyed the event immensely. Just like the picturesque scenery, on the real Berg, we saw spectacular country-side and much wildlife. This included riet-buck, caracal, as well as a wide range of birds including fish-eagles, spoon-bills, kingfishers, crowned cranes, yellow-billed duck, spurwing geese and many different varieties of weavers. Distance = 58.03 km
Total Distance in 4 days: 243.11
Much gratitude to all
The amazing thing about the Virtual Berg is how many people helped in so many different ways. Just when I thought it wouldn’t be possible to continue someone else showed up and offered to drive me back to the start or paddle a section with me. It couldn’t have worked better if it had been planned!
In particular, thanks are due to:
The Virtual Berg Organisers including Melanie van Wyk and Brandon Macleod and Dave Macleod. Thank you for your inspiring idea, your flexibility and for providing a paddling opportunity for so many people. It was a great idea to offer paddlers a range of options from; the full race over 4 days (Gold), the full distance during July (Silver) or 50km during the same period. People could do what suited them and their level of fitness.
Hannah and Mark Graham for lending me a Sniper canoe, a cell phone charger and water-proof carrier-bag.
Andy Pike for driving and Robert and Douglas Pike for paddling with me. And rescuing me when I swam. Robert and Douglas carried on paddling…… They eventually completing the 240 km in 8 days for a silver certificate, at an average distance of 30km a day. Well done, Robert and Douglas.
Melissa van Rooyen for being a powerful, resilient and unstinting fellow paddler. Nothing ever phased her – hail, storms, rapids, tree-blocks, wind, whatever. Jacques van Rooyen for driving, doing calculations, providing coffee and food and constant wise advice and encouragement.
Sally Barrett for painting a banner and joining us at the finish.
Liz, my wife, for constant support and encouragement. For driving and providing wholesome, delicious food every day.
Roly Heuff for driving, lending canoes and keeping the show on the road.
Brian Land for giving me a wave to ride on Day 3
Dave and Sharon Taylor for letting us launch at Clydesdale Cottages and helping remove the tree blocks.
Colin and Terry Everson for rescuing me and paddling with me in gale force winds on Day 2.
Brian Smith, from the 1977 Berg Team, who kept coming out to support the Virtual Berg in 2020 – 43 years later!
The whole Hulett family for their support at the finish on Day 4 – in the freezing evening weather.
And now for next year. Who’s up for it?