Wednesday 29 May 2013

Dusi article at Spanish Canoeing Federation Magazine "Aguas Vivas"

Yesterday it was published by the Spanish Canoeing Federation an article by Elite Kayak writer Gonzalo Melero about Dusi Canoe Marathon. We will be collaborating with the Magazine Aguas Vivas from now on writing about the big international events, showing them to Spanish paddlers and kayak lovers, who sometimes are not very familiar with those races abroad.

Here's a link to the magazine in Spanish: Aguas Vivas (article in page 38 and following).

And this is the English translation:

It is a quiet October evening, with the warm austral spring just started. The city of Pietermaritzburg, in the state of Kwazulu-Natal (South Africa), invites you to walk its extensive parks filled with the bright violet of jacaranda flowers. Children play, couples talk in the shade of a palm tree, a man with briefcase loosens his tie while walking slowly back home and two elderly men in a bank see time going by without major concern... and in the middle of this bucolic scene, two guys pass running at full speed with a K2 on shoulders. No one bats an eye. But we, foreigners, tend to stay staring them with incredulity and then think that the problem is that they are late to store the kayak at the hangar in Camps Drift, Natal Canoe Club headquarters, just a few hundred meters away. "No, they are training for Dusi," says one of the locals.

The Dusi is not just a race. In South Africa it is "the race". 1,500 paddlers from all conditions come together before the imposing Victorian building of the Natal Canoe Club each February. Their aims are as diverse as their profiles, but they all end in Durban, 118 kilometers downstream through the historic valley of Dusi and Umgeni rivers, once the scene of bloody battles between Shaka Zulu and the British Army. Today, two centuries later, the battle is still fierce, yet sporty.

Coincidentally, the competition now known as Dusi Canoe Marathon was originated in another war. In 1945, during the invasion of Italy by the Allies during the Second World War, a young South African named Ian Player was chewing an idea if he managed to get back home alive: to organize a race with his friends down the river from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. After the war and back to his land, the idea took shape slowly until, after a first failed attempt, the first Dusi started on December 22, 1950. Eight paddlers, forming four pairs of K1s for security reasons, were released downstream from Alexandra Park. Six days, eight hours and fifteen minutes later, Ian Player was the only paddler to reach Durban, after the withdrawal of everyone else, including his teammate. Theoretically he had skipped the rules but thus became the first paddler to do the Dusi. He had survived a terribly dry river, a sudden flood and even a snake bite. Ian Player paddled two Dusis more, which also won, before retiring.

Over the years, the number of paddlers / adventurers grew steadily and quickly the rules started to change shaping year after year the current race. In 1956 it was decided to divide the race into three stages and do the start in batches. In 1965, already with 58 participants, Richard Hackland finished in ninth place with a 17 year old boy as a teammate, somebody named Graeme Pope-Ellis in his first Dusi... Another 44 consecutive Dusis came (until his tragic death in 2010 in a tractor accident), 15 of them in victory, for which Pope-Ellis has certainly been the greatest "Dusi-man" of all time. In 1970 K1s were allowed to compete individually and not in pairs, where paddlers had reached over a hundred. In 1972 for the first time paddlers paid a registration fee, what it would be today something like 30 cents of Euro.

During the 70s, the sponsorship and the number of paddlers were growing hand by hand, quadrupling it in just 10 years. It began the golden period of Graeme Pope-Ellis and his duels with Biggs brothers, while in 1981 for the first time  it was allowed the participation of women and black paddlers, which was already a breakthrough in the tough times of apartheid, making the sport a spearhead in permanent changes that would come ten years later. Still, women had to participate compulsorily on mixed K2s. It would take three years to let them do so in K2 and four to do it in K1. Things were happening at breakneck speed: in 1985 enacting the alternating current system of annual awards in K2 and K1, which have been adopted by all major South African river races. In 1988 the dam was built at Camps Drift (renowned as Earnie Pearce in honor of one of the first local canoeing stars) and the start of the race was set two kilometers upstream, in front of the Natal Canoe Club.

In those years, thanks to paddlers who have also put their name on the top of the Dusi (Tim Cornish, Oscar and Herman Chalupsky, Mark Perrow, Neil Evans ...) it began to arrive in Velilla del Rio Carrión (small village in Northern Spain) the first videotapes with images of the race, which gathered a number of people around the TV at Carri’s Bar, well know canoeing hotspot in Spain. Having enjoyed in the afternoon of our own race at the Carrión river, young and old paddlers we opened our eyes to a kind of canoeing so different and fascinating at the same time.

The Dusi we know today set a record of 2,217 paddlers in 2000. The start batches go on for more than three hours in front of spectators all along the banks of the river flowing through Pietermaritzburg. Ahead, not only many miles of river, but also huge portages from 2 to 5 km. long. Some mandatory, due to the danger of certain water passages, but some other optional, making a great chance to play strategies and thinking about taking the risk in the rapids in exchange for a reward in the form of minutes. But neither easy or comfortable at the steep hills of the valley, which makes the Dusi not so much a paddlers race as a biathletes race. That’s why those workouts with the kayak on shoulder. In the evening talks, running shoes are as important as a topic as paddles and kayaks are, as you should go throughout the race with them on, paddling included. Maybe due to this special characteristic, Dusi Marathon is more likely to elevate figures that do not have great results in other places races or disciplines, as they were Pope-Ellis, Martin Dreyer or is being currently Andrew Birkett. But they are stars that shine in his race with a splendid light.

So far there is no known Spanish paddler who have been racing at the Dusi, but we are confident that the time is not far when our paddlers travel the long distance down to South Africa to enter the elite group of those who can say "I did the Dusi". Certainly, foreign presence has always been scarce. The race dates (mid-February, out of season for the Northern Hemisphere) and the long distance of the trip have never been incentives to move. However, in recent years there has been fairly continuous presence by the Czech marathoners, known cases of Jakub Adam or Michael Odvarko, who along with a group of whitewater specialists from the Czech Republic itself or the neighboring Germany and Austria stay there for some days and compete in the big race.

The Spanish paddler willing to compete in the Dusi would find several things that he would have to adapt to. First of all, running  5 kilometers  with the boat on you is not something that we normally do. Although South Africans do not do it 100%, either. In slopes down the hills thorugh endless red dirt tracks, so characteristic of the area, the kayaks are dragged. Yes, you read that right. The Dusi focused kayak have a double rope tied to the bow and attached near the cockpit. At those points of the portages, to let the shoulders rest, the kayak is thrown to the ground, the rope disengaged and crossed over the chest to run dragging the canoe. It may seem a sin, but the South African kayaks are made to withstand these dragging. And it’s always a good choice rather than a shoulder injury from the rubbing of the kayak on your collarbone. We would do it even on asphalt, be sure of it. That is also why most paddlers use a large foam pad in their vest. What it may be uncomfortable while paddling, can be very helpful when running uphill.

As with any South African river, life jackets are mandatory and here people also tend to carry a large bottles for hydration. Think you are in a tropical climate in summer, so it is normal to be between 35 and 40°C with 90% humidity, so not drinking in large quantities is synonymous of not reaching the finish line. If you want to do well in the race, be sure you have good seconds on the banks so they manage to be present at all the portages, in order to renew the drinks and for any help you could need. And that is not always easy, especially when seconds have to meet several members of the same team. "External" logistics can be very difficult, considering that sometimes it is normal to have more 'water carriers' and drivers than competitors, for those who really want to go for the title. Foreigners often use local people for these tasks, as it is so important to know the river and its surroundings not to get lost.

Probably the hardest part is the lottery of the infamous "Dusi guts", which is nothing but a strong diarrhea that usually affects roughly half of the competitors, in a totally random and democratic way. The golden rule in the Dusi to not be affected by something so ugly it would be doing the race with your mouth closed. Dusi river water has never been famous for being the cleanest in the world, since the purification systems are not as developed as it would be ideal and never forget that we are in a tropical area. But of course, keep your mouth shut in a rapid after another at 180 beats is not easy, so eventually at some point you will swallow some water. Then there are two choices: cross your fingers hoping not having eaten any bacteria or eat a lot of bananas after the stage. And it is worth seeing the quantity of bananas usually South African paddlers carry in their bags, as it is proven that they work much better than crossing fingers.

The accommodations are relatively cheap in South Africa, although for some special dates, reservations have to be made well in advance, as well as the plane ticket. Durban is the nearest international airport and you can fly at the time of the race for about 850 €, with two scales. The final is in Johannesburg, which actually makes it quite cheaper travelling just to Johannesburg (about 650 € via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines) and then taking a bus that will leave us in about 6 hours at Pietermaritzburg. The tricky part, as usual, would be the logistics, but more for the things you need to think about than for the difficulty itself, as in South Africa we will always find help from the very helpful canoeing community. Logically, the kayaks have to be bought from local manufacturers, for price and suitability to the river. The race website is very complete ( and provides all the necessary information for paddlers and guests, from registration to safety, travel maps and routes for seconds, even pics and video clips of the river and Dusi winners tips on coping with major river rapids, portages, etc… It also lets look for partners in case you want to go down the river in K2 or leave messages to find seconds.


  1. Brilliant piece, well done. Would love to see some Spaniards "doing the Dusi"

  2. Thank you Gonzalo. Brilliant and very informative article on our race. The Spanish would find this race VERY different to anything they have done before, but also SUPER rewarding.2 weeks before Dusi we have Drak Challenge - 2 day race, very famous in SA; 2 weeks after Dusi we have NON STOP Dusi - Dusi in 1 day; and 1 week later - UMKOMAAS Marathon - 2 day BIG, BIG water race. ALL 4 races are PREMIER. Make a trip for 4 of SA's best races in less than 6 weeks.

  3. Thank you Dave and Brett for the compliments. Be sure that slowly there will be Spanish paddlers appearing in the big races down in SA. Some endurance training needed before ;-)