NO ORDINARY HEROES  – a tribute to the Hero’s at the Dusi…..

A  few of you may have noticed the lone paddler walking at Campbell’s Farm, Guinea Fowl and  Finger neck. I am that lone paddler and this is my story, or rather the story of the camaraderie and sheer guts of my fellow team mates and my paddling partner, Rob.

Approximately a week before the customary firing of the cannon I fell ill with what is, in polite company, referred to a gastro. Nausea set in and I could not eat for a couple of days. Happily, I seemed to recover and made the trip from Gauteng to Kwazulu-Natal.

The evening prior to the race I did not feel myself and, at first, I put this down to “pre-race” nerves. However, by midnight the gastro and nausea had returned with a vengeance and, on Thursday morning when the paddle started, I felt less than fighting fit. Rob and I set-off in the charity batch.

We ended up taking our first swim at the Ernie Pearce Weir.Fortunately, we recovered quickly and the paddle to the Campbell’s Farm portage went smoothly enough, albeit that I was feeling really grim. As Campbell’s drew closer I intimated to Rob that we were going to have to take the portage easy as I was feeling weak. I can only imagine Rob’s alarm. He was surely thinking, “WTF, we have only just started!”

At Campbell’s we took the second out. Having battled up the hill last year I thought we were both up to the challenge, at least mentally. Alas, within 200 metres I needed to rest. I tell Rob this at the same time battling to comprehend that I find myself in this position so quickly. Rob says nothing, though I am pretty sure he must be peeved. After all we have put in a lot of training and should be able to traverse  these hills with relative ease. After a five minute break we pick up the boat and set-off up the hill, again. The trip does not last long. After about another 100 metres I have to stop, too sick and drained to continue. I am gutted and hugely disappointed in myself.

At this point my saviours arrive on the scene. Ryno Armdorf and Claudio Gaspari can see that I am taking strain. Ryno steps up and suggests that Claudio, Rob and himself carry two boats. This frees me up to walk without having carry at all! Ryno puts the front of one boat on each shoulder and Rob and Claudio each take the back of a boat on their respective shoulders. They get moving and, despite the load, open up a gap on me. The rate at which the gap grows leaves me dumb-founded.

I stumble on alone; no partner and no boat attached. I reach a gate where a couple of the seconds are waiting for the paddlers and I come across Christina Sears who is seconding for her husband and his brother. Her face is a dead giveaway. I clearly look as terrible as I feel. I could slip into the role of a zombie in The Walking Dead without any make-up. And this is happening while I have no sight of my partner or boat! When asked where my boat is I can only respond, “Somewhere up front”.

When I eventually arrive at the end of Campbell’s Farm portage, Rob starts stuffing me with baby potatoes.  Rob, adopting a paternal tone, firmly tells me to, “Eat bud, eat”. I am bloated from the gastro and feel like a stuffed pig. The last thing I feel like doing is eating bloody potatoes. But like a child I relent and end up sitting there, forcing potatoes down my gullet. My unmoving audience of three (Rob, Ryno and Claudio) look like they could step in at any second to hold my nose closed and check if, indeed, I had swallowed the wretched potatoes.

Some potatoes down and it is back to the serious business at hand. Ryno says that he and Claudio will wait for Rob and me at the Guinea Fowl portage. He knows I have zero chance of making Devil’s Cauldron which is tough even for a healthy, strong paddler.

As we first approach the take out I cannot see Ryno and Claudio. For a moment panic sets in and I am convinced that this is where my Dusi ends. Until I spot them. True to Ryno’s word, he and Claudio have waited for us. Claudio immediately steps in and takes control of the situation. He orders me out of the boat and takes it out of the river for me. The three set-off again, leaving me to make my way up the hill without the burden of a boat. I realise that I have no energy and my reserves are totally depleted. (In fact, I later heard later one of Claudio’s friends say he was wondering why I was “staggering from one side of the path to the other without a  boat”.)

Progress up the hill is painfully slow. While I battle to put one foot in front of the other, droves of paddlers pass me as if I am standing still. My stops become more frequent and I now find myself in a relentless cycle. Less energy and dehydration causing more nausea which I am trying to stave off by burning more energy and so on.

I finally reach the bottom of Devil’s Cauldron. In a daze I stop and think to myself, “There is no f#%king way I am going to get up this hill”. I cannot find the motivation to take one more step when Ryno arrives. He urges me on, “Come on bud you cannot make it to the top if you do not take a step”. I answer that I am done at which point he tells me to get on his back, he will piggy-back me to the top of the hill. That triggers something. I think to myself (all 100 plus kilograms of myself), “If he can carry me up this hill, I sure as f@#k can take a step and move forward.” I take the first step and as I do so Ryno makes me grab his life jacket. He proceeds to drag me up the hill.

At the top Rob and Claudio force feed me a mixture of “goo”, water and Powerade. I am on my haunches trying to get this unholy mess down my throat while, literally, praying that I will die. Death seems to be the easier option than the 20 kilometres which remain. After ten minutes of being force fed like a goose on its way to becoming foie gras it is time to move on. (As an aside I might mention two things. First, Claudio loves feeding people albeit not usually by force. He is known as the VLC chef and has prepared some scrumptious food on club outings on many occasions). Next, luckily or unluckily, the medic at the top of the hill was busy with another injured or ill paddler so, undetected, I managed to continue in circumstances which would otherwise meant my race was already done.

From here on Rob sticks with me to keep me motivated while Ryno and Claudio move ahead dragging the two the boats. I later found out that another paddler had given Ryno, who did not have one, a drag line. A further testament to the great camaraderie that exists amongst paddlers at the Dusi.

The portage dusted we are back in the water. We now have the Maze to deal with, as well as Mission Rapid. I am wary as we went swimming (twice) last year in Mission Rapid. Ryno and Claudio are sticking with us and paddle out not too far ahead of us. We reach the Maze and due to the lack of power from the back paddle we get washed to the left and onto a rock and the heavy weight VLC crew are in the drink for another short swim. The Maze complete, Mission Rapid awaits. Thank goodness Rob paid a visit to Mission the day before. Instead of taking the conventional line he follows the sneak on the left to avoid the big drop. We got a little stuck but nothing serious and a big bonus awaits. As we exit the sneak Rob starts heading to the right hand bank despite all the life guards and paddlers who are recovering from the big drop shouting at us to turn left and head for main shoot. By this point even I am shouting at Rob, questioning where the f&*k he is going. We slip into a sneak on the right and exit under the main shoot. We have made it through Mission without touching a rock or even the hint of a swim. Well done Rob! He kept us in the boat and following a safer line all with a back paddler who was, at best, a lame duck.

One portage to go for the day: Finger Neck portage.

It’s much the same procedure as before. Again Claudio is on the bank telling me to get out of the boat, which he will take out of the of the water while I start walking. The three musketeers catch up with me within 100 metres. They overtake me with Rob and Claudio carrying our boat and Ryno carrying their boat on his head. My status is unchanged. I am still battling to put one foot in front of the other and to avoid falling, all while contemplating how pleasant death would be by comparison to this. Despite this they all say that I seem to be recovering! I am not sure if they are saying this as encouragement or because they are happy in the knowledge that this is the last portage at which they will have to carry my boat.

Back in the boat and the final stretch awaits. By now I am completely blown. I basically sit in the back of the boat while Rob pulls us through to the finish. I recall Rob saying to Ryno that carrying my fat ass was not a problem, but carrying it up river was f@#$ing difficult. (Rob I can only imagine it must be!) Claudio and Ryno stayed with us to the end although this must have been very frustrating as our boat was spinning out in the smallest of eddies as I was not able to help Rob out in any way. We took a swim in one of these eddies when we got washed into a “wag ‘n bietjie boom”. I can only imagine the sight. I am pale and sickly with a piece of tree stuck in me accompanied by a partner who is on a slow simmer as a result of being on the water two hours longer than planned.

The finish line does not bring the usual sense of relief. I am too buggered to feel relieved. In fact I am so buggered I do not even notice the Hansa ladies who are generally the highlight at the end of the day. I drag myself and the boat to the repair station where Rob tersely, and rightfully, tells me to leave everything and go to the hospital tent.

At the hospital tent I am given a drip and heaven only knows what other medication. I am instructed to lie still and recover. Rob, for his part, is trying to convince the doctor to give me a suppository of any description for whatever reason as I must surely need one. Mercifully the doctor is on my side.

Our race ended that day. A year’s worth of training, all for nought and with nothing to be done about it.

Through this short story of the hell I went through, and the hell I put my team mates through, I would really like to publicly thank them for their efforts and for getting me to the end of day one.

Rob was stuck with me so his race came to an end with mine. I am truly sorry Rob we put so much work to give ourselves a shot of having a great race.

As for Claudio and Ryno, the two of you sacrificed your plans to help Rob and me reach the end of day one. I have no words beyond, “Thank you”.

The three of you are no ordinary heroes. You pushed me way beyond what I would have thought possible while maintaining patience and a positive outlook to the very end.

Thank you all.

Anthony Welsh

(Heavy weight crew VL1C)