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Making the Most of My Journey…. with the help of SHARENET and Themba!

On 17 February, I will be joining the hundreds of paddlers who annually brave the mighty Msunduzi River in KwaZulu Natal as they tackle the grueling 120km Dusi Canoe Marathon. This is the second endurance event in my 12x12 Challenge, and my team is growing: I have a partner in the paddling seat and a sponsor to ensure that we have a branded K2 canoe to house the seats, and a couple of other vital items – like paddling gear.

If you don’t know about SHARENET: Some of their online messaging seems completely tailored to me: “Live in the Now. But Plan for the Then”. And “Make the Most of your Journey” (SHARENET provides traders and investors, both individuals and institutions, with all the online tools they need to invest successfully on the South African and international stock markets).

I am making the most of my journey, and living in the now. Given that the objective of my 12x12Challenge is to encourage African women and girls to take on new, and daunting, challenges – physical, emotional and psychological - I chose the Dusi as it was guaranteed to push me out of my comfort zone. Why? Well…until last year, I had never paddled – professionally, or recreationally. I had only stirred. And, as I have learnt over the past 5.5 months since I took up my new sport: paddling is not easy. If I can be honest, I am slightly anxious about what lies ahead. Actually, I am afraid. But I am going to do my best to swallow my fears (and not the water) and hopefully show women and girls (and even men) that anything is possible if you take the plunge (literally) and just give it your best effort.

Most of my paddling has been on flat water at the Milnerton Lagoon. Logistically this has been very achievable as my canoe lives at the Milnerton Club and all I have had to do is arrive, carry it to the nearby water, get in, and paddle. I found balancing in the wide, very stable ‘club-tub’ very manageable. I even got to paddle about 3km on my very first attempt. After about three months of paddling at least twice per week I naturally started to think that I possessed a rather unique talent for paddling. So unique was my talent that it left people rather speechless. I was super keen to test my very obvious talent on a slightly faster, slightly less stable canoe. A red one. However, balancing in this canoe was virtually impossible, frustrating and down-right embarrassing. Not only did I fall out frequently, but I spent most of my precious time swimming to firm ground, emptying the canoe out, and then attempting to get back into the ‘red thing’. I felt like such a failure. Richard, the club chief-whip, told me that it can take years for older people (like me!!) to learn how to balance in an unstable canoe. He also said that it took years of consistent paddling and drills to groom the complex neural patterns that constitute an efficient and powerful stroke. At my age I am running out of time. So, I have had to swallow my pride and just accept that I am not a paddling pathfinder. I am actually very normal and average. And so, for the very foreseeable future, I will have to be confined to a rather slow, wide, awkward, but very stable, canoe.

Once you have mastered flat water it is time to venture onto a river. A few weeks ago, David Waddilove, the founder of the Freedom Challenge Trail, kindly offered to take me down my first river, a section of the Breede River near Paarl. I was soon to learn that paddling on a river came with a whole host of logistical challenges.

Rivers, being rivers, tend to play hard to get. They don't come to you, you have to go to them. Since David lived near Paarl I had to travel, with my canoe, to him. Canoes are generally long and wide…my stable canoe is even longer and wider than most. Transporting a canoe can be easy, but only if you have the right toys in your garage. Not only do you need an SUV with roof racks, but you also need tie-downs and red danger flags. I had none of these very useful, rather expensive, items at my disposal. But the river was calling, and David was waiting. I made a plan. I resorted to shoving my canoe into my small sedan. With the back seats down, the hatch-back open, and the canoe prized in at an angle between the open front and back windows, it fitted – sort of. I was super proud of my independence and problem-solving ability. Especially as I used my husband’s red undies as a flag to alert the traffic and neighbours to the hazards of a long, wide protruding object! Unfortunately it also alerted our local security watch (and eventually Anthony) to impending danger. Anthony, a rule-abiding, well respected member of our suburb’s home-owners association got a big surprise when a photograph of a rather small, but familiar looking car, with a protruding canoe sporting his red underpants, popped up on the home-owners whatsapp group.

I have since learned that it is OK to ask for help. As a wannabe superhero whose cape hides shrinking violet, I do find it hard to ask for help. I am now working on this very useful life skill. Anthony helped me put on the car’s roof racks (I didn't even know we had some in the garage) and I did eventually find my way to David, without any red undies. No, not David! I have since learnt to ask for help so nicely that I even got a lift to my first ever flat-water canoe race in Velddrift: in an SUV with air conditioning, music and snacks. Thanks to Brian Whiteford and Daantjie Malan for your help.

Last weekend I flew to Durban, without the canoe, and traveled by car, without the canoe, to Pietermaritzburg. My aim for the weekend was three-fold. Each task had to be successfully accomplished before taking on the next task. If I failed to accomplish any of the three tasks, I would not be able to get a late entry for the Dusi:

1. I first had to pass my river proficiency test on the Umgeni River. If I passed that, then:

2. Two hours later I would be allowed to paddle in my first ever river race (in a K2) with Themba Ngcobo, my potential Dusi partner, and the development coach from the Umzinyathi canoe club. If this went OK, and Themba was happy with my performance, then:

3. I could paddle in another race, the very next morning, with him, on the actual Msunduzi River.

So how did I do?

I was joined in my proficiency test by five other young development paddlers from the Umzinyathi Canoe Club. Themba was also there, casting a watchful eye over his young protegés The Canoe South Africa official presiding over the test was Bridgitte Hartley, an Olympic sprint canoeist. Talk about pressure. Thankfully I met a kindred spirit, a 12-year-old girl called Snothando, and we soon established a rapport based on moral support. Snothando loves paddling and her dream is to complete the Dusi and the Fish River Canoe marathons, and go on to the Olympics. Just my ‘kinda’ girl!

Snothando was very brave and led the group down the first weir. Unfortunately she capsized at the bottom of the weir and struggled to kick off her splash cover. For a few terrifying seconds or even a minute she was trapped in her canoe as it was churned around in a washing machine eddy at the base of the weir. All I heard was screaming as her canoe was tossed in the churn. Luckily someone was on hand to dive in and rescue her. Snothando did not pass her river proficiency test, but with the correct support, encouragement and coaching she will certainly be a force to be reckoned with. Bridgitte then shouted: “Ok Ingrid, you’re next.” I was super nervous, but I knew that I had to just try and make good by Themba and Snothando.

I had no other option than to go down the weir. Momentum, gravity and stupidity are a lethal combination. Besides, there is no foot brake or hand brake on a canoe. With great trepidation I steered my canoe down the weir. Thankfully, I made it. The rest of the test proceeded without too much drama, thanks to the help of a paddling friend called Kevin Meier. Kevin not only sourced a really stable K1 for my test, but also subtly demonstrated some of the more technical test moves, by way of arm movements, from a nearby bush. I did have flashbacks to my driver’s license test (the parallel parking), many years ago. My mother would hide behind a lamp post, grasping an imaginary steering wheel and turn it frantically, all while I proceeded to mount the pavement.

As there was no pavement to mount, I passed the river proficiency test and was therefore allowed to race in the two events with Themba. The first race was the Dash and Crash, a 16km paddle down the Umgeni River. Themba set a furious pace. We flew over the weir, navigated rapids, and dodged trees. My arms thrashed wildly trying to emulate his paddling speed. I felt like a World Champion. The next day was the Campbell’s to Dusi Bridge race, a 26km stint along the actual Dusi route. This was now the real deal. Rapids, big water, rocks and trees. And some portaging (carrying the canoe) around rapids.

All I can say is that my trip down the river with Themba was exhilarating but really scary at times. Especially as we capsized twice down two difficult rapids. I am definitely not an adrenaline junkie. Roller coasters scare the living daylights out of me. I will never skydive or bungee jump. I am the person who claps in relief when the airplane lands. But I managed. Thanks to Themba for opening my eyes (often in fright) to the power, danger and exhilaration of being on a real, flowing river. I have learnt that a river is a force of nature that demands respect. If respect is not given willingly, it will just be taken forcefully.

Portaging a canoe is also not easy. Nothing like my mountain bike. There are many lessons to learn. The canoe is heavy and digs into your shoulders. I will definitely need to wear shoulder pads. Running in wet shoes, especially downhill, is a sure way to get blistered toes. Next time it might be better to wear socks. And never drag a canoe when you can carry it: Our K2 canoe got a hole from striking a rock. It’s a good thing it was due to be branded – now it can be repaired first and branded afterwards.

The Campbell’s to Dusi Bridge race is along the final 26km of the first day of the Dusi race. Come 17 February I will need to do about 40km on three consecutive days. A sobering thought. Especially as I returned to Cape Town with a bout of the dreaded Dusi guts. The river is polluted and water does get into your Gastro Intestinal Tract, despite every effort to keep your mouth shut. For the last three days, I have not ventured far from the toilet.

I also managed to return to Cape Town without my paddle. No, I didn’t lose it in the river. Let me explain: One of the officials from Airports Company South Africa would not allow me to board the plane from Durban to Cape Town with my paddle. They were convinced that it looked more like an Assegai. I guess that is my punishment for being low maintenance and only travelling with hand luggage. I did try to get my paddle booked into the hold, but the queue at check-in was so long that the flight was closed by the time that I got to the front. I donned my MacGyver persona, and resorted to hiding my paddle in a bush outside the airport building. Hopefully it will still be there on my return. Hopefully I will remember which bush.

I alerted Themba to my Dusi concerns: Dusi guts, sore shoulders, paddling without a paddle, a holy boat and the distinct possibility of failure. His response: Ingrid, your Zulu name is IMBOKODO. Initially I thought that it might translate as: ‘the foolish one who does not listen, or the foolish one with her head in a toilet’. But no, and wow, this is what my trusty online translator tells me:

"Imbokodo is a Zulu word meaning “a rock”, often used in the saying “Wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo” meaning you strike a woman, you strike a rock”

Thank you Themba. With your help I know we can do this.

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