The 3-day Dusi Canoe Marathon is the most well known race in South Africa, and one of the biggest races in the world. The first race was held in 1951, with 8 men competing. The only paddler to finish the race was Ian Player, who took 6 days to do it. The whole trip was non-stop and unsupported, and the boats used were heavy and made of all kinds of materials but fibreglass. Ian Player subsequently wrote a book, Men, Rivers and Canoes, which gained publicity for the race. In 1956 it was decided to hold the race over 3 stages, which is the format still used today. Since then it has grown to a huge affair with big sponsors.
The race has attracted close to 2000 entries in the past few years, with participants competing in K1’s and K2’s, wildwater racers and even touring kayaks. The race is not only famous for its rapids but also its portages, some of them kilometres long over rugged terrain. Some of the portages are compulsory to miss out sections too hectic for a K1, while others are taken just because it is quicker than paddling around some huge bends in the river.
Although the race is called the Dusi, less than half of the route is on the Dusi River. The confluence with the Umgeni is soon after the start of the second day, after which the race continues on the Umgeni River down to the sea. The section of the Umgeni used in the race is also described here for ease of reference. The race takes one through the Valley of a Thousand Hills, a scenic, but warm and humid, area.
Most maps indicate that the actual name of the river is “Msunduzi”, but the name “Dusi” has become familiar to most people and the race is named as such.
The first day is the shortest in distance, but it has the longest portages. Care should be taken not to dehydrate in the humid heat. The race is held in January when the river is likely to have water, but it also the hottest time of the season.
The start is at Camp’s Drift in Pietermaritzburg. After some flat water, the first obstacle is the Ernie Pearce weir, which is easy and fun down the chute. Some more flat water follows before reaching the Commercial Road weir, which should be portaged by most paddlers.
The river is still very tiny here with high banks and a couple of trees at some places to avoid. Easy paddling follows before the first compulsory portage of the race, called Campbells portage, where a choice can be made between a short and a long portage. It cuts out a big loop with some difficult rapids. After the portage the first bigger rapids of the race are encountered, with names such as Tegwaan and Sun of a Gun.
The next portage, Guinea Fowl, goes around a section of the river with cascading rapids, too big for a K1. After getting back on the water, look out for the Maze. It is a long section of boulders and twisty channels, asking for pure concentration. Soon after that is Mission rapid, which always causes a few swims, but not really too difficult.
A little bit further on is a voluntary portage, where experienced paddlers can go around Finger Neck for some action. The portage is substantially faster, however. Directly after that one has to choose between portaging further on or paddling around the Cabbage Tree section. The portage is only faster when the river is low, and some fun, but not serious, rapids will be missed.
The last stretch to the end after the Dusi bridge is uneventful, just portage around the bridge which has a weir under it.
The second day doesn’t have as much portaging as the first day, and some big rapids provide lots of action.
Soon after the start paddlers have to choose between portaging over Saddles or going around the two loops. When the water is low, it is a lot faster to portage, but at high water it is just as fast paddling around, unless you are going for a top position and plan to run over the portage. The rapids around the loops are not mean at all.
After Saddles, the river starts getting interesting as the confluence with the Umgeni is approached. Some nice continuous rapids after the confluence make one realise why paddling is more enjoyable than running on the bank. The first big obstacle is Washing Machine, and it is normally portaged. Next on the list is Slide, which can be run by the competent. A short flat stretch takes one to Ibis, portaged on the left. Next is the Gauging weir, also portaged.
The next obstacle is Marianny Foley bridge, which is shot second or third tunnel from the right, before negotiating the rapid just below it. The following section is uneventful until the compulsory take-out for Ngumeni Hill. The portage cuts out the Mamba gorge, definitely not suitable for K1’s.
Soon after getting back on the water, expect three big rapids with a reputation, called Gumtree, Tombi and Hippo. All are shootable by the experienced, but it is no easy ride. After this the major action for the day is over, but some interesting bits are encountered till reaching the sandbanks leading to Inanda Dam. The long paddle over the dam to the end for the day is a heartbreaker and seems never-ending.
The third day is the most enjoyable for competent paddlers. The first stretch on the dam to the wall is a good warm-up for the action that follows.
The rapid just below the dam wall is Tops Needle which is a renowned boat-breaker, and most paddlers prefer to portage this one. Tops Needle is quite a long tricky rapid and is used for slalom as well.
Some smaller rapids follow before Side Chute, which goes down to the left with some big boulders on the way down. The next big rapid is Umzinyati, named after the river that joins here from the left. The Umzinyati sometimes adds substantially to the water flow of the Umgeni.
Small but tricky rapids follow before reaching the take out for the notorious Burma Road, the worst portage of the whole race. Paddlers taking out for the portage miss out on some excellent rapids. At low to medium levels it can be faster to run over it, which is normally done by the paddlers racing for the top position. Paddling around is however a lot faster than walking over Burma Road.
The first rapid just after the take out is Little John, which is not that small when the water is high. Next is Molweni rapid, before reaching Island. Island rapid should be portaged (on the left) by most paddlers, unless you know the rapid well and are confident of running it. Five Fingers is next on the map, which is a long exciting rapid, with a couple of drops to negotiate on the way down.
The put-in after Burma Road is just after Five Fingers, when all the action is over. A stretch of flat water leads to two dangerous weirs to portage. After the weirs the only action left is Dog’s Leg rapid, before the grind to the end on the lagoon is tackled.
This river description is taken from my book “Run the Rivers of Southern Africa”.
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