#2  The Fish

Each year, hundreds of canoeists are drawn to a remarkable river that runs through a dry land...

By Julienne du Toit

"Every springtime, an old gap-tooth crocodile called Cecilia makes her appearance on the banks of the Great Fish River in the Eastern Cape Karoo. She lurks quietly, content to bask among the river reeds north of Cradock.

Cecilia only ever appears when there are a few hundred paddlers riding the lively rapids. Welcome to the amazing Fish River Canoe Marathon.
The Fish, as it is fondly nicknamed, had grown to become one of South Africa’s premier river races, along with the Dusi Canoe Marathon in KwaZulu-Natal, and the Berg River Canoe Marathon north of Cape Town.

Day One
The start of the race always falls on a Friday.
First light reveals a steady convoy of bakkies and SUVs heading up the N10 from Cradock. They are topped with canoes on roofracks and sport registration plates from all over the country. They turn onto the dirt road to Grassridge dam, silken dust floating behind them over the Karoo bossies and lucerne fields.
At the dam, there is organised chaos.

Beside little clusters of canoes, competitors are affixing race numbers to bodies, paddles and boats. They wiggle their rudders, don helmets and caps, fill their water reservoirs (trippers), coordinate rendezvous times and places with their seconds, slather on sunblock, test their GoPro cameras and effect last minute reinforcements with duct tape. A drone whines overhead to capture the action.

A hatted man with an epic beard, megaphone, and German Shepherd Dog announces: “One minute.”
“Ready? Go!” The group sprints to the water. Within seconds, they’re into their canoes, stretching the elasticated splashies over the opening. Wobble, balance and they’re off into the rising sun, paddles churning, water drops flying.

The first hazard after the dam wall on the far side is the high weir and chute nicknamed Double Trouble on Norman Collett’s farm.
Keith’s Flyover
Before long, the first in the batch are at Adamsfontein Farm, home of Ted and Ingrid Collett. Here the Great Fish River hurtles through a winding rocky channel under a bridge named Keith’s Flyover.

The water madness calms down a little until Soutpansdrift rapid, where Sinclair and Mary Collett farm. Then it’s a comparatively easy dash to Day One’s finish line at Knutsford, where farmers’ wives feed the paddlers boerewors rolls and a mystery soup that has all the seconds clamouring for the recipe. The secret? The local women all make part of the soup in their own kitchens. Everyone’s soup is then merged together in a huge tureen. It’s delicious.
Heroism, Fun and Cecilia

The visual highlight of Day Two is the Cradock Weir.
Under its distinctive high V-shaped edge is a wicked churning tumble of whitewater. On a platform in front of the weir’s edge are the lifesavers, muscular young men clad in red lycra, tethered so that they can be pulled back quickly during a rescue.

Like Keith’s Flyover, this is one of the most exhilarating obstacles, for competitors and spectators. From early, locals bring snacks, drinks and sit down to watch the drama. The views are good from several vantage points, including a grassy bank, and the bridge over the river, in front of the weir.

And Cecilia? She has had her moment of glory. The paddlers that have seen her have identified her location in the Spot the Croc competition, hoping to win a brand new canoe.

On Sunday, Roy Copeman picks her up in his bakkie and stashes her rigid leathery form in the Cradock clubhouse. There Cecilia, named after Cecil Hennig the local taxidermist, quietly gathers dust until the next year’s outing."

This is an extract from Karoo Roads III – The Adventure Continues, by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. For author-signed, first-edition copies of Karoo Roads III, email Julienne du Toit at julie@karoospace.co.za
Season 1 / Episode 2 19 Oct 2022 English South Africa Places & Travel · History

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