The Race and the River

The Bivane River cuts through a deep winding valley (500 m plus) with vertical cliffs forming the riverbanks along much of the route (43 km). There are approximately 60 rapids along the length of the river. There are not many straight sections of river.

A typical section of river has a curving boulder covered riverbed rapid, with sufficient water to float a Kayak. There are occasional large boulders barely covered with water and capable of splitting fiber. They are characterized by waves with unbroken crests as opposed to the typical small white spilling crests carpeting the rest of the pebble field. There are about six significant drop rapids over the course, most of these being portaged for safety sake on race day! There are no notable large stopper waves. As there are no access roads to the river aside from the start immediately below the dam wall and the finish at Ithala Game Reserve, you might have to hike out the valley if you damage your canoe. Exit by foot to the clinic road is estimated to take one to two hours. This will require a tough steep climb up the valley side and away from the river to a rough road.
No walking without marshals approval.

During 2000, negotiations with Impala Irrigation Board, KZN Wildlife and the community lead to the Inaugural race being held on 24 November 2001. With the help of various sponsors and the role players mentioned above, the Umfolozi Canoe Club committee managed to lay a solid foundation for the race to be a huge success.

Conditions were ideal at the start on Saturday with 18 cubic meters/sec being released from the new Bivane Dam. A total of 75 paddlers (23 K2 boats and 29 K1’s) took to the water followed by 10 “sweepers” to ensure that all safety requirements were met.

The race was won by Paul Hay and Grant Morshead from Gauteng in a K2 in a time of 3h09m51s. The first K1 home was Gary Campbell in 3h16m41s. Only 4 boats failed to complete the distance.

The logistics of the race was the chief concern for the organizers, as the area has no access by road at all. All marshals and support personal had to be put in place, and evacuated by river. The professional manner in which this was achieved by the Umfolozi Canoe Club will ensure the growth of this race in years to come. A helicopter and an ambulance were on standby in case of a medical emergency, but everyone reached Dakaneni on the Phongola River safely. The last boat arriving shortly before nightfall.

In 2002 the race was bigger and better. We had 125 paddlers and about 320 seconders in the valley to look after, and Umfolozi Canoe Club excelled once again. Here are the comments of Kevin White, the 2002 winner:

“To Marius and his committee I just want to say thanks for a really great race. It was definitely one of the best canoe races I have ever done. I will definitely be spreading the word and please keep me a place for next year. For me it was a great honor to meet up with Oom Schmidt. It gave me a big lump in my throat as I remembered my first race on the Pongola some 10 years ago when I actually raced against Julius from Itala down, he was a great guy and one whom I looked up to as a youngster. It is great to be able to remember him with this race”.

We have learnt a vast amount since 2001, mainly due to the inaccessibility of the course, we must restrict the field to a maximum of 250 in the coming years. We will also need to improve some of the safety procedures to cope with the increased field. We have the full support of Impala Irrigation and KZN Wildlife in this regard.

We also would like to involve our local community by charging a community levy payable by paddlers. We would like to expand this to a rafting venture with shelter to overnight on the river – with this income going to the local community. The pristine beauty of the area means that we need to protect it from unscrupulous operators and people who would spoil the area for future generations. We know we have a jewel here – but with the strong bond between the role players mentioned we want to utilize it without abusing it.

For their effort the Umfolozi Canoe Club walked away with the KNCU Fezela Trophy for the best one-day race organized in 2002, 2004 and in 2005. The Umfolozi Canoe Club was also the runner up in the Emerging Tourism Event of the year 2002 competition held by Tourism KZN.

The race has was well supported by the main sponsor Erlank Plant for 2001, 2002 and the lead up to 2003. This was supported by Bell Equipment and Hansa Pilsener Andries Erlank was a personal friend of Julius Schmidt and hence his large support. Bell came to the party in a big way from 2006 to 2008 which has been fantastic!

The race has cemented its name as a top notch race, with all the top names having completed it in over the last few years. To name a few, we have had Ant Stott, Michael Mbanjwa, Hank McGregor, Cam Schoeman and Jacques Theron taking part. In 2008 we had 3 of the 5 lady Beijing Olympians at our race, Carol Joyce, Jen Hodgson and Bridgette Harley.

Due to the tough economy Bell have drastically reduced their sponsorship for 2009 putting the race in jeopardy. We have however decided to press on and run the race on a shoestring budget. At the end of the day paddlers come to race for the water; not the frills.

Our committee is dedicated to ensure this race is faultless. The tricky logistics make it an expensive race to run, but it has to be done properly or not at all. We are also very open to any merchandising ideas such as stickers, banners, media coverage and the like.

Our club has adopted the rare “White Back Night Heron” as its’ logo which can be found in the valley. This symbolizes our holistic concern for the environment and the importance of ensuring the sustainability of the environment to host our race.

Having seen the pollution and erosion evident on rivers like the Dusi, makes us aware of what a gem we have on our doorstep.

We need sponsors!

Due to the few years dry spell we have had to start with a clean slate, please get in touch if you would like to discuss sponsorship opportunities

Nils : or 0827358461