They are poor, they are underprivileged and they paddle through sewage in the hope of making it as a professional. These are the young men of the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club who spend their days on the water.
Paddling through sewage and fending angry gun wielding fishermen is just another day for Nkosi Mzolo and the rest of the Soweto Canoe & Recreation Club (SCARC). It is all part of a day’s training on the murky waters of the Power Park Dam in Soweto. It is the price they pay for the chance to win Africa’s most famous canoe race, the Dusi Canoe Marathon. On any night, you will find these dreamers on the dam. Scholars, welders and clerks all paddle hard for the chance of a brighter future as a professional.
In February, 817 canoeists flocked to the Msunduzi River, which is nicknamed the Dusi, in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It is a 120-kilometer canoeist’s hell ride that sweeps paddlers from Pietermaritzburg to Durban on treacherous white water rapids. A race in freezing water and high temperatures, that forces you to run over jagged rocks while carrying a 20-kilogram canoe. Five hundred kilometers away, in the sludge, Soweto has its own challenges.
“The conditions in Natal are a lot hotter. The river is very different from Johannesburg. You can go down the Jukskei but it’s totally different. The Dusi is rocky, but the Jukskei River is rockier. The [Dusi] rapids are bad, they have huge ones. We are willing to face stomach bugs to practice in Johannesburg’s river; the Dusi is cleaner,” says Mzolo.
Cholera, E. coli and bilharzia in the dirty dam are a mere occupational hazard for Mzolo. More worrying is the anger he faces from fishermen who cast their lines where Mzolo wants to launch his canoe.
“We had problems with some of them before. They come and drink and smoke drugs. Only recently have they started using it. The problem is their lines get in the way of the paddles. One guy got so angry he pulled a gun on one of our teenagers who had tangled his line by accident. We’ve been here for six years, can’t they respect our space?” says Mzolo.
The man, who spends every moment he can on the water, spends the rest of his time saving lives. He has been a paramedic for five years, and is studying to be a doctor. The night before we spoke, he delivered a baby in Hillbrow, in the Johannesburg CBD.
In a previous Dusi race, Mzolo needed a medic of his own. A kilometer into the race, he hit the Ernie Pearce Weir, a three-meter watercourse that narrows. Usually people take it one-by-one, but those in the lead go down it like sardines, he says. This was where Mzolo ran into trouble. Crammed into the weir with six other canoes, Mzolo went under. Six more went over him. When he surfaced he knew two ribs were cracked. He forfeited the race while in hospital.
“I’ll never miss a Dusi, its fun but it’s really hard,” he says.
This time next year, many more hopefuls will be paddling through the sludge of Soweto for the slim hope for glory.
Jay Caboz, an award winning journalist writes for Forbes Africa magazine.