Pietermaritzburg – The waters of the Msundusi and Mngeni Rivers are stirred annually in the middle of February as hundreds of paddlers take on the three-day paddle from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. For some, it’s a race, a fight for an impressive title to top off any paddling CV, but for the vast majority it is three days of genuine fun, good laughter and great stories.
Next year’s Dusi on February 15-17 will be the 73rd edition of the famous race, and on the start line for an incredible 53rd consecutive year is 74-year-old Lyle Wheeler, who has not missed a race since 1972. Next year, he is partnered by his son, Billy Wheeler, and therein lies an interesting sorry.
“Billy has partnered me before, but he is hard of hearing which means we pass messages to each other by hand signals while on the water. I am in the front and through using my fingers, I communicate to Billy, telling him when to use power, ease off, what line we are taking and where to portage,” said Lyle.
As a youngster, Lyle was fascinated with boats and made his own craft with tar and pieces of cut hosepipe, which infuriated his father.
“I came across the Dusi by chance. I was working in the post office near Bishopstowe and looked out the window one day to see a line of people running across the fields carrying canoes,” said Lyle. “I was informed it was the Dusi and it took me a while to realise that back then, much of the Dusi was done of foot, rather than on the water.”
That has become one of Lyle’s most important lessons through the years.
“I hooked up with Len Jenkins Snr. and boy, we spent all our time running, carrying and dragging our boats, getting fit, building stamina and getting used to the physical aspect of the Dusi, which is huge,” he said. “Back then, there were minimal roads in the valley, so we used game and buck trails to find our way.”
Lyle’s memories of those early years constitute a book of its own, but one thing that remains is his utmost respect for the rivers and their waters. “No matter how many Dusis a paddler has done, you are never master of the route. When I started, there were no water releases and it was a hard slog. Now, water is given to us and that obviously creates its own dangers and know how,” he said.
“I plan each of my races meticulously. Maureen, my wife and second, knows to the second where I will be and when I will reach certain checkpoints. If I am 10 minutes late, she knows I am in trouble.”
Incredibly, Lyle has finished every Dusi he has started. “Fatigue, heat, falls, cuts from branches and thorns, water hyacinth, various partners and of course, the dreaded broken boat, I have managed to conquer all,” he said. “My seconds have always been at the top of their game and without them, I shudder to think what stories I would have to tell.”
Next year’s race sees some changes, the most significant being the start, which moves from Camps Drift in Pietermaritzburg, to Bishopstowe Country Club, due to pollution in the Msundusi River near the KZN capital.
“Again, that’s another aspect I look at in my planning. There have been many changes through the years and particularly after the severe floods a few years back, but the spirit, competition, challenge and character of the Dusi remains constant, and that’s what keeps drawing me back,” said Lyle.