15-17 February 2024

Former rugby star aiming for a half century at Dusi

If he finishes this year’s Dusi Canoe Marathon, former Natal rugby scrumhalf Graeme ‘Gudgie’ Dixon will be moving up from the Dusi’s 40 Club to join Lyle Wheeler as the only two paddlers to have completed 50 races. Remarkably, this is Dixon’s 50th consecutive race and he has never not finished.

Pietermaritzburg – Graeme ‘Gudgie’ Dixon may be known to South African sports fans as flyhalf for the Natal rugby team in the 1970s and 80s, but this week he will hope to achieve a sporting milestone only achieved by one other: On Saturday, if Dixon finishes the Dusi Canoe Marathon in Durban, he will become only the second paddler to have reached the significant milestone of completing 50 Dusi Canoe Marathons.

Currently, Lyle Wheeler with 52 finishes, is the only other to have notched up a half century, and he will be aiming for his 53rd on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Nigel Briggs, with 48 finishes, will be hoping to move within striking distance of joining the elite “50 Club” next year.

Remarkably, the 65-year-old Dixon took on his first Dusi as he was starting Grade 11 (Std 9) at Maritzburg College, and he hasn’t missed a race since, making his attempt to finish this weekend his 50th consecutive race.

“Paddling as a school sport was non-existent back then. We had a canoeing society and it was strictly a sport done outside of traditional cricket and rugby,” said Gudgie.

Living right on a bend of the Msundusi River, just down from the start, Gudgie had annually watched the intrepid men heading in their boats from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, but there was an added bonus that made him determined to take on the expedition.

“Our neighbours were the Culverwells, and Kevin was a Springbok sprint canoeist. He used to head for Henley Dam to practice and, as a 12-year-old lad, I went with,” said Gudgie. “I have always enjoyed water sports, and once I started paddling it was a matter of time before I took on the famed Dusi challenge.”

Perhaps Gudgie’s spirit of determination also played a big part. Besides his exploits in the Dusi, he was also a Natal rugby player in the late 1970s to mid 1980s, as a more than useful flyhalf. He missed out on the 1984 Currie Cup Final at Newlands against Western Province thanks to a hamstring injury. A further shoulder injury saw him hang up his boots in 1986, but the Dusi always remained a constant.

“Rugby then wasn’t the whole package, like it is now, and I found that paddling, running and building up strength and stamina for Dusi was a huge benefit. The season used to always kick-off with the Easter Club Tournament in Durban, and with Dusi in January, I was always in good shape for the new season,” said Gudgie.

With a best finish of 17th in 1982 as a K1 entrant, Gudgie now simply hits the water every year purely for enjoyment. It helps him keep fit, and the mixture of the challenge, endurance, friends and being at one with nature, keeps him going back every year.

Springbok and Natal rugby captain Wynand Claasen paddled with Gudgie three times, and through the years, brothers Stuart and David have joined him too. This year, Stuart takes on his 47th race, but David stopped after completing his 10th. Son-in-law Rowan Ainsworth partners him for the sixth time in this year’s edition.

“Every day of the Dusi is different, no matter how many times you have done it. For me, it’s all about what you make of it and it’s homage to the original challenge created by the late Ian Player in 1951, when it took him six days to reach Durban,” said Gudgie. “This year sees more changes, but the key is to go with those changes, rather than becoming a victim of them.”

Gudgie still lives in Pietermaritzburg and despite a knee replacement 12 years ago, and a hip replacement two years ago, he has his own approach of slow, sure, steady and safe to see him through.

“My joints have taken a beating through the years, but Dusi has become such a part of my life. It’s just something that happens annually for me and I do most of my paddling at Midmar and Camp’s Drift,” said Gudgie. “I work in the retail trade, which is a tough environment and that explains my love affair with the race, its beauty and the valleys – I can forget about the stress of life for a while and enjoy something I have grown to love.”

This year, besides being a special one for Gudgie, it is also a tribute to Bryan ‘Beans’ Bateman, his second of 40 years, who died from cancer recently.

“He was a legend and it’s thanks to him I have achieved what I have. There have been many close calls through the years, but Bryan ensured I crossed the finish line,” said Gudgie. “This will be the first race he has missed in all those years and I know he will be watching and guiding me to my milestone.”

The Dusi starts at Bishopstowe Hall on Thursday and finishes at Durban’s Blue Lagoon on Saturday. The two overnight stops are at Mphaya Bridge near Nagle Dam and at Inanda Dam.