Pietermaritzburg – Lorna Oliver (48) will tackle her 36th consecutive Dusi on Thursday, comfortably the most races by a woman. It also means she paddled her first race when she was just 13 – and before the minimum age entry which currently prevents competitors younger than 16 taking part.
Growing up in and around Pietermaritzburg, she is the daughter of the canoeing legend John Oliver, who accompanied her on her first two Dusis. He has been the race’s official timekeeper for more years than most paddlers can remember and this year was honoured by having a Dusi Series named after him.
“Although it is the most completed races by a woman and I have a healthy lead on my nearest competitor who is somewhere in the 20s, I am trying to catch up to the leading men. Lyle Wheeler is going for his 53rd and Gudgie Dixon is doing his 50th this year,” said Lorna. “They keep coming back each year and I cannot catch up, but I believe women get better with age so I won’t give up just yet.”
In this year’s K2 race, Lorna is partnered by Debbie Lewis (58) who hails from Durban North and embarks on her 21st race. Despite not living close to each other, the pair have paddled together at numerous marathons and by their own admissions are smooth and strong on the water, making up for what they may lose or lack at running.
“I run my own gym at Kingfisher Canoe Club at Blue Lagoon and we can show the youngsters a thing or two on the water,” said Debbie, who started paddling late, at age 32, by pure chance.
“I lived in Johannesburg and happened to be in Durban, driving past the uMgeni River, when the Dusi was on. I was wondering why so many paddlers were on the water. When I was saw what was going on, I had to give it a go and here I am, ready to roll yet again,” she said.
This is the pair’s first Dusi together, Debbie’s nagging finally paying dividends. “Lorna coaches young schoolgirls and boys and normally does the race with one of them. This year, she finally had no such commitments, meaning I got the green light,” she said.
For both of them, it’s the uniqueness of the race that keeps them coming back. “No Dusi is ever the same. It’s an adventure, a challenge and a test of skill,” said Lorna. “Water levels change from huge one year to dry the next, and it’s a case of heading into the unknown. The only given is that it is three days. For the rest, it’s just gritting your teeth and taking on the elements.”
Preparation for Lorna and Debbie has been better than expected. At the Kindo Covers Ozzie Gladwin and SMG 50 Miler, they finished third overall and then fourth in the Kayak Craft Bishopstowe to Dusi Bridge race.
“We have our eye on winning the women’s Sub-Masters category, but it doesn’t matter how many Dusis a paddler has done, each year, each day of the race is a new beginning. It’s all about endurance and respect: Respect for the river, respect for nature and respect for the honour of competing in such a unique, world-renowned event,” said Lorna. “We both enjoy the element of endurance and have had to dig deep through the years on occasion without ever giving up. This year will be no different.”
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.