The month of May had arrived bringing with it the onset of winter that was beginning to settle like a pall of chill on the city of Pietermaritzburg. The days were quite warm but the evenings and nights had taken on the characteristics of the time of year when the red, brown and yellow leaves formed a carpet on the ground while their parent trees stood mute, waiting for the new generation of foliage.
The air along the river that morning was still and cold, seemingly trapped by the mist that hung dense across the river. In this monochrome world the nearby trees retreated into the gloom, their almost bare limbs looking like sentinels in the dim light of dawn. The sounds of the early traffic that crossed the invisible Camps Drift bridge consisted of the occasional muffled swish or growl, depending on their authors. Birds had not yet begun to proclaim the new day and the turgid water flowed sluggishly, the river surface unbroken by ripples, emerging from the blanket of mist into a small space only to disappear again into the same blanket.
By and by a car door slammed. The hardy ones had arrived, those whose love of paddling exceeded their dislike of being cold and wet. There were hearty greetings even though they’d shared that very stretch of water just the previous evening. The shapes of the cars were just visible, some of them festooned with long canoes and paddles protruding from windows like alien ears. The parking area became a makeshift dressing-room and before long warm clothes had been discarded in favour of the spartan attire of the paddler. Canoes were released from their clamps on the roof racks, paddles extricated from the comfortable interiors of the vehicles, and the hubbub moved off in a knot to the water’s edge. Some of the company had made their way to the boathouse to retrieve their vessels that had permanent spaces at the clubhouse, and the soon joined the launching operation.
It didn’t take long for them all to become waterborne and almost in a single file they all headed off upstream into the mist that hugged the surface. Soon out of sight, they would pass under the Camps Drift road bridge, continuing their odyssey past as yet unseen shops and factories that lined the river banks. Upon reaching the upper weir they would turn about, fan out abreast and the earnest part of the training session would begin.
Voices emerged from the mist as they passed the clubhouse on the way downstream to the Ernie Pearce weir near West Street. Most of the river had recently been dredged and the danger of running aground on an unseen sandbank was slight. Again they turned their boats to retrace their own wakes in a repeat of the previous trip. Thus much of the morning would pass until the time came to head for home.
Gradually the mist began to clear, the bright sun burning shafts of light through the leaden sky. The brighter light brought with it the colours that had been absent until then, and the world took on a different look. Herons stalked the shallows among the reedbeds, geese and ducks etched their vee-shaped trails into the water’s face. The conversations of employees on their way to work babbled from the short-cut paths near the clubhouse, and the now heavier traffic emitted a nearly ceaseless drone as the activities of the day gathered momentum.
Making their final run of the canal the last few paddlers came streaming past in full colour, their paddles splat-splatting as they raised splashes and spray from the still placid surface. These were the diehards, the paddling addicts, always reluctant to lift their slight craft from the water that was a source of such pleasure. The earlier process was precisely reversed as the canoes were once again perched on their terrestrial steeds for the journey home. No effort was made to use the impromptu change room again as morning showers would follow soon.
The cars followed each other along the winding track, raising minor dust trails before entering the tarred road that would take them home. Saturday was now in full swing, but Sunday was not far off, and they’d be back.