Graeme Pope-Ellis might be the undisputed king of the Dusi Canoe Marathon, but there is another who has a record better than that of Pope-Ellis. The only difference between these two men is that Lyle Wheeler has no crown.
While Pope-Ellis, who passed away in 2010, earned the title of Dusi King as a result of his 15 titles from 46 successive appearances in the gruelling river race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, Wheeler will line up for a record 50th time on 18 March to expand on his legendary status in the Dusi.
Born in Durban in 1950, Wheeler’s love for canoeing developed at a young age. “Since I was a little boy, I’ve always liked boats and canoeing. I used to make them out of corrugated iron,” he says.
Wheeler took part in his first Dusi in 1971 and has finished every race since then. He takes a deep breath before sharing his memories of the Dusi from the past five decades.
Because water levels were low in the earlier years, paddlers were forced to run more than paddle. “I saw these guys running in Sobantu with the canoes and I wondered where they were going. They said they were doing the marathon from Maritzburg to Durban. It’s a canoe marathon and they are paddling, they said. I said, ‘No! No! No! You’re not listening properly. I’m talking about these guys who were running with the canoe.’ They said, ‘Yeah, they are going to Durban by canoe.’
“These guys were running and the river was there, you know. And they told me it’s the Dusi Canoe Marathon. I found out who to go to for advice and they told me Old Man Lens Jenkins Sr. He was a magnificent sport, man. He was something else, unbelievable.” Jenkins was a respected paddler in the 1970s who finished in the top 10 of the Dusi and Comrades marathons. “From there, I entered the race and never missed one.”
Wheeler describes his first Dusi as the race closest to his heart. He teamed up with Bruce Cieger in the K2 category. They were two of the 222 paddlers who paid R3.60 each to enter the race.
“Just not knowing where we were made it memorable,” Wheeler says. “We were coming out of the military, remember during those days it was compulsory. We were fit, and we thought we were fit enough for the Dusi race. The heat down the valley was another story. We had to walk and walk miles.
“But the good thing about the experience is that we didn’t know where we were. Someone said once you get on top of Burma Road, you will see the tall buildings and then there would be the finish. But those buildings were far, and that was special for me. Just slogging and not knowing where you were. That experience was special.”
The Dusi fraternity
Affectionately known as “Mkhize” because of his fluency in isiZulu, Wheeler downplays his feat as he prepares to appear in his 50th successive Dusi.
“You know, people always ask that and I just feel I’m no better than anybody else,” he says. “It’s nice because of my grandchildren and my children. I’ve taken my two sons down, I’ve taken my daughter down. It is nice for them to see. But for me, it’s just nice being one of the people.”
The camaraderie and friendship he has developed paddling the Dusi over the years mean a lot to Wheeler. “The canoeing fraternity, you know, nobody seems to think they are better than anybody else. That sort of respect means a lot because people know that in the river, anything can go wrong. No matter how good you are, you should never think you are better than anybody. Everybody greets, asks how did it go on the river. And for years and years, it’s just a different group of people. They are always down to earth, helpful and come back every year.”
The former post office technician says he doesn’t follow any special training programme to prepare for the race, he just exercises regularly and eats healthily. “I don’t change my diet. The only thing I change is to put grain in water,” explains the father of three.
“I eat normal, normal food. Vegetables. I play horse polo. I keep walking, exercising. In off season, I go maybe once or twice a week to the river to paddle. But in season, maybe two or three times a week. I do like walking uphill, which is something I do normally on the farm and consistently. I’m lucky, I’m not in the office because I’m at the farm.”
Wheeler, who is teaming up with his youngest son Billy in this year’s race, looks back fondly at the changes that have been made to the race.
“To me, that change of the river from those days to today … that is what always makes me think back to my first Dusi,” says Wheeler. “Then, of course, we’ve got Inanda Dam today, which we just paddle straight across. But in our days, we had to go one man in the boat or you’d run on the sand banks.
“They release water on the first day, they release water on the second day and they release it on the third day. We never had it like that. We had to walk. We had to walk carrying that canoe miles and miles. Now, from day one there is water. So it was much harder and longer back then.
The 71-year-old says he could go for many more years. “I’m not going to stop. I’ll carry on and on until I reach my 60th [race], and I’m not going to say I’m old,” says the Natal Canoe Club paddler.
“I don’t want to allow the old man [in me] to come. But things change quickly, so I hope to carry on till I’m 80. That’s only 10 years and that is not a long time. People ask me to write a book. People asked me to do it. There’s so many beautiful stories, you know, beautiful people.”