Five Capetonians, Des and Cheryl from Paddlesnappers, Quintin and Vincent from Dragon Pursuit and myself from Mujaji were part of a very successful South African team that have recently returned from competing in Taiwan and China. The ladies team was successful with a haul of 4 medals (we beat the Aussies, consistently!) but the mens team's fame came from saving lives...!
I have been on many trips to Dragon Boat World Championships and Internationals abroad since 1997, but this trip to Taiwan and China was very different to previous occasions in the mix of the team. Not only were we a combined Cape-Gauteng team (the only provinces with active clubs at present) but we were South African Black, Coloured, Indian and White; English, Afrikaans, Zulu, and Taiwanese; Christian, Muslim, Taoist and agnostic; academics, teachers, students, gym instructors, business folk and 14 swimming-pool life guards; and our ages ranged from 15 to 55. A truly Rainbow team! Adopting a determined tolerance to exuberant noise levels, I found it thoroughly enjoyable being part of this squad. South African teams have always had a name for extrovert friendliness and this team really polished that reputation.
Initially we were just going to an international in Taipei. Word got out that a South African team was going to be in the “vicinity” and we received invitations to Internationals in MiLuo and Nanning in central and south China, all expenses paid by the Chinese. May-June is hot and very humid and walking out of Taipei airport was like walking into a sauna but it was usually overcast and raining in the afternoons so was quite tolerable. In Taiwan we were racing wooden flag-catching boats like the ones in the V&A. These boats are solid and stable and I’d always thought they were unsinkable…
We were staying in a very smart hotel and the food was generous and varied. I kept a very cautious approach and went basically vegetarian, which was just as well as several of the more adventurous members of the team had such severe stomach upsets by the time we got to MiLuo in South-Central China they had to be hospitalised. This meant the men needed me to helm for them but I was still able to paddle with the ladies team.
MiLuo is the epicentre of the tradition of dragon boating as it is here that the poet Qu Yuan drowned himself in protest against the corruption of the court of the kingdom of Chu around 350BC. The fishermen made desperate but futile attempts to save him and ever since, for the past 2350+ years, his death has been commemorated annually with dragon boat races. Races these days are less barbaric than they were in the past as the spectators no longer stone the teams of the opposition (!) but they are still steeped in tradition and the opening ceremony at MiLuo was truly awesome. The 300,000 Chinese spectators obviously knew what to expect but we were blown away. Full magnificent ancient Chinese tradition, wow! Sadly we competitors were also considered part of the entertainment so we couldn’t stay and watch it all, but what we did see still gives me goosebumps remembering it.
The racing (1000m) was great, nobody sank, and the SA ladies got a silver in a photo-finish with the Aussies who we beat into third, even though they stood to paddle in the last 100m. The lake that feeds the MiLuo River is so large that the river is tidal! The boats here were more like the fibreglass IDBF racing boats, but were made of very light wood. They were built in the traditional manner with a central thwart and with the benches each a full bulkhead. The seats were a perfect distance apart for my leg length and I was able to wedge myself very firmly with my outside foot against the bulkhead I was sitting on and with my inside leg against the bulkhead in front of me. This gave me huge leverage and I’m sure my pull was much more powerful than the Aussies who must have been precariously balanced to stand. I must admit I was astonished to see them stand to paddle for the last 100m of the 1000m. I was paddling left and they were on our right so I could see them each time I reached forward to the catch. I’ve only ever seen the Philippine men do this before, I’ve never seen Westerners do it! It just made us all the more furiously determined to beat them. Off the water South African and Aussie teams partied together and shouted for each other when not in the same heats.
Gutsy, but the really special thing about this is that all their ladies are breast cancer survivors – and the oldest paddler turned 79 on the trip!! They were a warm happy group and kindly lent us their two strongest ladies to make up for our hospitalised paddlers so we were really pleased we got a silver with them.
Getting to MiLuo was quite a journey, a flight from Taipei to Hong Kong, ferry to the very modern spacious city of Shenzhen in China, bus to a very smart impressive airport quite a distance from the city, flight to Chengsha, and finally economy bus to MiLuo. This last part of the journey took us through lush beautiful farmlands, mainly rice paddies - and really poor, squalid villages. I got the feeling that the peasant farmers put so much care and effort into the land that they have no energy left for their homes, but perhaps there is still such a residual influence from the repression of Mao that they do not dare make their homes clean and remotely attractive? We travelled in two small buses and one bus had a blow out in a back tyre (fortunately one of four), so we limped on until we came to a village with a tyre business, advertised by the wrecked tyres attached to a tree outside. Regrettably, nature called and many of us needed to visit the loo. There was a poster of Mao, faded and covered in cobwebs, dominating the empty cheerless room we passed through en route to a typically awful hole-in-the-concrete-floor loo. It surprised me that after the appalling things all Mao did to his people and his country, they still have his picture on the walls – as they do in Tiananmen Square.
After the really poor towns we’d been travelling past, we were wondering what awaited us in MiLuo? It was quite dramatic, the long main road was festooned with inflated dragon archways spanning the street and colourful Chinese hot air balloons trailing huge red and gold banners. Our hotel was modernised with a sweeping marble entrance and a magnificent marble mural in the foyer depicting Qu Yuan and dragonboats. Beautifully attired staff lined up to greet us and half the city seemed to crowding the square to see the foreigners! It is not a prosperous city and not a place tourists would visit, only dragonboaters! We felt they had seldom seen Westerners before, and certainly not Blacks. They were fascinated by us and very quick to return our smiles and try to chat with us. The hotel ladies seemed to feel personally responsible for looking after us, following us into town to make sure we didn’t get lost and sitting up all night in the hospital our two unfortunate team members. Children bunked school to hang around outside the main shop near the hotel in the hope of getting to practice their English with us and people kept asking for our autographs, as intrigued to watch us write as we are to watch them doing Chinese script.
Many of the city buses were painted to advertise the festival and there was an air of a major public holiday about the whole event. Looking at the crowds lining the river I wondered if anyone was left in the city while we were racing! I was amused at the difference in the crowds response to the mens and women's teams; we have a tradition of giving a paddles-up salute to the crowds and race officials after the race on our way back to the embarkation area. When the men (for whom I was helming) did this, they got a roar of approval, but the women (with whom I paddled) just got stony silence. Traditionally the Chinese didn’t consider allowing women to participate. It is only in recent years, with the growth of the sport in the West, that women have been allowed to participate in the land of its origin.
From MiLuo we travelled North for two hours to the train station in Yueyang, again cramped into unairconditioned economy buses. Yueyang is a much more prosperous city and has been undergoing extensive modernisation over the past few years. We had several hours there before our train, so were taken to see the major historical feature of this area, the Yueyang tower. It is an attractive little 3 storey wooden building but considering the thousands and thousands of years of civilization of China there seems very little in the way of historical buildings. Think of all the magnificent buildings in UK and Europe. Compare the civilization of Europe with that of China. In around 200BC the Chinese had standardized written script, weights & measures and currency, wore elaborate embroidered silk and built the 5000 kilometre long Great Wall, while in the UK the Celts were running around half naked in woad & skins. Mao’s Cultural Revolution lasted only ten years, 1966 to 1976, yet in that time not only were thousands of Chinese people destroyed but so was almost all material evidence of their cultural history. What little does remain is treasured highly.
The journey to Nanning took 31 hours in all. The most spectacular part was Northern Guangxi with its mystical mountains rising abruptly from the lush plains. It would have been wonderful to have had time in this area and to see the famous cormorant fishermen on the lakes amongst these fingerlike mountains. Most members of the team had far too much luggage so it was sent separately - and only arrived in Nanning several hours after we did. This meant the majority of the team had nothing to change into when at long last we got to our hotel and a much needed shower. We were amazed to find that this, the smartest hotel, had a hole-in-the-floor loo! Smart and ceramic, but still a squat number, and part of the shower - which was practical in that meant it was very clean, but if you dropped the soap that was it, gone! You are not supposed to throw toilet paper down the loo, but rather put it in the bin. I wondered if this is due to “night soil” still being used as fertilizer? It would explain the incredible greenness of the farmlands!
China is a huge country and our 31 hour journey brought this home. This kind of journey, moving from bus to coach, to waiting room, to train, to another waiting room, to another train, to a final bus, is a lot easier travelling with just one small suitcase. It is worthwhile economising on what you pack, especially when it is very hot.
Nanning is known as the garden city and was one of the first cities in China to be dramatically modernised. The skyscrapers here are as impressive as those in Hong Kong, the streets are wide and there is an air of prosperity and spaciousness. Several teams were staying in the same hotel complex and we all ate in the same huge dining hall where there was a magnificent buffet with over 50 dishes to choose from. Breakfast, lunch and supper were very much the same, but there was plenty to choose from to suit even the most conservative appetite.
The race venue was a huge lake in a beautiful park. The sides of the lake have been straightened and concreted, presumably for water sport purposes, and the course was precision-buoyed. The ladies races were all 20-paddler races and the boats were the same as those in MiLuo. The mens’ teams were either 20-paddler boats or 10-paddler boats. These boats are great for school-children or very small adults; they are not good for big men. Especially not very big American men. The USA team from MiLuo decided to enter a 10-man mens team with their 8 men and two of their biggest, strongest ladies and plus a drummer … and they borrowed me to helm. Well, we all got in and the boat just sank, then capsized – before anyone had taken one stroke, we were still at embarkation! My first capsize in 12 years of dragonboating. We stood in chest-deep water, bailed furiously and then set off with only 7 paddlers – 4 big guys on the right and only 3 big guys counter-balancing on the left. It was far too unstable for me to stand. I think it is the hardest 800m I have ever helmed!
The ladies teams had to have female helms in Nanning so I helmed and the final was fantastic, a real close battle neck and neck all the way. At the end, first place was clear, but none of us knew where the other five boats were placed. The photo-finish gave SA silver, beating the medical students who beat us in MiLuo, with the Aussies 4th only 0.5 second behind.
Although Nanning is much more modern than MiLuo, these crowds too were so fascinated by the SA team that we had to have a ring of police keeping the crowds at bay. I think the propensity our two young Zulus had for doing war dances and leading the singing of Shosholoza had a lot to do with it. We never got to see anything of the opening ceremony as it was on the other side of the lake to the paddlers marquees, but the closing ceremony in a very posh hotel near the river made up for this with magnificent Chinese cultural dances.
The following day we had free and what did the team choose to do? Go to the beach! This involved a 3½ hour bus trip there and the same again back to Nanning. 7 hours in a bus to go to a beach. We Capies thought this was daft, until we discovered half the team had never seen the sea. It made us realise yet again how lucky we are to live in Cape Town.
|Gauteng is the province in which you find Johannesburg; it is two hours flight north-west of Cape Town. |
Cape Town (Western Province) is on the south-western tip of Africa.
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