The dawning of the Winter Solstice comes slowly to the Vaal River. Where shafts of sunlight would already be falling in the summer months, parallel headlights now cut the mist into a crisscross maze of light and dark.
Black shapes, more reminiscent of Yaks than people with their layers upon layers of clothing, stumble blearily over the wet grass, occasionally treading on each other’s toes or elbowing eye sockets. Stiff, numb fingers work in frozen silence until the last bolt has been tightened, the last footboard adjusted, the last forgotten slide remembered and pinched from a neighbouring trailer.
And then the 5am stillness is shattered in every direction by the creak of boats, the soft thwack of blades hitting water, and shouts of “heads,” “take a side!” and “who’s motherloving idea was this?”
Which is an excellent question.
And one which nobody seems able to answer. If anyone remembers whose idea it was to mark the coldest, darkest morning of the year with an annual thirty kilometer long row from Emerald Casino to Loch Vaal, they are unwilling to say. I assume because nobody wants to come too close to that particular responsibility.
Nevertheless, rowers from the Vaal to Midmar to the Cape are poised shivering, knee deep in icy water, looking around hopelessly for someone to blame. Just as they have been this time every year, for at least two decades. And will be, no doubt, for two more, unless somebody is ever brave enough to point out the really excellent merits of indoor sports, like ping pong.
Because I am a coward, I have not volunteered for this martyrdom. I have, however, gone so far as to insist that if I participate this year it will be a family affair. The Thatcher Quad has my brother at stroke and my dad at bow. Quirky Kerri is in the number two seat. Quirky Kerri is not technically a Thatcher, but my mother has developed a paralyzing finger injury and quit rowing.
By 5:00 in the morning (technically, still night time, in my books), the more ambitious boat captains have their crew doing jumping jacks in coordinated, luridly patterned bomber jackets and matching ear muffs, all the while yelling motivational one-liners with terrifying aggression. My dad – our captain – has us holding matching mugs of steaming coffee instead, and mutters half-hearted platitudes about the upcoming ordeal.
The Thatcher Quad launches at 5:14.
By seven o’clock, we will have stripped off mufflers, beanies, outside jackets, inside jackets, gloves, first pants, second pants and second socks.
By this point, most crews will have stopped for a granola bar and some water. My brother will have stopped for a granola bar and some Old Brown Sherry. I will have stopped to save a drowning bee.
Another hour later and the most competitive amongst us will still be doing pieces – short bursts of high power, high rate rowing, designed to make you want to kill yourself. One of our number – think former Nazi, warlord or similar – will have gone so far as to sacrifice her only daughter to the watery river gods, crashing her spectacularly into the bank and then rowing off, cackling like a hag in a pre-Frozen era Disney film.
My brother will have finished the Old Brown Sherry and will be complaining loudly about all things rowing, whilst still aggressively holding a rate high enough to allow him to simultaneously thrash our rival crew and drive our father into hyperventilation. I will have named the bee Larry.
By eleven, almost everybody will be lying on the grass at Lochvaal, hands bloody, butts siezed, eyes shut. The smell of bacon and egg rolls will be drifting towards us, and we’ll be wondering hopefully if there’s any way of actually consuming food without having to sit up, raise your arms, or open your mouth.
All except Quirky Kerri, whose first words out of the boat will be “That was awesome! Can we go again straight away?”
To which everyone will respond: “Shut up, Kerri.”
But at 5:14 am, with all this still to look forward to, we are all having the same, unspoken thought:
Next year – ping pong.