Berg icon Giel van Deventer aims for 44th Finish

Words: Dave Macleod | Photos: John Hishin

When the batches of paddlers set off from Paarl on Wednesday 10 July for the 52nd edition of the Berg River Canoe Marathon, iconic paddler Giel van Deventer will have the opportunity to take sole charge of the record for the most finishes in the race's history.

The Grand Master has for several decades been locked in a friendly rivalry with Andre Collins, and the pair have shared the record for the most race finishes. This year however Collins has been forced to sit out due to a niggling shoulder injury, while the nuggety van Deventer sets off for the 44th finish - and claim the race record for himself.


For van Deventer training for and completing the tough race each year is his life's metronome.


"I use the Berg as my life guide," said van Deventer. "As long as I can do Berg and enjoy doing it I know my life is still on track and I can face everything else life is throwing at me."


"Yes I am realistic about life and accept one of these years the old body will call it a day but until such time I am enjoying every year I still have the privilege to be part of the Berg," he adds.


Van Deventer might have the record to himself, had it not been for a few false starts to his Berg career whilst still a teenager.


"I entered for Berg the first time in my matric year in 1967 but then got chosen for the first rugby team that went on tour during the Berg Marathon and had to cancel my Berg,” Van Deventer recalls.


"I entered again the next year in 1968 when I was doing my national service in the SA Navy but the ship I was serving on went on manoeuvres to Mozambique and my leave for the Berg was cancelled and I missed it again so in the end, after my third entry, I finished my first Berg in 1969."


The memory of that first race in 1969 is still vivid in his memory.


"I did my first Berg in a Limf Jordan and a friend dropped the boat off for me below the Market Street bridge the previous night and the morning of the start it was completely covered with frost! It was so cold I was shivering myself completely out of balance and fell in that icy Berg water very soon after the start. Definitely not the best way to start my first Berg!" he remembers.


The decision not to paddle this year was a tough one for Collins. "The Berg is always the highlight of my year. A time when we meet up with good friends and enjoy the overall experience," he said.


"I have been really battling on the longer multi day races with my shoulder," said Collins. "It's sad, but I know it is for the best. It will be the first year since 1968 that I will not be on the start line."


"I will be going down the race still enjoying the wonderful atmosphere," Collins added. "I will cycle following the race. Who knows maybe starting a MTB race Velddrif to Sea? I am really excited about the festivities developing around Berg.”


Both men have seen the character of the race change as it evolved with the modern trends in sport.


"In the early years the numbers were small and we all camped together in the farm sheds," recalls van Deventer. "The spirit was great. With growing numbers later many paddlers started to overnight in guest houses."


Collins perspective on the race's evolution is much the same. "The big changes are the equipment, the energy drinks, accommodation, and a much more open forgiving river nowadays."


"I take it as the river and the weather presents itself," affirms Van Deventer. "It may be low or in flood and the weather may be terrible or four perfect sunny days but the camaraderie between the paddlers and the vibe on the banks will always be good and all I wish is to be part of it."


The Berg River Canoe marathon starts in Paarl on 10 July and ends at Velddrif on 13 July. More information can be found at