Words: Nick Tatham | Photo: Gameplan Media
Pietermaritzburg - The man was given a number of names that became synonymous with the Dusi over his decades of dominance but Graeme Pope-Ellis was the ultimate Dusi Canoe Marathon legend and none can boast a record like his that spanned a mammoth 45 years from his first to his last trip down the uMsunduzi and uMngeni Rivers.
The ‘Dusi King’ as he was affectionately known was born and raised on the banks of the Msunduzi River on a farm in Bishopstowe and took on the river for his first Dusi Canoe Marathon at the ripe age of 17 when still a student at Alexandra High School in Pietermaritzburg.
That was in 1965 and it took him a few years to win his first Dusi, which came in 1972 with K2 partner Eric Clarke, but after that initial taste of victory the dominance from Pope-Ellis was awe inspiring for everyone that had the privilege of watching him paddle.
‘The Pope’ dominated the race for two decades during which time he won an incredible 15 titles which included three K1 titles and 12 K2 victories. One of his most impressive feats came in 1986, when at the age of 38 Pope-Ellis not only won the Dusi Canoe Marathon but broke his own record that had been standing for 10 years.
Another record to add to the Pope-Ellis list of outstanding achievements was the first K1 victory. In 1981 Pope-Ellis became the first man to win the coveted title of K1 Dusi champion, as the race has since its inception in 1952 always been raced as a pairs or K2 event.
The Bishopstowe born paddler won five of his 15 Dusi’s with Peter Peacock, four with Tim Cornish and three with Eric Clarke. He had a perfect record with Peacock, winning all five of their races together from 1975 to 1980. In their five years of dominance they won by no less than 12 minutes in all of their starts.
Pope-Ellis was known for his wide knowledge of the river and his ability to sum up situations during the race and more often than not make the correct decision that would give him the edge over the other paddlers. Pope-Ellis was a great runner and was an endurance paddler who might have battled in sprints but was the man for the job on the long portages that are critical to the outcome of the Dusi every year.
Pope-Ellis passed away tragically in a tractor accident in 2010 and will forever be summed up for his incredible humility and his unwavering generosity and willingness to help others and guide the younger generation of paddlers. There are a number of South Africa’s top paddlers that have been mentored by the Dusi King including the likes of Martin Dreyer and former World champion Shaun Rubenstein.
A reserved, quiet individual, Pope-Ellis completed every edition of the gruelling three-day race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban from 1965 to the year of his death in 2010 and will always be remembered for absolutely dominating the Dusi in his heyday.
The Dusi Canoe Marathon, which takes place from 13 to 15 February 2014, is focussing on the pioneering feats of the characters who started the race 63 years ago, profiling the contributions that icons like Ernie Pearce, Graeme Pope-Ellis, Robert Lembethe and Gordy Rowe played in getting the famous race to where it is today.
More information can be found at www.dusi.co.za