South Africa: Lyle Wheeler, the Dusi King Without a Crown

The 71-year-old paddler lines up for his 50th Dusi Canoe Marathon on 18 March, etching his name into the history books of the race. But Wheeler says he could go on for another decade.

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.”

Race changes

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.

Sign up for free AllAfrica Newsletters

Get the latest in African news delivered straight to your inbox