AWESOME IN THE TRUE SENSE OF THE WORD
I AM staring at an empty computer screen, my mind swirling with memories of Graeme Pope-Ellis, and frankly I am feeling very emotional.
It is over 20 years since I spent a packed seven months talking to Graeme, making notes, going over rough drafts, polishing words before a looming deadline, the next Dusi Canoe Marathon.
Many people knew Graeme as a man at a deeper level than I did; and many paddlers understood his canoeing prowess better than I did. So what can I say about him? He said something to his first winning partner, Eric Clarke, that has given me courage to face difficulties. He said: “We have got to shoot Tops Needle”.
Veteran paddlers will know exactly what this short phrase meant in 1972.
No one had ever shot Tops Needle in a race. It was far too risky. It was a rapid that chewed up boats. But Pope-Ellis and Clarke were four minutes behind the leaders at the start of the final leg.
So they shot it, and it made all the differ- ence. They won their first Dusi.
Another thing I remember about Graeme: we were driving around the Valley of a Thousand Hills looking at various key places when a young local stopped to talk to us. He looked at me for a long moment, noting the grey in my beard, then said, “This man is too old to race with you”. Hardly pausing, Graeme replied, “No, he is very strong.”
I know that I would not have been so kind. I wish I had put that in the book I wrote about Pope-Ellis.
But I did indicate that he had a great affection and respect for the people of the valley.
Another memory: Graeme several times said: “You should also write about the fish-and-chips paddlers; without them there would be no race.”
But I was a journalist and to me Graeme was the story.
As an athlete, Graeme Pope-Ellis was awesome in the true sense of that word; as a man, I’m sure he had faults, but I never saw them; I found him humble and kind.
The King is dead. And there will be no successor to the throne.