SUNDAY TIMES - Real-life uncertainty, triumph behind canoe film 'Beyond the River'
Sunday Times Entertainment By SIPHE MACANDA, 2017-05-14 00:00:00.0

Real-life uncertainty, triumph behind canoe film 'Beyond the River'

Siseko Ntondini and Piers Cruickshanks navigate through rapids.
Image: Supplied

Waiting in the darkness at the edge of a river, Siseko Ntondini hatched the plan that would change his life.

It was 2013 and the 19-year-old had just finished the gruelling three-day, 120km Dusi Canoe Marathon.

He had taken a respectable 11th place in the notoriously difficult race, but was disappointed at missing out on the gold medal reserved for the top 10 paddlers.

As the last of the exhausted canoeists crossed the finish line, Ntondini learnt that his friend and mentor, Piers Cruickshanks, was having a bad race. His canoe had been damaged while paddling the uMngeni River section and he was trailing the second-last competitor by at least four hours.

The awards ceremony wrapped up and weary contestants headed home for a shower and warm bed. But Ntondini ignored his aching muscles and waited patiently on the river bank for Cruickshanks to finish.

His plan was to convince Cruickshanks to be his partner for the doubles marathon in the next year's race.

It was not an easy task. When a dejected and defeated Cruickshanks finally hauled his broken canoe from the river that night, Siseko had to master the art of persuasion to convince his friend to do it all again the next year.

But he did, and the duo's triumphant gold medal in the 2014 race gave rise to a book by Cruickshanks, Confluence, which was then made into the movie Beyond the River, which hit South African screens two weeks ago.

Some of the details have been changed for dramatic effect, but the story is still essentially that of two men from vastly different backgrounds - Ntondini lived in a squatter camp in Soweto while Cruickshanks is an English teacher from a middle-class family - who are brought together by their determination to conquer one of the toughest river races in the world.

"I knew he had had a bad race because his canoe broke, but he is a great paddler," Ntondini, now 23, told the Sunday Times this week, as he recalled the 2013 race. "I wanted to race with him so he could redeem himself the following year, and for us to win the gold medal."

Cruickshanks, now 42 and the winner of 10 Dusi gold medals, continued: "We started training and as the more experienced one I was at the front of the boat. But there wasn't rhythm. So Siseko asked to be in the front. I wasn't happy about that, but to my surprise, immediately we had motion. He was great.

"We did not do well in the qualification rounds, so we started at the back and there was a stage where Siseko's paddle broke, so we lost ground until he got a spare.

"[But] over the three days [of the race] , we overtook boat after boat and we finished in seventh place. We had an awesome three days," Cruickshanks said.

Ntondini had met the teacher in 2007 at the Soweto Canoe Club, which had a partnership with the more "larney" Dabulamanzi Club, where Cruickshanks was a member.

WATCH the trailer for Beyond the River

Ntondini said he had loved water sports from a young age.

"When we were young we used to go swimming and use makeshift boats on the river. When I was older and found out about the sport, I researched it. That is when I joined the Soweto Canoe Club, in 2006," said Ntondini, who now has three gold Dusi medals.

Included in the partnership between the clubs is a career mentorship programme.

Ntondini received advice and assistance on his career and is now working for an advertising company in Sandton. It is paying for him to study his LLB at Unisa.

Cruickshanks, who teaches at Kingsmead College in Rosebank, said the two of them approached filmmaker Craig Freimond with their story in 2014, but Freimond was busy with another project. "After some time, they came back, interviewed us and wrote a script."

Freimond said this week that the movie was about people using sport to communicate and inspire each other.

He said the film "touches a point where we are in South Africa. This is a story about our country and people's identity."