Canoeists prepare for a full and feisty uMzimkulu River for this year’s Drak Challenge

2014-01-17 00:00

WITH hundreds of paddlers set to converge on the Southern Drakensberg for the 21st edition of the N3TC Drak Challenge Canoe Marathon this weekend, the erratic summer rainfall looks set to be the dominant player in the race this year.

This year’s edition has added importance as it hosts the SA K1 River Championships for 2014 and, after last year’s flash flood that saw the field limited to A grade paddlers only, many aspirant canoeists have been preparing for a full and feisty uMzimkulu River.

While a summer of solid rains has left the river running through Underberg at superb fill levels, the rainfall in the region has dried up over the last 10 days and the water in the river has correspondingly dropped to an alarmingly low level.

The weather forecast for the final run-up to the event doesn’t point to any major rainfall, but the possibility of a last-minute thunderstorm in the key catchment area above the first stage start at Castleburn is always realistic.

Last year the race committee was gearing up for the low water contingency plans on the day before the race when an isolated cloudburst in precisely the right area sent the river levels rocketing, and several hours later the race was restricted to paddlers with suitable wild water competence.

“That’s the nature of the beast,” said race committee head Barry Cole. “This race relies entirely on rainfall for water levels — there are no dams that can provide water releases. While we have had excellent rains this summer and a full FastDrak, the river is low at the moment.

“Predicting weather in the Berg is a dicey task at the best of times, and there is still a chance that a storm could change everything before the race. All we can do is respond to the conditions on the day, and prepare the best race possible for the paddlers,” he added.

Should water conditions not reach the minimum mark set by the race bosses for a start at Castleburn, the race start may be moved to the Trout Hatcheries, cutting out the first 15 km and the Valley of a Thousand Rapids that is very steep and rocky.

Race officials have urged paddlers to follow the race Facebook and Twitter accounts for the latest information on the river levels in the days leading up the start.

Experienced Drak Challenge paddlers have come to terms with the fact that the rainfall dependency results in differing conditions every year.

A full river provides a fast rollercoaster ride down relentless standing waves, while a low river, which is far better suited to K1 paddling, requires patience and good pedal and paddle skills to steer around rocks.

In 2003 the race committee elected to run the race purely as a K1 championship race, after previously alternating with K2s as the Dusi Marathon does.

In 2007, the last time this race hosted the SA K1 River Championships, the rains deserted the Southern Berg, forcing the organisers to opt for the low water contingency plans. That year German sprint ace Max Hoff raced away on his Drak debut to win the race from a very strong local field.

The N3TC Drak Challenge 2014 starts tomorrow at Castleburn outside Underberg and finishes on January 19 at Hopewell Farm close to Coleford.

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