Drak Challenge on low water

2012-01-21 00:00

UNDERBERG — With a new record field assembled and a record prize pot on offer, the Global Trader Drak Challenge in the Southern Drakensberg looks set to be significantly moulded by erratic weather, and the popular two day 70 km race from Castleburn through Underberg to Early Mists farm may well be held on low river conditions for the first time since 2007.

Rainfall has deserted the region for more than a week and the Umzimkulu River has dropped to a low level in the searing mid-summer heatwave that has dogged the Drakensberg. Barring a strategically placed thunderstorm on Friday night, the race looks set to start at the Trout hatcheries, cutting out the ten kilometres of technical steep and rocky rapids in the Valley of a Thousand Rapids.

“We are wholly dependent on rainfall for this race,” said race organiser Richard Jardine. “We have been fortunate to have four years of superb full rivers and for both of our major races this season we have been saved at the last minute by rains. But it looks like the rains are going to arrive a day or two late this year.”

The demands of a low Umzimkulu, ironically named in Zulu as the “Big River”, will require patience and skill on the first stage from the massive field of paddlers that has descended on Underberg.

Heavy rain is forecast for this afternoon and evening, and the second stage from the probable overnight stop at Callaway bridge to the finish at Early Mists Farm near Coleford will in all likelihood be fuller and faster, providing big water thrills for the paddlers through the Lower Gorge.

The race has confirmed its status as one of the Big Three river marathons on the domestic calendar, and remains the fastest growing race in the country, largely thanks to the scenic location, technical river and the hospitality and activity filled weekend in the Southern Berg.

The race committee, for the first time has had to enforce the cap of 1 000 paddlers that was set to safeguard the quality of the experience of every single paddler that enters the race.

The prize money has been substantially bolstered to R74 000, with the men’s and women’s race winners, who get equal prize money, getting double what they did last year.

That is sure to add even more needle to the title races, which have attracted the best of the country’s river marathoners.

World marathon champ Hank McGregor will start as a popular favourite to retain his title, and become the first paddler to scoop a hat trick of K1 wins in the race which for several years looked like it was going to elude him. The brawny Ballito star will however be disadvantaged by his weight in the low river.

He will also be put under severe pressure by a stellar A batch field that includes former champions Ant Stott, who has a record six titles to his name, and double winner Len Jenkins, who seems to have rekindled his passion for racing. Also sure to be right in the thick of the action are brothers Grant and Brandon van der Walt.

The women’s race is shaping up to be a thriller, with defending champion Abby Adie recovering from a week of health setbacks to be able to defend her title against a top class women’s field that includes Dusi Queen Abbey Ulansky, who has just jetted in from her new home in Canada to start her Dusi preparations, a resurgent Robyn Kime, and Abby Adie’s twin sister Alex, who is suddenly challenging her sister’s supremacy in river racing.

While a low river will offer a different set of challenges, it does bring back recollections of 2007, when the mercurial German Max Hoff, who was on a summer training camp in South Africa with his national wild water team, won it sight unseen after buying a kayak as he passed through Pietermaritzburg, beating a powerful field of local stars.

The Cologne-based Olympic star proved that river skills in low, technical conditions are critical to success, and it seems sure to repeat itself this weekend in Underberg.

The race committee will take a final decision on the race format early on Saturday morning and relay this to the paddlers by SMS, Twitter, Facebook and on the race website.

The Global Trader Drak Challenge starts this morning and ends tomorrow. More information can be found at www.drak.co.za.

— Gameplan Media.

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