It’s up to the elements

2014-02-13 00:00

ACCORDING to the pundits, there’s really only one combination to beat in this year’s Dusi Canoe Marathon starting in Pietermaritzburg today and that’s the Andy Birkett/Sbonelo Zondi pairing.

Birkett is a three-time champion, while Zondi endeared himself to spectators and paddlers last year when he led after the first two days before finishing third overall.

However, it’s not a cut-and-dried case. There is a river to paddle, conditions to overcome and the small matter of a few other fine pairings to deal with.

Last year’s surprise K1 winner Lance Kime has joined forces with Thulani Mbanjwa and this duo will settle for nothing less than a podium finish, preferably standing on the number-one spot.

Mbanjwa has tasted victory as a K2 paddler previously and knows the river like the back of his hand. He is a tough paddler and strong runner, the latter discipline one of his major weapons, respected by fellow paddlers alike. It’s a part of the race where he often makes up lost ground and his incredible stamina in energy-sapping conditions is to be feared.

Which leaves Hank McGregor and Jasper Mocké. McGregor is a seasoned Dusi and multi-disciplined paddler, adapting to any conditions and above all, he is a fierce competitor, settling for nothing less than a win.

There is no doubt he will go all out to taste victory, having last savoured the moment in 2005’s K1 race.

But, it’s perhaps the elements that decide how each day unfolds. It doesn’t matter how many times paddlers have travelled the river, different conditions, heat, wind, water level — they all tap into a paddler’s reserves, no matter what their record may be, and it comes down to survival of the fittest.

Water level this year is also a point of concern. Dave McLeod, the media man for the race, has been involved with Dusi both on and off the water for years and knows what to expect.

“The heat will be a factor as it has been unbearably hot in the build-up to the race this year. A few years ago, the race was moved from January to February, to allow the summer rains to have their say, but this year they have been rather quiet,” he said.

“The recent Drak Challenge was a case in point, with the river level very low, compared to previous years when it has been raging. There has been the benefit of water releases in the past from Henley Dam [which is now silted over] and Nagle Dam, but we are never sure how much we get and it can become dangerous for some paddlers.”

Umgeni Water has confirmed releases, but it’s less water than last year, adding an element of digging deep and tough paddling this year.

In the women’s race, it’s much the same scenario as the men’s and can be narrowed down to two pairings — last year’s winner Robin Kime with multiple winner Abbey Ulansky (Miedema) and runner-up specialist Abby Adie with the Czech Republic’s Anna Adamova.

The Kime/Ulansky team should have the edge, but don’t underestimate Jen Theron/Jane Swarbreck, Hilary Bruss/Alex Adie and the Haws, Bianca and Tamika. It all hinges on what happens on the river. A wrong line, a daring move and it could all turn upside down.

Adding some excitement to this year’s race are four stand-up paddleboarders, making history in participating for the first time.

“We have done all the work and the preparation and it’s time to do the work on the river,” said McGregor. “A good start is key and we hope to be at the front after day one and build on that.”

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