Underberg - A fascinating showdown in the foothills of the Southern Drakensberg is looming as a very strong field of female paddlers square off in what is likely to be a fascinating tussle for the vacant Drak Challenge women's title this weekend.
Seven times winner and defending champion Abby Solms won't be taking part as she focuses on the arrival of her first child.
This guarantees that a new name will be inscribed on the women's trophy, as the only other woman to have won the race during the "Abby Era", Robyn Owen, will be away in New Zealand racing the Coast-To-Coast.
This coincides with a resurgence in the standard of women's paddling, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, where the level of competition in flatwater marathons, river races and surfski dices is extremely high, fuelling the desire amongst the top women to add the prestigious Drak title to their CVs.
Jenna Ward, who will be partnering Hungarian Vanda Kizsli in the Dusi in less than a month, brings good form into the race, particularly after winning the StaminaGro 50 Miler mixed doubles title with Brandon van der Walt last weekend.
After finishing second in 2016, Ward was relegated to the smallest step on the podium by Bridgitte Hartley last year, and this contest will be ready to play out the next instalment in its absorbing history over the two days and 70 kilometres of uMzimkhulu River this weekend.
But it will be far more complex than just a simple two-way arm wrestle between the two team-mates.
Cana Peek and her older sister Jordan have elbowed their way into the limelight this season, as they prepare for their Dusi challenge, and their win in the 50 Miler last weekend against a strong field must been seen as a barometer on their preparations.
The Maritzburg siblings, both studying at Stellenbosch University and also racing for the Euro Steel team, have spent much of their holiday in Underberg training on the river, learning it's lines at many different levels.
Complicating this scenario is the confirmed entry of Dutch racer Eef Haase. The marathon, sprint and wild water international has already arrived in the country ahead of the race, on the recommendation of fellow Dutch international Pascal Lucker.
Her form, as seen by her top result in the mixed doubles division of the Krumlov Marathon in the Czech Republic, is impressive, and if she can spend enough time learning the nuances of the uMzimkhulu River, she could well upset the apple cart.
Kyeta Purchase took the Under 23 title last year, staving off a spirited challenge from Kerry Segal and junior Christie Mackenzie, and these three talented paddlers will be renewing their competitive rivalry in the seeded women’s batch on the weekend.
If there is an upset waiting to happen, it is likely to come from last year's junior champion Mackenzie, who was locked in a three way tussle for fourth place overall last year.
She grabbed a stunning bronze medal at the ICF Canoe Marathon Championships in Pietermaritzburg, highlighting her meteoric rise in a professional career still in its infancy.
Suddenly, the race for podium places, and indeed top ten finishes in the women's race, is looking complex, a thoroughly encouraging indication of the standard of women's paddling in the province.
There are many the top females omitted from this text, who will be fuelled to make a statement by racing onto the podium in what will be an absorbing weekend of women's paddling.
The Drak Challenge starts at Castleburn on Saturday, January 20 with a 24 kilometre stage to Sinister Pool, just above the Swartberg Road Bridge.
The second stage on Sunday, January 21 is 36 kilometres finishing at Early Mist Farm close to Coleford resort. More information can be found at www.drak.co.za