Underberg - A perfectly placed Drakensberg downpour has dramatically eased the pressure on the organisers of the Drak Challenge on January 23-24 after months of dismally low water levels in the uMzimkhulu due to the ravages of the El Niño fuelled drought that is gripping the country.
With eight days to go to the 2016 race, the popular two-day event - which usually attracts a field of close on 1 000 paddlers - had a dismal entry as canoeists watched the daily river reports in disbelief.
On Tuesday night a thunderstorm close to the Lesotho border above the Drakensberg Gardens hotel brought the level of the river up half a metre though, news of which has triggered a deluge of entries.
“Three days ago the race committee met to agonise over options if the river remained at the desperately low level that it has run at throughout the summer,” said race committee chairperson Barry Cole.
“Lately we had consistent rains but with the water table having been so low, they have had no impact at all on the river until now.”
Cole recently even sent out a cautionary email to paddlers countrywide advising them that the race was considering a wide range of options, even possibly postponing the event.
“Then we got this Perfect Storm!” said Cole.
“We hardly had any rain in Underberg itself but it all fell in that exact catchment area high in the mountains and, for the first time this summer, the whole river has come up!” he added excitedly.
Cole stressed that there were still ten days before the race, during which time the river levels could change significantly. “At least we feel now that postponing or cancelling the race is off the table!” explained Cole.
In 2013 the race was gearing up for a shortened format from the low level start at the Trout Hatcheries when an unnoticed late night thunderstorm high in the mountains left the river in spate - the highest level ever since its dramatic flood debut in 1994.
“The weather can change so fast here in the Berg that we have to be prepared for any possible river level,” said Cole.
Cole added that there was regular rain forecast on an almost daily basis in the final build-up to the race, which would ideally sustain the excellent current river levels being experienced on the uMzimkhulu.
“We know how quickly the uMzimkhulu can empty and how fast it comes down in flood.”
Cole said that on Monday, January 21 the race committee would make a preliminary call, in all likelihood confirming that the race will be held on Saturday 23 and Sunday, January 24 as planned.
“The final call on the race course will be made on Friday afternoon or, if it really storms overnight, on Saturday morning,” Cole added.
“This region has been very hard hit by the drought and all the farmers - livestock, dairy and the wide range of crops - are all struggling in the drought.
“As a region we are all passionate about making sure the paddlers have an enjoyable weekend in and around Underberg and Himeville during the Drak Challenge, and the possibility of having to postpone or even cancel the race was just adding to the gloom in the area,” he said.
“While this rain hasn’t broken the drought, it has definitely improved the mood in the Underberg and Himeville community.”
The race also doubles as the first leg of the International Canoe Federations Classic Series, which combines the world’s most popular river marathons under a single global umbrella.
More information can be found at www.drak.co.za