Drak Challenge may be shaped by storm over southern Drakensberg

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A scene from the N3TC Drak Challenge canoe marathon.
A scene from the N3TC Drak Challenge canoe marathon.
Antony Grote

The big field of paddlers gathered in the foothills of the Southern Drakensberg for the 28th edition of the iconic N3TC Drak Challenge Canoe Marathon, in partnership with FNB, are in for an interesting competition.

They will hold their breath as the character of the race looks set to be moulded by a storm expected over the Southern Drakensberg this evening, just hours before the start of the first stage of the race tomorrow morning.

Gameplan Media reported that the level of the uMzimkhulu River has fluctuated wildly this summer as KwaZulu-Natal experienced one of its wettest seasons in decades, with the Southern Drakensberg river breaking its banks repeatedly during the holiday season. In the week before the annual two-day canoeing classic the rains abated and the level of water in the river dropped quickly.

Storm to determine race format

In cases like this the organisers start the race at Sinister Pool, eliminating the signature first 26 km of the race through what is known as the Valley of a Thousand Rapids.

However with most weather forecasts pointing to a thunderstorm over the Southern Drakensberg peaks that form the catchment area, race bosses will only make the call on whether to run the full distance of the race or use the shortened format better suited to lower conditions as late as possible.

Praying for a downpour

Low river levels have dogged this popular race since the very full 2013 edition of the Drak, and it has been in this period that Andy Birkett has established himself as the paddler to beat.

Three-time winner Hank McGregor, who has just turned 44, will be one of the paddlers praying for a downpour in the catchment area, as the multiple world champion has struggled in the low river conditions in recent years, but has more podium finishes that any other paddler in the race’s history.

Top Dusi Canoe Marathon contenders (from left) Andy Birkett, Hank McGregor; Jordan and Cana Peek.

The women’s race will be just as compelling. Jenna Nisbet comes into the race as the defending champion, but a fiercely competitive MyLife Dusi K2 women’s race is brewing.

The K1 entries from the class of Jordy Peek, Christie Mackenzie, new surfski world champion Michelle Burn, juniors Saskia and Valmajean Hockly and the determined Bridgitte Hartley mean there will be very little margin for error in the women’s race.

Solms the wildcard

Throwing a cat among the pigeons is the return to competitive canoeing of Abby Solms, who is the race’s most successful female paddler of all time, having won it eight times since the full year in 2010.

A photo of two women shooting a wier in a K2 canoe
Abby Solms (front) and Bianca Haw (back) will be out to add to their personal Canoe Marathon winners toll.

With Underberg local Bianca Haw in the pipeline for the Dusi, both women can be expected to figure prominently in the race for the title.

The event has attracted a big entry, born in part out of the frustration of having the 2021 race cancelled under the tough lockdown at the beginning of last year. It forms a trio of events with the Euro Steel Drak Descent MTB races and the Euro Steel Run The River trails run in partnership with FNB that are now collectively known as the Drak Adventure Weekend.

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