With welcome rains handing many areas of KwaZulu-Natal much needed relief the 2017 FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon season gets underway this weekend with eager paddlers clearing the cobwebs at the Umpetha Challenge on Sunday, the first front row seeding race for the 2017 Dusi.
The Umpetha Challenge has traditionally been shunned as a good gauge as to who the top contenders might be for the three-day showpiece in February however it is often used as a way to get some early season seeding points as well as brushing up on river knowledge and understanding where fitness levels are.
The race does attract a significant number of the top Dusi contenders and that will be the case once again in 2017 however the race will be missing defending K1 champion Andy Birkett as well as the women’s favourite Abby Solms, who will be resting and trail running respectively.
Despite this the field for the 2016 Umpetha Challenge will be a competitive one with the three-time defending champion and Euro Steel/Red Bull ace Sbonelo Khwela hoping to make it an impressive four consecutive Umpetha Challenge titles.
Khwela, who won the FNB Dusi with Andy Birkett in 2014, has not quite recreated that K2 form into K1 success but the 28-year old star has emphasised that his K1 skills are improving and he feels that that one strong Dusi K1 performance is just around the corner.
While the rest of the men’s field at the 2016 Umpetha Challenge is likely to be pursuing Khwela for the honours, there are some strong competitors amongst the chasing pack that will be eager to unhinge Khwela and deny him a fourth Umpetha title.
Young Euro Steel/Computershare Change a Life prodigy Banetse Nkhoesa will be one of those paddling tracking down Khwela. The 22-year old nugget endured a tough early 2016 when he was side-lined after a devastating stabbing incident but he returned to finish third at the FNB Dusi with Khwela.
Although Nkhoesa and Khwela are training partners it’s every man for himself on race day and the upstart is hoping that he will be able to make an impression ahead of a long and tough season where he is eyeing a top five finish at the 2017 Dusi – a good performance on Sunday will give him a significant confidence boost.
Another threat to Khwela’s winning streak is veteran Build it/Williams Hunt’s Thulani Mbanjwa who continues to be a threat since his Dusi K2 victory in 2008 with Martin Dreyer. The ever-green Mbanjwa is still hugely competitive following a strong performance at the recent Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon.
Mbanjwa is confident that he will be able to stick with the front bunch of paddler’s right up to the final 3.1km portage to the finish line but at 33-years old he is still mixing it up with the top paddlers.
The ladies race might be missing Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon winner Abby Solms, however the race will see the rest of the ladies podium competing as Olympian Bridgitte Hartley and marathon ace Jenna Ward testing their paddling and running skills on Sunday.
Ward, the Euro Steel star, finished in third at the Hansa Fish behind Hartley in second might go into the contest with a slight advantage having been on the Msundusi River more recently than her Olympic sprint medallist challenger.
Another late entry into the 18km dice on Sunday is Under 18 and Euro Steel/Mocké Paddling star Kyeta Purchase. Purchase, who will be in the Under 23 ranks at the 2017 FNB Dusi, had a Hansa Fish to forget but has the ability to impress on the Dusi stage.
The 2016 Umpetha Challenge will also include a Guppy Race for the children. The race will start at 08:00 at Camps Drift.