With the region still in the talons of the brutal two year drought, the 2017 FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon that gets under way at Camps Drift on Thursday morning will echo the races of old as paddlers will have a number of additional obstacles to manage on their three day journey from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.
The FNB Dusi has always revolved around the participants taking on the prevailing conditions as they find them and with a highly charged and competitive field assembled for the race, the three day classic looks set to reward one of the trio of stars that best adapts to the “old school” Dusi that looks to be looming large on the race’s radar.
“We look forward to yet another breath-taking event as the most adventurous paddle off against each other in the epic FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon. Our support for the sport reaffirms our belief that adventure is at the heart of innovation and this is one of many platforms on which we seek to make a lasting connection with our clients,” says Howard Arrand, KZN Provincial Head of FNB Business.
The race promises to test every aspect of the paddlers Dusi armoury, from the usual portaging skills and technical river tests, with additional curveballs coming in the form of explosive growth of hyacinth during the summer.
The prize money in the build up to the race has been shared amongst three paddlers – arguably what the podium is going to look like at the end of the three days of paddling.
Euro Steel/Red Bull’s Sbonelo Khwela won the Umpetha Challenge as well as the coveted 50 Miler Canoe Marathon, presented by StaminaGro.
These two Khwela wins were straddled by Euro Steel’s Andy Birkett who took home the honours at the Ozzie Gladwin Canoe Marathon, presented by Parklane Superspar.
Multiple marathon world champion Hank McGregor threw his hat into the Dusi ring early in the summer and it did not take the Euro Steel/Kayak Centre ace long to sounds his intentions with a win at the crucial Campbell’s Farm to Dusi Bridge race in January.
Defending K1 and K2 champion Andy Birkett is hunting down a formidable seventh FNB Dusi crown in 2017. If the 26 year-old should win it puts him in and amongst some of the greats of the race with an incredible seven wins in eight years of paddling.
A 2017 win will see Birkett join the ‘Dusi Duke’ Martin Dreyer on seven wins – making them tied the second most decorated paddlers of the prestigious race behind the late, great Graham Pope-Ellis, who won 15 titles.
The field contesting the gold medals is, true to form, highly competitive, and includes the Hungarian K2 world champion Adrian Boros, eager to test himself in the unique and demanding environment of the FNB Dusi.
It seems that the women’s title race might be slightly more straight forward than the men’s with only two serious candidates raising their hands ahead of the 120km journey from the province’s capital to the Indian Ocean.
Euro Steel team mates Abby Solms and Bridgitte Hartley are set to fight it out for the overall ladies honours with the former searching for that elusive K1 title after she broke her Dusi duck in 2016 with a K2 victory.
Solms’ form going into the Dusi has been impressive with wins at all of her build-up races. Hartley, who has never done a K1 Dusi, has been working very hard on familiarizing herself with conditions and the unique challenge of portaging.
The battle for the final step on the women’s podium could be an interesting one with any one of a half dozen paddlers capable of laying claim to the bronze medal.
Junior paddler Christie Mackenzie showed her prowess coming second to Hartley at the Umpetha Challenge and third behind Solms and Hartley at the Ozzie Gladwin.
The race has attracted a field of well over a thousand Dusi enthusiasts keen to test themselves against the annual migration down the uMsundusi and uMngeni Rivers. Many will be familiar with the tough conditions that look set to challenge the field as they hanker back to the halcyon days of the famous race prior to the introduction of water releases.
Five-time winner of the mixed doubles category at the Dusi from 1981-85 Andre Hawarden knows the Dusi of old and having been treated to all Dusi conditions he is embracing the challenge of the Dusi returning to its roots.
“I’m stoked that the Dusi’s got its mojo back! From being a predictable three day sprint where everyone knew what to expect, we are back to a race of question marks and quick decisions, just like the old day’s pre-dam releases!” Euro Steel’s Hawarden said.
“We will have to think on our feet in this race, we don’t know what the water level will be, and we don’t know where the hyacinth blocks will be, so we will just have to make decisions as we go.
“It takes me back to the early days when we just took as it came; the Dusi was the Dusi, no matter what, the race went on.”