Heavy rains in the build-up to the FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon that starts at Camps Drift on Thursday 14 February have left the Msundusi and the Mngeni Rivers running full and shrouded the famous three day paddling and running race to Durban in an element of the unexpected.
The country’s top paddlers will converge on the NCC clubhouse on Thursday morning as they prepare to fight it out for the most coveted title in river paddling in South Africa. The three day race is a test of stamina, endurance and concentration as they paddle and run 120km to Blue Lagoon in Durban.
Topping the list of the title contenders in the men’s showdown it is five-time defending champion Andy Birkett.
The Euro Steel star has become a modern day great of the Dusi and a river paddling in general, with eight wins in the last nine editions of the race. His one blemish came in 2013 where he capsized at Thombi rapid on the second day and went on to finished in fourth overall.
Despite his dominance of the race there are a number of paddlers that will be hunting him down hoping to pounce on any mistake along the way.
One of those is Euro Steel/Red Bull’s Sbonelo Khwela. The 2014 K2 champion has come agonisingly close to winning the Dusi however has had to fight it out for second for a number of years in Birkett’s shadow.
The closest he has come to having his hands on the Ian Player trophy was in 2013 where a disastrous swim at Pumphouse Rapid, 13km from the finish, meant he relinquished the title and second place to Lance Kime and Hank McGregor.
Among the other challengers are the veterans, Hank McGregor and Thulani Mbanjwa.
Mbanjwa continues to impress during the current Dusi season and the ever-green Euro Steel athlete will be eying another Dusi podium come Saturday. A traditionally slow starter to the race Mbanjwa should be close to the top at the end of the three days.
McGregor continues to defy the odds as he returns for another shot at the Dusi. Having won the race in a K2 last year with Birkett and the K1 title in 2005, the veteran will be hoping to fight it out with the best of them this week.
Of the younger generation, Under 23 Stew Little is probably going to pose the biggest threat to Birkett and Co. The young Euro Steel/Varsity College student finished second at the recent N3TC Drak Challenge and has been working very hard for the Dusi.
You can never count out the likes of Siseko Ntondini, Andrew and Alan Houston and Owen Gandar from the top ten contenders.
It would be a fairy tale for a junior to finish to in the top 10 and Maritzburg College’s David Evans could sneak his way into the mix should he have a flawless race. He is the clear favourite to win the junior boys title.
Shifting to the women’s race it seems that it might also be a one-horse contest with young Euro Steel/Varsity College athlete Christie Mackenzie taking on the favourites tag this week.
With two second place finishes, in 2017’s K1 year and last year’s K2 year, it is high time that the Under 23 star jumped onto the top step of the podium.
She showed her mettle in testing conditions two years ago and having had another year to mature on the river she will be difficult to beat.
Chasing her will be the likes of Euro Steel’s Jenna Ward and former K2 podium finisher Tamika Haw.
Ward didn’t contest the last K1 Dusi but finished in third in the 2015 showdown which shows that she has the full set of skills to grind out a result over the three days.
Haw has been relatively quiet in the build up to the race, however it seems that she has been working hard behind the scenes and has identified this year as a chance to get a first K1 podium to go with her second in 2016 and third in 2014.
Amongst the juniors there are a handful of Epworth girls that will be trying to push the older girls to the end.
Caitlin Mackenzie and Amy Peckett will be strong contenders for the junior girls crown while Tracey Oellermann will also be out to spring a surprise.
2019 will see the largest international contingent taking on the FNB Dusi with paddlers from Spain, Jersey, Austria, Denmark and the United States here to take on the ultimate canoe challenge.
The most high profile of the international stars is Spanish marathon ace Ivan Alonso.
The multiple World Marathon champion has not paddled the Dusi before and only arrived a few days before but his class will mean he could push the top ten.
Day one starts at Camps Drift at 6am and will see paddlers paddle and run 42km to the overnight stop at Dusi Bridge.