15-17 February 2024

Mtolo and Khwela take a slender lead into Day 2

Pietermaritzburg – Msawenkosi Mtolo and Sbonelo Khwela lived up to their pre-race hype when they claimed the opening leg of the 2024 Dusi Canoe Marathon from Bishopstowe Hall to the new Day 1 finish at Mphaya Bridge on Thursday – but their lead is not comfortable as they contemplate the second stage on Friday.

A massive surge over the closing kilometres from the old finish at Dusi Bridge to the new end point, means 13-time race winner Andy Birkett and Matthew Fenn are lurking dangerously, just 26 seconds off the leading crew. Looking ahead to Days 2 and 3, the smart bet would probably be on a 14th victory for the former World Champion and his young Eastern Cape partner.

The women’s race looked to be heading on a similar trajectory to the men’s, with Abby Solms and her schoolgirl partner, Jessica Behn, building a solid early lead on Day 1, only for Bridgitte Hartley and Hilary Bruss to start making inroads into the deficit.

However, a decision to paddle around the tough Cabbage Tree portage late in the race – while Solms and Behn took the traditional run option – meant Hartley and Bruss suddenly lost huge chunks of time. A gap that was down to just over a minute before the portage-or-paddle decision, ballooned to over nine minutes over the final third of the 36km stage.

That gap is going to make things tough for Hartley and Bruss, and even though they may feel they can make up time on Day 2 – which is now very much a paddlers’ stage, with just one major portage – it is hard to see them claw back that much of a disadvantage.

Sitting in third in the women’s race is the Jenna Nisbet and Nix Birkett crew, who are likely to also enjoy the faster-flowing uMngeni River and deep water of the Inanda Dam on Friday. They are six minutes behind Hartley and Bruss and will be hoping to make some inroads into that deficit on Friday to set up a dash for Durban on Saturday.

“Today was quite a brutal day,” said Solms with a huge smile on her face after seeing the size of their lead. “It was a quite interesting those last three little portages that we do not normally do on Day 1. We had to think ahead and keep something in the tank for them, but I think that is where we came into our own and put the hammer down.”

The men’s race saw Mtolo and Khwela power away from the portage start at Bishopstowe Hall, and by the time they hit the river two kilometres later, the pair only had the Bongani Ntinga and Sandile Mtolo; and Banetse Nkhoesa and Siseko Ntondini combinations in sight, with Birket and Fenn already half a minute behind.

At the Guinea Fowl portage midway through the stage, Birkett and Fenn were lying second, but with a 90-second lead, Mtolo and Khwela were starting to look like everything was going to their plan as they tried to build a lead to take into Days 2 and 3.

However, Birkett’s slower start – which he was worried “was too conservative” – began to pay off as the two Eastern Cape paddlers closed the gap and they are comfortable to be within 30 seconds of the lead as they head into stage two.

Ntinga and Mtolo held off Nkhoesa and Ntondini to claim third, by four seconds, with under 23s Scott Little and Jeremy Maher rounding out the top five.

“It was a tough day, but I would say we had a good race,” said Mtolo as they relaxed after the finish.

“I was not worried at all,” said Khwela, taking up the story. “We knew the other guys were strong, but we just told ourselves that we need to pace ourselves. It is a long day and the big thing is that we did not see Andy at any of the pre-Dusi races, so we did not know what he was hiding.

“I am happy with the result. Although the gap is not that much, tomorrow is still a race. We wanted a bigger gap and unfortunately we did not get as much of a gap as we wanted, but anything can happen.”

In the mixed doubles event, multiple world champion hank McGregor and his wife Pippa are in control with a solid 6:41 lead over Euro Steel team-mates Brad Boulle and Emma Hatfield.

Stage two takes paddlers to the confluence of the uMngeni River within two kilometres of the start. From there the nature of the river changes dramatically and paddler will have to negotiate some big rapids before the steep Ngumeni Portage. After that it is all downhill with a trio of major rapids – Gum Tree, Thombi and Hippo – before the headwaters of Inanda Dam and the 12km flat-water grind into the overnight stop at the Msinsi Resort.

1 Msawenkosi Mtolo / Sbonelo Khwela 2:27:36
2 Andy Birkett / Matthew Fenn 2:28:02
3 Bongani Ntinga / Sandile Mtolo 2:32:44
4 Banetse Nkhoesa / Siseko Ntondini 2:32:48
5 Scott Little / Jeremy Maher 2:35:16
6 Thulani Mbanjwa / Kwandokuhle Mzolo 2:35:29
7 Sanele Mbanjwa / Smilo Mthethwa 2:35:35
8 Thabani Msia / Nqobile Makhanya 2:39:31
9 Benjamin Mntonintshi / Mpendulo Mthethwa 2:39:34
10 Mvelo Ngidi / Siyanda Gwamanda 2:41:49

1 Hank Mcgregor / Pippa Mcgregor 2:54:11
2 Bradley Boulle / Emma Hatfield 3:00:52
3 Dave Mckenzie / Helen Buley 3:16:32
4 Scott Rogers / Michaela Geytenbeek 3:20:44
5 Abbey Hackland / James Hackland 3:24:14

1 Abby Solms / Jessica Behn 3:00:14
2 Bridgitte Hartley / Hilary Bruss 3:09:37
3 Jenna Nisbet / Nix Birkett 3:16:28
4 Caitlyn Odell / Rachel Van Deventer 3:22:59
5 Amy Hulett / Neriyah Dill 3:23:01