Despite some destructive storms, many of the dams and rivers in KwaZulu-Natal are still desperately low as the region struggles with the aftermath of the La Niña drought, forcing many canoeists to look to the mountain waters of the Mzimkhulu for their training for the upcoming N3TC Drak Challenge and the FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon.
With entries now open for N3TC Drak Challenge on 21 and 22 January, locals from the Canyon Kayak Club declared “Drak Season” open when the level of the Mzimkhulu River rose appreciably after the first of the typical summer thunderstorms earlier this month.
The groundwater in the region has also benefitted from several good snowfalls during the winter, resulting in much of the early summer rainfall leading to an immediate rise in the river levels.
In recent years many of the top Dusi contenders have chosen to do much of their end-of-year holiday training in Underberg where they can enjoy the technically challenging river to sharpen up their river skills, and avoid the risks of a frustrating low level of the Msundusi and Mngeni Rivers, which can also carry the risk of health problems after heavy rainfall.
Defending Drak Challenge champion and Euro Steel athlete Andy Birkett has already built his summer training plans around time in the Southern Drakensberg and paddling on the uMzimkhulu.
“For sure, as long as there is water in the river I will be in Underberg for training. From a training point of view it is so beneficial, but it is such a fun river to paddle on. That’s why I choose to spend time up there,” he added.
Birkett, like many other elite athletes appreciates the advantages of training at altitude. The Haw family is another that plans to train at altitude, and even includes runs up the 3000m high Rhino Peak as part of their Dusi training.
Pietermaritzburg based Euro Steel star Abby Solms is aiming for the women’s K1 FNB Dusi title in February, and has factored in training time in Underberg.
“Apart from the fact that it is such fun paddling on the Mzimkhulu, the water is clean and I find it is good to sharpen up on your river skills,” said Solms.
“If there is water in the Mzimkhulu I will definitely go and paddle there,” she concluded.
She may well find one of her challengers on the waters of the Mzimkhulu in Olympic star Bridgitte Hartley, who is relishing a summer of K1 river races after several cycles of Olympic games commitments kept her away from the popular South African river racing majors.
Hartley wants to confront the Mzimkhulu this summer to erase the memories of her scare during the 2013 N3TC Drak Challenge when she battled with the flooded river and lost her boat in the infamous Valley of a Thousand rapids.
“I guess that made me a little afraid of rivers after that! Hopefully the river won’t be like that this year and I can look forward to getting on the uMzimkhulu River. This season is all about me spending time in my K1, getting confidence in river paddling and giving it my best shot,” she added.
Many of the elite stars sneak in entries to the popular Mixed Doubles Champs and Fast Drak races on the Umzimkhulu in December to take full advantage of competitive conditions on the popular stretch of water.
The 2017 N3TC Drak Challenge Canoe Marathon takes place in the Southern Drakensberg on 21 and 22 January 2017.