20 year-old Underberg resident Stew Little makes little secret of his desire to one day win the prized N3TC Drak Challenge in partnership with FNB canoe marathon title, and wants to harness the pressure from his hometown supporters to help him get there.
“I learnt to paddle on the Mzimkhulu. I love this river and I would love nothing more than to be on the top step of the podium,” says the Varsity College student.
A stunning second place finish at the 2019 edition of the race may have gone a way to helping him realise that his dream isn’t too far away. But standing between him and that goal is friend Andy Birkett, who has won the last six Drak titles.
Birkett spent three days before the race last year tripping the river with Little, who admitted afterwards that he had learnt much from Little in terms of knowledge of the river and his mastery in lowish water conditions.
“Lower water conditions suit me because I paddle this river whenever I can,” said Little. “No matter what the water level, I would far rather train on the river than on the dam, so I get to know the river every level.”
Weighting in at under 70 kilograms Little has an advantage over some of the heavier paddlers in low technical conditions that have defined the race for the last two years.
In January this year he stunned the race by finishing second after sprinting away from Siseko Ntondini and another Under 23 paddler Alan Houston.
His introduction to canoeing came as a Grade 8 novice following Christie Mackenzie down the tricky top section through the Valley of a Thousand rapids, with her brother Hamish Mackenzie.
“Hamish and I were pretty bad that day and we swam five or six times each!” he recalls. “But the bug bit, and outside of the Table Mountain Descent section, this is my favourite stretch of river in the country.”
Since his second placed finish Little has found that locals are putting pressure on him to go one better and finally become the first Underberg local to win their canoeing major.
“The pressure is quite funny actually,” said the laid-back Euro Steel team paddler, who spends a large part of his year studying and training in Durban. “I would really like to win this race one year, and I now know that there are people in the area that are hoping I can do it too.
“Right now it would mean beating Andy Birkett to take the win. That is a very big ask!” he added.