Paddlers from around the world will join the cream of the country’s river marathon paddlers and a big field of canoeing enthusiasts in Underberg this weekend for the 27th edition of the N3TC Drak Challenge in partnership with FNB canoe marathon, with the fickle weather the only joker in the pack.
After delivering exciting water levels in the Mzimkhulu River for paddlers in mid-January, the rains have stayed away from the key Southern Drakensberg catchment areas, and for the third year running the race will start under low-water rules at Sinister Pool just above the Swartberg Road bridge.
That will leave two 18 kilometre stages to decide the 2020 titles, with the overnight at Callaway bridge just outside Underberg.
East Londoner Andy Birkett will start as the favourite to repeat his impressive win in similar conditions last year, and should that materialise the Euro Steel star will overtake Ant Stott to become the race’s most successful male athlete.
He won’t have it all his own way though. The laid back Birkett will have a hungry Hank McGregor to contend with again. The eleven times world champ had a Drak to forget last year as his race title chances disintegrated with his damaged kayak, leaving the former triple Drak winner to limp into the finish, albeit cheerfully, and miss out on the podium altogether.
With many of the elite paddlers training for the K2 Dusi in a month’s time, there are a dozen class athletes that could well be in the frame when the race comes down to its critical stage entering the Lower Gorge just above the race finish at Hopewell Farm on the Coleford Road.
Underberg local Stew Little would love nothing more than to win his local major, and the Under 23 star can look to build on his impressive second place at last year’s race.
Last year’s third place finisher Siseko Ntondini is flying under the radar form-wise as he prepares for his Dusi K2 challenge with Spanish Ivan Alonso, but the Joberger has earned the respect of the seeded stars that will start with him in A batch.
The women’s race is just as hard to call, and with confirmation that defending champion and eight times winner Abby Solms will not be racing, the tactics in the women’s batch may well become more frantic over the shorter stages on the low river as they scramble for the podium places.
Jenna Ward relished getting onto the top step of the podium two years ago, and is the only person in the race that has interrupted Solms’s decade of dominance of the women’s race. She is in great form, preparing for her Dusi K2 challenge with Kyeta Purchase, who is also in her single for the Underberg classic this weekend.
Significantly Ward won the Fast Drak title over the same course a month ago, held in almost identical river conditions.
Tamika Haw and Christie Mackenzie, who slugged it out in the thrilling Dusi women’s race finish are both entered as well, both in equally good form as they prepare for their respective Dusi challenges.
Olympic medallist Bridgitte Hartley is back for her fifth Drak, and will always be threat. She prepares meticulously and trips the river to learn the subtle line choices in low water conditions. With luck on her side she could easily go one better than her return of third, third and second in the last three outings on the Mzimkhulu.
The race is a popular one for the hundreds of paddlers from around the country, who thrive on the clean water and testing rapids that make this race particularly appealing.
It forms part of the umbrella FNB Drak Adventure Weekend that includes a concert at the Underberg Country Club that will include popular bands Desmond and the Tutus and Prime Circle.
The weekend that attracts trail runner and mountain bikers to the town for the weekend results in an economic injection of over R2 million into the local economy, and helps position the region as an adventure sport mecca.
Four paddlers are poised to join the elite group of eleven who have completed twenty or more editions of the N3TC Drak Challenge in partnership with FNB canoe marathon, earning them the title of ‘Super Trouts”.
Kevin Middleton, Hugh Raw, Anthony van Tonder and Bruce Wenke have each finished the popular two-day, 75km race on the upper Mzimkhulu nineteen times, and while van Tonder has yet to lodge his entry, there will be new members joining the ‘Super Trout’ club on Sunday afternoon.
4 838 athletes have taken part in this event since it was started in 1994, with 174 reaching the milestone of ten finishes, earning them the status of a ‘Drak Trout’ and the right to start in the early Drak Batch.
Owen Hemingway 25
Dave Macleod, Colin Simpkins 24
Kirsten Oliver 22
Bart Fokkens, Glenn Hilliar, Greg Hitchins, Gavin Tarr 21
Lawrence Blackbeard, Nigel Stevens, Gary Waud 20
Poised to become Super Trouts
Kevin Middleton, Hugh Raw, Anthony van Tonder, Bruce Wenke 19