Defending champion and seven-times winner of the N3TC Drak Challenge Canoe Marathon in partnership with FNB Andy Birkett says he is itching to get back onto the uMzimkhulu to renew his relationship with the Southern Drakensberg paddling mecca.
Birkett, speaking on his way to Underberg for a week of training on the uMzimkhulu River, said every paddler was feeling the absence of paddling this popular race, last held 23 months ago after the 2021 edition was cancelled during the Covid-19 lockdown.
“I can’t wait to get back onto the river,” he gushed. “Everyone is super excited for the Drak. Coming two and a half weeks before the MyLife Dusi it is perfect for a hard race as part of the Dusi planning as well,” he said.
Birkett said that the key to success on a technical river like the uMzimkhulu lay in learning and absorbing a unique rhythm needed to be consistently quick and smooth on a river made up of many pool-drop rapids.
“That rhythm is so important, and I think not having paddled the river for so long it is something everyone will notice,” he said.
“It is not just about finding the fastest line through a rapid. Sometimes you can choose a slower line that links better and allows you to keep up your boat speed by staying in the flowing water,” he said.
“It is hard to explain but it is definitely something you pick up and learn with time on the river. You can waste a lot of energy by not paying attention to the river and always looking and planning fifty metres ahead.”
Birkett, who now holds the record for the most victories in the race’s history, said he was looking forward to being challenged by a full river.
“The last six or seven years have all been medium or medium-low years and we haven’t had a full river for a while, and with all the rain this summer we could get one this year.
“That would be exciting and paddlers who have tripped at a full level will be at an advantage, so I am hoping to get a full day or two while I am in Underberg now,” added the Team Euro Steel star.
“Apart from the fact that it is such enjoyable paddling, it is so good for your river skills to spend time on the uMzimkhulu. It is the perfect river skills sharpener before the Dusi,” said Birkett, who added that his week training in Underberg would be followed by meeting up with his young Dusi partner Dave Evans in Pietermaritzburg.
“Gee, it is six weeks to the Dusi and we haven’t sat in a boat together!” he quipped.