The big field of paddlers gathered in the foothills of the Southern Drakensberg for the 28th edition of the iconic N3TC Drak Challenge Canoe Marathon, in partnership with FNB, will hold their breath as the character of the race looks set to be moulded by a storm expected over the Southern Drakensberg on Friday evening, just hours before the start of the first stage of the race on Saturday morning.
The level of the uMzimkhulu River has fluctuated wildly this summer as the province experienced one of its wettest seasons in decades, with the Southern Drakensberg river breaking its banks repeatedly during the holiday season. In the week before the annual two day canoeing classic the rains abated and the level of water in the river dropped quickly.
In cases like this the organisers start the race at Sinister Pool, eliminating the signature first 26km of the race through what is known as the Valley of a Thousand Rapids. However with most weather forecasts pointing to a thunderstorm over the Southern Drakensberg peaks that form the catchment area, race bosses will only make the call on whether the run the full distance of the race or use the shortened format better suited to lower conditions as late as possible.
Low river levels have dogged this popular race since the very full 2013 edition of the Drak, and it has been in this period that Andy Birkett has established himself as the paddler to beat.
Since his first win in 2014, the Euro Steel star, who was raised in Pietermaritzburg but now lives in East London, has not been beaten and strung together a new record of seven back-to-back Drak wins, beating the top class field of elite racers that always travels to Underberg to challenge for the title.
Three times winner Hank McGregor, who has just turned 44, will be one of the paddlers praying for a downpour in the catchment area, as the multiple world champion has struggled in the low river conditions in recent years, but has more podium finishes that any other paddler in the race’s history.
The pace will almost certainly be dictated by the brigade of young turks keen to turn the tables on Birkett and McGregor, with young paddlers like Dave Evans, Matt Fenn, Matt Millward, Stew Little and his younger brother Scott eager to make youthful energy and pace a key deciding factor at the front of the race.
The elite field has an added layer of complexity as Cape stars Mark Keeling and the new surfski world champion Nicky Notten, who recently won the SA K2 river marathon title with Birkett at the Fish River Canoe Marathon, have thrown their hats in the ring.
The women’s race will be just as compelling. Jenna Nisbet comes into the race as the defending champion, but with a fiercely competitive MyLife Dusi K2 women’s race brewing, the K1 entries from the class of Jordy Peek, Christie Mackenzie, new surfski world champion Michelle Burn, juniors Saskia and Valmajean Hockly and the determined Bridgitte Hartley means that there will not very little margin for error in the women’s race.
Throwing a cat amongst the pigeons is the return to competitive canoeing of Abby Solms, who is the race’s most successful female paddler of all time, having won it eight times since the full year in 2010. With Dusi with Underberg local Bianca Haw in the pipeline, both women can be expected to figure prominently in the race for the title.
The event has attracted a big entry, born in part out of the frustration of having the 2021 race cancelled under the tough lockdown at the beginning of last year. It forms a trio of events with the Euro Steel Drak Descent MTB races and the Euro Steel Run The River trails run in partnership with FNB that are now collectively known as the Drak Adventure Weekend.