Looming thunderstorms over the southern Berg have helped to fuel the passionate response from paddlers from across the country for the 2023 edition of the annual two-day N3TC Drak Challenge Canoe Marathon this weekend.
At the sharp end of the dozens of batches that will be set off in a Le Mans-style start just above the Castleburn bridge on the Drakensberg Gardens road on Saturday morning will be the seeded men’s batch, including some of the country’s best river marathoners, all hell belt on trying to deny Andy Birkett a chance to extend his reign as the king of this Southern Drakensberg classic race.
Since the current world marathon champion’s maiden Drak victory in 2014 Birkett has not been beaten on the uMzimkhulu, and with eight titles to his credit he is the most successful male paddler in the race’s 28 year history.
Passionate about training and tripping on the clean waters of the uMzimkhulu and a fan of the laid-back allure of the Underberg region, Team Euro Steel’s Birkett places a high priority on the race, and will be a hard man to dethrone over the 72 kilometres of racing, no matter what river conditions greet them on race day.
However he cannot afford to let his guard drop for a moment, as a momentary lapse in concentration will leave the door open for any one of the star-studded field of elite paddlers to end his record unbeaten streak, including former Drak champ and multiple world marathon champion Hank McGregor.
Add to that threat the classy emerging young talent of Dave Evans and Underberg locals Stew and Scotty Little, and the on-form new Under 23 marathon world champion Hamish Lovemore, making his return to the Drak Challenge for the first time since 2019, and the pressure in the front bunch will be relentless.
The joker in the pack is East Londoner Matt Fenn. Part of Andy Birkett’s thriving Border training cell, Fenn threw a spanner in the works by winning last weekend’s 50 Miler, and tucking in alongside Birkett for the training block building up to the Drak Challenge and the Dusi Canoe Marathon three weeks later, Fenn will be watched carefully by all the elite racers hoping to book a spot on the men’s podium.
While Birkett starts as a clear favourite to claim a ninth Drak title, the women’s race will once again provide plenty of intrigue.
Since her move to Durban Christie Mackenzie has found a new gear and is building towards another Dusi title assault in mid February, and fancies the appealing prospect of adding the Drak women’s title to her CV after finishing second to nine-times Drak champ Abby Solms last year.
Now training with Matt Bouman’s squad the world marathon champs Under 23 bronze medallist Mackenzie has plans to make her mark on the global paddling scene again after successful summer KZN river season campaign.
Solms reminded this event of her class when she won on her return to the Drak in impressive style last year, but has shelved her paddling training this year to concentrate on her road running and a Comrades Marathon in 2023.
Snapping at Mackenzie’s heels will be Olympic medallist Bridgitte Hartley, Shannon Parker- Denison, Georgina Howard and the Hockly sisters Saskia and Valmajean fresh of a 2022 season that brought them medals at the world surfski and marathon championships.
After having enjoyed one of the best river levels in the three decades history of the race last year, the planets seem to be lining up again for the annual uMzimkhulu classic, with weather forecasts hinting at a storm over the Rhino Peak catchment area on Friday afternoon that can change the personality of the uMzimkhulu in a matter of hours.
N3TC Drak Challenge 2023
Saturday 28 January 2023, 8am, Stage One, 26km Castleburn bridge to Swartberg Road bridge.
Sunday 29 January 2023, 7am, Stage Two, 38km, Swartberg road bridge to Hopewell Farm.