UNDERBERG – To win any highly competitive sporting event 10 times in succession is a massive achievement and something that should result in legendary status for reaching a pinnacle few get to conquer. However, former World Champion and multiple Dusi winner Andy Birkett is already something of a canoeing legend, so a 10th victory in the two-day N3TC Drak Challenge title on January 27-28 is just another massive achievment in a glittering sporting career.
As the 33-year-old attempts to conquer the Umzimkhulu River once more, he can reflect on an incredible record of having completed 11 Draks with nine victories. Since 2014, no other paddler has occupied the top step of the podium and it took the Covid pandemic, which prevented the 2021 race from being held, to break his momentum.
For most people, winning an event once is good enough to satisfy the soul, but for Birkett, the love of racing and being competitive spurs him on.
“Once you get that purpose to perform, to be better and get better, it never leaves you. I still have the desire to race, to hit the water with a goal and a mission,” he said. “Despite all my wins, every race is a new beginning and my love for the area, the river and its surrounds is a massive driving force for me.”
Indeed, Birkett lived on the river’s doorstep when he was a resident in Howick, but moved to East London a few years back. Despite a change of environment, he has ensured he still gets time to paddle the Umzimkhulu River and fit some tripping in before the actual race.
“Every weekend I get to do long river paddling sessions on the Gonube River to stay paddle fit, and for the past few years we have managed to spend two weeks after Christmas near Underberg, virtually on the banks of the river,” he said.
“While we enjoy typical holiday activities as a family, it allows me the opportunity to get on the river, do some tripping and get to see how the river is behaving. I love the race and for me, returning to the hills and beauty of the Drakensberg is like going home.”
By his own admission, Birkett competes with himself while tripping the route, always trying to beat his previous efforts. This year, his competitive edge could stand him in good stead as the race stages have been swapped around, the new first day being the old day two and vice-versa. The start and finish is at Swartberg Bridge, the old day two start, and Birkett reckons this could be an advantage for many of the paddlers.
“The change allows for a mellower paddle earlier on, allowing paddlers to find their legs and get accustomed to conditions. It’s more forgiving,” he said.
With KwaZulu-Natal currently under a curtain of rain, the Umzimkhulu has been flowing strongly and should be at a decent level for the race weekend, a change from recent years when the water has been low. However, with all his experience, Birkett tends to opt for the latter option.
“To be honest, I enjoy the river being lower rather than pumping, as it becomes more challenging, more of a proper, thinking paddle, encouraging paddlers to find their lines and not relying on the river to do everything for them,” he said.
It’s going to take some stopping Birkett as he seeks that cherished 10th title but, like any sportsman at the top of his game, the stronger and tougher the competition, the brighter the flame to perform, dig deeper and put in that extra effort. And that is just the fuel he needs to hit the river with all cylinders firing.
The 2023 N3TC Drak Challenge attracted the most entries of any event in South African last year and indications are the field for the 30th Anniversary event will grow this year, keeping it as the biggest event on the SA canoeing calendar.
Entries are open at the Canoeing SA entry portal at paddler.canoesa.com