UNDERBERG – FOR the past nine editions of the N3TC Drak Challenge Andy Birkett has been leading the field home in the two-day race that has grown into SA’s biggest canoeing event in terms of race entries.
Once again a big field packed with top paddlers will be tackling the clean waters of the Umzimkulu River near Underberg on Saturday and Sunday, but expect the same winner for the 30th Anniversary event.
The Euro Steel team paddler is never one to shout loudly about his achievements, but the modest multiple World Champion and 13-time Dusi Champion has every right to strut around Underberg like he is royalty.
The talented paddler has moved away from the KZN Midlands and together with his wife Nix, are currently instrumental in developing the Eastern Cape paddling scene into the new powerhouse of South African canoeing.
He goes into this weekend’s race as the overwhelming favourite to make it 10 out of 10, but there are some strong rivals who are keen to keep him from achieving the milestone.
Another paddler who needs no introduction is arguably the world’s most successful marathon paddler, Hank McGregor, who may be cutting back on his racing schedule as he heads deep into his 40s, but there are few more competitive racers and it is unwise to write him off – as demonstrated by his silver medal in the surfski World Champs in Australia less than two months ago.
Birkett’s Dusi partner, Matthew Fenn, will be hoping to put one over his Eastern Cape team-mate, while a host of paddlers from KZN, Gauteng and the Western Cape will be looking to keep the title out of the Eastern Cape for a change.
The list of potential winners is long and includes Brad Boulle, Thomas and Hamish Lovemore, Siseko Ntondini, Banetse Nkhoesa, Mark Keeling and Jeremy Maher.
Underberg local Scott Little, who recently won the Fast Drak on much of the same section of river, could produce a home-town surprise and there will be no shortage of support from the local crowds.
In the women’s race Nix Birkett will be hoping she can make the prizegiving a family double, but she will have to be at her very best to see off defending champion Christie Mackenzie, Olympic medallist Bridgitte Hartley and Saskia Hockly.
The event organisers have switched the days around this year to accommodate some better logistics with the Run the Rivers trail run and Drak Descent MTB race making Underberg the centre of action sport this weekend.