UNDERBERG – Andy Birkett took a massive step toward completing his tenth N3TC Drak Challenge victory in a row when he out-sprinted Hamish Lovemore to claim the Day 1 win on Saturday.
Birkett (Team Euro Steel) ended the opening stage of the 30th Anniversary race just three seconds ahead of Lovemore in the 39km stage from Swartberg Bridge to Hopewell Farm on the Umzimkhulu River, but such is his pedigree at this event, it is hard to see him being beaten in the race for the overall win.
In the women’s race, Christie Mackenzie suffered an early pre-race setback but overcame the drama to edge out Birkett’s wife Nix Birkett, with Bridgitte Hartley recovering from an early swim at Taylor’s Weir to end the opening stage third.
Not surprisingly, Andy Birkett was very happy with how the opening day of the popular race went as he led home a field of nearly 400 paddlers, with Lovemore followed by Hank McGregor just under three minutes further back with a host of U23 youngsters led by Underberg local Scott Little filling the top eight postitions.
“It was an awesome day on this magical river,” said Birkett. “It was a bit of a crazy start like always on Day 1 of Drak as everyone was just trying to hit the early rapids as hard as they could as we all tried to whittle down the group.
“We got down to three boats pretty quickly with Matt (Fenn), Hamish (Lovemore) and myself, but Matt hit a rock at some point and dropped off, allowing Hamish and I to get away,” added the former World Champion and 13-time Dusi winner.
Fenn, Birkett’s Dusi partner next month, dropped down to fifth but is in the group with McGregor and Little and is still very much in contention for a podium position.
“So from about halfway there were just the two boats together as we marked each other and tried to see if the other would make a mistake,” continued Birkett. “But at the end it came down to the two of us together at the finish.
“I enjoyed the river level. We tripped it a lot over Christmas but the river was lower today so we had to just read it and go for it.
“Tomorrow we will just deal with whatever the river conditions are,” said the nine-time winner as he coyly refused to make a prediction about his 10th win.
Mackenzie must have thought the Gods were against her when somebody stood on her paddle before the start and she had to quickly change to a spare paddle.
However, the less-than-perfect pre-race preparation was no setback as the defending champion calmly handled all that was thrown at her from before the race, and on the river.
“I had a rocky start when somebody stood on my paddle before the start so it broke and so I had to use a paddle I was not used to – so that was the first obstacle.
“From there I had a good start and led through the Gorge and did not make any mistakes and from there it was just a long slog on the flats to the finish. So I was happy with my day.
“The water level was nice. It was technical which I liked so it was awesome.”
Nix Birkett is just two seconds off the pace and a Birkett double is certainly not out of the question, but the safe bet would be a repeat of the 2023 results with Andy Birkett and Christie Mackenzie on the top step of their respective podiums.
Sunday’s stage two will see entrants race from Castleburn to the Swartberg Bridge.
1 Andy Birkett 2:24:29
2 Hamish Lovemore 2:24:32
3 Hank McGregor (1st Sub Master) 2:27:18
4 Scott Little (1st U23) 2:27:20
5 Matt Fenn (2nd U23) 2:2739
6 Clinton Cook 2:29:23
7 Jeremy Maher (3rd U23) 2:29:25
8 Joshua Simpkins (4th U23) 2:29:29
9 Msawenkosi Mtolo 2:30:51
10 Banetse Nkhoesa 2:30:53.
1 Christie Mackenzie 2:44:14
2 Nix Birkett (1st Sub Vet) 2:44:16
3 Bridgitte Hartley (1st Vet) 2:47:41
4 Saskia Hockly (1st U23) 2:48:30
5 Abby Solms (2nd Sub Vet) 2:50:03