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Old-style Dusi set to challenge the country’s top paddlers
- Updated: February 16, 2017
With the region still in the talons of the brutal two-year drought, the 2017 FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon will echo the races of old as paddlers will have a number of additional obstacles to manage on their three-day journey from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. The Marathon gets under way at Camps Drift on Thursday morning .
The FNB Dusi has always revolved around the participants taking on the prevailing conditions as they find them, and with a highly charged and competitive field assembled for the race, the three-day classic looks set to reward one of a trio of stars that best adapts to the prospect of an ‘old school’ Dusi.
‘We look forward to yet another breathtaking event as the most adventurous paddle off against each other in the epic FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon. Our support for the sport reaffirms our belief that adventure is at the heart of innovation and this is one of many platforms on which we seek to make a lasting connection with our clients,’ says Howard Arrand, KZN Provincial Head of FNB Business.
The race promises to test every aspect of the paddlers’ Dusi skills, from the usual portaging and technical river challenges, to additional obstacles in the form of the explosive growth of hyacinth during this summer.
The prize money in the build-up to the race has been shared amongst three paddlers – arguably what the podium is going to look like at the end of the three days of paddling.
Euro Steel/Red Bull’s Sbonelo Khwela (pictured above) won the Umpetha Challenge, as well as the coveted 50 Miler Canoe Marathon, presented by StaminaGro.
Apart from the two Khwela wins, Euro Steel’s Andy Birkett (in main picture) took home the honours at the Ozzie Gladwin Canoe Marathon, presented by Parklane Superspar.
Multiple marathon world champion Hank McGregor threw his hat into the Dusi ring early in the summer. It did not take the Euro Steel/Kayak Centre ace long to trumpet his intentions with a win at the crucial Campbell’s Farm to Dusi Bridge race in January.
Defending K1 and K2 champion Andy Birkett is hunting down a formidable seventh FNB Dusi crown in 2017. If the 26 year-old should win, it places him among some of the greats of the race with an incredible seven wins in eight years of paddling.
A 2017 win will see Birkett join the ‘Dusi Duke’ Martin Dreyer on seven wins – giving them a tie as the second most decorated paddlers of the prestigious race, behind the late great Graham Pope-Ellis, who won 15 titles.
The field contesting the gold medals is, true to form, highly competitive, and includes the Hungarian K2 world champion Adrian Boros, eager to test himself in the unique and demanding environment of the FNB Dusi.
It seems that the women’s title race might be slightly more straightforward than the men’s, with only two serious candidates emerging ahead of the 120-kilometre journey from the province’s capital to the Indian Ocean.
Euro Steel team mates Abby Solms and Olympian Bridgitte Hartley (pictured above) are set to fight it out for the overall women’s honours, with the former searching for that elusive K1 title after she broke her Dusi duck in 2016 with a K2 victory.
Solms’ form going into the Dusi has been impressive, with wins at all of her build-up races. Hartley, who has never done a K1 Dusi, has been working very hard on familiarising herself with conditions and the unique challenge of portaging.
The battle for the final step on the women’s podium could be an interesting one with any one of half a dozen paddlers capable of laying claim to the bronze medal.
Junior paddler Christie Mackenzie showed her prowess by coming second to Hartley at the Umpetha Challenge and third behind Solms and Hartley at the Ozzie Gladwin.
The race has attracted a field of well over a thousand Dusi enthusiasts keen to test themselves down the uMsundusi and uMngeni Rivers. Many will be familiar with the tough conditions that look set to challenge the field, even some harbouring a strong hankering back to the halcyon days of the famous race prior to the introduction of water releases.
Five-time winner of the mixed doubles category at the Dusi from 1981-85 Andre Hawarden knows the Dusi of old and having endured just about all Dusi conditions, he is embracing the challenge of the Dusi returning to its roots.
‘I’m stoked that the Dusi’s got its mojo back! From being a predictable three-day sprint where everyone knew what to expect, we are back to a race of question marks and quick decisions, just like the old day’s pre-dam releases!’ Euro Steel’s Hawarden said.
‘We will have to think on our feet in this race, we don’t know what the water levels will be, and we don’t know where the hyacinth blocks will be, so we will just have to make decisions as we go.
‘It takes me back to the early days when we just took it as it came; the Dusi was the Dusi, no matter what, the race went on.’
‘It was a good race overall, I went as hard as I could and unfortunately it just was not my day to win. I don’t have any regrets, I know I laid it all out on the dam as did the other guys. It was enjoyable to have that competition, it’s always nice as a professional athlete to be challenged and I am very happy that we kept it within South Africa regardless of who we were racing against.
‘Upcoming is the Sanlam Cape Mile this Sunday, then I have open water nationals in Jefferys Bay the first weekend of March. Otherwise it’s working towards World Champs which is in Hungary in July.’
Pictures of Birkett, Khwela and Hartley courtesy of Anthony Grote/Gameplan Media