Pietermaritzburg — With the region still in the talons of a brutal two-year drought, the 2017 FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon, which gets under way at Camps Drift on Thursday, will echo the races of old as paddlers face a number of additional obstacles on their three-day journey from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.
The FNB Dusi has always revolved around the participants taking on the prevailing conditions and with a highly charged and competitive field assembled for the race, the race looks set to reward one of the trio of stars that best adapts to the "old-school" Dusi.
The race promises to test every aspect of the paddlers’ Dusi armoury, from the usual portaging skills and technical river tests to the additional curveball of an explosive growth of hyacinth.
The prize money in the events building up to the Dusi has been shared among three paddlers — arguably what the podium is going to look like at the end of the three days.
Euro Steel/Red Bull’s Sbonelo Khwela won the Umpetha Challenge and the coveted 50 Miler Canoe Marathon. These two Khwela wins were straddled by Euro Steel’s Andy Birkett, who took home the honours at the Ozzie Gladwin Canoe Marathon.
Multiple marathon world champion Hank McGregor threw his hat into the ring early in the summer and it did not take the Euro Steel/Kayak Centre ace long to sound his intentions with a win in the Campbell’s Farm to Dusi Bridge race in January.
Defending K1 and K2 champion Birkett is hunting down a seventh FNB Dusi crown in 2017. If the 26-year-old does win, it would put him among some of the greats of the race with an incredible seven wins in eight years of paddling.
A 2017 win would see Birkett join "Dusi Duke" Martin Dreyer on seven wins — making them the second-most decorated paddlers of the prestigious race behind the late Graham Pope-Ellis, who won 15 titles.
The field contesting the gold medals also includes Hungarian K2 world champion Adrian Boros, eager to test himself in the demanding environment.
The women’s title race might be slightly more straightforward, with only two serious candidates raising their hands ahead of the 120km journey.
Euro Steel team-mates Abby Solms and Bridgitte Hartley are set to fight it out for overall honours, with the former searching for that elusive K1 title after she broke her Dusi duck in 2016 with a K2 victory.
Solms’s form has been impressive with wins at all of her build-up races. Hartley, who has never done a K1 Dusi, has been familiarising herself with the conditions.
Junior paddler Christie Mackenzie showed her form when she came second to Hartley at the Umpetha Challenge and third behind Solms and Hartley at the Ozzie Gladwin.
This year’s Dusi has attracted a field of well over 1,00 paddlers keen to test themselves in the uMsunduzi and uMngeni rivers.
Andre Hawarden, the five-time winner of the mixed doubles category from 1981-85 is embracing the challenge of the race returning to its roots.
"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," he said.