Winning ways: Andy Birkett celebrates his fourth title at the 2017 N3TC Drak Challenge. The marathon is to take place on January 20-21. Picture: ANTHONY GROTE/GAMEPLAN MEDIA
Winning ways: Andy Birkett celebrates his fourth title at the 2017 N3TC Drak Challenge. The marathon is to take place on January 20-21. Picture: ANTHONY GROTE/GAMEPLAN MEDIA

The popular two-day 62km N3TC Drak Challenge Canoe Marathon celebrates its 25th anniversary on January 20-21, with the event well established as one of SA’s three best supported canoe races.

Entries for the 2018 race opened this week and look certain to attract another field of close to 1,000 paddlers keen to test themselves against the fabled sections of the uMzimkhulu River as it flows out of the Southern Drakensberg mountains through Underberg, finishing at Early Mist Farm close to Coleford resort.

Andy Birkett, who won his fourth Drak title in 2017, will be back to defend his crown.

Timed to coincide with the best of the summer rainfalls in the region, the event will share the same weekend — usually the last weekend of the end-of-year holidays — with the Thrombi-XFest for kayakers that runs through Thrombi Gorge, below the canoe race finish.

Making it a bumper weekend for the region, and keeping accommodation, restaurant and supermarket tills ringing, the two-day sporting bonanza will also include the Euro Steel Drak Descent mountain bike race that runs alongside the river, providing a totally unique pairing of events that allows friendly banter between the paddlers and the land-based athletes.

Yes, we want full rivers to paddle on, but with the Drak there is never any bluffing, just honest, accurate and timeous information through their website and social media, about the amount of water in the river.
Owen Hemmingway

Run by the Canyon Kayak Club based in Underberg, the N3TC Drak Challenge has become a popular part of the national calendar as the weekend caters for the paddlers’ needs while pandering to families with the region’s plethora of tourist attractions.

The race was named the Multi-Day Race of the Year in 2016 by the KwaZulu-Natal Canoe Union, recognising the efficiency with which the race is run, and the manner in which it caters for the paddlers’ needs.

Central to that effort is the open and frank communication on water levels, essential to the race’s personality, as the river is entirely dependent on rainfall in a very specific catchment area.

"As paddlers we respect and admire the way that the race communicates with us," said Owen Hemmingway, a Pietermaritzburg paddler who has done more of these races than anyone else.

"Yes, we want full rivers to paddle on, but with the Drak there is never any bluffing, just honest, accurate and timeous information through their website and social media, about the amount of water in the river."

After two years feeling the effects of a "La Nina drought" that gripped SA, forecasts suggest this summer will see the end of that cycle and the start of the wetter El Nino phase

Despite the lower-than-average rainfall, the race has been run very successfully in 2016 and 2017 on a low river, as paddlers realise the unique appeal of the uMzimkhulu River and its ability to provide an exciting and rewarding paddle at moderate river levels.

The race has positioned itself as a K1 (or singles) event since 2002, encouraging paddlers to race in K1 craft, while happily accommodating K2, and even a few gallant K3 entries. The flexible administration allows paddlers to convert K2 entries to two K1 entries right up to the day of the race itself, contributing to the race’s popularity.

"We make a point of taking stock after every race, looking for ways to improve and add more value to our paddlers and their families," said race chairman Andrew Barnett.

He stressed that the race remained committed to its slogan, "The most fun you can have canoeing".

Entries for the race are now open through ROAG, click here.

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