Setting the pace: It was a great day for Euro Steel/Red Bull’s Sbonelo Khwela as he took the lead to the end on day one of the 2019 FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon on Thursday. Picture: ANTHONY GROTE/GAMEPLAN MEDIA
Setting the pace: It was a great day for Euro Steel/Red Bull’s Sbonelo Khwela as he took the lead to the end on day one of the 2019 FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon on Thursday. Picture: ANTHONY GROTE/GAMEPLAN MEDIA

A full Msundusi River and some courageous running saw the race favourites overshadowed in the first stage of the FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon on Thursday as Sbonelo Khwela and Tamika Haw took the men’s and women’s stage one line honours. 

It was a traditionally frantic start with multiple marathon world champion Hank McGregor leading the race through the first handful of obstacles until he arrived at Taxi Rapid, where he fell out of his boat after hitting a rock and broke a foot rest.

Prerace favourite Andy Birkett took control of the stage on the first portage of the day, however it was the flying Khwela who put him under pressure and passed him on the Campbell’s Farm portage.

“I am happy that I won day one, it is something that I have never done before,” Khwela said. “After the year that I have had, to be able to be out here racing against the likes of Andy [Birkett], Hank [McGregor] and Thulani [Mbanjwa] is great and I am grateful for the chance.”

Tactically Khwela tried to keep it as simple as possible because his approach to the first stage has not paid off in the past.

“I just tried to take today as it came,” he said. “Andy is always so strong on day one and I just went out there and looked after my own race and it paid off.”

 

It was not completely smooth sailing for the former K2 champion as he, with a number of other paddlers, picked up a mechanical problem at Taxi Rapid.

“I bent my rudder pretty badly at Taxi and I had to drop back a bit but at the portage I managed to get it straightened out. On the portage I didn’t panic and got my rhythm back and made my way through the field. I was surprised to see how well I went on the run,” he said.

Birkett spent most of the day chasing Khwela, however, he was not disappointed by his performance.

“It was flawless by Dusi standards,” he said. “I’ve made many mistakes on this river, it’s just that a lot of the time no-one sees them. I have to make sure that I stay calm and focused for the next two days.”

Mbanjwa made third position his own when he came through just under four minutes ahead of the impressive Khumbulani Nzimande in fourth while under-18 star David Evans rounded out the top five.

The women’s race was also laced with drama as pre-race favourite Christie Mackenzie came unstuck in a rapid, which handed the lead to the former K2 podium finisher Haw.

Haw managed to hold on to her lead to the finish, despite Mackenzie making a strong push on the Cabbage Tree portage and Mackenzie finished 32 seconds behind the stage winner.

“It’s incredible to be in the lead after today but I have to go hard again tomorrow,” Haw said. “I have trained really hard for this and have had Owen [Gandar] as my coach and we have been doing the Shongweni Dice, which I think is the best dice in the build-up to the Dusi.”