Stage set for 50th Berg
Cape Town - The 50th edition of the Windhoek Berg River canoe marathon gets under way in Paarl with a seeding time trial on Tuesday and the first stage on Wednesday with a new record entry and arguably the most competitive title race in many years.
Both defending champions will be on the startline, with men's title holder Hank McGregor lining up a record eighth title, and Robyn Kime hungry to pocket the women's winner's purse, which is equal to the men's winners earnings.
Both are in top form, with a rested and relaxed McGregor spending the days before the race tripping and training on the river, while Kime rounded off her preparations at her home in Pietermaritzburg, and will jet back to the Western Cape 24 hours before the time trial.
Much will depend on the water in the river. After an unseasonably dry fortnight the water levels in the upper reaches of the Berg river have plummeted, and the organisers are pinning their hopes on a water release from the new Berg River dam just upstream from Paarl.
Race boss Andre Collins has asked for 25 cumecs of water, but with the massive dam currently only at around 80% full, the release is not cast in stone. There is no rainfall forecast for the entire week.
Should the anticipated 20 cumecs level materialise, then the race will be contested on a medium level and strongly flowing river, now largely cleared of troublesome bluegum tree blocks, which will further even out the playing fields, and dilute the homeground advantage of the local paddlers.
McGregor's title charge will be opposed by the classy local racers like veteran Graeme Solomon, Lance King, Heinrich Schloms, Ernest van Riet and Pierre-Andre Rabie, but it will take a special effort to derail the Durban juggernaut who is in prime form, having just won the Dunlop Surfski World Cup a week after bagging the pre-Berg Swartland marathon title.
"It's a privilege to be part of the race this year," said a confident and excited McGregor. "This race means a lot to me. It's a race that I watched my dad competing in as a child and it hooked me. It's a title that he never won so each and every win is special to me."
The rejuvenated team competition may well have a big part to play in deciding the podium places. In amongst the seeded stars are three returning Gauteng stalwarts who have all won this race before - Jacques Theron, Graeme Monteith and the nineties' "King of the Berg" Robbie Herreveld.
The women's race is sizing up to be a titanic struggle between defending champion Robyn Kime, paddling for Stellenbosch University, and Plettenberg Bay Olympian Michele Eray.
Kime has been the dominant force in Western Cape women's canoeing for the past three years and the final year Engineering student know knows the river well and how to race it. This year will however be very different for the fairer sex.
The race organisers have acceded to demands that they be allowed to ride slip with any other paddlers in the race. They will however be started in their own batch, sometime after elapsed time each day.
This makes the race a high stakes gamble for the women, where one superhuman break or one disastrous error could profoundly mould the outcome of the race, as the batch starts favour strong paddlers simply sticking with the bunch and preserving whatever lead they may have earned in the previous stages.
Eray has only one Berg behind her, but she makes no bones about why she is on the startline. "I'm here to win it, it's that simple," she says. "It's great to be part of the 50th Berg, but all this long training through the cold is all about getting up to win it."
Eray proved that she has been doing her homework with her demolition of the women's field in the Surfski World Cup in Durban where she streaked into the lead and was able to throttle back and still win by a country mile.
Add to the mix the return of the popular Jean Wilson, who ring-fenced seven Berg titles during her reign over the river, and the threats from Donna Winter and Hillary Pitchford, and the women's race should be absorbing action befitting the historic occasion.
Also on the startline will be iconic adventurer Riaan Manser, who has interrupted his sea-kayak voyage around Iceland to be able to take part in his second Berg River Canoe Marathon.
The sentiment that has preceded the 50th running of the famous four day 243km race from Paarl to its new finish at Port Owen, which adds three and a half kms to the course, has resulted in a new record entry of 365 paddlers, easily eclipsing the 295 level set in 1986.
The race will pay special tribute to a small band of men and women who have been honoured as "Legends of the Berg" for having won it, or completed the tough race twenty times or more.
"You have made this race what it is today, and we can't thank you enough," said McGregor at a pre-race function to honour the "Legends".
Of those Legends, a number of grand masters who took part in the inaugural race in 1962 will be on the startline, including icons like former champions Jannie Malherbe and Willem van Riet.
The boat that the late Nollie Meiring won with in the inaugural race in 1962 will also be in the spotlight as another Legend Lionel "Lonkie" Ekermans sets out to complete the race in the refurbished red and green canvas decked Attack dubbed "Kelkiewyn".
The race starts with a time trial that determines the front row seeding for the start, and gets under way from the market Street bridge in Paarl on Wednesday morning.