Pietermaritzburg - Former Dusi champion Hank McGregor believes this year’s canoe marathon will be one of the toughest ever.
"It’s one of the toughest fields I’ve ever seen," he told reporters on Wednesday ahead of the start in Pietermaritzburg on Thursday.
The 2005 victor is one of four past winners who will line-up among the 1600 starters at Camps Drift for the 62nd edition of the race.
Len Jenkins (2001) and Ant Stott (2009) will also be there, but all three will be gunning for Andy Birkett, the defending K1 champion and a man who will be bidding for a fourth successive title - two of those having been in the K2 classification.
Former K2 winners Thulani Mbanjwa and Jason Graham are also contenders, and McGregor is bracing himself for a strong race.
"Thulani’s awesome on the run; Andrew is captain consistent, he doesn’t make mistakes," McGregor said.
"Ant Stott can never be written off and Shaun Rubenstein’s come back.
"Lance Kime is a member of our team and we know very well what he’s capable of doing. So, the guys are hungry and anything can happen."
Stage one of the three-day event - the world’s largest and the most famous race of its kind - begins at Camps Drift in Pietermaritzburg to Dusi Bridge, bordering the Valley of a Thousand Hills.
McGregor, a former world marathon canoe champion, was second in the K2 last year when he paddled alongside Jenkins, and admitted to his hunger to succeed.
"I’d love to win because I know what it feels like," the 35-year-old said.
Birkett, meanwhile, is once again the strong favourite, although he did show signs of any expectations on Wednesday.
"I don’t want to put pressure on myself from my last three victories," the 23-year-old said.
"I think it’s a new race; you can’t rely too much on your successes from the past.
"Although the guys racing are the same, the way they’re performing is not the same.
"So, it’s going to be a great race, a tough one... An exciting and close race is always better."
Racing conditions are expected to be the best for two decades because of the high amount of rainfall in recent months, meaning water will be coming naturally into the river and the organisers will not have to rely on water releases as in recent years.
"The conditions are the best for many years, so we could definitely see the eight-hour barrier broken this year," Birkett said.
Like the men’s favourite, Robyn Kime is a strong contender to make it four wins in a row on the women’s front.
The Stellenbosch-based paddler has twice won K2 races, adding to her solo K1 title in 2011, with her biggest opponents for the title being the Adie twins, Abby and Alex.