Underberg – As the summer rains replenish water stocks throughout the Southern Drakensberg, paddlers from all over the country will be making the journey to Underberg to tackle what is expected to be one of the best Challenge’s in a number of years when the race gets underway on Saturday.
The small town of Underberg has been a hive of activity throughout the festive period with people enjoying the full and clean water that the uMzimkulu River, after two lean years as the drought strangled the usual summer rainfalls. Not only will there be some of the best river paddlers in the world there but also many paddlers who have rediscovered their love for the sport.
With the race entry comfortably exceeding the previous year it is easy to see that people enjoy the laid back, country atmosphere that the event provides and with the favourable rains and exciting water level, the residents of the greater Underberg and Himeville region are ready to turn on their traditional warm hospitality for everyone attending the event this weekend.
At the narrow end of the field there are a number of paddlers champing at the bit to break the three year streak that Andy Birkett has been on. He has been imperious at the Drak Challenge and it is going to be another tall ask if anyone is to dethrone the 25 year old.
The one man amongst the top contenders who has also succeeded on a plethora of occasions at the Drak Challenge is the ever-green Hank McGregor.
McGregor, who has won the Drak Challenge three times himself from 2010 to 2012, didn’t finish the 2016 edition of the race due to illness and with conditions predicted to be fuller than the previous three, McGregor will definitely be a force to be reckoned with.
There will be a number of under the radar contenders with the likes of Owen Gandar, who finished third in 2016, Andrew Houston as well as 2013 champion Grant van der Walt on the start list.
The women’s race could shape up to be one of the most exciting yet as Abby Solms attempts to become the most decorated Drak Challenge paddler – she is aiming for her seventh win at the two-day event.
Hunting her down will be a relative newbie to KZN river marathon paddling in the form of Bridgitte Hartley. The 2012 Olympic sprint bronze medallist has shown that the transition from flat water to river paddling has not been too difficult and if she can stay dry she will be in with a shout.
The women’s field will be a strong one; however it does not seem that there will be any challenge to Solms and Hartley at the front of the race with Jenna Ward, having recently returned from a holiday in South-East Asia, and young Kyeta Purchase being the most likely to compete for that third spot on the podium.
The race will also see a number of milestones reached as a number of paddlers approach their tenth Drak Challenge however the accolades must go to Kirsten Oliver who is lining up her 20th assault on the race.
The 2017 N3TC Drak Challenge Canoe Marathon takes place in the Southern Drakensberg on 21 and 22 January 2017.