Pietermaritzburg - Unfancied Sbonelo Zondi sprung a surprise on the opening day of the Dusi canoe marathon, edging ahead of pre-race favourite Andy Birkett to win the first stage outside Pietermaritzburg on Thursday.
The 24-year-old claimed victory between Camps Drift and Dusi Bridge in a record time of two hours, 43 minutes, 17 seconds (2:43:17), 39 seconds faster than the previous best and 20 seconds ahead of Birkett, the three-time reigning champion.
"I’m really happy about the result, especially here in the valley and so close to my home," said Zondi, who hails from the Valley of a Thousand Hills.
"I didn’t know I was on for the record and breaking that is even more pleasing."
Along with Birkett, the pair were among a dozen paddlers who made an early break, before they flew even further ahead in a four-man breakaway alongside Lance Kime and Thulani Mbanjwa near Campbells Farm Portage.
Zondi then hit the front at Guinea Fowl Takeout and never looked back in the 42 kilometre opening stage.
"Today the race went according to plan. I told myself from the start that I had to stick to my own race," he said.
"The lead group was big early on and I knew it was going to be a long day, but I told myself I will stick to the plan.
"Martin Dreyer (his coach) told me that Andy is already over a minute ahead of me at one stage, but I didn’t panic and drew on the training I did.
"I paced myself well until I caught the guys at Guinea Fowl. I kept my composure from there, put the hammer down and managed to hold my own, despite Andy coming back."
Birkett, who held the previous record for stage one from 2011, was bidding to add to the K1 title he won that year and the two K2’s that sandwich his victory two years ago.
"I knew before the start of the race that Zondi was going to be one of the strongest paddlers," Birkett said.
"When we got to Guinea Fowl and he ran past me, I knew he would be the man to chase down till the finish."
The 23-year-old also felt that the race leader, one of the stronger runners in the field, had improved considerably in the boat over the past 12 months.
"I was very impressed with Eric’s (Zondi’s) paddling," Birkett said.
"I thought I could catch him on the water, but he was paddling really well, which shows how strong he is this year.
"He is definitely strong enough to be Dusi champion."
Kime, considered one of the dark horses for the 62nd edition of the world's largest and most famous race of its kind, crossed the line third in 2:45:26.
Mbanjwa, Zondi's more heralded K2 partner and one of the pre-race favourites, was fourth in 2:50:52, ahead of 2005 champion and another fancied paddler, Hank McGregor (2:51:03).
In the women's race, Robyn Kime, who like Birkett was bidding for a fourth successive crown, eased to victory in a record time of 3:11:21, almost three minutes faster than the old stage one record.
Her first stage performance was almost 15 minutes quicker than Abby Adie, who was second in 3:25.15, while Bianca Haw took third place in 3:26.45.
"No lead is completely comfortable in the Dusi," Robyn Kime said.
"Things can go wrong and so I'll have to push very hard again tomorrow to maintain my advantage."
SUMMARY OF RESULTS
1.Sbonelo Zondi 2:43;17 (New record)
2.Andy Birkett 2:43:37
3.Lance Kime 2:45:26
4.Thulani Mbanjwa 2:50:52
5.Hank McGregor 2:51:03
6.Len Jenkins 2:55:20
7.Zonele Nzuza 2:55:27
8.Loveday Zondi 2:56:51
10.Jason Graham 2:57:07
11.Ant Stott 2:58:13
12.Jakub Adam 2:58:14
13.Nhlanhla Cele 2:59:35
14.Cam Schoeman 3:00:59
15.Thomas Ngidi 3:01:21
16.Lucas Mthalane 3:01:36
17.Siseko Ntondini 3:02:12
18.Michael Odvarko 3:02:13
19.Mmeli Cele 3:02:23
20.Jacques Theron 3:04:47
1.Robyn Kime 3:11:21 (New record)
2.Abby Adie 3:25:15
3.Bianca Haw (U18) 3:26:45
4.Hilary Pitchford 3:32:00
5.Jen Theron 3:33:29
6.Jordan Peek 3:46:13
7.Jenna Ward 3:59:50
8.Brittany Petersen 4:02:31
9.Debbie Lewis 4:03:39
10.Di Reitz 4:15:37