Underberg – Buoyed by a month of exhilarating paddling on the full uMzimkhulu River, entries are pouring in for this weekend's Drak Challenge canoe marathon in the Southern Drakensberg.
The steady rainfall since the New Year seems to confirm predictions that the lean two year La Niña drought have been broken, certainly in the mountainous Eastern portion of KwaZulu-Natal, and the paddlers have responded enthusiastically with regular training sessions on the upper uMzimkhulu, and an entry for the popular two-day event that is significantly up on last year.
Late entries for the event close at midnight on Wednesday 18 January.
Race officials, most of whom are farmers in the Underberg/Himeville area, feel that the return to "normal" rainfall patterns has rekindled a passion for paddling that understandably dwindled during the drought years.
"With the race social media platforms providing daily updates on the river levels, word has spread around the country that the uMzimkhulu is back to its best," said race committee chair Andrew Barnett.
"During the latter part of the holidays there were big numbers of paddlers enjoying themselves on the river, especially on the top section from Castleburn through the Valley of a Thousand Rapids," he added.
"The water table seems to be very high and the river is holding beautifully, so every sign points to a really memorable race weekend," he said.
With the Drak Challenge coming less than a month before the FNB Dusi, the resurgence of interest in river racing is sure to have a knock on effect for the Dusi, which has similarly suffered in the drought years.
The appeal of the Drak spans a wide range of ages and abilities. At 26 kilometres, the first day is not long but technically demanding as it includes ten kilometres of relentless rocky rapids.
The second stage is longer at 39 kilometres and includes numerous long flat pools and the popular rapid-laced section through the Underberg Gorge.
The race attracts many novice paddlers and school pupils, as well as recreational paddlers who might not be attracted to more endurance based canoeing events.
"It is key that the paddlers who visit us for the race have time to enjoy the greater Underberg region as well," said Barnett.
"We share the weekend with the Drak Descent MTB race, which follows the river closely, and allows for fun interaction between the paddlers and the mountain bikers.
"There is also a fun ride and trail run for the seconders of the paddlers, so that they can get involved as well.
With the majority of the paddlers completing the first stage before lunch on the Saturday, the social nine-hole golf day at the Underberg Country Club is also well supported.
He added that the local community was heavily committed to the event, and earned income by providing services such as catering, car shuttle services, camping, boat repairs and running the very popular Saturday night party.