Birkett claims Maiden - N3TC Drak Challenge 2014

Words & Photos: Anthony Grote

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The Drak Challenge must be one of the most beautiful races to paddle, with the uMzimkulu being one of the most pristine and scenic rivers in KZN. However, this comes with one catch! There is no dam situated above the start of the race and hence the river conditions are totally governed by the rains in the catchment area before the race. So it is always a lottery as to what the river conditions are going to be on race day. Last year saw flood conditions whereby the field was limited to the experienced paddlers only, and even this saw more than 50% of the field drop out on day one. The rains leading up to the race this year had been good, with the Fast Drak (a race that takes place on 30 December and covers the entire route of the Drak Challenge, but in one day) experiencing good water levels.

Andy Birkett leads Hank MacGregor through the drop off at the top of Glenhaven rapid.

Photo credit: Anthony Grote

However, the week leading up to the race saw little rain and despite all the efforts at rain dancing by intrepid paddlers, the water levels were dropping. Finally, the call was made on Friday evening to change the normal start at Castleburn Bridge down to the old Trout Hatcheries, due to the water level being too low to navigate the normal upper reaches of the river. Many paddlers were disappointed as this eliminated some of the best rapids such as Pines Nasty and Black Murray, and shortened the race considerably. It was going to be a bumpy ride, one where knowing your lines would pay dividends and being slightly offline would cost dearly!

Day 1

With the start moved to Trout Hatcheries and the finish changed to Calloway Bridge, the first leg would see paddlers head down through well known weirs, such as Taylor’s and the Mineshaft, into the gorge and end with the most talked about rapid, Glenhaven, before reaching the finish 4 km down river at Calloway Bridge.

With a strong push from the beginning, five paddlers dictated the pace but in the flat stretches leading up to Taylor’s weir, Andy Birkett put in a hard push taking only Hank McGregor with him. The two paddlers managed to put a healthy gap between them and the following pack as they jostled all the way down the river, picking the right lines. The two finished within three seconds of each other with Hank taking line honours for day one.

Grant van der Walt and Lance Kime managed to put a little time between themselves and the following group of five paddlers to give themselves a little breathing space and hopefully close the gap made by the two leaders on day one.

The ladies race saw Abby Adie take an early lead after Robyn Kime got caught up on the rocks in the low waters. Abby decided to go out strong from the start with Kime managing to stay on her wake for a short period, but fell behind to finish just under 5 minutes back.

For the rest of the field it was about enjoying the paddle, having fun on the river and making sure the best lines were navigated without too much walking and rock hopping. The water levels certainly suited the K1 paddlers, more so the lighter paddlers, with a number of K2s having to walk through many of the rapids. Glenhaven rapid once again provided the crowd with much excitement as plenty of paddlers fell prey to the sharp drop off at the top and had to swim the rest of the way through the rocky minefield below.

The excitement at this year’s Drak was the three Stand Up Paddle (SUP) entrants, who paddled the river on their specially constructed river SUPs. Safely navigating their way down the river, they managed to navigate the majority of the river unscathed, but took the odd swim. All three had a quick swim at Glenhaven rapid, although getting through the top drop only to see them fall before the second rocky section. Mastering their river technique, it seems that a new sport may be emerging, with the hopes that there will be more SUP entrants for the Dusi Canoe Marathon next month.

Due to low water levels during the race, many paddlers had to walk their boats through some of the more technical rapids, this one being mKulu rapid on day two.

Photo credit: Anthony Grote

Day 2

Once again the rains that everyone was praying for never materialised and the start of day two was moved to the finish of day one, namely Callaway Bridge. This meant a very short day for the paddlers, approximately 20 km to the finish at Hopewell Farm.

The dual between Hank McGregor and Andy Birkett continued well into day two. They were still riding each other’s wake as they paddled down into the lower gorge section, but then came a turn of events. Andy Birkett had apparently visited the river earlier to determine lines due to the low river conditions and had decided on using another sneak. Hank went through first, only to get caught up on the rocks at the bottom as the stream of water flowed at a 90-degree turn, pushing paddlers into the river bank if you were unable to turn quickly enough. Somehow Andy managed to navigate the section faster and built up at least a 50 m gap on Hank by the time they reached Heaven and Hell. He managed to keep the gap to a sizable lead and take the KZN K1 river title and his maiden Drak Challenge title at the same time.

The ladies race continued pretty much from where it left off the previous day. Abby maintained her sizeable lead over Robyn, but she also decided to take an alternate route, this time at Heaven and Hell. Instead of going over the big drop known as Hell, she opted for the safer, rockier section known as Heaven. Although supposedly a bit slower, she was able to get through at a reasonable speed and continue to the finish, maintaining a 3-minute lead over Robyn Kime, with Michelle Burn taking third place.

Further down the field, competition was just as fierce. Despite the low river conditions and some paddlers having to get out and walk through certain rapids, the competitiveness was obvious. While others were simply enjoying the outing, even commenting that they now had time to look at the surroundings because of the slow water flow. All three SUP entrants managed to successfully navigate the entire distance of the race, a fantastic achievement on their first attempt.

Despite the disappointing 'bump and grind' conditions, the little over 730 paddlers that took part managed to finish one of South Africa’s most enjoyable races with large smiles and plenty of chatter, and will certainly return next year despite what conditions are thrown at them. With no running or portages, this race is a paddler's dream, and what better place to do it than on the uMzimkulu River, as it meanders through the quaint little town of Underberg. •

Summary of results

Overall Men
1. Andy Birkett - 2:53:45
2. Hank McGregor - 2:54:39
3. Grant van der Walt - 2:57:09
4. Lance Kime (U23) - 2:57:11
5. Len Jenkins Jnr - 3:00:30

Overall Women
1. Abby Adie - 3:15:18
2. Robyn Kime - 3:18:20
3. Michelle Burn - 3:24:29
4. Alex Adie - 3:27:40
5. Jenna Ward (U23) - 3:28:07

Under 23 Men
1. Lance Kime - 2:57:11
2. Siseko Ntondini - 3:02:03
3. Owen Gandar - 3:02:08

Under 23 Women
1. Jenna Ward - 3:28:07
2. Brittany Petersen - 3:29:00
3. Jordan Peek - 3:35:37

More information:
For full race results visit