Words: Dave Mcleod | Photo: Kyle Gilham
Underberg - The popular two-day N3TC Drak Challenge canoe marathon on the upper Umzimkulu river has been boosted by the news that this year's event will also officially host the 2014 South African K1 River Championships on January 18 and 19.
The 65km race from Castleburn to Early Mists Farm is respected by the paddling community for its relentless technical rapids, interspersed with long flat pools of clear, clean water, making it an ideal national river marathon title decider.
"We are thrilled to be awarded this honour," said race committee head Barry Cole. "The KwaZulu-Natal Canoe Union has backed our race as a suitable venue to test the stamina and skills of the top river paddlers, most of whom are regulars at the Drak anyhow."
The race has hosted the national K1 river champs several times in its 21 year history, including the sensational 2007 low-river race in which visiting German Max Hoff saw off the cream of the country's river racers to win the title, without ever having paddled on the river. He described the outing as a "fantastic experience."
"While it is encouraging to be awarded opportunities to host the national championships, it is the rank and file paddlers that have made this race what it is today, one of three biggest in the country," said Cole.
"Yes, it is challenging water, but it is accessible and manageable by even moderately experienced paddlers. The surroundings of the Southern Drakensberg and the unique appeal of the river seems to have won over a lot of people, which has led us to the place where we have to cap the race at 1000 paddlers."
The SA K1 river marathon title was won last year by Cape stalwart Graeme Solomon on the Swartland marathon, with Michéle Eray taking the women's title very comfortably with an impressive top twenty finish overall.
With Eray overseas coaching the US national canoeing team, and Solomon highly unlikely to be on the startline, the door is open for new names to be inscribed on the national river singles title roll of honour.
Durban icon Lee McGregor finished a staggering seventh overall in last year's race at the Swartland marathon and walked the competition for the national grand-masters K1 river title, and may well find his way to Underberg to defend his title.
His son and current K1 marathon world champion Hank McGregor became the first South African paddler to complete a clean-sweep of national canoeing titles in singles and doubles across flatwater marathon, river marathon and surfski.
He has won the Drak title three time in succession from 2010 to 2012 and only missed last year's event because of commitments to the Perth Doctor Surfski race in Australia. The lure of another national title at this year's Drak is sure to fire up the Ballito star to return to Underberg in January.
The N3TC Drak Challenge 2014 starts on 18 January at Castleburn outside Underberg and finishes on 19 January at Early Mist Farm close to Coleford. More information can be found at www.drak.co.za