Dusi crowd favourite begins Berg journey

Words: Kyle Gilham | Photos: Anthony Grote

When the field sets off at the start of the Berg River Canoe Marathon in Paarl on Wednesday 10 July one paddler sure to attract plenty of support is Dusi darling Sbonelo Zondi, who will be starting the tough 220km, four day race for the first time.

Zondi, who captured the hearts of thousands during the Dusi Canoe Marathon in February 2013 with his fairytale victories on the first two stages of the three day race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban before a devastating swim at Pumphouse Rapid – one of the final obstacles of the third and final stage – left scrabbling for his drifting boat as he helplessly watched his dream disintegrate in front of him having to finally settle for third place overall behind Lance Kime and Hank McGregor.


The heart breaking memory of the event is one that will undoubtedly stay with the Computershare Change a Life Academy youngster for many years to come however with the abundance of talent and sound work ethic he portrays already, many believe his presence on the top step of the podium will become common practise in the not too distant future.


The Berg River is however a vastly different beast to the uMsunduzi and uMngeni Rivers Zondi has developed on and, with next week’s event being Zondi’s maiden appearance at the Berg River Canoe Marathon, a podium finish is unlikely to be at the forefront of this star’s mind – this year anyway.


“I’ve moved on already from Dusi,” explained Zondi. “After I won Non Stop Dusi with Andy (Birkett) I moved on.”


“Sometimes it comes back into my mind but Berg is a very different race and a different challenge and I’m looking forward to doing my first Berg next week,” he added.


Despite committing to competing in the event and starting Berg-specific training only five weeks ago, after Computershare Change a Life Academy founder Martin Dreyer urged him to consider it a great training opportunity, Zondi has been working hard recently and will look draw on his strong base he’s build up in recent months.


“Martin (Dreyer) came to me after SA Marathon Champs (1 & 2 June) and said it would be very good training for me because I’m going to the Avon (Descent in Australia) later this year so that’s when I decided to do Berg.


“I am hoping to get a top 20 at Berg this year, maybe a little bit better but it will be very difficult. A lot of the guys are very strong at the moment.


“I’m feeling strong too though and I think I’m ready for Berg. Hopefully I can handle it and I have a good race but I’ll just try my best.


Having only tackled one Western Cape based event previously – the 2011 Swartland Canoe Marathon – next week’s race presents a whole new challenge to Zondi and the rest of his Computershare Change a Life Academy squad who begin their journey down from KZN to the race on Sunday.


“The Swartland…yoh! It was cold!” enthused Zondi. “Hopefully the Berg is not as cold as that was!”


“I’m coming down with Zonele Nzuza (who finished tenth in this year’s Dusi), Mmeli Cele (a promising U23 talent) and a group of youngsters with Lucas (Mthalane – Dreyer’s right hand man in the academy’s paddling programme) driving us down.


Whilst Zondi and his fellow academy paddlers may not be expecting to battle it out at the front of the field in this year’s Berg River Canoe Marathon, the experience they gain from the trip is likely to prove invaluable going forward.


The Berg River Canoe marathon starts in Paarl on 10 July and ends at Velddrif on 13 July. More information can be found at www.berg.org.za