The greatest canoe race on earth

Words & Photos: Sheldon Reddy

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The world’s most prestigious canoe race, a title the Dusi Canoe Marathon has earned in the last few decades of its existence. A race defined by unforgiving terrain, insane rapids and dreadful portages. A race that is the culmination of months of hard work and preparation involved in refining form, increasing agility, building endurance and strengthening ability. The Dusi is not just any race but rather a race of passion, perseverance, determination, blood, sweat and plenty of tears. This year’s Dusi Marathon did not shy away from its reputation as the 800-odd paddling teams, who started the race at Camps Drift, experienced the full wrath of the Msunduzi River and Valley of a Thousand Hills.

Andy Birkitt and Sibonelo Zondi celebrate winning the 2014 Dusi Canoe Marathon at the designated finish at Blue Lagoon on Day 3.

Photos credit: Sheldon Reddy

Some background

The Dusi Canoe Marathon takes place on the Msunduzi River between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, covering a total distance of 120 kilometres over three days. The race plays host to tens of thousands of people, who compete, support and witness one of the greatest spectacles play out in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal.

The first known trip down the Dusi was not, in fact, in the race itself, but rather by two Pietermaritzburg men in 1893, who covered the distance in seven days. The first Dusi started on 22 December 1951. Unlike the current race, the first race was held on a continuous basis, with the racers only stopping when they reached the finish at Blue Lagoon. Only eight paddlers took part in this first race, however only one paddler completed the race, Ian Player. Ian completed the 120 kilometre race in a time of six days, despite being bitten by a night adder. The canoe he used to complete the race weighed over 35 kilogrammes and was made of wood and canvas. The canoe was used to carry all the supplies he needed, as he paddled his way through the treacherous waters of the Msunduzi River.

The following three races were all held on a non-stop basis before it was decided, in 1956, to hold the race over three days. The main reason for this change was the danger involved in paddling at night. Before the change was introduced, the winning time had been reduced to a day and a few hours.

The race has come a long way since then and now sees the top teams finishing in less than 9 hours on average the record is 8 hours over the three days, and each day has a defined beginning and end. The first day is roughly 45 kilometres, which includes around 15 kilometres of portaging while days two and three see shorter portaging sections. Even though these sections may be shorter, they are still quite difficult in the intense heat and extremely humid conditions experienced in KwaZulu-Natal around this time of the year. Day two is also roughly around 45 kilometres and ends with a 10 kilometre stretch on the flat waters of the Inanda Dam. Day three is the shortest of the three days at 35 kilometres across clean, cold water let out from the Inanda Dam to increase water levels, which result in several sections having larger-than-normal rapids.

The race is organised by the Natal Canoe Club, a club affiliated to Canoe South Africa and consists of approximately 450 members. The club is based in Pietermaritzburg and located on the banks of the Msundusi River, the exact point of the start of the race.

Going big

The hype building up to the 2014 race was immense and the excitement could be felt far and wide in the days leading up to the event. Social media exploded with messages of support and encouragement coming through from all corners of the globe. Paddlers finalised their strategies while the organisers dotted the i's and crossed the t’s. Everything was in place and on 13 February at 6 a.m., the 2014 Dusi Canoe Marathon was scheduled to start.

Chasing darkness on the morning of 13 February, the official Dusi media convoy set out to document the world’s toughest canoe race. The convoy departed from the Shongweni Polo Arena, just outside of Durban, and headed out to Pietermaritzburg at 4:30 a.m. to witness the start of the 2014 Dusi Canoe Marathon. The brief was simple and clear, follow the top teams as they pass through the many stages of the competition and showcase the trials and tribulations they face, as well as the challenges they fight to overcome.

Day 1

Day one got off to a cracker, as thousands of people lined the bridge on Golf Road overlooking the Earnie Pearce Weir, awaiting the arrival of the first paddlers. Just over the top end of the Camps Drift stretch of river, the first paddling teams broke through the mist and haze and powered their way through the waters and over the weir. They were welcomed by the Epworth School Choir and a massive crowd that had gathered on the over-head bridge we were cheering the paddlers on.

The power-duo of Hank McGregor and Jasper Mocké where the first to pass over the Earnie Pearce Weir, followed by Andy Birkett and Sbonelo Zondi, while Cam Schoeman and Jakub Adam completed the top three male teams. There was lots of drama that unfolded at the weir as many of the paddling teams fell victim to the fast current, which overturned their canoes and lost them valuable time in the first few minutes of the race. Pietermaritzburg’s Search and Rescue division was present to ensure all the paddlers made it safely back into their rafts and no one was injured. At the Witness Weir, Lance Kime and Thulani Mbanjwa experience the full wrath of the submerged rocks under the fast flowing waters and had their canoe damaged quite severely. There were several reports of them desperately trying to source glue and other resources to fix the damage sustained here.

In the top three teams, Birkett and Zondi managed to take the lead somewhere between the waters at Taxi and start of Cambells Farm portage. Hundreds of people gathered at the portage, ready and waiting for the first paddlers to make their way up and over the dirt road and back into the waters at Hole In The Wall. Paddling support crews soaked their paddlers in iced water, replaced their water bottles and any damaged paddles and, most importantly, motivated and encouraged them to power through the portages that would dominate the day. Birkett and Zondi took a different path through the portage, while McGregor and Mocké ran past the convoy looking strong and steady in their strides. A few other teams portaged through Cambells Farm after which the convoy moved to the next view point, Hole In The Wall.

Perseverance and determination were the order of Day 2 as paddlers battled the extreme elements experienced in the heart of The Valley of a Thousand Hills.

Photos credit: Sheldon Reddy

The teams completed their second portage of the morning through this stretch of road.

It had been just an hour into the race and the portages along with the intense heat had started taking its toll on some of the younger paddling teams, who decided to drag their canoes through the portage and back into the waters at Son Of A Gun. The convoy then proceeded through to Mission and was greeted by the most stunning mountain ranges in KwaZulu-Natal. Tall, table-like mountains provided a beautiful backdrop to the intensity of the challenges being put up by the leading men through the stages at The Maze and Mission. The first team to paddle their way through Mission was Birkett and Zondi. By this point they had opened up a serious lead and were making it clear they wanted the top spot on day one. Shortly after, McGreggor and Mocké paddled through, followed by Schoeman and Adam.

The last stop of the day was the day one finish, which was at the Dusi Bridge just after the Cabbage Tree Portage. Birkett and Zondi dropped the hammer and opened up a massive 6-minute lead over McGregor and Mocké, while Schoeman and Adam finished
14 minutes after the leading pair. Loveday Zondi and Thando Ngamlana finished in ninth position, while Lance Kime and Thulani Mbanjwa fought back to grab seventeenth position after their misfortune at Witness Weir.

The leading ladies of Robyn Kime and Abbey Ulansky did their best to fight off their competition, Abby Adie and Anna Adamová, who finished only 29 seconds after them. Sisters Bianca and Tamika Haw grabbed third position after coming in 14 minutes after Kime and Ulansky.

Day one ended off in a high for many of the teams, as they had survived the numerous portages and intense rapids. The leading teams were elated with their positions, but they knew that anything can happen in this race and they would have to fight off their competition as best as they could.

Day 2

Leading up to day two, there were several concerns of a large mass of floating flora blocking the entrance to the Inanda Dam waterway. On the morning of day two, 16 cubic metres of water was released from Nagle Dam, while another 10 cubic metres of water was released from Henley Dam. This water helped to break up the floating flora and provided a narrow path for the paddlers to navigate through to the flat waters of the Inanda Dam.

Day two started off with the leading teams paddling out in the early hours of the morning. With day one completed, many paddlers took to the waters knowing that the day dominated by portages was over. At the first view point, Gearbox, the leading team of Birkett and Zondi, ran into slightly shallower waters as they took an inside line around a curved embankment. They had to force themselves through and lost a few seconds due to the slight misjudgment. McGregor and Mocké made easy work of the curved waterways at Gearbox and powered their way through to Saddles portage. The convoy then chased down the leading pair at Gauging Weir, where Birkett and Zondi maintained their flawless form and opened up a few more seconds, as McGregor and Mocké finally paddled through. Schoeman and Adam, who were lying in third place, gave it their best shot as they attempted to chase down the leading pair.

At the next view point, the convoy missed Birkett and Zondi, who seemed to dominate the portages just as much as the waterways. McGregor and Mocké pushed themselves to the limit as they ran up the Nqumeni Hill portage and down into the Thrombi Gumtree waters. As soon as the paddlers hit the waters at Thrombi Gumtree, they knew the worst was behind them. They then paddled their way through Hippo Rocks, followed by Marriotts, then Island and lastly Sand Grabs Weir after entering the 10 kilometre flat water stretch to the finish across Inanda Dam.

At the entrance of the Inanda Dam, leaders Birkett and Zondi showed no sign of slowing down as they moved swiftly through the flat waters. McGregor and Mocké followed 9 minutes later, driving home the sheer determination and strength that Birkett and Zondi approached day two with. Day two ended with Birkett and Zondi in first position, McGreggor and Mocké in second and Schoeman and Adam third. In the Ladies category, Kime and Ulansky took first position, with Adie and Adamová finishing 90 seconds behind and Tamika and Bianca in third and about 19 minutes behind the leaders.

Day 3

The final curtain came down on the 2014 Dusi Canoe Marathon amidst a frenzy of celebrations after Andy Birkett and Sbonelo Zondi were the first to the finish line at Blue Lagoon in Durban in, front of thousands of supporters, friends and family.

With nearly nine minutes in the bag overnight, many had expected the leaders to back off slightly on the third and final stage and play it safe. However, the impressive pair hammered the final nail into the coffin early in the day, pushing themselves to a personal record time over the treacherous Burma Road portage before experiencing the thrill of crossing the finish line in front of Blue Lagoon’s lined banks.

“The whole journey has been amazing! I’m super chuffed – especially with our discipline over this last year – and it’s a really special feeling to have won!” added an elated Birkett. “It almost feels like this is the first Dusi I’ve ever won because of the whole change in start procedure here on day three and the finish is a really amazing experience! "At last! This is a dream come true for me! I’m so very, very happy! I can’t even express how happy I am today!” said a beaming Zondi.

Triple Canoe Marathon World Champ Hank McGregor, of Kayak Centre/Team Jeep, and his surfski star partner Jasper Mocké put in a valiant effort throughout the three days, however they were unable to match Birkett and Zondi. “We gave it our all. We put everything we had into these past three days. We were just beaten by two very good athletes,” said McGregor afterwards. “We discussed things and decided to go over Burma (Road) and we gave it our absolute all. We only ended up losing two minutes to Andy and Sbonelo, which I thought was a brilliant effort from us, but they were just phenomenal."

Mocké, who finished fifth with Craig Turton in 2012 in his only other Dusi attempt, was ecstatic with his podium finish and glad to have been a part of the iconic event. “There isn’t another race in the country like the Dusi in terms of hype,” said Mocké. “It is awesome to have finished on the podium and I’ve loved being a part of things again this year.” Pope’s Canoe Centre’s Cam Schoeman and Jakub Adam of the Czech Republic gave it their all and, having paddled around Burma Road, held off the charging Thulani Mbanjwa and Lance Kime to finish on the bottom step of the podium. “The last four days with Jakub have been cool, but the whole journey with him has been awesome We have spent quite a lot of time together and I am going to miss him when he goes back,” said Schoeman.

A special effort from pre-race title hopefuls Kime and Mbanjwa on days two and three saw them overcome their disastrous Witness Weir incident on day one, to fight back from seventeenth after stage one to fifth after stage two. They finally claimed an extraordinary fourth position after Saturday’s third and final stage! A brave fight from Euro Steel’s Kwanda Mhlophe and Zonele Nzuza saw them deservedly round out the top ten.

Andrew Houston and Ivan Kruger also put in a noteworthy performance as they clinched the U23 Men’s title, as well as a coveted top ten gold medal. The Junior Boy's winners, Damon Stamp and Mthobisi Cele, had their dream of a top ten shattered late in the stage, eventually crossing the line in a commendable eleventh place.

Dusi Queen Abbey Ulansky clinched a record ninth career victory on Saturday when she and her partner, fast-emerging Dusi Princess Robyn Kime, held off a valiant effort from Abby Adie and Anna Adamová to clinch a hard-fought win in the Women’s race after 119 km of racing. “We are over the moon to make it three in a row! Robs and I have paddled together for a while and formed a great partnership. This year was more challenging for us, as number one, we had stronger competition and number two, we have had other commitments, so we weren’t as strong as we wanted to be. But we had great fun and really worked hard,” said Ulansky. “The win really is a cherry on the top of a fantastic trip back to South Africa. We worked hard for this win, which makes it even more special and a great compliment to visiting friends and family in South Africa,” she added.

Ulansky subsequently announced her retirement from competitive racing at the Dusi, while Kime will be celebrating her recent Masters qualification. “I’ve just finished my Masters two weeks ago, which has made the build-up to this year’s race quite challenging,” said Kime. “Now that the Dusi and my studies are done, I’m free and my boyfriend and I are going travelling.

For Adie it was a bitter-sweet result as she and Adamová came so close to victory, but instead had to settle for her sixth consecutive second place. “We tried so hard and it’s a little disappointing to have come so close and not been able to win it, but we worked really hard and in the end it wasn’t quite enough,” said Adie.

U23 sisters Bianca and Tamika Haw hung onto their overnight third position to round out the podium, while Hilary Bruss and Alex Adie, as well as Jen Theron and Jane Swarbreck rounded out the top five. Camilla Pennefather and Cana Peek claimed the spoils in the U18 Girl's race, ahead of Sarah Harries and Julia Trodd.

With the 2014 Dusi Canoe Marathon done and dusted, the paddlers are taking some well-deserved rest before a few of them compete in the Non-Stop Dusi, at the end of February. The Non-Stop Dusi will see paddlers complete the same route from Pietermaritzburg to Durban via the Msunduzi River, but in just a single day. The paddlers all agree that this is a race fit only for the elite of the elite! The rest of the paddling fraternity is already counting down the days to the 2015 Dusi Canoe Marathon.

For now though, Birkett, Zondi, Kime and Ulansky will be doing nothing but basking in the glory of their well-deserved victories over not just the thousands of paddlers but also the great and mighty Msunduzi River. •

More information
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