Grueling 2013 Berg Draws Nearer

Words: Kyle Gilham | Photos: John Hishin

As the region’s best river paddlers gather in Paarl for the start of the 2013 Berg River Canoe Marathon, uncertain weather and river levels as well as a field blown wide open by the absence of the defending champion sees paddlers preparing themselves for a testing 220km, four day grind and the most open title race in the past decade of the event.

With nine time race winner Hank McGregor absent from this year’s entry list due to his participation in the inaugural ICF Surfski World Championships in Portugal, paddling pundits are shortlisting five elite stars with a chance of claiming the 52nd edition of the title, and the first name other than McGregor’s to appear on the winner’s trophy since 2005.


The group many are tipping as their pre-race favourites consist of regular Berg podium finisher and former race winner Graeme Solomon, regular top Western Cape performer Lance King, 2011’s runner-up Pierre-Andre Rabie, U23 new sensation Ivan Kruger and Great Britain’s former junior and senior World Marathon Champion, Ben Brown.


Whilst many will be watching these five closely, these front runners will do far worse than to keep a careful eye on a hoard of talented others, eager to take advantage of any door that may be opened for them to throw their name into the mix.


With talented locals Louw and Ernest van Riet, Edgar Boehm Jnr and Gavin White, Gauteng’s Siseko Ntondini and KZN’s Dusi darling Sbonelo Zondi all hungry to impress, the heat will be on all those who find themselves at the front end of the men’s race.


Zondi, in his maiden Berg effort, is joined by fellow Computershare Change a Life Academy members Zonele Nzuza, Mmeli Cele and group of talented development youngsters who will be eager to learn as much as they can during their debut appearances this year as the group looks to build for the not too distant future.


A major topic of conversation, particularly amongst the heavier paddlers such as Solomon, is that of water levels. Despite recent rains in the region, the Berg River remains at a low level leaving the bulkier members of the elite group with little chance of victory as they are likely to battle through the tree blocked stretches along the route.


However, race director Anthony Penderis is confident the Department of Water Affairs will reschedule their regular water releases from the Berg River Dam in order for the river to rise to a medium level for the first two days of racing before a spilling Misverstand Dam promises a comfortable water level for the final two stages of the race.


The women’s title race has been thrown wide open this year after Stellenbosch University student and two time race winner Robyn Kime’s packed academic calendar has meant she will not be on the start line for the 2013 edition of the race.


Kime’s unavailability, together with the likes of Michéle Eray – also competing at the Surfski World Champs in Portugal, and Jen Theron – reportedly currently taking a break from the sport all together, has thrown the door wide open for U23 KZN-based Jenna Ward to add her name to the winner’s list, claiming her first major senior title of her career in the process.


Ward will however receive good opposition from the Cape’s Kirsten Penderis, whose significantly deeper wealth of knowledge of the river may well prove a vital factor in the final outcome of the women’s clash whilst Joritha Prins may well be waiting in the wings to take advantage of any mistake made by the front two.


The grueling nature of the four day grind from Paarl to Velddrif would see many scoffing at the possibility of a 61 years old earning a coveted top twenty, possibly even top ten, finish however many may well retract their sniggers rather quickly if they knew the person in question was infact Lee McGregor, Hank’s father.


Having recently returned from living in the U.S at the request of his son, McGregor proved his remarkable pedigree when he claimed seventh place overall at the recent SA K1 Championships at the Swartland Canoe Marathon, despite now classified as a Grandmaster competitor and starting the race in C batch.


Should McGregor go on to achieve an unthinkable top ten finish, he will become the first 50+ paddler ever to do so in the history of the Berg River Canoe Marathon.


Another character many will be hoping has a superb four days of paddling will be Berg icon Giel van Deventer as he looks to become the sole owner of the title ‘Most Berg’s Completed’ – a title he has shared for some time with stalwart Andre Collins however an injury to Collins’ shoulder has forced him out of this year’s event, opening the door for van Deventer, if he does successfully complete his 44th Berg, to make the title his own.


Wednesday’s widely anticipated race start is preceded by Tuesday’s two kilometer time trial where, by invitation only, the leading men’s contenders battle it out for position ahead of Wednesday’s start. The time trial from Berg River Resort to Paarl Canoe Club starts at 15h00 on Tuesday 9 July. More information can be found at