Underberg – The competitive river racing year is set to get under way in spectacular fashion as a star-studded field of some of the planets top river paddlers square up to one another on the full uMzimkhulu River at the 2017 N3TC Drak Challenge in the Southern Drakensberg from 21-22 January.
Into its 24th year, the 65km, two day race has earned a reputation as one of the most prized titles on the national circuit, and every year it attracts the cream of the countries river racers. Early in the new year the event was awarded the KZN K1 River Championship status, adding even more weight to the looming clash of the titans on the uMzimkhulu River.
Add to this the fact that the prestigious FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon in the middle of February is just a handful of weeks away, and there is plenty riding on the popular stage race through the foothills of the Southern Drakensberg.
The race will see the elites battle it out for the KwaZulu-Natal K1 bragging rights with the burgeoning rivalry between World Marathon champion Hank McGregor and three-time defending Drak Challenge champion Andy Birkett set to take centre stage over the two days.
Euro Steel/Kayak Centre’s McGregor had to pull out after the first day in 2016 due to illness which curtailed what was panning out to be another enthralling chapter in the Birkett v McGregor saga.
Euro Steel’s Birkett won the race untouched and with it took his third consecutive Drak title.
The race has historically set the stage for standout podium and top ten performances, with Owen Gandar upstaging plenty of big guns to snatch an impressive third last year, holding off the charging junior Jean van der Westhuyzen who excelled in finishing fourth.
The ladies race has been dominated by Euro Steel’s Abby Solms in recent years. The teacher from Pietermaritzburg needs just one more victory to become the most decorated winner of the race.
Despite Solms’ dominance of the race in the past she has a relative novice breathing down her neck in the form of Olympic bronze medallist and Euro Steel team mate Bridgitte Hartley. The former sprint ace has made the transition to river paddling and has made it with ease.
Having won a race the Umpetha Challenge at the end of 2016 and showing her diversity with two wins in the FNB Surfski Series, Hartley’s ability and determination will test Solms to the limit.
With good water predicted for the race times are expected to be faster than in previous years however the competition at the sharp end of the field suggests that one slight error might cost you a spot in the top three.
The 2017 N3TC Drak Challenge Canoe Marathon takes place in the Southern Drakensberg on 21 and 22 January 2017. More information can be found at www.drak.co.za
With three N3TC Drak Challenge titles to his name, Euro Steel’s Andy Birkett will have his work cut out for him as he takes on a strong field in pursuit of his fourth title in a row when the race begins on Saturday 21 January. (Anthony Grote/Gameplan Media)