By Quintin van Jaarsveld
It’s the highlight of the South African canoeing calendar and South Coast Canoe Club paddlers are poised and ready for this year’s Dusi Canoe Marathon, which gets underway at Camps Drift, Pietermaritzburg on Thursday.
This year marks the 64th edition of the iconic three-day paddling event and will be the 21st time South Coast Canoe Club chairman Willie Kunz tackles the taxing Dusi.
Kunz has competed in numerous national and provincial championships, winning a number of titles and earning KwaZulu-Natal colours in three different age groups, and in a multitude of other events like the Drak, the Ozzie Gladwin and the 50 Miler.
However, the 62-year-old says nothing compares to the epic event that is the Dusi.
“The Dusi remains one of the ultimate challenges for me, particularly in a K1, and competing against the youngsters is a driving force for me,” Kunz told eHowz!t.
Kunz made his Dusi debut back in 1994 when he partnered with the late Geoff Millward. The duo’s time was 14 hours 58 minutes – far removed from Kunz’s fastest K2 time of nine hours 49 minutes, which he achieved with Roy Delhove in 2006.
Kunz has missed just one Dusi since 1994 – the 2008 edition – due to a knee operation. Achilles and calf injuries threatened to rule out both Kunz and Delhove last year, but the veterans weren’t going to miss what was Kunz’s 20th Dusi.
Unable to run, the decorated duo persevered through the pain and not only finished the race, but claimed a silver medal in the grand masters division.
That’s how much the Dusi means and the power it has to inspire paddlers to produce special performances.
Joining Kunz in this year’s Dusi, which will honour its pioneer, founder and first winner, Dr. Ian Player, who passed away on 30 November 2014, are fellow locals Graham Christensen and Michael Brett (E/25-year batch), Dylan Bense, (H batch), Rudi Bense, (H batch), Shadrack Mkhize (H batch) and the pair of Simon Heaver and Patrick McNeill (J batch).
Kunz, who will start in his K1 in the F batch, is an athlete who believes it’s better to ‘stay ready than to get ready’.
Living by this mantra requires following a rigorous year-round training schedule.
“My training has gone very well and I have been fortunate not to have been laid off with flu or any serious injury,” he said.
“I have a re-occurring calf strain, which I must just manage by not running too fast and also to make sure that I stretch properly before and during the race.”
Explaining his training routine, Kunz said: “On average, I train five days a week with two to three disciplines on alternate days. Most of the paddling training goes hand in hand with running, either with the boat or without.
“I gym three days a week and try and work that into the paddling programme when I have so-called easy or rest days. For example, I don’t gym the day we do interval training which is a hard session.”
According to Kunz’s calculations, he had done 555km of training (paddling and running) from 1 November 2014 to 7 February 2015 – on Saturdays and Sundays alone.
This includes weekends that he participated in a two-day event like the 50 Miler.
“Colleen my wife was quick to point out how many hours that meant I was away from home,” Kunz quipped, “So to all the wife’s and partners, thank you for being so patient and considerate.”
He’s put particular importance on his running this year and feels he’s made good progress in this all-important facet.
“I’ve battled with running with the boat particularly about four weeks ago when we had that very hot and humid spell.
“Rudi put it down to trying to maintain the same pace running with the boat and said that I must control my pace better. I’ve tried to discipline myself and in recent training sessions, it’s gone better and improved my confidence.”
Kunz has put in these long hours of training, he says, because he knows the high level of competition and challenges he’ll be facing.
“My main opposition will be coming from Phillip van Niekerk, a previous K2 partner of mine, Nigel Briggs and Roy [Delhove], also one of my K2 partners.
“Both Phillip and Nigel are in the 25-year Dusi batch, which goes off in the G batch, ten minutes before me. The challenge will be to make up time on them and to stay ahead of Roy, who starts 20 or 30 minutes after me in the 20-year batch.”
Kunz is eyeing age group gold but he knows anything can happen over the course of the three-day race. He’s therefore not putting too much pressure on himself.
“If a can stay in my boat and in one piece, I’ll give it my absolute best shot and see what happens in the results.”
Participants of the 64th edition of the Dusi will once again paddle the same channels and run the same paths as the race’s late founder, Dr. Player.
Paddlers get their 120km journey underway on Thursday at Natal Canoe Club’s headquarters at Camps Drift in Pietermaritzburg on the Msundusi River with the goal of reaching the estuary of the Mngeni River at Blue Lagoon in Durban on Saturday 21.
Thursday’s 42km opening stage gets starts with the early morning atmospheric journey out of Pietermaritzburg with paddlers’ opening obstacles being Ernie Pearce Weir, YMCA Weir, Mussons Rapid and Taxi Rapid.
The day is, however, renowned for its various tough portages, the first of which is the Sewage Farm Hop at the Darvil Sewage Works before the testing Campbell’s Farm trot.
Most of the top paddlers will opt not to put their boat pack into the river at Campbell’s Bridge and instead will continue running with their boat through the Hole in the Wall portage.
More running at the Guinea Fowl and Geoff’s Road, Finger Neck as well as Cabbage Tree portages while some paddling obstacles such as The Maze and Mission Rapid eventually brings paddlers to the overnight stop at Dusi Bridge.
Friday’s stage two is the longest and toughest of the three as the 46km journey finishes with an 11km grind across Inanda Dam to Msinsi Resort.
Saddles 1 and 2 portages will get the blood pumping early on before the Msundusi River joins the Mngeni River with the increase in the volume of water sees paddlers presented with a more technical paddling challenge.
After reaching Marianni-Foley Causeway – the halfway point in the race – paddlers charge up Nqumeni Hill to avoid the deadly Mamba Gorge before tackling the infamous ‘Big Three’ – Gumtree, Thombi and Hippo Rapids.
The sight of the second stage’s finish line at the end of the long, twisting and tiring flatwater stretch is a welcome one for all while the thought of the shortest 36km stage lying ahead on Saturday also brings great relief.
The final stretch into Durban offers paddlers some of the more exciting and enjoyable rapids in KwaZulu-Natal and after a brief 4km sprint across Inanda Dam, the cool waters of the Mngeni River await paddlers at the tricky Tops Needle Rapid.
Once safely through the first paddling challenge of the day, paddlers are faced with Side Chute and Umzinyathi Rapids before having to make a choice just above Little John Rapid of whether to continue paddling – and tackle some the toughest rapids of the race such as Island 1 and 2 as well as Five Fingers Rapids – or run over the never-ending and steepest portage of the three-day journey, the infamous Burma Road.
Most elite paddlers choose to run these days and as they crest the notoriously gruelling hill, they are greeted with their first glimpse of Durban.
Bouyed by the end drawing near, paddlers call on their reserve tank of energy supplies as they face up to the final few kilometers before the flat waters of Blue Lagoon.
The man-made Pumphouse Weir and Rapid present paddlers with the final major obstacle of the race before the last flatwater grind to the finish line at Blue Lagoon where family, friends and the resounding sense of achievement await.
Late rule change
Race officials have issued a late rule change designed to safeguard paddlers following the spate of incidents at the Darvill Wastewater Works.
Damage suffered to the holding dam aggravated by load shedding and heavy summer rains resulted in sewage spills into the Msundusi River and triggered a sharp increases in ecoli levels.
Dusi race officials have been working closely with the Dusi Umgeni Conservation Trust (DUCT) to monitor the effect of the spillage on the water quality and have taken a decision to send all the paddlers up the traditional portage at Campbell’s Farm to ensure that no paddlers come into contact with water contaminated by the outflow from the Darvill Wastewater Plant.
Paddlers will be required to exit the river at the Braai Take Out at the start of the 4.4km long Campbell’s Farm portage and the Sewerage Farm Hop used by some of the elite athletes, will not be allowed.
While race officials continue to monitor the effects of the spill on the river, the release of 900 000 cumecs of clean water from Henley Dam will have a positive impact on the water quality as it will dilute the river flow by roughly six to one on the first day of the Dusi.
Added to this, no further rainfall and a series of hot days will aid the natural process of ecoli die-off, leading race officials to predict that water quality will be at tolerable levels for the 1400 paddlers that have entered the race.
Dusi Canoe Marathon General Manager Brett Austen Smith thanked the team of experts from DUCT for their committed efforts to test the river on an ongoing basis and identify the sources of the river pollution.
“We have the safety and health of every single athlete at heart, so we rely heavily on getting accurate information about the quality and quantity of the water in the river,” said Austen Smith.
“Our attitude at the Dusi is to play 100% open-cards with our paddlers about the quality of the water in the river so each person can make informed decisions.”
Austen Smith confirmed that the Braai Take Out, which has been the popular start of the long Campbell’s Farm portage for decades but less frequently used in favour of the shorter Pines Portage in recent years, would be clearly marked.
“There will be clear flags and probably chevron tape at this point, and paddlers can either exit on the rocks at the traditional Braai Take Out, or at the natural slipway 50 metres further downstream, but they cannot pass that point,” said Austen Smith.
He also reminded seconds and supporters who will gather in far bigger numbers at the top of Campbell’s Farm portage in recent years that due to the rule change, parking rules require vehicles to be parked on the field before Bishopstowe Hall and that no vehicles will be allowed to park at Bishopstowe Hall.
The usual rule prohibiting seconding from the gate at the polocrosse field at Bishopstowe Hall is not permitted.
By the numbers
1 – number of finishers in the inaugural edition of Dusi Canoe Marathon in 1951 (late Dr Ian Player)
2 – number of rivers the Dusi Canoe Marathon route includes (Msundusi & Mngeni River)
3 – number of Dusi Canoe Marathons race founder Dr Ian Player won (1951/52, 1953 & 1954)
4 – number of pre-race favourites to clinch the men’s title (Andy Birkett, Sbonelo Khwela, Lance Kime & Thulani Mbanjwa)
5 – the number of Dusi Canoe Marathons women’s K1 & K2 defending champ Robyn Kime has won in a row
6 – days taken by Dusi founder Ian Player to complete the first Dusi
7 – number of members of the Dusi Canoe Marathon’s ‘Super Dusi Rat’ club for paddlers who have finished 40 or more Dusis should Nigel Briggs be successful in 2015
8 – number of K3 entries in 2015
9 – most Dusi Canoe Marathons won by a female competitor (Abbey Ulansky)
9 – number of Stand Up Paddleboarders taking part in this year’s Dusi
10 – the number of finishes a paddlers must achieve to receive a permanent number
12 – minimum weight in kilograms of a single kayak
12 – number of portages (only 3 are compulsory)
13 – number of paddlers, should they compete in & complete the 2015 Dusi Canoe Marathon, set to join the ’30 or more’ club in 2015
15 – most Dusi Canoe Marathons won by a male competitor (late ‘Dusi King’ Graeme Pope-Ellis)
15 – minimum age of a Dusi competitor
17 – the age in years of Nokukhanya Shange, who seeks to become the youngest ever black female to finish a K1 Dusi Canoe Marathon
20 – number of finishes require to qualify as a King Dusi Rat
41 – number of paddlers who have completed 30 or more Dusi Canoe Marathons
46 – most number of Dusi Canoe Marathons completed by any individual (late ‘Dusi King’ Graeme Pope-Ellis)
64 – edition of the Dusi Canoe Marathon to be staged in 2015
119,62 – exact distance in kilometres of the race using current conventional route
241 – The number of paddlers who have completed 20 or more Dusi Marathons
1275 – number of paddlers with a permanent Dusi Canoe Marathon number
1981 – year of the first Dusi to allow female competitors
2013 – year in which Lance Kime set the men’s K1 race record (8:00.29)
2014 – year race founder Dr Ian Player passed away
2015 – year of the return of the ‘tea & doughnuts’ tradition at the end of each stage
12902 – number of paddlers who have finished at least one Dusi Canoe Marathon
23 150 – the average number of paddle strokes required to complete the Dusi Canoe Marathon
381 712.61 – record amount of money in rands raised through the Dr Ian Player Memorial Charity Batch in 2015