This morning is the start of the 58th running of the epic Berg River marathon. The race takes place from Paarl to Velddrif over the next four days, taking the paddlers down an inspiring 240km of the river.
With the team format now in its second year the idea is settling in and like a massive oil tanker paddlers are beginning to change their course and are putting together very exciting combinations.
The first celebration must be that the Berg has its first female team entrants in the form of Tracey Oellerman and Melissa Van Rooyen. Melissa is no stranger to hard racing having raced to the top step of the SA Marathons podium in 2017 with Bridgitte Hartley. Both ladies have 3 Dusi’s comfortably under their belts. But only Tracey is based down in the Western Cape and will have some idea of how bitterly cold it can be in the Berg valley.
A surprise entrant of Melanie van Niekerk could have given could have given the team of Tracey and Melissa a serious run for their money if she had teamed up with her marathons partner and multiple Berg winner, Bianca Beavitt. But unfortunately Bianca is sitting out this one for the first time in years. Melanie instead will be racing with club mate and training partner Richard Allen.
Lisa Scott also makes a welcome return to the Berg after being the second lady home in the 2018 edition of the race. Her river knowledge and prior ability to race under these conditions makes her a formidable competitor. She will once again be racing with Kevin Bouwer.
The other competitor that must be acknowledged is Jannie Malherbe who at the end of this year’s Berg would have completed a phenomenal 47 races. What makes this feat even more impressive is that he will turn 80 later in the year. But he is not the leading race finisher – that title belongs to Giel van Deventer who will be starting his 49th later this morning.
In the men’s race the challengers are lining up to take on the local favourites and last year’s winning team of Graeme Solomon and Adrián Boros. They have taken up the challenge to defend their title that they won in the inaugural team race last year. They raced very successfully as a team last year and their combination of both fitness and river knowledge make them formidable defenders of the title.
Top of the challengers list must be Gavin White who with Bartho Visser came third in 2018. This year Bartho has opted to show young Zach Pryser the ropes leaving Gavin to hunting for new partners. Luckily he has found one in a slightly older Ernest Van Riet; an experienced and elite paddler in his own right so where he lacks in youthful determination he more than makes up for in experience and sheer determination.
On the topic of searching for new partners, first prize must go to last year’s forth placed Anders Hart. Last year he had a storming race and regularly diced the eventual bronze medal team with Paarl local Jermaine Pietersen. This year Anders has stretched his reach all the way to New Zealand and managed to haul in Andrew Mowlem a surfski favourite back home. Anders is looking fitter and more focused as he get older so we are sure that he is going to put up a good fight for a place on the podium. The only question is; is Andrew up to the challenge? Most surfski races max out at about 30km, during the Berg he will be required to do that just to get over the halfway mark every day.
The other older team that we will be watching with interest is that of Simon Van Gysen and Paul Marais. A more chilled team off the water would be almost impossible to find. Even when Simon was racing the Dusi flat out he was one of the most unassuming competitors on the water. Teaming up with Paul Marais one who almost assume that two legends of our sport are getting together for the journey. But we think that they will be the team that is constantly pushing the other teams to perform at their best and will keep the racing honest over all four days.
Thulani Mbanjwa makes a welcome return to the Berg as he teams up with Msawenkosi Mtolo for the 240km journey. Although both paddlers have their training grounds in KwaZulu Natal where the water never gets below 15˚C and it is considered a storm when the wind gets over 20knts we hear that Thulani has been doing his best to prepare Msawenkosi for the cold by doing most of their training in a fridge at the local I & J.
The other teams that could certainly be challenging for podium positions are Tyron Maher who has teamed up with Hamish Lovemore and Berg river local Alan Houston racing with Stewart Little. These combinations should be fascinating to watch because they push each other so hard when they are on the water one wonders if they will be able to reign it in enough so that they don’t exhaust each other by the end of each day.
The recent rains will present new challenges and bring a great new international team in to contention. Petr Mojzisek is back after missing the 2018 edition of the race. As one of the biggest podium contenders the recently raised water levels will certainly play in to his favour. Petr is teaming up with Matthias Schmidt who is new to the race and as best we can work out new to river racing and tree blocks. Although Matthias is certainly not new to top level racing having represented the German team at World Marathon Champs. If this team can just stay in their canoes and keep the leading pack in sight for the first two days then these two would be tough contenders on day three and four. Petr and Matthias are long distance racers so this race should play to their strengths.
However the next four days pan out the one thing that is certain is that this race is going to be a humdinger. With the recent rains the water level is looking to be the fullest it has been in the last five years. This has a dramatic effect on the tree blocks because a branch that you could duck under three weeks ago will sculpt you now if you try. The fast flowing water also opens new channels and presents new challenges to tired paddlers after 60km of being in one’s boat.
We would even go so far as to say that we expect the leader board will change several times during the course of the day and even over the four days of racing. The chasers will benefit from watching the lines chosen by the leaders and will look to capitalise on the leaders mistakes. This in turn will make them the hunted and the chasers will be watching their every move to see if they paddle too close to a sand bank or disappear down the wrong channel.