A lot will be said about the FNB Duzi Canoe Marathon for months to come and we are sure that everyone in time will draw their own conclusions about how the race panned out but we would like to take the opportunity to highlight 2 amazing things that really should be acknowledged going forward.
1. We were privileged to watch canoe racing at its best!
Those that were still making their way down to Blue Lagoon on day 3 were privileged to watch first-hand the country’s best men’s and women’s paddlers racing their hearts out and making the most of the situation as they came tearing past. We had the privilege of cheering on; Andy Birkett, Sbonelo Khwela, Thulani Mbanjwa and Hank McGregor to name but a few. I cannot think of another sport were the heroes of the sport are bumping down a rapid at the same time as you!
Only the men’s and ladies eventual winners Euro Steel’s Andy Birkett and Abby Solms managed to claim their places on day 1 simply not let go until the final whistle was blown on the podium at Blue Lagoon. The rest was always up for grabs! Second and third place was fought for tooth and
nail and places changed in minutes much to the delight and speculations of the rest of the competitors still making their way home… The monumental battle for second place between Sbonelo and Hank is the stuff that coaching books should be written about in terms of Never, Never giving up. Sbonelo took day 1 on a reasonably good level river by a resounding 6 minutes signalling his intentions early on in the race. The river level had dropped overnight and many of us thought that it would be almost impossible to make up the difference on the low water and with two long portages on the day. But with single-minded determination Hank came flying across the dam to eventually pip Sbonelo by one second at the finish. Game on for day 3. We all knew that the racing would be tight and having heard both Sbonelo and Hanks questions at race briefing a few days before we knew that they were both expecting to fight it out to the end. The speculation around the potential water release only added to the debate of who would finally claim second spot on the podium. It was Sbonelo Khwela that eventually claimed the
runner-up title thanks to all his training for the now defunct Non-Stop Duzi. The epitome of the struggle for podium positions must be Build It’s Thulani Mbanjwa who after 2 days of racing was lying 4th and five and a half minutes off the pace – seemly a bridge too far considering who the leaders were but with his ears pinned back he charged up Burma Road past Hank McGregor and never looked back to claim a phenomenal 3rd place.
Team Euro Steel’s Abby Solms had fired warning shots in the run up to the Duzi with her phenomenal results at the Fish River Canoe Marathon and more recently the Drak Challenge so she was definitely the favourite going in to the race. She did not disappoint; at the end of day 1 she had a 10 minute lead on the chasing pack and it grew by 10 minutes per day from then on! But just like the men’s race, the ladies race for 2nd and 3rd position was a titanic battle that ensued for three long days. The ladies to take up the challenge were our very own Olympian Bridgitte Hartley and a highly spirited U18 paddler Christie Mackenzie. Christie won the first skirmish coming in just over two and a half minutes from Bridgitte at the end of day 1. But as they say in the classics – the battle had only just begun! Day 2 saw souring temperatures with apparently 47˚C being recorded at Marianni Foley causeway only adding to the intensity of the struggle. The day finally belonged to Bridgitte who
came in 16 minutes ahead of Christie. At the start of day 3 Bridgitte had a commanding lead of 13 minutes over Christie and it looked like the race was all sewn up. But day 3 was full of ‘curved balls’ and the feisty U18 paddler was not going to take it lying down. So with a new day comes new opportunities and Christie simply relished the prospect. By all accounts she shot across the dam and hit the ground running on the other end and kept it up all the way to the finish! She managed to do day 3, 34 minutes faster than Bridgitte and in doing so claimed a resounding 2nd spot on the podium. Final positions:
Pos Name Surname Total Time KPos
1 ANDY BIRKETT 08:32:53.98 K1 1
2 SBONELO KHWELA 08:56:23.30 K1 2
3 THULANI MBANJWA 09:04:28.30 K1 3
4 HANK MCGREGOR 09:09:29.34 K1 4
5 JAKUB ADAM 09:11:56.11 K1 5
Pos Name Surname Total Time KPos
1 ABBY SOLMS 10:16:02.24 K1 30
2 CHRISTIE MACKENZIE 11:05:49.65 K1 54 (U18)3
3 BRIDGITTE HARTLEY 11:26:41.02 K1 68
4 ALEX ADIE 11:57:31.86 K1 92
5 KERRY SEGAL 12:14:27.56 K1 103 (U23)29
2. The Water.
A race report of this nature would be some comment on the water. I guess a friends adage “hope for the best – plan for the worst” rings true here. The country is in the midst of one of the longest and most expansive droughts in living memory. Farmers have lost fields, orchards and livestock as they try and survive. Realistically at the end of another hot and ‘dry’ summer the Umgeni Water cannot be expected to release water for canoeists no matter how much we hoped for it. We take solace from the article ‘What’ll we do when the rivers run dry?” 1 when the author writes “The Duzi… has also become a great environmental red flag… “So true. We were amazingly fortunate that Pietermaritzburg had rain in the run up to the Duzi allowing paddlers to trip on Wednesday and paddle comfortably all the way down on Day 1. This good fortune continued on day 2 with us only halted at Hippo rapid as we were unable to paddle in to the shoot on the right hand side. Day 3 we set off across the dam having just heard “there will be no water release” but as we approached the dam wall the reason for this is glaringly obvious. There is simply no water to release. In previous years we have been warned not to paddle too close to the wall least you get sucked over – there was absolutely no risk of that this year. This lack of water lead to arguably the toughest race in living memory. Comments such as “I have done the Duzi 17 times and this is my first Burma” were not uncommon
Yes, we also got stuck in the queue up Burma Road and got lost twice on the way down (once thanks to some spirited directions from a local lad) so there are moments that we found ourselves mouthing the words “I wish…. “But the truth is that the organisers have some massive
logistics on their hands. On day 3 the paddlers spread out; some run – some walk, some go up others around, and some keep to the rules –others not quite. Added to this, the logistics behind feeding us and watering us are in an urban area only compound the problem.
Yes, there are lessons to be learnt for all of us but what it showed is that we are an incredibly resilient lot! We laughed and shared juice with each other on the way up Burma Road, we pushed each others canoes over the rocks and sandbanks in the riverbeds and we had fun!
We are not sure what the future holds in terms of rain and water releases but I am sure of one thing and that is; as long as there is a 3 day race called the Duzi Canoe Marathon people will get up and they will paddle, run, walk or simply bob down the river in any way possible in order to complete this epic journey!
Sunday Itch, Lungani Zama, Sunday Tribune, pg25
Photographs, Euro Steel – Graham Daniel