The 25th edition of the N3TC Drak Challenge will once again throw up an exciting showdown in both the women’s and the men’s races when the race gets underway on a low and testing uMzimkhulu River on Saturday.
The two-day rain-dependant race is the first of the year’s major races and despite the lack of water in the uMzimkulu River at the moment, the race is still going to be hotly contested at the front end of the field.
The women’s race was always going to be competitive, but it has been ramped up to another level with the bombshell confirmation that former winner Robyn Owen has slipped in an 11th-hour entry, as she makes something of a comeback to the domestic paddling scene after a lengthy layoff.
Training for the Coast To Coast Challenge in New Zealand, she was in superb form winning the recent FastDrak in similarly low water conditions, and will be fancied by many to get her name engraved on the women’s trophy for a second time.
Bridgitte Hartley (pictured above), who finished second to Abby Solms last year, will be eyeing her first major marathon victory, while Jenna Ward also hoping to have her name etched into the history books.
Kyeta Purchase, who has a world marathon K2 silver medal, will be another Under- 23 paddler to look out for as she makes her way to the top end of that age category. The Peek sisters, Cana and Jordan will also have their eyes on a age group prize as well as pushing for higher honours.
Dutch sprint, marathon and wild water international Eef Haase will be making her debut in the event, hoping to use the few days in the region to get to know the 65km route.
The entry of Robyn Owen’s brother Lance Kime has also not gone unnoticed, as he adds spice to a men’s race that is laced with champion paddlers.
Current ICF Canoe Marathon silver medallist Andy Birkett is the defending champion, having won the last four races, but he will have to deal with the entire podium from the last world marathon championships in Pietermaritzburg if he wants to extend his winning streak to five consecutive titles.
On the startline will be 10-times marathon world champion Hank McGregor and Hungarian Adrián Boros, while there are a plethora of other paddling stars that will be hoping to upset the status quo and claim maiden Drak Challenge titles.
The McGregor/Birkett rivalry has taken an interesting twist in the past few weeks with the duo putting their epic contest aside to team up for the FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon next month.
Despite this truce, they will be as competitive as ever in fighting it out for the overall Drak Challenge crown this weekend.
The contest for the top 10 is always an interesting one and the likes of Alan and Andrew Houston, the experienced Ant Stott and the international star Boros pushing for honours. There is once again a large contingent of Martin Dreyer’s Change a Life Academy that will be hoping to impress over the two days.
The 12-man Change a Life squad have spent some time on the river tripping and preparing with the help of race sponsors N3TC.
There’s a new batch of Under- 23 and junior paddlers coming through and the Drak Challenge will provide a good gauge as to who will dominate the age groups going into the rest of the year.
Mooi River’s Alan Houston will head up the field of Under–23 hopefuls, however he will have a number of tough paddlers breathing down his neck throughout the race. Stewart Little, who finished 15th in 2017, might eye a top Under- 23 finish.
In the junior ranks Hamish Mackenzie and K2 partner David Evans might be eyeing potential wins. In the junior girls showdown, world marathon championship’s competitor Amy Peckett could prove to be a tough nut to crack through the two days.
Peckett will have her K2 partner Caitlin Mackenzie to contend with. The Drak Challenge will be trying out a new, non-competitive team format in 2018 where paddlers can enter as two K1’s and have the option after the first day to convert to a K2 for the longer, flatter sections of the river.
This year will also see the introduction of the FNB Music Experience that will take place on Saturday afternoon at the Under-berg Country Club, with hit maker Matthew Mole headlining the event.
The concert is designed to integrate the large community of athletes and their families visiting the Underberg/Himeville area for the popular canoeing weekend, the Euro Steel Drak Descent mountain bikers and GWK Sani Spoors Run The River trail runners, with the local community in an afternoon of entertainment at the Underberg Country Club.
The N3TC Drak Challenge starts at Castleburn on Saturday with a 24-kilometre stage to Sinister Pool, just above the Swartberg Road Bridge. The second stage on Sunday is 36km, finishing at Early Mist Farm close to Coleford resort.
Picture of Burkett and Hartley courtesy of Anthony Grote/Gameplan Media