Recent Dusi Canoe Marathon results and South Africa’s top elite paddler’s current form have analysts suggesting the men’s title will be a clash of the Fantastic Four come February 2015.
Andy Birkett, Sbonelo Khwela, Thulani Mbanjwa and Lance Kime have all previously tasted Dusi success and their unrivalled ability to run the portages with a boat on their shoulder sees the quartet standing head and shoulders above the rest with just under three months to go to race day.
The iconic three day clash’s starter’s cannon will fire early on the morning of Thursday 19 February at Camps Drift in Pietermaritzburg, sending participants on their way as they commence their assault on the gruelling 120km journey to Blue Lagoon in Durban by both boat and, just as importantly for the frontrunners, by foot.
EuroSteel’s Andy Birkett has made the top step of the men’s podium his home on four the past five occasions having sandwiched 2011’s K1 title in between his K2 successes with Jason Graham in 2010 and 2012 before he and Khwela were first across the line earlier this year.
At the tender age of 24 years-old Birkett has enjoyed remarkable success on the Mngeni and Msundusi Rivers already and his unrivalled record of late together with his gritty, hardworking nature and exceptional thirst for continued Dusi success has led to many likening him to the late great Dusi King, Graham Pope Ellis who clinched no fewer than fifteen Dusi titles throughout his career.
Shongweni-based Khwela came within a whisker of his maiden Dusi title in 2013’s K1 challenge however, after dominating proceedings on the first and second stage and much of the third, disaster struck at Pumphouse Weir and his resultant swim saw his victory hopes dashed as he fell back to third place.
The emerging force on the South African paddling scene put his disappointment behind him in February though when he and Birkett overcame the powerful surfski crew of Hank McGregor and Jasper Mocké and the EuroSteel/Red Bull talent is now eager to add a K1 title to his 2014 K2 success.
With McGregor breathing down his neck, it was the young Lance Kime who profited the most from Khwela’s 2013 mishap and the ever-present EuroSteel ace eventually soared home to a somewhat surprising yet thoroughly deserved victory, signalling his arrival as a true Dusi force.
Kime’s superior tactics, consistency and errorless nature are major positives he will need to utilize to the best of his ability once more if he is to overcome the added pressure associated with carry the title of defend champion.
While the three youngsters look to stamp their authority on ‘the ultimate canoe challenge’, Mbanjwa is relishing a return to top flight paddling.
At 31 years old Mbanjwa is comfortably the oldest member of the foursome and was the first of the group to see his named etched into the record books when he and Dusi Duke Martin Dreyer famously won the 2008 K2 title which saw Mbanjwa become the first black paddler to win the race.
Age is but a number in the world of paddling though and after a frustrating and below-par couple of seasons, the Build It athlete appears to be back at his best and will undoubtedly be hoping his recent resurgence in the Valley of a Thousand Hills will stand him in good stead come next year’s title challenge.
While countless others will be hoping to take on these four powerhouses of the Dusi, most will do so will the standard set by the Fantastic Four’s as their benchmark.
Some may dream of challenging for next year’s Dusi title however few will truly believe they can overcome the challenge of all four of the early pre-race favourites en route to an against-all-odds victory.
The 64th edition of the Dusi Canoe Marathon takes place from Camps Drift in Pietermaritzburg to Blue Lagoon in Durban from Thursday 19 to Saturday 21 February 2015. More information can be found at www.dusi.co.za