Pietermaritzburg – Paddler safety and vital early season seeding points are the focus at the Umpetha Challenge that kicks starts the FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon season when it gets underway at Camps Drift on Sunday, 8 November.
With its iconic finish at the Bishopstowe Hall after the infamous Campbell’s Farm portage the participants will have their legs seriously tested by the first tough, competitive portage of the summer season.
The race is a key early season form guide going into the K2 season that culminates with the FNB Dusi in February, and this weekend will see many of the Dusi combinations racing competitively for the first time, and several others cobbled together between Dusi aspirants who cannot, for a variety of reason, paddle with their Dusi partner of choice.
Multiple Dusi winner Andy Birkett is one of the paddlers who will tackle the Umpetha Challenge with a different partner, as he reunites with familiar partner Jason Graham.
The pair won two Dusi titles together but with Birkett committed to paddling the season with fellow FNB Dusi winner Lance Kime and Graham tackling the iconic three-day race with Czech star Jakub Adam the duo will use the race this weekend as vital training time in the boat.
Another interesting partnership that will need to be followed closely is that of Build it/Williams Hunt star Thulani Mbanjwa and former sprint ace Shaun Rubenstein. The combination is not a new one, but it has been years since they paddled together and they will see this weekend as a chance to evaluate their compatibility.
A crew that have nothing to hide and would like to signal their intentions early in the build-up are Euro Steel/Red Bull’s Sbonelo Khwela and fellow Euro Steel paddler Banetse Nkhoese who are one of the few confirmed FNB Dusi partnerships that will be on the water this weekend.
The ladies race is one that will focus on the make-shift crew of Abby Solms and Jenna Ward. The duo are currently waiting for their partners to come out from the Czech Republic and Hungary respectively so they have decided to take on a number of the early season races together.
The race is run by the NCC Development team, with the solid backing of the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Sport and Recreation, and has quickly grown into a popular attraction on the local racing calendar. It offers rank and file paddlers a chance to experience the first fifteen kilometres of the Dusi in the rare luxury of a full river, while for the elite stars it is the first Dusi front row seeding opportunity.
While excellent weather and a full river, thanks to a release from Henley dam, seem certain this Sunday, organisers will be anxiously watching the river level at the low level bridge at Woodhouse Road, which has proved to be dangerous in races earlier in the season.
With the base flow of the uMsundusi unusually low due to the drought that is dogging the province, the river level on a full water release from Henley dam has not been sufficient to allow racers to paddle over the low level bridge comfortably.
After an inspection of the site, race organisers have agreed that they will monitor the actual level of the river on the morning of the race, and have prepared a portage option on the left hand bank, should they deem the water level at the low level bridge to be dangerous.
The low level bridge on the outskirts of the city has been the source of tragedy in the past where pedestrians and vehicle drivers have misjudged the strength of the river.
The race organisers have urged local residents to be cautious at the Woodhouse road bridge when the water release from Henley dam comes into effect on Saturday afternoon.
More information can be found at http://www.umpethachallenge.co.za