Excellence, intrigue, adventure at Dusi 2014

17 February 2014

The 2014 Dusi Canoe Marathon produced excellence, intrigue and adventure as Andy Birkett and Sbonelo Zondi sped to a dominating victory in the men’s race and Abbey Ulansky and Robyn Kime held off Abby Adie and Anna Adamova for the women’s win.

The hard preparation work put in by Birkett and Zondi was well rewarded as the pair won all three days of the 120 kilometre marathon, which takes place between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

With luck working against them, the duo had finished fourth and third respectively in the 2013 Dusi, which was contested in singles (K1s), but within two weeks they had teamed up to win the Non-Stop Dusi and smash the record by over 17 minutes. Not long after that they announced their intention to take on the 2014 Dusi together, and it paid off as they turned in a faultless and spectacular performance.

‘A really special feeling’

“The whole journey has been amazing. I’m super chuffed, especially with our discipline over this last year, and it’s a really special feeling to have won,” an elated Birkett said after claiming his fourth Dusi title.

“It almost feels like this is the first Dusi I’ve ever won because of the whole change in start procedure here on day three and the finish is a really amazing experience.”

‘A dream come true’

“At last! This is a dream come true for me,” exclaimed Zondi, who became the second black winner of the iconic canoe marathon, following in the footsteps of Thulani Mbanjwa, who claimed the honours in 2008 with “Dusi Duke” Martin Dreyer.

Both Zondi and Mbanjwa are products of the very successful Change a Life Academy development programme at Nagle Dam, outside of Pietermaritzburg, which is headed up by Dreyer, a seven-time Dusi champion.

Given up hope

Birkett and Zondi led by almost 10 minutes heading into the final day and tellingly, when Hank McGregor and Jasper Mocke chose run over the Burma Road portage, rather than risk the paddle through the Graveyard, Molweni and Island rapids, it signalled that the second placed crew had given up hope of catching the leaders.

McGregor, a three-time flatwater marathon world champion, and Mocke, one of the world’s leading surf skiers, gave it their all but could not stay with Birkett and Zondi on the race’s taxing portages, and even on the water Birkett and Zondi were a match for them.

Cam Schoeman, a former doubles (K2) flatwater marathon world champion, teamed up with Czech star, Jakub Adam, one of the world’s elite flatwater paddlers, to take third place. It was a remarkable performance from Schoeman, who had to deal with a shoulder ligament injury, while Adam became the first international paddler in the 63 year history of the Dusi to stand on the podium.

Women’s race

In the women’s race, Ulansky and Kime were pushed all the way by Adie and Adamova and by the time they reached Durban only a minute and seven seconds separated the two leading boats.

It was a women’s record ninth win for Ulansky (nee Miedema), a South African who now lives in Canada, and a fifth victory for Kime, with three of those being achieved with Ulansky. For Adie, it was an unfortunate sixth runner-up finish, while Adamova, the sister of Jakub Adam, became the first international to stand on the women’s podium.

‘Over the moon’

“We are over the moon to make it three in a row,” Ulansky smiled afterwards. “Robs and I have paddled together for a while and formed a great partnership, and this year was more challenging for us as, number one, we had stronger competition and, number two, we have had other commitments, so we weren’t as strong as we wanted to be, but we had great fun and really worked hard,” said Ulansky.

“We tried so hard and it’s a little disappointing to have come so close and not been able to win it, but we worked really hard, and in the end it wasn’t quite enough,” Adie commented.

Third place went to sisters Tamika and Bianca Haw. Still in school, Bianca had finished fifth in the K1 race in 2013 and only three weeks before the 2014 Dusi had won gold in the women’s junior race at the African Continental MTB Championships in the Western Cape.

An adventure

The Dusi, however, is about a lot more than the elite paddlers. For the vast majority of the field it is an adventure: for former Natal flyhalf Graeme “Gudgie” Dixon, who paddled his 40th consecutive Dusi and his second in succession with his daughter; for people like brothers, Brad and Rowan White, who took time away from their families to team up for a second time; for people like Bob Harvey and Tony Ferguson, who missed a takeout and went downstream on the river, where no boats go, and who were rescued by helicopter after a four-hour wait.

Behind the elite paddlers, the true heart of the Dusi beats strongly, with camaraderie, which one could almost term a tradition, the order of the day. It is seen not only in the paddlers, but in the army of volunteers that make it possible to host a 120-kilometre race over the course of three days in some extremely testing conditions and over challenging terrain.

A place they treasure

For many of the competitors, the Valley of a Thousand Hills, through which the race passes, has become a place they treasure and a place in which the Dusi organisers, Natal Canoe Club, has over the years paid back the residents by building schools and sports fields, and looking after the vegetation and river.

Within the hearts of many Dusi veterans, there beats a love of this beautiful piece of Africa. On the rivers making their way to the Indian Ocean and over the steep hills many internal barriers are broken and many stories, which will last a lifetime, are experienced.

There is something about the adventure that grabs those who have taken on and finished the Dusi. It remains more than a canoe marathon, it remains a definitive South African experience.