20 January 2008
History was made in South Africa’s Dusi Canoe Marathon on the weekend, when both the men’s and women’s winners in the K2 race taking victory in record times and Michael Mbanjwa became the first black winner in the 57-year history of the event.
Teaming up with the “Dusi Duke”, Martin Dreyer, Mbanjwa brought huge smiles to the inhabitants of the Valley of a Thousand Hills, which was where he was born and is part of the race’s route.
His win also provided validation for the development efforts of Canoeing South Africa; Mbanjwa is a product of the Nagle Dam club, formed by canoeing pioneer, the late Robert Lembethe, to bring the sport to people who live along the route of the famous event.
In 1997, Mbanjwa was on his way to a game of soccer when he was stopped by Lembethe, who told him to give canoeing a try. He gave it a go, having seen paddlers in the valley before, never thinking that he might one day be crowned the winner of the famous race. On Saturday, he made history.
Mbanjwa has heard the story about being the first black winner many times previously; in 2007, he and Dreyer won the Stihl Non-Stop Dusi, but, for Mbanjwa, it’s a story that he would prefer not to hear.
Instead of being viewed as a successful black paddler, he would prefer to be viewed as a successful elite paddler, one whose record speaks for itself. With his victory, he has surely earned that right, but his win, as a first in the history of the race, made it an historic occasion.
While it was Mbanjwa’s first victory in the Dusi, following a second place in the K1 race in 2007, it was a seventh win for Dreyer. Afterwards, the 39-year-old said it was his final competitive shot at the event; he will participate in it in the future, but simply to take part and not to win it.
Record setting first stage
Mbanjwa and Dreyer showed they meant business on the first leg of the race, with a record time of two hours, 32 minutes and 47 seconds, to build up a lead of almost four minutes over Hank McGregor and Sven Bruss.
Ant Stott and Wayne Thompson, second in the last K2 event in 2006, finished the day in third, just over six minutes behind the leaders.
There was drama when McGregor and Bruss protested against a path taken by Stott and Thompson, which took the pair out of bounds. The third-placed finishers were disqualified, but were later reinstated after an appeal, but fined R1 000.
On day two, Stott and Thompson responded brilliantly to their near-disqualification, setting a record for the stage of two hours, 44 minutes and 14 seconds. Mbanjwa and Dreyer held onto the lead, but saw it severely cut, with their stage time of two hours, 48 minutes and 29 seconds leaving them with an advantage of only one minute and 46 seconds.
McGregor and Bruss chose an aggressive approach, but it backfired when McGregor took a spill at the Washing Machine Rapid, followed shortly afterwards by Bruss. Once they were back in their boat they charged hard for the finish, ultimately bettering Mbanjwa and Dreyer’s time by one second, but they, nonetheless, fell to third in the standings.
Final day tactics
The final day saw the Stott/Thompson and McGregor/Bruss pairings choosing to shoot a number of big rapids to try to close down Mbanjwa/Dreyer, who chose to portage at the notorious Burma Road.
The leaders responded brilliantly, recording the fastest ever time on the portage to stave off the challenge of the chasing boats.
By the time they reached the finish line at the Blue Lagoon in Durban, Mbanjwa and Dreyer had not only held off the chasing crews, they had increased their lead and established a new record in a time of seven hours, 33 minutes and 24 seconds.
Stott and Thompson took second in 7:35:05, while McGregor and Bruss ended third in 7:39:52 as the top three all bettered the previous record of 7:40:25, set by Dreyer and McGregor in 2006.
Not long after their win, Mbanjwa and Dreyer were flown by helicopter to Nagle Dam, in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, where a huge crowd greeted the Dusi winners, cheering and ululating, and lifting them onto their shoulders.
The result of the women’s race was fairly predictable, with the only thing really standing between the red hot favourites Abbey Miedema and Alexa Lombard and victory being the challenging river.
They, however, had a superbly smooth run from start to finish, breaking the stage record on all three days, to capture the honours.
On the opening day, Miedema and Lombard, who smashed the K2 record by a staggering 25 minutes in 2006, opened up a lead of over 10 minutes over their nearest challengers, Laura Thompson and Robyn Kime, an interesting pairing of a 20-Dusi veteran and a promising schoolgirl.
Former winner Debbie Germiquet and Hilary Pitchford crossed the line in third place, nearly seven minutes behind the second place finishers and 17 minutes and three seconds behind the leaders.
Increasing the lead
On day two, Miedema and Lombard increased their lead, despite a valiant effort from Thompson and Kime. The leaders were four minutes and 24 seconds faster in a stage record 3:09:55.
With a massive lead in the bag, Miedema and Lombard choose a conservative approach on the final day, opting not to put the beckoning victory at risk. Once again, though, they turned in the fastest time of the day.
Their overall time of 8:46:03 shattered the previous mark they had set two years ago of 9:02:12, but over 16 minutes.
Thompson and Kime finished well back in second, but not far off the previous record, in a time of 9:05:06. Germiquet and Pitchford settled for third, over 25 minutes behind the runners-up.