You won’t find many elite sports events where the top two contenders sit side by side at the end of day one of the three-day competition, sharing a laugh and recounting how one of them took time out during the day’s stage to assist the other to fix his equipment and help him back into the race.
But that’s exactly what happened in the 2011 Unlimited Dusi Canoe Marathon in KwaZulu-Natal last weekend, with defending K1 champion Ant Stott striking a blow for fair play by spotting young rival Andrew Birkett’s bent rudder in the early moments of the race and knocking it back into shape with his paddle. A remarkable act of sportsmanship and a stark reminder that hollow victories have no place in events like the Dusi.
The two former Maritzburg College stars proceeded to go head to head in the next three days, covering 118km and producing the closest finish in the 60-year history of the race — a race that took on added significance and poignancy following the tragic death last year of the man known as the “Dusi King”. Graeme Pope-Ellis died in a tractor accident in June, but his Dusi legend lives on in his 15 titles.
It was perhaps fitting then that not only was this year’s race dedicated to “the Pope”, but also that the man regarded as the most likely challenger to his record number of titles took the opportunity to announce himself properly on the Dusi stage as a possible multiple winner of the future.
Twenty-year-old Birkett is no stranger to the race, having claimed the K2 title with Jason Graham in 2010, but he was expected to have his work cut out for him in the singles race, up against the remaining members of the pre-race “Big Five”: two-time K1 champion Stott and former champions Len Jenkins, Hank McGregor and Michael Mbanjwa.
Not only did Birkett make a mockery of his relative inexperience at the front of the Dusi pack to execute a near-perfect race strategy, but he also out-paddled the man widely regarded as the strongest in the discipline, in a race comprising river paddling, running and flat-water racing.
Thirty-two-year-old Stott is a former world marathon champion and strong sprinter, but when he and Birkett were neck and neck in the closing day-three stage at Blue Lagoon, it was the young pretender to the throne who held sway, edging out Stott by less than a second, before diving from his boat in a moment of unbridled, child-like joy.
Tipped to dominate
It’s for this reason alone, never mind all the other strengths he brings to the Dusi package, that Birkett is tipped to dominate the race for years to come.
And what a race it is, comprising so much more than just the elite competition that takes place hours before the back-markers wearily make their way over the finish line, as the majority of the roughly 1 500 paddlers do.
Any South African sports journalist worth his or her salt should pencil in the dates for next year’s Dusi because there is no other event like it in the country.
It should rank with the Comrades Marathon as an iconic South African sports event that has a permanent place on the calendar.
The trip to KwaZulu-Natal is worthwhile just for the opportunity to experience the race from the media bus, which this year was staffed by Stott’s 2008 fellow world marathon championship gold medallist Cameron Schoeman as the on-board expert commentator.
This journalist proceeded to chew his ear off, but such is the passion that all those associated with the Dusi have for the race that Schoeman seemed to get just as much enjoyment out of detailing every nook and cranny, every rapid, every weir, every take-out and every put-in, as he would have if he’d actually taken part, and it didn’t seem as though I was much bother.
But those of you out-of-shape journos who fancy your form round the traditional “free lunch” buffet table, beware.
Not for the faint-hearted
The media bus is not for the faint-hearted, with the format as follows: they charge ahead, in front of the leaders, and arrive at strategic and well-known points such as Ernie Pearce, Low Level Bridge, Finger Neck, Pine Tree portage, Cabbage Tree, Tops Needle, Marianny Foley, Tombi Rapid, Saddles and the infamous Burma Road, waiting for the leaders, watching them pass by and then running back to the buses to beat the top paddlers to the next point.
Not only is it a great rush, but one gets a greater appreciation for the route between Pietermaritzburg and Durban and the strategy, which often involves paddlers deciding whether or not to jump out and portage with their boats on their shoulder or paddle round, using the river.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of the scenic Dusi Valley, the calm and serene waters of Inanda Dam, the intense heat and humidity of KwaZulu-Natal in the summer, a host of enthusiastic valley locals and about 2000 volunteers.
Yes, the paddling and negotiation of intimidating-looking rapids and energy-sapping flat water looks enough of a challenge in itself, but it’s the running challenges that really bring newfound respect for those elite paddlers who take on the most daunting portages that the Dusi throws up.
Stand at the top of Cabbage Tree portage on day one or gaze into the distance at the mountain that is the final day, Burma Road portage, and you’ll know what I mean. It’s brutal and as good a test of endurance, strength and mental fortitude as you’ll ever see.
Then there’s the post-stage party along the river, every night, all the way to Durban, which this journalist missed out on this year, but which has been etched with determination into the 2012 calendar.
The Dusi is unlike any other sports event in South Africa. It seems remarkable that, after 60 years, the country’s premier canoeing race is still scrapping for its share of column inches, air time, sponsorship and recognition, when in reality it should be regarded as a marquee event and one of the stand-out features on the annual sporting calendar.