Underberg – Entries opened this week for the 2014 N3TC Drak Challenge on 18 and 19 January with the organisers eager to get “back to normal” after the flooding that wreaked havoc at the hugely popular two-day canoeing marathon on the Umzimkulu River in the Southern Drakensberg last year.
A perfectly timed and placed thunderstorm on the eve of the race triggered a flash flood, leaving the river at its highest level ever in its twenty year history.
The majority of the field did not start the first day, as the organisers were forced to implemented an A grade-only restriction with compulsory helmets. Even with the field restrictions, scores of paddlers failed to finish, many of them losing their kayaks in the process.
“That was a freak storm, the likes of which we have never seen in the race’s history,” said race committee chair Barry Cole. “We are looking forward to getting back to business-as-usual this year!”
The race relies on rainfall to provide good river conditions for the close on 1000 paddlers that support the race every year. The reality of the rainfall and summer thunderstorms in Berg means that river levels do vary, often during the race itself.
The race committee runs the two-day event as a K1 championship event each year because, no matter what the river level, singles are better suited to this section of the rocky Umzimkulu River.
Cole confirmed that the return to fuller river conditions with the arrival of the summer rains was time for the Canyon Kayak Club members to start tripping the river, and remedying any problems like trees that might have fallen into the river.
For the last four years the club has run an on-going wattle-clearing programme that aims to remove the alien invader trees from the banks of the Umzimkulu River. The project is supported by the paddlers, who make a donation to the Wattle Clearing Fund with their entries to the N3TC Drak Challenge each year.
The race is now well established as a premier two-day marathon, and has snowballed in popularity since its inception in 1994, to the point where the club had set a limit of 1000 entrants to the race each year.
“It is really important to us that each and every person who comes to Underberg for the race has a fantastic experience, both on and off the river,” said Cole.
“By placing a limit on the entry we can guarantee that every paddler, from the world champion leading A batch to the last nervous novice leaving in the last batch, gets our full attention.
“We pride ourselves in our hospitality and service levels to every paddler, second and family member who comes to our race,” he added.
The race’s appeal lies in its pristine clean water, steep gradient and multitude of rocky rapids creating numerous legendary passages of river such as the Valley of a Thousands Rapids and the Underberg Gorge.
The race moved to mid-January two years ago, effectively swopping places with the Dusi Canoe Marathon in the national calendar, positioning it at the end of the Christmas holidays, and making it a popular event for a family holiday in the Berg.
“The race is very important to this region, and the economic spin-offs for businesses in the Underberg-Himeville area are massive. But most of all the locals really enjoy the buzz that comes with the N3TC Drak Challenge every year.”
The N3TC Drak Challenge 2014 starts on 18 January at Castleburn outside Underberg and finishes on 19 January at Early Mist Farm close to Coleford. More information can be found at www.drak.co.za