Despite near unbearable heat and testing low conditions, a fifth Non-Stop Dusi Canoe Marathon title became a reality for Sbonelo Khwela when he dominated proceedings in the second half of the grueling 110km contest as he charged to his maiden K1 ‘Dusi in a Day’ title at Blue Lagoon on Friday.
Having won the race on four previous occasions – all in a K2 – getting that K1 victory under the belt was not only satisfying, but also a relief for the Euro Steel/Red Bull star.
“In 2014 I tried to convince myself to do the Non-Stop in a K1 but I ended up doing it with Hank McGregor and we won,”Khwela said. “I would really like to thank my wife for convincing me to do the race in a K1 last year and then helping me to get back into a K1 for this year’s race.
“She kept on pushing me and saying that I am the only person that can win the race in a K1 so I am really happy that she managed to convince me again!”
With the Henley Dam water release topping up the uMsundusi River, Khwela played a tactical game, from the start of the race to Yellow Rock portage – shortly before Dusi Bridge, the end of the first day of the traditional three day long FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon.
The experience of the now five-time winner then came to the fore as he kept his wits about him and avoided getting suckered into the slugging match that was unfolding ahead of him.
“I knew that the K2s were going to have the better of the conditions in the first bit of the race with the higher water so I knew that I had to hold on because they were going to try and break me early on.
“I realised that I had to drop back and let the guys up front work hard and then I made my move at what would have been the start of day two of Dusi and from there I caught the guys one by one.
“When I got to Nqumeni portage I realised that I could do it so I managed to create a big gap over Banji (Thulani Mbanjwa) and Siboniso (Shozi) but then we were back together on Inanda Dam.
“I managed to get away from them again though and then I didn’t look back,” Khwela added.
Khwela was apprehensive about the final pull into Durban from the Burma Road portage though and felt he needed to establish more of a gap to feel safe.
“I ran really hard over Burma and I think that gave me the advantage I needed because I was worried that the K2 was going to be fast after Burma.
“When I realised that I had such a big advantage I really enjoyed the final section,” an elated Khwela explained.
The race got off to a frantic start with the brothers Nhlanhla and Richard Cele setting the early pace however, when the race got to the Low Level Bridge, the young duo of Alan Houston (Seed co./USN) and Banetse Nkhoesa (Computershare Change a Life Academy) had taken the lead while Khwela lingered patiently in fifth place.
Houston and Nkhoesa were however unable to maintain their intense early pace and fell out of contention on the Nqumeni portage however, despite a brief swim shortly the same notorious climb, the Cele brothers maintained a strong enough pace to consolidate their podium spot.
Boat trouble hampered Mbanjwa (Builld it/Williams Hunt) and Shozi’s race once the pair reached Inanda Dam however it did not hamper their progress significantly enough to prevent their second place finish.
“We ran out of water at Isuzu Rapid but stayed in the river and we must have damaged the boat there,” Mbanjwa said.
“We pulled over to the side and emptied the boat and patched it up with duct tape and a sticker from the back of the boat – which helped a lot – but after we crossed the dam it was difficult because the duct tape kept coming off.
“After Burma we repaired it but at Pumphouse it all came off again.
“We managed to sneak home in the end, which was a big relief for us!”
Martin Dreyer’s Computershare Change a Life Academy was the shining light to emerge from the 2016 ‘Dusi in a Day’ as they claimed five out of the top seven K2 crews which included no less than eight paddlers that are part of the Valley of a Thousand Hills setup while Khwela also serves as an ambassador for the programme having spent many of his younger years as a CAL member.
With the late withdrawal by early pre-race favourite Abby Solms (Euro Steel), Kelly Howe and Susan Carter-Brown surged to the front of the field from the get-go and never once relinquished their lead despite the chase of Jordan and Kim Peek.
Howe and Carter-Brown add their Non-Stop Dusi victory to their 2016 FNB Dusi fifth place performance, rounding out an impressive KZN K2 river season in the uMsundusi and uMngeni valleys together.