Siseko Ntondini and Sbonelo Khwela will fight to the very end in pursuit of the overall title at the 2018 FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon.
PIETERMARITZBURG – The 67th edition of the iconic FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon looks set to live up to all of the pre-race hype as the country&39;s finest river marathon paddlers fight it out between Pietermaritzburg and Durban from Thursday to Saturday.
The first day of the 2018 FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon gets underway at Camps Drift in Pietermaritzburg at 06:00.
In what has been seen as one of the most exciting K2 Dusi combinations in the modern era, the K1 marathon gold medallist and two-time Dusi winner Hank McGregor have teamed up with K1 marathon silver medallist and seven-time Dusi winner Andy Birkett.
The duo, whose rivalry has blossomed into a friendship, will undoubtedly carry the favourites tag onto the start line at Camps Drift.
Euro Steel&39;s Birkett has won seven of the last eight Dusi&39;s, his only blemish being a fourth in 2013 in the K1 showdown that was won by Lance Kime. 40-year-old McGregor&39;s last Dusi triumph came in 2006 when he won with Martin Dreyer to go with his K1 victory to the year before.
With nine Dusi gold medals between them, the second most in 2018 being Ant Stott with four wins, and a punishing training program the smart money will be on them to reach Blue Lagoon first.
Hoping to put pressure on the Birkett/McGregor combination will be 2014 winner Sbonelo Khwela and his new partner Siseko Ntondini.
The Euro Steel/ADreach pairing will be an intimidating force with the boat on their shoulders but their ability to navigate the Msundusi and Mngeni Rivers will be paramount if they are to mount a significant threat.
Ntondini is no stranger to the top ten of the Dusi and Khwela has spent the last five years in the top three but only has one victory to show for it. This drive for the top step of the podium could well fuel their challenge over the 124km journey to the coast.
Amongst the other title contenders will be the Mooi River brother duo of Alan and Andrew Houston as well as the experienced Ant Stott who will be paddling with the exciting Banetse Nkhoesa.
The Houstons, who were sitting in third place overall in 2016 before illness got the better of them before the start of the final stage, are an organised crew that will be strong through the water as well on their feet and could provide the recipe for an upset.
It&39;s been a quiet build-up for Stott and Nkhoesa but they too have the pedigree and the drive to push the favourites. It has been 20 years since Stott won his first Dusi title and he is hoping for a fairy-tale in 2018.
The ladies race at this years&39; Dusi showdown is going to be a mouth-watering affair with no one specific crew standing up and owning that favourites tag.
If one could separate the top three pairs, one might give the Euro Steel/Max Paddles backed sister duo of Jordan and Cana Peek. The two have been in strong form in the build-up to the Dusi with wins at the 50 Miler as well as the Campbell&39;s to Dusi Bridge race setting them apart from the rest of the hopefuls.
Despite the Peek&39;s strong build-up to the race, they have been racing against a slightly weaker field with Jenna Ward&39;s partner Vanda Kiszli only jetting in from Hungary in the first week of February.
Ward and her Hungarian powerhouse Kiszli finished fourth in last K2 showdown in 2016 and with that added experience will also be a crew to watch out for. Ward&39;s preparation has been strong with her taking part in many of the pre-Dusi races in a mixed K2 as she hones her river skills as well as strengthens her running.
Kiszli, who is the senior K1 women&39;s marathon silver medallist, is incredibly strong in the back of the boat and having experienced what the race is about, she will know what to expect this week.
The third ladies crew to keep an eye on will be the Euro Steel pair of Bridgitte Hartley and Christie Mackenzie.
Mackenzie showed her prowess when she ran herself to second at the 2017 Dusi ahead of Hartley who came third, and as a combination, they have gelled well in the build-up leading up to the race.
Mackenzie, who is only in her first year of Under-23 will be steering the boat with the power being provided by Olympic bronze medallist Hartley from the back.
The races for the age group prizes always offer up some excitement and 2018 will see the Under-23 crown hotly contested once again.
Stewart Little and Khumbulani Nzimande have been in going well but will have a tough three days out with 2017 Non-Stop Dusi Canoe Marathon champions Mthobisi Cele and Mpilo Zondi also eyeing the Under-23 title.
From a junior girl&39;s perspective, it looks like it is going to be a fight between two Epworth crews. Tracey Oellermann and Cara Waud have been strong throughout the pre-Dusi races and they will be up against the Caitlin Mackenzie and Amy Peckett pair for a spot on the top step of the junior girls’ podium.
From the 50 Miler to the Campbell&39;s to Dusi Bridge, two junior boys crews have come to the fore with each taking home one win each. Dominic Leslie and Sam Speed took home honours at the Campbell&39;s to Dusi Bridge while Hamish Mackenzie and David Evans won the Under-18 crown at the 50 Miler.
Evans and Mackenzie won the Junior Boys K2 marathon silver medal last year and finished in an impressive fifth overall at 50 Miler which might give them the edge.
Once again the 2018 FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon will see stand-up paddleboarders taking part. This year will see the South African SUP champion Dylan Fick along with stalwarts Jon Ivins and Brendan Germaine taking on the three days.