Pietermaritzburg – The Dusi Canoe Marathon has a rich history of some epic battles through the years, and the 2024 edition on Thursday, Friday and Saturday (February 15-17) holds the potential for one of the most fascinating fights for victory in both the men’s and women’s races.

On the men’s side, Andy Birkett comes into the race as the undisputed reigning King. With 13 wins to his name, the former World Champion has clearly been the paddler to beat and since his first win in 2010 he has dominated the event with another 12 wins in 13 years.

His record is only surpassed by Graeme Pope-Ellis who notched up 15 wins in the race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, and famously had some titanic K1 battles with Danny Biggs and then John Edmonds in the 1980s.

Those no-holds-barred contests could be matched this year when Birkett and his talented young Eastern Cape partner, Matthew Fenn, attempt to hold off the two crews who have been dominating the local pre-Dusi races so far this year.

Sbonelo Khwela and Msawenkosi Mtolo have enjoyed a stellar build-up to the Dusi and after three wins from four must be supremely confident. Khwela (paddling under his surname of Zondi at the time) already has a win in the famous race, with Birkett in the 2014 Dusi. Outside of Birkett, Khwela and Mtolo have two of the most consistent records of top results for the Dusi in recent years.

Meanwhile Banetse Nkhoesa and Siseko Ntondini have both also recorded some impressive K2 results in previous years with different partners, and their form this season leaves no doubt they are a crew that should be fighting for victory. A win in the SMG 50-Miler and intense pressure on Khwela and Mtolo in other races means they are finding form at the right time.

Arguably the biggest question mark about the men’s race will be how Birkett and Fenn combine in the heat of battle. Both are clearly quality paddlers and race winners, but as a combination they are untested against other top crews in the unique Dusi conditions.

However, Birkett clearly has enough knowledge and experience of racing through the Valley of 1 000 Hills to make up for a less than ideal preparation phase for this year’s event. On the water it is hard to see anybody out-paddling the Eastern Cape combination, and it is unlikely the experienced Birkett would have allowed himself and Fenn not to have put in the running training needed.

Spectators can expect the Eastern Cape pair to be just off the lead after Day 1 with Khwela and Mtolo, and Nkhoesa and Siseko Ntondini setting the pace. However, once the paddlers hit the deeper waters of the Mgeni on Day 2, expect Birkett and Fenn to impose themselves and there is every chance Day 3 will see all three crews still fighting for the title as they hit the flat-water grind into the finish in Durban.

The women’s race looks, on paper, to have a clear favourite with three-time winner Abby Solms and matric student Jessica Behn dominating the pre-Dusi races so far this season.

Three wins from the three races they have competed in this season shows they have the form both on the water and on the runs to claim the title.

However, their biggest challenge will come from an Olympic medallist and South Africa’s most successful female canoeist. Bridgitte Hartley burst onto the radar of local canoeing followers when she won a bronze at the London Olympics in 2012. Since then she has featured regularly on the Dusi podium, but never managed to occupy the top step.

Her partner this year, Hilary Bruss, may not have the same CV, but is no slouch and the pair’s win in the Geoff’s Road to Saddles race recently, will have given them the confidence it takes to win.

The smart money may be on a Solms / Behn win, but there are many twists and turns on the route from Bishopstowe to Durban and the favourites cannot afford to make any mistakes.

In the mixed doubles race the world’s most successful male marathon paddler, Hank McGregor and his wife Pippa, are overwhelming favourites. Their biggest challenge is likely to come from Euro Steel teammates Brad Boulle and Emma Hatfield. The two crews had a tight battle in the Ozzie Gladwin, but the multiple World Champion and his wife emerged victorious despite a mid-race swim, and it is hard to see them being beaten over the three days.

The Dusi starts at Bishopstowe Hall on Thursday and finishes at Durban’s Blue Lagoon on Saturday. The two overnight stops are at Mphaya Bridge near Nagle Dam and at Inanda Dam.