Pietermaritzburg – Next weekend’s three-day K2 Dusi Canoe Marathon on February 15-17 could come down to a two-horse dice in the quest for overall honours in the men’s race.

The pedigree of 13-time champion Andy Birkett means he remains the paddler to beat, and his entry alone has his nearest challengers starting to work out their strategies in an attempt to topple him, but this year, with young Matthew Fenn as his partner, there is a faint glimmer of hope that the untested combination can be beaten.

The pair’s strongest rivals are undoubtedly Sbonelo Khwela and Msawenkosi Mtolo, a duo that have enjoyed the ideal preparation in their dream of claiming that hallowed crown after three days on the water and paths between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

Khwela (36) considers himself an “old man” of the Dusi, doing his first race in 2006 and only missing last year due to lack of sponsorship. He won the 2014 K2 race with none other than Birkett (when competing under his surname at the time of Zondi) and, with the combined knowledge of the race and river between these two leading paddlers and now rivals, this year’s race could become a classic.

Mtolo and Khwela won the Kindo Covers Ozzie Gladwin and the Geoff’s Road to Saddles races in January, were third in the SMG 50-Miler last Saturday and bounced back the following day to win the Kayak Craft Bishopstowe to Dusi Bridge paddle. Despite this preparation and what they have achieved as a paddling pair, Khwela will still be keeping an eye on Birkett in particular.

“Andy recently lost his Drak Challenge title and that could make him angry and determined for Dusi. He is extremely tough to beat and always finds a way to win. One mistake and he pounces,” he said. “It’s always good to challenge him though and I have been chasing him to Durban for years. Don’t be fooled that him and Matthew have not done any river races together as a combination. Andy knows every rock on the Dusi.”

Living near Shongweni Dam, Khwela is able to train with Mtolo, who is near Nagle Dam, twice, sometimes three times a day. “We start at 7am and then again at 4pm, working on different aspects. We also do running at the dam and gym in Durban a few times a week,” said Khwela. “We are ready, but on race day there are so many maybes and decisions to make, it’s hard to predict what will happen. We are hungry though.”

Mtolo (26) has started nine and finished 10 Dusis, a broken boat in 2016 his only mishap. In last year’s K1 race, he chased Birkett all the way in a cat and mouse race, eventually finishing second, right in the wake of the multiple winner.

“My best K2 result was second in 2022 with Thulani Mbanjwa. We are ready for Dusi. We have done everything and it’s now up to what happens on the three days,” he said. “Sbonelo and I have been paddling together since October last year and are quietly confident of taking the title. Andy’s Drak Challenge loss shows he can be beaten, but that loss may have forced him to plan and think a different strategy which could be dangerous for us.”

With this year’s race starting at Bishopstowe, Khwela and Mtolo are hoping it could be in their favour. “We are strong runners and this start involves running before hitting the water. If we can get an early advantage and push on the runs, we can set the pace early, recover from any mistakes we make, and stay in contention,” said Khwela.