Early season Umpetha tester for evergreen Mbanjwa

The vastly experienced Thulani Mbanjwa is looking forward to a challenging 2016 Umpetha Challenge canoe marathon from Camps Drift to Bishopstowe Hall on Sunday, 30 October as a star-studded field descends on the first KZN based 2017 FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon seeding race.

After a strong performance at the recent Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon, the 33 year-old former Dusi winner is confident his river skills will see him competitive on the water of the early season clash’s opening 14 kilometres.

With the Dusi still three and a half months away though, Mbanjwa has spent little time on the trails thus far, leaving the Build it/Williams Hunt athlete a little less excited by the final 3.5 kilometre run up the Campbell’s Farm portage to the finish line.

“I will definitely be at this weekend’s Umpetha Challenge, giving it my all,” confirms Mbanjwa.

“Especially after Fish, I feel my paddling should see me stay with the front bunch up until the take out for the portage.

“From there though, it will be a painful push to the finish and we’ll see whether or not I am fit enough to race or if by that stage I’ll just be taking part,” he laughs with a hint of trepidation.

The Valley of a Thousand Hills hero suffered a nerve-racking long swim through Keith’s Flyover during the recent Eastern Cape based Hansa Fish that saw him fall from fifth place at the time to twelfth place overall at the end of the highly competitive two-day event.

“I was feeling strong early on at Fish and then I had a big swim at Keith’s where I also broke my paddle.

“I eventually managed to get a new paddle but it took me about seven kilometres to get used to the new blade, which cost me more time and energy.

“Overall all though, Fish was good for me and my paddling experience definitely helped me in the big water.

“Hopefully now I can use that confidence as well as my skill to do well at the KZN races, like the Umpetha.”

Caught between his inability to ignore his inner competitiveness completely while trying to remain realistic about his current running condition, Mbanjwa is reluctant to be drawn into making any personal pre-race predictions.

The perennial contender is however more committal about whom else he expects to battle it out at the front of the field this weekend, many of those being fellow Valley of a Thousand Hills based athletes who Mbanjwa has spent countless hours training alongside or even racing in the same boat with throughout his years.

“Most of us are only starting to get into our running training now and I know my running isn’t quite up there just yet, so I’m not too worried about how I go this weekend; it is still long way to go to Dusi.

“Sbonelo (Khwela) and Banetse (Nkhoesa) have both been doing a lot of trail running in the winter though and they will definitely be the two to beat!

“Little Lucas (Mthalane) is also flying at the moment; he is very running fit already and always a very good paddler too, so I’m sure he will be looking for a podium at Umpetha.

“I’ve also heard some of the guys from Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club (SCARC) will be coming down from Gauteng and so someone like Siseko Ntondini, who is another very good paddler – he finished eighth, one place behind Sbonelo at Fish this year – and is also a fantastic runner, will be right up there too.

“It should be a very good race this weekend,” adds the wise and widely respected Mbanjwa.