Dusi icon Michael Mbanjwa, will start The Unlimited Dusi next week desperate to add a K1 victory in the famous three day canoe marathon to go with his ground-breaking victory in the K2 race three years ago.
The popular 27 year old, who was born and raised in the Valley of a Thousand Hills and learnt to paddle under Robert Lembethe at Nagle Dam, raced himself into South African sporting folklore when he partnered Martin Dreyer to become the first black paddler to win the coveted Dusi title in 2008.
Now Mbanjwa, who's paddling talent has seen him settle as a professional paddler and coach in Gauteng, is anxious to win a K1 edition of The Unlimited Dusi to entrench his status amongst the very best of the Dusi champions.
“I have to win the K1 title,” said Mbanjwa firmly.
“Yes, I won the K2 race with Martin Dreyer, but now I have to prove to everyone I can stand up on my own and win the singles title.
“I am not going to give up until I have won the K1 Dusi.”
Should conditions favour Mbanjwa during the race next week, with medium rivers and fast dry portaging conditions that skew the race in favour of the strong runners, there is every reason to believe Mbanjwa will be able to ascend to top step on the podium at the prizegiving next Saturday afternoon.
In the process he will not only silence the cynics who felt he was in the right place at the right time sitting behind “Dusi Duke” Martin Dreyer in 2008, but will further elevate him as a rallying call to the hundreds of young aspirant black paddlers who want nothing more than to emulate the glory achieve by the man affectionately known in the paddling community as “Bungee”.
His competition for this year's K1 crown are fully aware of his strengths.
“There is no-one who runs faster with a boat than Michael Mbanjwa,” admits double Dusi champ Hank McGregor.
“That's his strength and that makes Day One of the race with its long portages his day.”
Mbanjwa, however, has like many of the other top contenders, had to juggle his training in between work commitments, and is concerned his running is not where it has been in the past.
“I am heavier than I am usually going into the race,” said Mbanjwa.
“I wasn't able to get away to get into my serious training until mid-December, and even though I have been working really hard training in the valley, I am still quite a bit heavier than usual, so I will be hoping that we have a good water level for the race.”
Mbanjwa has been at the centre of a large training group with the Change A Life Academy paddlers at Nagle Dam, and is in awe at how competitive they are.
“These guys have jumped a whole level this year,” he says. “I owe them actually, because if they had not been pushing me so hard in my training I would not have been able to catch up to where I need to be. Watch out for guys like Eric Zondi,” he warns.
Mbanjwa finds himself in a good space going into his 12th Dusi, but now that he is tapering, the nerves start to play on him and he can't wait for the race to start on February 17.
“The start is the worst,” says Mbanjwa.
“From Camps Drift to Ernie Pearce weir you worry about what might happen and where you will be lying once you get to the bottom of the weir. But then you know what you have to do, and you just get on with it.”
He is also eagerly looking forward to the massive support he enjoys from the local residents along the route, particularly on the first stage when he races through the district where he was born and raised, and where he is now nothing short of a folk hero.
“Gee, that's my secret weapon!” he enthuses.
“It means so much to me every time I hear someone cheering me on. Especially near the end of the first day when you start to get tired, this is where most of my support seems to come, and it gives me so much extra energy. I cannot disappoint these people.” – Sapa