DURBAN – At the end of every Dusi Canoe Marathon, Sibonelo Khwela has a braai at his house, not far from the banks of the Umzinyathi Canoe Club. He brings together friends, family, support staff and, every other year, his paddling partner for the K2 race to Durban.
Last Saturday, having finished third behind the combinations of Andy Birkett/Hank McGregor and Carl Folscher/Adrian Boros, Khwela and his 2018 partner, Siseko Ntondini, drove back up the hill from Blue Lagoon, and mused over meat and drink.
“We could have won,” Khwela lamented, moments after the race. “This race is all about learning, every year. One day those lessons will all come together, and I believe that I will win it again.”
His previous partner, Birkett, carried on his dominance of the sport, but Khwela took encouragement from the fact that McGregor, at his ripe old age, was still finding the zeal to win and still be learning lessons on the river.
“I am 30 years old,” Khwela pointed out. “That means I still could have anything up to 10 Dusi races in me. What Hank did encouraged me, reminded me that this race is something that you can compete in for a career,” he said.
One little error, down Mango Rapid, took the lead from Khwela and Ntondini, deep into day three, and that was enough for the predatory pair of McGregor and Birkett to forge ahead. Foslcher and Boros, powerful paddlers, then stole a march on the flatwater.
Just like that, the tantalising prospect of a historic win for Khwela and Ntondini became a third-place finish.
“I have to commend Siseko. He came and lived with me for two months, in preparation for this. That was a great show of commitment from him, and I hope that he had as much fun as I did. I think we were a good team, but it was small things that cost us. For me, at this age, it is important that I pass on as much knowledge as I can to the guys I am with. We saw how much value Banetse (Nkhoesa) got from being in the boat with Ant (Stott), and that is a big part of the K2 race,” Khwela said of the expertise exchange.
Ntondini, for one, admitted that he learnt a lot about meticulous preparation from the indefatigable Khwela, who is renowned for his prowess in the portages. Khwela leaves no stone unturned, and his hours are as random as they are relentless.
“I was on the river until after 8pm on Friday night, tripping to see what we could do on Saturday. That rapid (Mango) was not that full, so that is why our splash covers were not on. It was a mistake, and I suppose it is those margins that one has to close,” he pondered.
Now, of course, he looks ahead to the next challenge.
“The Non-Stop is something I always enjoy. It is a lot of fun for me, and I think this year will be the same, too.”
But, as he looks to extend his repertoire, Khwela is now looking beyond the boat for his next test of endurance.
“I like the Comrades Marathon. I think I would enjoy it, and I am seriously considering giving it a go properly in the next few years. The only problem is that it is quite close to the Dusi in terms of preparation, so I would have to choose.
“I am not saying I would skip the Dusi, but maybe my training one year would be less serious, because I would be building for the Comrades. We will see,” he said with a smile. “If I tried to do both races in the same year, it would mean six months of training. I don’t think that would be fair on my wife and family,” he conceded.
And, with that, the ever smiling Khwela was off. Meat, mates and some quite muttering about what could have been - and what will be - were on the agenda. As ever with the Dusi, each ending of one race marks the beginning of the anticipation for the next.
The meat atop the hills of Shongweni may taste that bit sweeter if 2019 is really Khwela’s year.