DURBAN - To very little fanfare just yet, the 25th ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships have descended upon “Sleepy Hollow”, Pietermaritzburg.
Things tend to happen slowly in Maritzburg, but they will pick up the pace rapidly over the next few days.
From Monday, the Masters took centre stage at Camps Drift, but now the really serious business kicks off, with a raft of junior races kicking off the main action on Thursday morning.
Make no mistake, the crème de la crème of the canoe marathon world is in town, and they have all been intrigued by their quaint surroundings.
Of course, Maritzburg is the eternal starting point of the Dusi Canoe Marathon, a three-day trek that traverses water, land, hills and the sapping heat of February in KwaZulu-Natal.
On flat water, however, the world’s elite look for a telling blend of speed and endurance. Already, the main protagonists have been identified. And they are no strangers to this part of the world.
Hank “The Tank” McGregor is the defending world champion, a hulking specimen who seems to routinely defy age and the ever mounting batch of threats to his incredible reign.
Defiantly, McGregor has helped himself to five of the last six singles titles in the World Championships, and he shows little sign of relenting. The eight-time champion is in supreme form, as he continues to cement his legacy as one of South Africa’s most unsung superstars.
Come Sunday, the general expectation is that he will have added another chapter to an illustrious career on the water. McGregor himself knows that he will not have it all his own way, with local lad Andy Birkett getting increasingly proficient in this discipline.
After securing the junior world title three years ago, Birkett has graduated to the senior ranks, and took silver behind McGregor last year.
Naturally, the locals are bracing for a mad dash to the line on Sunday, though they would do well to keep an eye out for the bruisers from Budapest.
The Hungarians arrived early and have made Maritzburg a home from home, and they also have plenty of local know-how from those who have paddled the Dusi for “fun”.
Hungary breeds marathon paddlers like Brazil does footballers, and they will want to leave their mark in Africa.
They are expected to dominate the junior ranks, and former under-23 women’s star Vanda Kiszli has moved into the senior ranks, which paves the way for the next generation.
Kiszli is expected to be in a ferocious three-way battle for K1 women’s supremacy with compatriot Renata Csay, a seven-time champion, and Croat Anna Koziskova.
Expect those names to feature prominently in the women’s pairs, too, where South Africa will pin hopes on Jenna Ward and Nicole Russell.
In the men’s K2 duel, McGregor will be eyeing a double title with Jasper Mocké, while Birkett will surely challenge with rising star Jean van der Westhuyzen.
It is deliciously poised, with the Maritzburg weather playing along thus far. The stretch of road that takes one to Camps Drift has been crammed all week, and it will only swell in anticipation of terrific paddling this weekend.
South Africa last hosted the championships back in 1998, in Cape Town.
With Maritzburg the breeding ground for many of South Africa’s greatest paddlers, it is fitting that the canoe marathon world has flocked to the banks of the Msunduzi River.
“Sleepy Hollow” it will not be until Sunday.