An action packed weekend on the mighty Umzimkulu River for the 20th edition of the N3TC Drak Challenge was one to remember for under-23 world marathon champion Grant van der Walt as he earned his first senior singles river marathon title.
Van der Walt narrowly outsprinted Len Jenkins on Sunday's second and final stage and in so doing smashed the men's overall and second stage records by 11 and 20 minutes respectively.
The win will be one the Team Best 4 Kayak Centre athlete with treasure for many years to come. Under the guidance of Hank McGregor, he has worked his way through the ranks over the past few years.
The pace of the two-day contest will no doubt become a topic of conversation for quite some time in the paddling community as no fewer than 26 K1s crossed the line faster the previous overall record.
"I'm just super stoked!" said an elated van der Walt. "It was an awesome couple of days of racing and to have won is amazing!"
"It's also really special to have won my first here at the Drak. The Drak has been my favourite race since I raced it for the first time seven years ago, so to have won here, in the 20th year, is awesome!"
"It's always nice when Hank and I race against each other and it was unfortunate he wasn't here, but I'm just chuffed with the win and am looking forward to the next K1 race that we can hopefully have a good race against each other," he added.
Having started side-by-side, the lead pair were soon joined by Brandon van der Walt (Team Jeep) and Donavan Wewege and the four-boat group watched each other closely until the compulsory portage at Mineshaft Weir saw things shaken up quite abruptly.
Made his move
Jenkins made his move shortly before the portage and had soon opened up a significant lead shortly after the put in.
"Len put in first and really worked hard to get away from there. I unfortunately got a bit stuck as I tried to put in, which cost me about 30 seconds, and when I looked up Len was almost out of sight," said Van der Walt.
"Len was really working hard to really get away after that, but fortunately I managed to pretty much hold the gap but kept losing a little bit more on the portages."
"I was faced with either settling for second place or really dig deep and try go for the win. I just put my head down and gave it a go and finally managed to catch Len with about a kilometre to go."
"I then edged ahead in the final rapid and was able to finish a couple lengths ahead of Len and I'm just super stoked to have won!" he added.
Three times Drak winner Jenkins had to settle for his third consecutive Drak Challenge second place, having finished behind McGregor in 2011 and 2012.
He will, however, take confidence from his performance, especially ahead of The Unlimited Dusi in just a few weeks' time.
The younger of the two Van der Walt brothers, Brandon, came home to claim the final step on the podium and in so doing also secured a first, having never previously set foot on a river marathon podium in the senior category.
Under-23 newcomer Don Wewege (Team Best 4 Kayak Centre) claimed the surprise result of the weekend finishing fourth overall with Gauteng-based veteran Jacques Theron rounding out the top five.
Another notable mover in the men's field on day two were Dusi podium hopeful Lance Kime, who made up for his two day one swims by finishing sixth.
Outside of the top three it was multiple Drak winner Ant Stott (Team Matelec) who posted the fastest time of the day in the men's top 20 as he rose from 11th to seventh.
Czech Republic marathon paddler Jakub Adam also had an impressive second day's performance moving up from 20th to 14th overall.
The women's race was once again dominated by Team Best 4 Kayak Centre team mates Abby Adie and Robyn Kime, with Adie coming out trumps for the third time in four years and in the process smashed the women's second stage and overall records by 17 and 37 minutes respectively. She also claimed a hugely impressive top 20 finish overall.
Kime erased Adie's overnight lead of 33 seconds by halfway through the 38km second stage and the pair continued side by side until shortly before Heaven and Hell Rapid where Kime had a contest-ending swim and handed Adie the title.
"Robs and I had a brilliant race and I'm obviously very happy to have won," said Adie. "The fact that we were together for much of the race and that I could stay with her when she tried to get away was also a big confidence booster ahead of Dusi.
'Making the least mistakes'
"It was a shame Robs swam towards the end there because she was probably the stronger of the two of us on the day but I guess, like I said yesterday, it came down to making the least mistakes and fortunately that's what I was able to do."
Having been disallowed to paddle on Saturday's heaving river the junior members of the field enjoyed their return to action on Sunday's second stage and it was one, two, three for Maritzburg College in the junior boys' race as Louis Hattingh, Damon Stamp and Travis Wilson claimed all three spots on the podium. Epworth's Bianca Haw walked away with the junior girls' spoils.
It was a memorable two days for Pope's Canoe's Owen Hemmingway, who when he crossed the finishing line became the only man to have completed all 20 editions of the event.
"The first one definitely sticks in the memory but this one, having made it through yesterday's massive river, is probably just as special considering it was probably even a bit bigger than it was in the first race in 1994," said Hemmingway.
"I was only happy once I got under the final bridge just before the finish line because with the river being so full so much can happen at any stage."