Ten-time world champion Hank McGregor showed ominous signs of his best form on the weekend as he won his second title at the tough 60km FastDrak race in the build-up to the important Drak Challenge on January 20 and 21.
A relaxed and measured McGregor mastered the low uMzimkhulu River and the challenges from several elite races to canter home to win the endurance outing that covers the full course of the two-day Drak Challenge in a solitary outing, with two added portages.
"It was so good to be able to race the entire Drak course against such a strong field," said star McGregor.
"It was great racing in a beautiful part of the country, with my family there to support and second me," he added.
McGregor won the prestigious Drak title three years on the trot from 2010 to 2012, but since then has been on the losing end of a number of thrilling duels on the uMzimkhulu, in recent years to Andy Birkett.
McGregor will be teaming up with Birkett for the Dusi in February, but will have to deal with his K2 partner as his toughest opponent on the water during January's Drak Challenge, as Birkett has won the last four editions of the race.
"I am really looking forward to racing Andy (Birkett) at the Drak. It has basically been the two of us over the last few years, and the margins have been so small," he said.
"The fact that we are team mates for the Dusi just makes it more appealing."
For McGregor, who will turn 40 a few days after the Drak Challenge this year, getting his name back onto the Drak trophy will have a strong appeal.
The Durbanite has been using his time in the Southern Drakensberg shrewdly, spending time scouting the lower stretches of the second stage that have in recent years proved to be decisive in the title race outcome.
At the FastDrak on the weekend Clinton Cook was locked in a tussle with veteran Thulani Mbanjwa for second, who has been showing solid early summer form ahead of the Dusi Canoe Marathon in mid-February. Mbanjwa powered away in the closing stages to relegate Cook to the last step on the podium.
The race included a number of other paddlers that are sure to feature prominently in the Dusi title clash, but who elected not to force their hands in the tough one day FastDrak race.
Ant Stott withdrew midway through the race, keen not injure himself on the low river, while Andrew Houston did the same.
The women's race saw a return to big time paddling in South Africa for former Drak and Dusi champion Robyn Owen, who ran away with the women's spoils with impressive ease.
Christie Mackenzie raced well in second, with Kerry Segal taking third just ahead of Cana Peek. All three of these women will be pivotal to the Dusi K2 race in February which will not include Robyn Owen, who is preparing for her Coast-To-Coast in New Zealand at the same time as the Dusi.
The Drak Challenge starts at Castleburn on Saturday, January 20 with a 24 kilometre stage to Sinister Pool, just above the Swartberg Road Bridge.
The second stage on Sunday, January 21 is 36 kilometres finishing at Early Mist Farm close to Coleford resort.
More information can be found at www.drak.co.za.