Andy Birkett Extends Staggering Record At 2023 Drak Challenge

by | Jan 30, 2023 | Canoeing Race Reports, Events & Racing, Paddle, Sports

A low river delivered close and fast racing at the 2023 N3TC Drak Challenge! Andy Birkett and Christie Mackenzie led from day 1 to secure victories. Read the race reports and top 10 results from each day below!

Day 1 race report from the 2023 N3TC Drak Challenge

Underberg – Andy Birkett took a bold step closer to securing a ninth successive title at the N3TC Drak Challenge canoe race on Saturday with a master class on a technical medium/low uMzimkhulu River to win the 26km first stage going away.

The East London-based marathon world champion broke away at the front with his Border training partner Matt Fenn, before firing the afterburners to bag a forty-five second overnight lead, with Under 23 world champ Hamish Lovemore third, a further minute back, and Hank McGregor finishing fourth.

Andy Birkett Extends Staggering Record At 2023 Drak Challenge
An aerial view of Black Murray rapid on the opening stage of the N3TC Drak Challenge on Saturday. (c) Ant Grote / Gameplan Media

“When I woke up this morning and saw the sun and the mountains I felt like I was in my happy place,” said the Team Euro Steel ace Birkett.

“I loved it out there today and I am so stoked that Matt (Fenn) had such a good one today. We are good training buddies and we have done a lot of paddling on this river in the last month and a bit.”

The second-place finish continues Matt Fenn’s giant-killing run after his shock win in the pre-Dusi 50 Miler race last weekend.

Christie Mackenzie Was In A Class Of Her Own On The First Stage Of The N3Tc Drak Challenge
Christie Mackenzie was in a class of her own on the first stage of the N3TC Drak Challenge on Saturday as she bagged a three and a half minute overnight lead over Bridgitte Hartley. (c) Ant Grote / Gameplan Media

“I had a great start, I put my splash cover on early and just floored it,” said Fenn at the finish.

“I went hard for the first twelve kays till past Black Murray. The water was great – I wouldn’t ask for any more or any less,” he added. “It was technical but do-able, and a lot of fun.”

“Andy (Birkett) was on top form and Hamish (Lovemore) was super strong today,” said Fenn.

Former Drak champ and multiple world marathon title holder McGregor said the river conditions didn’t favour him, but this didn’t dampen his enthusiasm on the day.

“The river level didn’t suit the heavy guys like me!” said McGregor. “Often there is only one line when you are trying to overtake and it feels like you are going backwards at times.

“I can’t complain. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful valley,” he said.

The Big Field Of Paddlers Was Treated To Hot Sunny Weather In The Southern Drakensberg For The Opening Stage Of The N3Tc Drak Challenge On Saturday.
The big field of paddlers was treated to hot sunny weather in the Southern Drakensberg for the opening stage of the N3TC Drak Challenge on Saturday. (c) Ant Grote / Gameplan Media

Fenn was the first Under 23 paddler home, with no less than seven Under 23 paddlers raced into the top ten positions. Michaelhouse pupil Rob Butcher leads the junior race.

In the women’s race Christie Mackenzie posted a peerless first stage to canter to a three-and-a-half-minute lead over perennial Drak performer Bridgitte Hartley, with Saskia Hockly in third and Andy Birkett’s wife, Nix Birkett, in fourth.

The tough 38km final stage on Sunday takes the paddlers from the overnight stop at Sinister Pool above Swartberg Bridge to Hopewell Farm on the Coleford Road.

N3TC Drak Challenge Stage 1 – Castleburn to Swartberg bridge – summary of results

1 Andy Birkett 1:32:28.22 
2 Matthew Fenn 1:33:16.92 
3 Hamish Lovemore 1:34:18.34 
4 Hank McGregor 1:38:10.59 
5 David Evans 1:38:11.40 
6 Hamish Mackenzie 1:38:29.27 
7 Bradley Boulle 1:38:30.61 
8 Sam Butcher 1:39:55.41 
9 Scott Little 1:39:57.35 
10 Ross Leslie 1:39:59.80 

1 Christie Mackenzie 1:47:53.23 
2 Bridgitte Hartley 1:51:17.33 
3 Saskia Hockly 1:52:47.38 
4 Nix Birkett 1:54:51.90 
5 Jordan Peek 1:58:02.28 
6 Emma Hatfield 2:02:25.55 
7 Tracey Van Der Walt 2:02:52.11 
8 Hilary Bruss 2:03:57.14 
9 Jessica Behn 2:08:40.40 
10 Candice Murray 2:09:34.42 

Day 2 race report from the 2023 N3TC Drak Challenge

Andy Birkett completed a flawless final stage of the N3TC Drak Challenge canoe marathon on Sunday afternoon to extend his unbroken winning streak at the uMzimkhulu classic to nine consecutive victories.

Racing in cool overcast conditions, in sharp contrast to Saturday’s sweltering heat, Birkett used his accumulated knowledge of the river to master the demanding technical medium- level river conditions and race away alone to win by more than two minutes from a charging Under 23 world champ, Hamish Lovemore, who vaulted past Under 23 winner Matt Fenn.

Andy Birkett Extends Staggering Record At 2023 Drak Challenge
East Londoner Matt Fenn stunned the opening stage of the N3TC Drak Challenge on Saturday by finishing second, he would eventually win the Under 23 honours at the N3TC finishing third overall.(c) Ant Grote / Gameplan Media

“It was such an awesome race this year,” said the race winner. “It was such a great level, with enough water to get down everything.

“It was chilly today, in contrast to the conditions we had on the first day,” the modest East London world champ added.

The win extends his record as the race’s most successful male paddler and now draws him level with Abby Solms, whose nine wins in the women’s division made her the race’s most successful elite athlete.

Mkhulu Rapid, Close To The Finish Of The Final Stage Of The N3Tc Drak Challenge, Posed Plenty Of Challenges For The Paddlers On Sunday.
(c) Ant Grote / Gameplan Media

Lovemore wrapped up the silver medal, marking his return to the popular race for the first time since 2019, while Fenn was full value for his podium finish. Hank McGregor finished fourth, with Sam Butcher in fifth. 

Troubles on the final stage saw Rob Butcher drop back through the junior field, allowing Luke Salmon to claim the Gara paddle prize for the first Under 18 boy home, with Asibabale Mpambani second.

There was deep satisfaction etched on the face of Christie Mackenzie as she added a maiden N3TC Drak victory to her impressive CV of results.

Saskia Hockly Handles The Waves Of Glenhaven On The Final Stage Of The N3Tc Drak Challenge On Sunday
Saskia Hockly handles the waves of Glenhaven on the final stage of the N3TC Drak Challenge on Sunday. (c) Ant Grote / Gameplan Media

As she powered away unchallenged at the front of the women’s race, she easily navigated the new rapid at the end of the race to finish with a cushion of more than five minutes over Bridgitte Hartley, with Umhlanga teenager Saskia Hockly completing the stellar women’s podium.

Underberg local Scotty Little raced into the top ten overall and was one of seven Under 23 paddlers to finish in the top ten.

At the other end of the age categories, Colin Simpkins scrambled into the top 100 overall and in the process finished his 27th Drak, moving him to the top of the Drak Trouts list, while canoeing icon Owen Hemmingway completed his 26th Drak.

N3TC Drak Challenge Stage 2 – Swartberg bridge to Hopewell Farm – summary of results

1 Andy Birkett 1:32:28.22 | 2:23:52.84 | 3:56:21.06 
2 Hamish Lovemore 1:34:18.34 | 2:24:12.23 | 3:58:30.57 
3 Matthew Fenn 1:33:44.92 | 2:26:13.58 | 3:59:58.50 
4 Hank McGregor 1:38:10.59 | 2:30:04.39 | 4:08:14.98 
5 Sam Butcher 1:39:55.41 | 2:31:43.65 | 4:11:39.06 
6 David Evans 1:38:11.40 | 2:33:34.43 | 4:11:45.84 
7 Hamish Mackenzie 1:38:29.27 | 2:34:06.80 | 4:12:36.07 
8 Bradley Boulle 1:38:30.61 | 2:35:13.10 | 4:13:43.71 
9 Jeremy Maher 1:40:58.33 | 2:32:51.44 | 4:13:49.78 
10 Scott Little 1:39:57.35 | 2:34:02.00 | 4:13:59.36 

1 Christie Mackenzie 1:47:53.23 | 2:42:52.19 | 4:30:45.43 
2 Bridgitte Hartley 1:51:17.33 | 2:45:08.05 | 4:36:25.38 
3 Saskia Hockly 1:52:47.38 | 2:45:02.05 | 4:37:49.43 
4 Nix Birkett 1:54:51.90 | 2:48:21.08 | 4:43:12.98 
5 Hilary Bruss 2:03:57.14 | 2:57:18.66 | 5:01:15.80 
6 Candice Murray 2:09:34.42 | 2:55:08.34 | 5:04:42.77 
7 Emma Hatfield 2:02:25.55 | 3:02:42.92 | 5:05:08.48 
8 Tracey Van Der Walt 2:02:52.11 | 3:11:30.55 | 5:14:22.66 
9 Jessica Behn 2:08:40.40 | 3:11:33.32 | 5:20:13.72 
10 Rachel Van Deventer 2:11:20.28 | 3:11:56.75 | 5:23:17.03 

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