The 61st edition of the four-day Berg River Canoe Marathon gets underway outside Paarl on Wednesday, as many of the race’s illustrious champions return to take part in the annual paddling odyssey to the Cape West Coast.
Hank McGregor returns to the start line aiming at a 12th Berg title, looking to extend his record as the 43-year-old remains one of the paddlers that has defined his generation.
As a youngster who was first inspired to paddle by watching his father compete in the Berg Marathon, McGregor has won more Berg stages and outright race victories than any other paddler in history, and his appetite for the demanding race remains undiminished as he prepares for another world marathon championships campaign at the end of the September.
McGregor finished second to Andy Birkett last year, and with Birkett absent as he contests the marathon races at the World Games in the USA, McGregor will start as the odds-on favourite.
He will have to find a way to outsmart the young star Hamish Lovemore, who has stamped his authority on the national marathon scene in the last two years and beat McGregor in both the recent KZN marathon Champs and the SA Marathon Champs.
Lovemore is another Berg champion returning to the race, having won the title in 2019 with Tyron Maher when it was contested as a team event.
Graeme Solomon returns to the start in Paarl as another former champion, and as a 49-year-old he has lost little of his racing form or competitive spirit, and with his recent win on the Berg River at the Western Cape K1 River Champs to boost his confidence, he will carry the best river knowledge of all the fancied elites.
Throw into the mix of the men’s race the class of Heinrich Schloms, Uli Hart, Simon van Gysen and Wayne Jacobs, and the men’s race promises to deliver a riveting four days of action.
Also among the returning champions is Robbie Herreveld, who dominated the race in the Nineties with six back-to-back wins. Although he won’t threaten the podium, he is hungry to get onto the river that defined his paddling career.
Right up there with the great champions returning to the race is Jannie Malherbe. Now 83 years old, the Wilderness resident was part of the small group of pioneers that started the first Berg in 1962, and went on to win it three times in a row from 1963-1965.
Malherbe will be starting his 49th Berg, and is sure to find company along the 247km journey to the coast from Giel van Deventer, who last year became the first person to complete 50 Berg marathons.
The women’s race looks set to deliver on the fascinating contest that has characterised river marathons in South Africa in recent years.
While her husband Andy is away campaigning in the USA, Nikki Birkett returns to the race as the women’s defending champion as favourite. With her grit and love for long “grinds” on a river, the Berg undoubtedly plays to her strengths.
She will line up on the row of seeded women with Jenna Nisbet, who is also using the Berg as part of her longer-term marathon plans for 2022, Tracey Oellermann and Melanie van Niekerk.
Should she sneak in a last-minute entry, multiple Berg women’s title winner Bianca Beavitt will add an extra dimension to the women’s title race.