An unfamiliar reverberation filled the Valley of a Thousand Hills settlement of KwaNyavu in rural KwaZulu-Natal, and a young Khumbulani Nzimande scrambled outside to investigate. It’s not often you see a helicopter passing KwaNyavu, so the 12-year-old ran towards the loud throbbing of the rotor blades to see what all the fuss was about.
It was 2008 and Valley resident Thulani Michael Mbanjwa was being flown home after a monumental victory at the Dusi Canoe Marathon with K2 partner Martin Dreyer.
Young Nzimande was wildly impressed by the spectacle. Little did he know just how instrumental both paddlers would be in his own life in the years ahead. Mbanjwa, the one to inspire him by showing what was possible for a kid from the Valley, and Dreyer, the one who made it all possible through his Change a Life Academy.
So inspired was Nzimande that not long afterwards, he decided it was time to give the sport a try.
“After I saw the helicopter, I started going to Nagle Dam to see those who were training there,” explained the 24-year-old, sitting in his simple, sparsely furnished home with cows grazing outside, just a short bicycle ride from the dam. “Then I started stealing boats and training without any permission.
“One day, [paddler and coach] Lucas Mthalane caught me and asked me who gave me permission to paddle and do I know how to swim. I told him I do know how to swim and then he said I must just go home. I was very disappointed because I knew I did wrong and he chased me away.
“So another week, I went back and asked for permission and he agreed for me to paddle. By that stage, I already knew how.”
Nzimande had been trying out the more stable K2 boats with a friend, who already knew the basics. Mastering the one-man boat took a little longer. But it’s in a K2 that he’ll be bidding for glory come 27 to 29 February, as he teams up with nine-time champion Andy Birkett in this year’s Dusi River marathon.
With Birkett’s experience and paddling power and Nzimande’s phenomenal running prowess (the three-day race includes close to 30km of portage, or running with the boat), the pair are considered out-and-out favourites to top the podium.
Twelve years and plenty of hard work later, he finally has the chance to emulate his hero.
“The whole community ran to the helicopter that day to see him, so that inspired me very much because I really wanted to be like him one day. Everyone was happy for him. Now we speak a lot and we train together sometimes because he stays near Nagle Dam. We train together if we get the chance.”
Mbanjwa has teamed up with Sbonelo Khwela for the 2020 race and is among the contenders for the top spot. Back in that 2008 race, he was the first black paddler to win a Dusi crown.
It’s been far from a smooth process for Nzimande, who became frustrated when he wasn’t fast enough at the start.
“It was very difficult for me because I didn’t see canoeing going anywhere. I was very slow. Even the youngsters could drop me, so I was very confused why I wasn’t paddling like Michael or the others. I didn’t know it was because I was still getting to know how to paddle. I just had to wait and be patient,” he said.
Baptised in the Dusi
The results eventually did come, albeit not in his first Dusi, when he was actually relieved to have broken his boat on day one.
“To be honest, I was very scared of doing Dusi because I didn’t know whether I’d manage to go all the way from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. I didn’t think that I could make it, so I was paddling along thinking that and I hit a rock. Then another guy hit my rudder and my boat turned into the rocks and broke. I didn’t get angry. I was happy that my boat was broken so I didn’t have any more stress,” he reflected with a laugh.
Two years later, in 2016, he teamed up with Mmeli Cele and claimed 10th spot. The following year, he came in 11th in a K1. And Nzimande just missed the podium in last year’s race, finishing fourth, his best result to date.
This year, he and Birkett have already won the 50 Miler, which covers some of the first and second days of the Dusi course. Now Nzimande is hoping it’s his year to make the Valley proud with a Dusi victory.
“I’m very happy and at the moment, I feel like we can win Dusi. I think I’m fit for it and we’re ready … Everyone is very happy about us and they’re very motivated. Especially the people in the Valley, they really think we can do it. It gives young people hope that maybe one day they can be like Andy or like me.”
While there is clearly raw talent in abundance, much of the success of the paddlers from the Valley has come about because of the initial work of the Robert Lembethe Canoe Club at Nagle Dam and then Dreyer’s Change a Life Academy. Started in 2008, seven-time Dusi champion Dreyer recognised the talent but also the lack of financial assistance for those interested in the sport.
His academy, which aims to change the lives of talented youths in one of the country’s most impoverished regions through canoeing, mountain biking and running, has succeeded to such an extent that 15 of the top 30 in last year’s Dusi were Change a Life paddlers. Among them was Nzimande.
A match made in Dusi heaven
That opened all sorts of doors and with Birkett looking for a partner, the talented young Nzimande seemed like an excellent choice. Andrew Booyens, who coaches both athletes and has also had a massive hand in the success of the Valley athletes, suggested the match and the two paddlers clicked straight away.
Birkett goes so far as to say that working alongside Nzimande has reignited his passion for the race. “Khumbulani is one of the most remarkable characters I have had the privilege of getting to know,” said Birkett, who in 2018 also won double marathon world titles.
“He is humble, grounded and a dedicated athlete with a big heart. He comes from an extremely challenging living environment, in the rural Dusi Valley. Access to medical facilities, good education systems and housing are just a few of the difficulties. He lives in a small home with his parents and seven siblings. Khumbulani comes from a wonderful family. His father is a proud, disciplined Zulu, which his son mirrors.
“In the boat, Khumbalani and I combine so well. This is because we have spent a great deal of time in the boat together and learnt how each one of us reacts to different situations,” explained Birkett, who has been hosting Nzimande at his home in East London for three months so the two can train together.
“We are both really excited to race Dusi. We know there is some fierce competition, but that’s what makes the Dusi such a nail-biting race. Khumbulani has a bright future to look forward to in paddling.
“The Dusi journey that I’ve shared with Khumbulani has lit my fire for Dusi racing again, and seeing him get so strong through an intense training regime has been awesome.”
Asked what each of them brings to the team, Nzimande reckoned: “For Andy, I can say he is very powerful, both in the water and in his running. For me, I can say I’m more powerful in running. But I think combining the two of us makes a good team.”
Running is in Nzimande’s blood. His father, Thulani, was a solid athlete, completing numerous Comrades Marathons and obtaining top 10 finishes in numerous other races. He grew up with the renowned Willie Mtolo – the first South African to win the New York Marathon – and the family still have some of the legendary marathon runner’s kit in their home as a memento.
Thulani Nzimande decided to stop running to focus on supporting his family after the cows and goats he had inherited from his father started dying because of drought. Financially, it just wasn’t worth it.
That’s where his son is hoping things will be different. They already are, with the backing of Euro Steel as a sponsor and the intervention and assistance of his coach, Booyens.
While his initial motivation for paddling was the chance to travel and see other parts of the country, like many in the Valley, Nzimande’s main incentive now is financial.
“I started getting money from winning after Andrew came into my life and gave me a proper training programme,” he said, adding that personal coaching with someone tracking his progress every day has made all the difference.
“He came into my life around 2017 or 2018. At that time I wasn’t sponsored, but when I met Andrew, Euro Steel sponsored me. So that’s where my life changed, because I could even build this house with that money,” he said. His next goal is to tile the house and buy more furniture.
Paddling is far from a top-dollar sport. But the prize money that goes to the winners of this year’s Dusi Canoe Marathon could be life-changing.
“I have no support outside the sport at the moment, so canoeing is what gives me money. That’s what motivates me every time, that if I can keep paddling, maybe one day I can get more money. I do also enjoy it a lot because it keeps me away from things that they do here in the Valley, like alcohol and stealing. It keeps me busy all the time.”
Meanwhile, with his livelihood depending on it and the burden of being tagged a favourite to win, there’s plenty of pressure with which to deal and Nzimande is all too aware of that.
“Sometimes, when I come across people in the valley, they’ll say, ‘You mustn’t disappoint us, you must win Dusi.’ So I do feel pressure, but I get motivated by knowing myself and knowing that I’m strong. And I know that Andy is strong, so nothing can distract us from winning.”
When it comes to long-term goals, Nzimande remains humble and grounded. He wants to win the Dusi in a K1, build a better house for his parents and maybe become a geography teacher.
“I hope I can grow more and more in sport, and I would like my home to look good. Because when you’re paddling, people think that you have more money. So I don’t want them to just think that. I want them to see something, like my home changes, I look good, things like that. So that’s what I’m dreaming of, changing my home and making it look beautiful.”
Booyens, who’s been credited with the improved performance of countless top Dusi contenders, is backing Nzimande all the way.
“He’s a young man with huge potential. He’s a clever guy, very dedicated, and he’s got a passion for what he does and I really believe he’ll go a long way.
“He’s got the correct mentality. He’s pretty fearless with the way he races and he’s really committed to his training and he’s got a lot of self-belief. These are the things that are required by an athlete.
“He’s got the ability to work hard and he’s got the ability to suffer. He’s come from a very hard upbringing and he’s taken the opportunities that have been given to him with both hands. I really see him as a future winner of the race in a single one day.”
He will get that chance in 2021. But first there’s the 2020 race to conquer. Perhaps then he’ll be granted a triumphant helicopter homecoming of his own.