Sbonelo Khwela paddling on for elusive Dusi title

The fanatical paddler dreams of becoming the first black man to win the Dusi Canoe Marathon, and he won’t stop until he’s scaled this particular peak.

Sbonelo Khwela is driven by goals. The adventure sport junkie has one particular target that he wants to hit, and he will not rest until that is done.

“I would love to win the Dusi Canoe Marathon.”

He’s sort of done that already, though, when he won the doubles (K2) title with Andy Birkett in 2014.

“On my own. No black man has ever done that, so it is a big goal of mine.”

Khwela, 31, was only the second black paddler after Thulani Mbanjwa to win the famous trek, but a singles (K1) win would mean even more. The Dusi Canoe Marathon is one of the toughest endurance tests on earth. It is a sapping thing, an arduous slog that requires permanent concentration, a propensity for pain and freakish levels of fitness.

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Finishing it is an event in itself and some die-hards have walked more than half the course, with their boat shattered in two by a rock lurking in a rapid in the river. It is no place for meek men and women, but there are disciples of torture who flock to KwaZulu-Natal every February for the hell of it.

Among these river maniacs, Khwela is perhaps even more fanatical. He lives for these annual tests of every body part. He embraces the pain. With the nickname “Tough Guy”, he is no stranger to hardship. He has embraced all of it and grown to love the unique Dusi challenge.

If you happen upon the Valley of a Thousand Thrills when he is racing, and in fierce contention, you will hear the difference in cheers when he glides past.

To be sure, the people cheer everyone on. They know what the race brings to them and they appreciate it. The race has always given back to the people who allow paddlers literally to race through their backyards once a year, as they dash for Durban. The people receive donations of necessities, while bed and breakfast facilities in the valley have mushroomed to cater for overnight stays during the annual pilgrimage.

A race with a conscience

The race gives back, because it has always had a conscience. It has also encouraged the locals to take up the sport, and provided clinics and sponsors to allow intrigued young boys and girls the chance to change their lives. Young men like Khwela, who was invited to an introductory academy in 2005, have benefitted from those clinics.

“My friends had gone to the initial intake, at Umzinyathi Canoe Club. I was still more interested in football, so I didn’t pay attention to it.”

The locals would hear of trailblazers like Thulani Mbanjwa and Loveday Zondi, who were swapping running and football for this boat thing. This paddling thing.

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“You would hear about them, and how crazy and fun what they were doing was. So I was curious and went to see what it was all about,” Khwela recalls.

You always remember your first, they say, and that saying holds significant Dusi water. In his first marathon in 2006, Khwela finished in a sobering 303rd place – with a partner. It takes time to tame the beast of water. And he has put in the time, learning each season, becoming an absolute sponge for advice and tricks of the trade.

“The great thing about the Dusi is that we are all fighting nature. There is an element of luck as well, because you can never know what is around the corner.”

He has paid his dues, running into dead ends, taking his boat down ill-advised rapids and tipping over for a swim. You learn and you laugh at the Dusi. And then resolve to get better. To finish is an achievement in itself, because to reach Durban is to survive.

Shongweni waiting for the first black champion

Accordingly, the people of the Shongweni area and surrounds salute each of these visitors, well aware of the immensity of their toil. But when Khwela comes into view, there is an amplification of sound. The valley and its people know he is one of their own and they sit in expectant wait for the coronation of the first black champion.

It’s not a race thing. It’s a racing thing.

A pride thing. Most things to do with water are not readily associated with black people. It’s a stereotype, yes.

But it’s also a reality. Water, especially flowing as furiously as the Dusi river does in the early part of the year, is considered a threat to life. It’s to be respected, not to be played with.

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A singles win for Khwela – or anyone else from the valley, for that matter – would be a rite of passage, a confirmation that anything is truly possible through hard work and dedication.

The Dusi Canoe Marathon may well be the most naturally transformed sport in South Africa. There are lessons there for the major codes. Arm youngsters, who previously didn’t have facilities and guidance, and you will see the results.

When the most promising kids in the valley had to go on their training camps for the Dusi, they were provided with groceries for the house in lieu of the odd jobs that they were sacrificing to gain prowess on the river.

Truly, the race has always had a conscience.

In 2019, Khwela again flirted with history as he led for the first half of the race. Then the unrelenting Andy Birkett, the modern master of the race, hunted him down.

Birkett vs Khwela: Friends and rivals

There is a mutual respect and admiration between the pair. You can’t help but grow close to the rivals you suffer alongside, and Birkett and Khwela are no different. They have pushed each other to new heights and taught each other different things during their alliance in 2014.

Birkett holds sway when it comes to dominance. Khwela is not done chasing him, though. Not nearly.

“Andy is amazing. I thought it was my time this year, after leading on day one. But I made some small mistakes, which cost me. And Andy is just so powerful when he is paddling,” Khwela admits.

That’s all it takes in the Dusi, as one slip can turn into precious seconds wasted. Birkett and the rest are always astonished at the speed with which Khwela climbs hills, with a boat on his shoulder.

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He hurtles over, breaking Burma Road portage records. He has forced others to employ running coaches, because the time he was making up on the run was becoming a genuine concern. That shouldn’t be altogether surprising, given his name. In Zulu, to khwela is to climb.

And he does that with an alarming sense of ease. There is no release of the valve and the brutal pace seems to increase when he goes up the hill. In that morning heat of the race, it is a frightening sight.

His engine is his secret weapon, but he knows that paddling remains the fundamental. Every year, he explains, he learns something new about himself and the race. A river never reveals all its secrets at once and he is happy to keep learning and improving.

“I know how tough it is to win this race, but I will keep on trying. It’s something I know I can do and I still feel strong enough,” he says.

That he is so clear in his goal is revealing in itself. This matters to him. Deeply. For decades, the people of the valley that sits squarely in the midst of the path the marathon charts from Pietermaritzburg to Durban would watch in awe as crazy white people scorched past in their boats, tearing through the overgrown foliage, over craggy mounds, then jumping back into the water and heading for the rocks.

“We used to see them, early in the morning, and just watch,” Khwela says.

3 March 2016: Khwela is such a master of the running aspect of the Dusi and Non-Stop canoe marathons that other competitors have roped in running coaches to try and keep up. (Photograph by Anthony Grote/Gameplan Media)

A prolific striker in his previous life

Back then, he was still obsessed with football, playing in the valley leagues. These were hotly contested and there is untold footballing quality that still lurks unscouted across many valleys and townships in South Africa. Football, or diski, has always come easily to the masses.

“I was a striker,” Khwela says proudly.

He notes the raised eyebrow of the journalist, so eagerly he elaborates.

“You can ask anyone in the valley. I used to score a lot of goals. We played for points, we played for meat around Christmas and we sometimes played for money,” he recalls.

“I would always make sure I came back with a couple of goals. They know me,” he laughs, revelling in the nostalgia of carefree days.

Khwela is a Kaizer Chiefs and Liverpool supporter, which perhaps explains his rock-hard exterior. Supporting those clubs is a hazardous thing, because they routinely break the hearts of their followers. That kind of pain must surely steel a man to go and take out his frustrations on the road, or the water.

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“It’s tough, sometimes,” he winces.

“You are helpless watching on TV. I used to feel like going to Chiefs and offering to help for free. Score a few goals,” he smiles. “I can see you don’t believe me! I was a good player.”

He stopped playing football in 2017, when he almost broke his jaw in yet another fierce encounter.

“We were playing in the league and I went to head a ball in the box,” he starts.

A defender simultaneously attempted a bicycle kick clearance, but boot met flesh instead of leather. Khwela woke up in hospital, his face a mess and his future almost in doubt.

“That’s when I realised that it was time to stop. My life is in racing now and the risk of injury is not one I can take. I’m a married man, with responsibilities,” he adds frankly.

Intoxicated by Dusi history

If football was fun and got his juices going, the Dusi has allowed those juices to ferment. He is intoxicated by its history, its humility and its simple request for honest endeavour.

There are no shortcuts in the Dusi. No favours.

The race entails 120km of paddling, running through the bush and over hills, while carrying a boat and defying temperatures that can spike beyond 40°C.

It’s not most people’s idea of fun, but Khwela lives for it. Incredibly, he has an even stronger affinity for the Non-Stop Dusi, which occurs a few weeks after the feature event.

All the madness, the strain and the pain of a three-day slog compressed into a dawn-to-dusk dose of ludicrous adrenaline. As if spreading the torture over three days wasn’t already tough enough, the Non-Stop dares heroes to do it all in one.

“I think I almost prefer the Non-Stop,” Khwela says. “You only suffer once.”

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His results suggest as much, because he has won the event an incredible nine times. His beloved Liverpool FC swear by the creed “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, so it is ironic that Khwela prefers to go it alone in the Non-Stop.

“I find it easier. When you race with someone, you are both waiting for the other to show a sign of weakness and a change of gear. And once you do that, it’s hard to go back up again.”

Khwela, then, is happiest when running his own race. He berates himself. He cajoles himself. And he looks within for that extra gear as the city of Durban appears on the horizon.

It takes him more than eight hours to complete the Non-Stop, but he admits that much of the race is down to mental fortitude.

“You are hungry, but your body rejects what you put in. You are thirsty and hot, but you don’t know what to use to properly quench that thirst,” he sighs. “You just know that you have to keep moving.”

Khwela’s win this year was made even more impressive by the fact that he had flu until the day before the race.

“My wife and my baby had flu, so I think they passed it on. Luckily the doctors gave me a boost, because I didn’t want to miss the Non-Stop.”

Nine times he’s won it now.

Nine times.

“I’ll be back for 10. Obviously. It’s painful, but I’m resting now,” he says, just days after the carnage. He is a true adrenaline junkie and he transfers those twitchy muscles for warrior races, mountain biking and trail running in winter.

Interest in running Comrades

He has been challenged to run the Comrades Marathon one day, on account of his indefatigable engine.

“The Comrades interests me. It would take time, obviously, to learn the right strategy to prepare properly and then execute. But I would be keen to give it a good go,” he says with relish.

Not yet, of course. There is still this historic Dusi itch that needs scratching and Khwela is focused on delivering on what he might say is his destiny.

In his Shongweni community, he has risen to be a hero. Aside from the prominence that comes with competing, he has a transport business that takes children to school, saving them a 10km round-trip every day.

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He is invested in his community and still holds a Dusi braai at his house after each canoe marathon. Birkett was there in 2014, breaking meat with the locals.

“It is actually a thank you to the people who support me every year,” Khwela says. “My family, for understanding when I leave the house in the dark and train as hard as I do. My seconds, who are there for every race, making sure I am hydrated and motivated. My community, for turning up…”

There are a lot of thank yous and, subsequently, a lot of meat over the coals.

“You know, the only thing that would make this meat taste even better is winning that first K1 one day.”

It’s on his bucket list, right at the top. And given his utter obsession to tick off every item on that list, you can be sure that Khwela will one day taste the sweet meat that comes with Dusi dominance.

Uzoyikhwela nayo leyontaba, as his backers say. He will one day ascend that historic peak.

A whole valley awaits.

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