The men’s race was a fascinating showdown between Birkett, Khwela and another former Dusi winner, Thulani Mbanjwa.
They were among a leading group of seven paddlers on the Albert Falls Dam before the event’s sole portage of about three kilometres, which Khwela used to take the lead over Mbanjwa.
Khwela and Mbanjwa then worked together to try and drop Birkett, knowing how strong he is on the water.
At one stage the four-time Dusi champ was 50 seconds off the pace, but he managed to work his way back to the front-runners after seven kilometers of river racing.
Once together, the trio engaged in a game of cat and mouse before Birkett managed to open a slight gap on Khwela and Mbanjwa, both of whom fluffed their lines in the shallow rapids near the finish, to take the win by just over seven seconds. Mbanjwa claimed third, 36 seconds behind the winner.
“It’s great to win, especially being a Natal Canoe Club (NCC) member, to win your home race, so I’m stoked to do it for NCC and to score my first Ozzie Gladwin win,” Birkett said.
While the river season is now under way, Birkett warned that one should not read much into the Ozzie Gladwin result ahead of the Dusi in February.
“This is a very different race to the Dusi,” he said.
“It is not exactly a Dusi-style race because the portage here, although we find it hard at this stage of the season, is quite an easy portage compared to some of the portages on Dusi.
“There is still a lot of work to do to prepare for those portages.”
Meanwhile, Laura O’Donoghue raced away from a strong field to claim a dominant victory in the women’s race on Sunday, more than five minutes up on second placed Jenna Ward.
“I’m very chuffed. It’s a confidence booster for the start of the season,” O’Donoghue said.
“There were three of us in a group and on the run I managed to break away and put in front.”
Ward said that so early in the race the portage had been somewhat intimidating, but once she had that out of the way she was confident that her river skills would enable her to maintain her position.