By Bakang Mhaladi
Gaborone - One of Africa’s biggest off-road motorsport race, the Toyota 1,000km Desert Race, will shift base next year, from the south to the north-eastern part of Botswana.
Since the inaugural race in 1981, the Desert Race has been held in the southern parts of Botswana, nearer to the capital Gaborone, but for the first time, the former copper and nickel mining town of Selebi-Phikwe, 400 kilometre from Gaborone, has been given the right to host the 2019 event.
In the last five years, the race has been held in the diamond mine town of Jwaneng, which offers the perfect, rugged desert conditions. The race has always attracted a huge presence of riders and fans from neighbouring South Africa and Namibia.
Drivers and riders compete in the motorcycle, production and special vehicles categories.
The desert race forms the third round of the South African Cross Country Series (SACCS) and is used as a qualifier for the Dakar Rally.
Described as the toughest automotive race on the continent, which tests driver’s endurance to the limit over three days, the desert race will be held away from desert-like conditions for the first time.
Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO), one of the race organisers, confirmed the new developments, and details about the route were to be shared at a press briefing later this week.
Botswana Motor Sport president, Lebogang Mosope, said Selebi-Phikwe had emerged as the favourite ahead of the cattle ranching, vast region of Ghanzi.
“Selebi-Phikwe cropped up frequently during our discussions,” he said.
The town’s economy was left threadbare following the closure of its heartbeat, the BCL copper and nickel mine, and the massively popular Desert Race is seen as one of the ways of injecting new life into the area. The race attracts over 150,000 spectators every year.
The terrain in Selebi-Phikwe differs sharply from what the previous hosts offered. The race organisers are expected to draw a route which goes closer to the South African border, near the Limpopo province.
South African drivers have particularly dominated the special and production vehicle categories, with Toyota dominant since 2012.
Botswana motor sport rider, Ross Branch has dominated the motorcycle section and will make his long-awaited debut at the 5,000km Dakar Rally next month after winning the 2018 race. He becomes the second Botswana national to take part in the race that stretches through South America after Vincent Crosbie made his debut in 2016.
However, Branch still has to raise a shortfall of about P200,000 to realise his dream. His budget is P1.4 million and has set a target of finishing the gruelling race, where most riders usually drop out.