In Botswana, desert becomes racetrack

Seventy percent of the land-locked southern African country of Botswana is desert – the great Kalahari, 350,000 sq miles of yellow grasslands and dry, sandy plains. This arid savannah is home to mobs of meerkats and cackles of hyenas, and one weekend each year, they witness the arrival of a different sort of animal – the off-road racer.

Since the 2009 decampment of Africa’s famously gruelling Dakar Rally to South America, the Toyota Kalahari Botswana 1000 Desert Race has taken its place as the continent’s premier off-road endurance contest. The event started in 1975 as the Total Trans-Kalahari Race, sponsored by Total, a French petroleum company. It was a four-wheelers-only competition until 1978, when motorcycles were allowed to enter.

The race – thanks in no small part to its dramatic route, near Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve – proved immediately popular with race teams and spectators from all over the world. By the end of the decade, however, political tensions forced the competition to relocate across the border to South Africa. There, under new sponsorship from Toyota South Africa, the Total Trans-Kalahari became the Toyota 1000 Desert Race, a 1,000km dash across the dry basin near Vryburg, west of Johannesburg.

But during the 1980s, a new obstacle arose: game farming. Vast tracts of savannah were being cordoned off as preserves for indigenous wildlife, making the task of route-planning increasingly difficult for race organisers. So in 1991, the Toyota 1000 headed back to the wide-open spaces of Botswana, with Toyota South Africa hanging in as lead sponsor.

For this year’s three-day race, which kicked off on 21 June with a 65km qualifying run, the favorites to win are drivers Duncan Vos and Rob Howie, leading a three-truck campaign from South Africa-based Castrol Team Toyota. The outfit, running Hilux 4x4 racing pickups, handily captured the checkered flag in 2012, garnering the drivers’, co-drivers’, and manufacturer’s off-road racing championships in the process. As an additional incentive, race winners receive free entry into January’s Dakar Rally in South America – which can top $20,000 per car.

“The Toyota Desert Race is the toughest challenge of its kind in southern Africa and it’s the round of the national championship we all want to win,” said Glyn Hall, principal of Castrol Team Toyota. “For [us], it’s particularly important because it’s sponsored by Toyota, for the past 32 years. This brings with it a certain amount of extra pressure for the team, so we have prepared accordingly.”

The village of Kumakwane serves as home base for the race, including the start/finish line and service park. Competitors that survive qualification will kick off bright and early on 22 June to run two loops, each about 230km, broken up by a 15-minute compulsory stop at the service park at Kumakwane. Survivors return Sunday morning to repeat the process. And the route, which is 90% new this year, is no mere country drive.

“The Saturday and Sunday routes offer technical tight sections, two rocky mountain passes, thick bush, sandy river beds and some spectacular river bank driving,” said race organizer Alan Reid. “It is a course that also includes everything else teams have come to expect. This is a race that always tests man and machine to the limit and this year will be no exception.”

Armchair spectators can download the route map here.