Local motorsport pin-up goes global
In 1992, five-year-old Ross Branch watched in hypnotized awe as the Dakar Rally came thundering into Cape Town.
Standing alongside his father on that humid January day, the youngster made a silent promise to himself that one day he too would take part in the iconic race, a race widely considered to be the toughest in motorsport.
27 years later that childhood fantasy became an adult’s reality.
Surpassing even the wildest dreams of his youth, Branch’s Dakar debut ended in a remarkable 13th place finish, a position that saw ‘the Kalahari Ferrari’ crowned the race’s fastest rookie earlier this month.
The 32-year-old rider’s Peruvian heroics come on the back of a decade of local dominance, a supremacy that includes winning the Kalahari Desert Race a record seven times.
Fresh from his South American exploits, the Jwaneng-based sportsman, his deeply tanned features bearing a fitting resemblance to the desert he just conquered, met up with The Voice’s Portia Mlilo to relive his adventure.
Q. When did you discover your talent in motorsport?
A. My dad bought me a bike when I was just four years old. We would spend time riding together during the weekends in Jwaneng.
Then, when I was 13, some guy from Germany approached me.
He said I have potential and wanted me to go oversees for training and proper development.
When I was 14, I went to live in Germany for five years.
That is when I discovered my talent and I kept on improving in every race.
Q. What was your strategy going into Dakar?
A. It was a whole year of preparations: training and fund-raising.
There was no a strategy, all I wanted to do was represent my country, Botswana, the best I could.
We didn’t have a goal set in terms of results.
It was my first time to participate in such a big event and winning the Rookie category and finishing 13th was a bonus for me.
Q. The Dakar Rally is widely accepted as the toughest, most demanding event in your sport. How did you find it?
A. I have been racing for 28 years and this was the biggest of them all. It was an amazing experience.
The first three days were a disaster!
The first day I had a problem with the GPS and lost a bit of time.
Day Two I encountered engine trouble and had to replace my 6th gear, which resulted in a 15-minute penalty.
The third day I had a big crash but the last seven days everything went well.
Q. A truly remarkable comeback! So what did you learn from the race?
A. I have learnt life and racing lessons.
As far as life lessons go, follow your dreams and do what you can to make it happen.
Never give up. I dreamt of participating in the Dakar Rally in 1992 and finally this year I accomplished that!
On the racing side, it’s opening new doors for me career-wise.
It is so different from the races I’m used to at home.
I learnt how to use the navigator on the bike; I learnt a lot which I will use in 2020.
Q. In other sport codes athletes have coaches. Who is your coach?
A. Unfortunately I don’t have a coach (laughing).
I do everything on my own! My dad taught me how to ride when I started my career; he even managed to travel to Peru to watch me race.
I have a fitness trainer who keeps me healthy and fit.
Q. Can you describe your feelings immediately after finishing the race?
A. It was indescribable.
It was a sense of relief, being so proud and thankful that I did not let anyone down – I had the whole country supporting me.
It was a real feeling of great achievement.
Q. How much did the trip cost?
A. In total we had to raise P1.3 million.
We were a little bit short and managed to raise P1.1 million but we coped.
A few things like bike spares, we couldn’t buy as much as we wanted but we managed to pay for registration of the race and cover travel expenses which was the most important part.
Q. What support did you receive from the Botswana Motor Sport Association?
A. I got a lot of support from the association.
They wrote letters for me, which I used to look for sponsorship.
They showed their full support, they believed in me and promoted me, showing my achievements in this sport.
Q. Having marked your Dakar debut with a top 20 finish, what is your target for next year’s race? Do you believe you can win it?
A. For me it was about gaining experience and doing my best to show people I have the potential.
Next year I want to finish in the top 10 and hopefully win a stage or two because at this stage I don’t think I can win the rally.
I think I will improve as I participate and hopefully one day I will make it.
Q. Back in 2017, another local rider, Vincent Crosbie famously competed in the Dakar Rally. Did he give you a heads up on what to expect?
A. We talked often about the race.
He advised me on what to expect because I had never taken part in it before, which is something I’m thankful for.
Q. What is the hardest thing about being a rider in Botswana?
A. I am really honoured to be motorcycle rider from Botswana and I have always dreamt of representing the country at an international stage and doing well.
The hardest part is raising the funds.
I went around looking for funds for a year.
I got a lot of support from the private sector and individuals – I could not have managed without them!
Q. You’re obviously a super fit guy – away from motor sport, what other talents/hobbies do you have?
A. I’m a commercial pilot in a local company in Maun.
It is not just a hobby for me but I also love it.
It helps in improving my navigations skills, which is why I did not struggle too much at the Dakar Rally.
Racing and flying take up a lot of my time.
Q. You’re nicknamed the Kalahari Ferrari, how did that come about?
A. It all started back at the Desert Race.
I was the fasted and have won seven races so far.
Some of the local riders and I were sitting together and they just said, ‘You are the Kalahari Ferrari’.
The name stuck and I like it because I am from Jwaneng where there is Kalahari sand.
Q. Who is your role model?
A. I have a couple of role models.
The person that I look up to is my dad. He has been through a lot but he managed to get me where I am today.
He has sacrificed a lot to keep me racing every year, as you know it is an expensive sport!
I also draw inspiration from Alfie Cox (South African rider) who came second at the Dakar in the past.
Q. Briefly tell us about the Khawa Riding Academy and its mandate.
A. It is something close to my heart.
I have always wanted to give back to the community.
We have so much talent throughout Botswana and for the past four years I have been working with Botswana Tourism Organisation to train and develop young riders.
Every three months I spend 14 days in Khawa and teach the kids in the local community to ride motorbikes.
At this stage we have seven riders who will participate in the Desert Race and I am excited because it is a stepping-stone to international competition.
Q. What does it take for a rider to compete internationally?
A. It takes a lot: lifetime sacrifice and commitment.
Unfortunately you have to miss out on your everyday life.
On Friday night you can’t go out and have fun with your friends because Saturday morning you have to be on your bike training.
There is no holiday time, you have to save money for major competitions because you never know if sponsors will come on board.
It is not impossible – I have proved it.
I have a job, a beautiful wife to give attention to but I managed.
Q. Now you are back home, what does your 2019 schedule look like?
A. I will be participating in Botswana and South Africa National Championships and hopefully I will do World Championships as part of my preparation for the next Dakar Rally.
The next race locally will be at Lepokole.
Q. What advice can you give to young and upcoming riders?
A. Just keep on working hard. Never give up on your dreams.
We have so many talented young riders locally that can go further than I am.
I will give back as much as I can to sport so I am always available to give advice.
They can send me messages on Facebook or call me anytime.
I know the sport is expensive but one day you can find a sponsor and buy a bike.
One of the athletes in Jwaneng could not afford a bike and he found a sponsor for the coming 10 years because the sponsor could see he has passion.
Q. Finally, thank God it’s Friday, what are you plans for the weekend?
A. I am already planning to get back to training after taking more than a week off.
I think I have had enough rest!
I had a long trip back from Peru.
This weekend I’m back on the bike preparing for Lepokole race in March.