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Column: The greatest race

2010-09-30 09:12

Hannes Grobler charging to victory at this year’s Toyota Desert Race. Despite the heartbreak of Toyota now going a decade without victory in its title sponsor event, this race remains a magical event all-round.

Lance Branquinho

Despite the Camel Thorn tree’s gesture of shade, the midday heat is utterly stifling.

We are out of water too.

Resting up at the farthest spectator point from the Kumakwane start/finish venue (number 23 to be exact) there is scant hope of a re-supply.

Between the tough camel-thorn trees and haak-en-steek bushes a few locals are excitingly chatting away about the current running order. I can barely get my tongue unstuck from the parched roof of my mouth.  

The race is set to end in a few hours time, having started its epic 1 000km journey with a prologue stage on Friday afternoon.

Propped up against a nondescript tree, aimlessly fiddling with a filthy neckstrap on my Canon 7D, I take stock of this greatest of all African motorsport events, the Toyota Desert Race (TDR).

The place of real racing fans

As I attempt to recall and arrange details of the last three days from my subconscious, a terse command is uttered to my left, “back, stay back.” It is one of the nearly 400 Botswana police members who have been deployed to man the spectator points during the TDR event, all unbelievably attired in full-sleeve step-out uniforms – despite the tremendously oppressive heat.

Amongst the dozen locals awaiting the lead car’s arrival there is a growing disharmony, perceptible despite my nearly non-existent command of Tswana.

 I can see the dust signature of an approaching car from my ground level field of view under the tree. It is moving with great urgency (as one would expect from a lead car) yet its gaining presence if not being accompanied with notable acoustic inflection.

As I wrap the 7D’s neckstrap around my right-hand and clumsily position myself for the quick-frame burst, I deduce this approaching lead car can only be one man, Hannes Grobler – the unofficial deputy president of Botswana.

As Grobler’s tiger-stripe design BMW X3 menaces past us, incriminations are exchanged.

I ask the policeman guarding spectator point 23 to translate. He waits until the tempo of disagreement abates, then supplies a swift summary of events. “Well sir. Those people over there, they said Duncan Vos will be winning his fourth desert race today.”

The policeman pauses, shifting his posture. “But we know better. Mr Grobler now has a good car and as you can see Sir, he is leading and will surely win.”

Moments after the Botswana policeman’s eloquent explanation as to what caused the momentary discord preceding Grobler’s arrival as lead car, somebody shouts,”Hilux.” The snorting exuberance of a 4l V6 is approaching. It could be either a Navara or Hilux though – as both bakkies run 4l V6s. As the dust build-up is within cough-inducing range, I notice the unmistakeable green, white and red Castrol team colours. As the Hilux bullocks past the cheers of “Hilux, Hilux” turn to “Vos, Vos.”

I steady myself against the faithful shade providing Camel Thorn tree I have been sharing company with for the last half an hour. As the 7D’s compact flash card buffers, I stupid grin breaks the red-dust caked lines of my rather tired-looking face. With less than 100km to go I know Grobler is going to win, despite the works and privateer duo of Duncan Vos and Chris Visser chasing with intensity.

A poignant race

When I reach the finish and hour and half later, the partying is gaining momentum and although I ache for Toyota (without a win on their signature title race for a decade) the enchantment of this race transcends even the most bitter of defeats. As the champagne is doused between the final finishing order of Grobler, Visser and Vos there is a fitting moment of endearment.

Having won the race from 2007-2009, third placed Duncan Vos does not even bother soaking Grobler.

Instead the affable Toyota works driver immediately clears the sponsors canvas balloon framed podium area and proceeds to rain champagne on the hundreds of fans flanking the start/finish line.

As his champagne bottle reaches the pressure critical one third volume level, Vos tosses it into the crowd and then applauds the fans before striding off to change out of his race suit.

Suffice to say, this year’s event was my first TDR.

Experienced and jaded media professionals told me it was an event which possessed a rather unique quality. To my mind it was simply a 1 000km weekend race around orderly and well-disciplined Gabarone. I was to be proved significantly wrong. The TDR is an event commensurate to its epic billing in each and every way.

Harsh location, hospitable people

This year’s event was moved to a new staging area 25km west of the traditional Gabarone hub, to the village of Kumakwane.

The TDR’s popularity and Gabarone’s current infrastructure rehabilitation directive (a collection of endless road-works) were adjudged incommensurable. Therefore organisers optioned to move the race’s hub out of the city, a move which in no depreciated the fervour of local support for the TDR.

Over the three days of racing around 120 000 people crowd the 23-odd official spectator points and an infinite array of route expedient locations. The locals are simply everywhere and their enthusiasm is matched with a knowledge of off-road racing which borders on the ridiculous.

There are three fundamentals truths to the TDR, quickly absorbed by a novice such as myself.

Firstly, for the weekend of TDR, Hannes Grobler is Batswana, not South African.

Secondly, don’t underestimate the technical literacy and insight of a demure black lady swinging a set of Land Cruiser 70 bakkie key’s around her ring finger.

Thirdly, the TDR organisers don’t just hit-and-run.


Although Anthony Taylor and Duncan Vos dominated Saturday’s proceedings, very few locals had even a trace of doubt as to who would eventually triumph: Hannes Grobler. It really is a disservice to even attempt an apt description of the jovial Grobler’s god-like status in Botswana.

In a dry river-bed early on Sunday morning, awaiting the field to pour through in a convoy of dust and crackling exhaust acoustics, I scanned a ridge, where ten or so boys were sitting on a felled tree stump. As the X3 bounced into view half the boys haunches on the stump nearly fell off balance as they gestured and chanted “Grobler, Grobler, Grobler.”

Later on, after Anthony Taylor’s desert race had been curtailed by a sheared transmission fastening bolt, I was nervously treading in the most snake-hole invested sand track imaginable. Although the location would make for great images, it really was out in the middle of nowhere. For half an hour I sat, nervously scanning for any puff-adder movement in the Kalahari shrubs around me.

A faint drone was approaching. It was a diesel powered vehicle. It had to be Grobler. As I steadied my camera and practices a few panning through-movements, I heard the sound of undergrowth breaking behind. Hoping to not haven an encounter of the reptilian kind, I was greeted by the presence of two teenagers.

After exchanging pleasantries, Grobler powered into view and jumped a yump as he passed us. The taller of the two teenagers turned to me and quipped, “This BMW, it must be a very good car. Hannes Grobler would only drive the best.” Moments later, my two new acquaintances had disappeared like ghosts into the undergrowth, leaving me to worry about phantom puff-adders again...

Later on in the day I would find a rather dapper Batswana man brandishing a Sauber-BMW F1 team jacket – despite the near 40-degree temperature. I asked him if he was a keen F1 follower, and whether he was particularly upset by BMW’s withdrawal from the highest echelon of motorsport. His terse reply bordered on the Orwellian. “I don’t watch F1. I bought this jacket when I heard Hannes Grobler was now driving with a BMW...”

Not only are the Batswana off-road racing fans fanatical about their adopted South African drivers, they are quite clued up to the machinations of the race itself. Whereas the Land Cruiser 70 bakkie is a vanguard transport solution for South Africa’s most conservative two-tone attired farmers, in Botswana nearly every third driver owns one.

A middle-aged Batswana lady, who kids were practising their jungle-gym antics on the cattle rails of her ‘Cruiser 70, let me know in all earnest that her favourite driver, Duncan Vos, did not looks as comfortable in the Hilux as he did racing Nissan’s Navara. She believed this year would be a test session for the Toyota factory team, with next year’s bakkie being a certain winner in the hands of Vos. I was in no position to argue and simply nodded approvingly, before wiping the sweat from my eyes with a boshoed.

Tread lightly

Perhaps the most fundamental reason why the TDR is such a fantastic event is that the local authorities are committed to its success, and that the organisers (the four-wheel drive club of South Africa) make sure they leave the terrain as they found it.
Whereas motorsport events which speed through rustic rural areas are usually quite contentious affairs, the TDR event enjoys full support from all parties: the locals, government and police.

If competitors make an error of judgement and damage somebody’s fencing, it is repaired. When 750Nm worth of rotational force (Neil Woolridge’s Ford Ranger TDCi, for instance) churns up a tight corner into something un-driveable in a two-wheel drive vehicle, the route is refilled after the event.

Rolling through Kalahari red sand and framed by Camel Thorn trees, the TDR is a quintessentially African motorsport event. This Kalahari terrain may be harsh yet the infection enthusiasm of locals along the route makes the extreme heat and punishing thorn bush brushes tolerable.

The TDR remains an unparalleled feel-good experience. Although conditions make for tough spectating – it is life-threateningly hot when you are not propped up against a tree, residing in its shade - the boundless knowledge of Botswana’s TDR faithful unbalance any of the negatives.

With VW bound to join the event next year with a pair of Amarok off-road racing bakkies alongside Glyn Hall’s newfangled Hilux design, the unofficial deputy president of Botswana may have quite a challenge on his hands to make it a sixth TDR win. You should really go and see how it all plays out next year – I know I’ll be making the trip up again, for many years to come...


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