Ross Branch, a commercial pilot, flew into Peru for the Dakar Rally last month and created lasting impressions after winning the tough race’s rookie award. Now, he is prepared to kick-on and win the race in future. He spoke to Mmegi Staff Writer, MQONDISI DUBE
As a young boy, growing up in the diamond-mining town of Jwaneng, Branch always had a passion for motor racing.
“It started when I was four years-old and it has grown since. It was a family sport. I just loved the adrenalin. Since I was a young boy, I have set my life goals and I have pretty much ticked all the boxes I wanted to tick,” Branch said.
His ultimate dream was to take part in the Dakar Rally and he ticked that box recently, when he was part of more 120 riders at the starting point in Peru.
Branch went on to finish as the best rookie and now is eyeing the ultimate prize; winning the race.
He is over the moon after achieving a rare global feat.
“It means the world to me. It shows that we have got a lot of talent in Botswana. I would like to go back next year, but I cannot say for certain as funding is a big factor,” Branch said.
He said the budget for his participation at the Dakar Rally was above P1.3 million, with the registration fee well in excess of P200, 000.
Branch is hopeful that his good showing in Peru will attract new sponsors, and help him retain the current funders.
He said he was up against tough competition and experienced riders, which made the victory sweeter. Branch said other riders had not heard about Botswana before and inquired about the country after his victory.
He said a project run with the Botswana Tourism Organisation in Khawa to groom young riders, will ensure that Botswana’s future is in the right hands.
“I feel we have a lot of talent and I am prepared to grow the talent. What I brought back from Dakar, I am keen to give back to the sport,” he said. On the relatively small crowd that met him at the airport, Branch said that it did not disappoint him.
“It is not about numbers, it’s about the people who care and support you. We are not as big as football or athletics. In fact, I was surprised to see all the people at the airport. Even when I was at the race, I received a lot of messages of support and that meant the world to me,” Branch said.
While there are concerns over funding for so-called minority sports, including motor sport, Branch said, he was not bothered as performance is what is key. He said an athlete has to
Branch, who has raced in South Africa for most of his time, said to the contrary, he has received ‘unbelievable support in Botswana’.
“In Botswana, they support me to race across the border. The support I had for Dakar, came from Botswana,” he said.
Branch’s club in South Africa, KTM, met him at OR Tambo International Airport upon his return and organised a welcome reception.
He said he has not inquired about the government’s incentives, which rewards athletes who excel on the international stage. Branch said the aim was to go out to Peru and do the job first. He is keen to take up motor sport as a profession.
“At the moment I am a commercial pilot for Mack Air up in Maun. They give me time to fly and time to race. If I can carry on flying for such an awesome company and racing, then I am quite happy,” he said. Branch sees a relationship between flying and motor riding. He said his experience as a pilot came in handy at the Dakar Rally, as he had to navigate a tricky route.
“My aviation experience helped me a lot in terms of directions.”
Branch lived in Germany between 2002 and 2007, where he continued racing.
Back home, Branch supported the move to shift the Toyota 1,000km Desert Race from Jwaneng to Selebi-Phikwe.
The 32-year-old said although the race is moving from his hometown, Jwaneng, it gives the sleepy mining town a chance to rejuvenate.
“I hope the fans welcome all the riders and drivers. It’s an exciting chapter. It’s called the desert race for a reason. We have to go to a place with a terrain that suits the race. I think the race should be rotated, but not frequently. It depends on the benefits derived from a certain area.
“I hope Selebi-Phikwe will be able to benefit. It’s a great move as people there are struggling; they need entertainment. It’s an opportunity for them to be back on the map.” Branch, who is married to Aimee, is keen to give back to the sport when his racing days are over.
“I will definitely like to give back, maybe as a coach or something.”
Some of the sponsors that drive Branch’s dream are DeVre Trans, Kwa Nokeng Oil, Mack Air, Cycle Base, Time Projects, Pick n’ Pay Botswana, Armstrong’s Attorneys, Notaries and Coveyancers, Van and Truck Hire, KTM, Absolute Aviation Group, ASC, Fenestra and Oraco.