Chasing Dakar from fuel-less Zimbabwe

It’s 3:30pm Thursday afternoon in Harare and I’m running late for my interview with Graeme Sharp when he receives a golden call.

On the other end of the line is the manager of a filling station advising Graeme he has reserved 100 liters “of product” for him to add to his Dakar Rally preparations stock.

“Going to have to reschedule sir,” he texts me.

Zimbabwe is currently in the throes of persistent power outages and a fuel crisis characterised by long snaking queues.

It’s difficult for motorists to acquire the illusive liquid for business or personal errands let alone a man who desperately needs it to practice for a 10 000 kilometer race which many in the southern African country are only beginning to appreciate.

No Zimbabwean has ever competed at the prestigious race on a bike. Graeme is aiming to be the first.

He believes his story of resilience, passion and tenacity will give the southern African nation a positive story in what is a challenging time for the southern African country

“At the moment we are all quite despondent, stressing about queues and power. Business is under pressure, industry is under pressure. I’m competing I’m hoping to give Zimbabwe something that unites us. I want to share my story with the Zimbabwean people. I don’t want to do it alone and I can’t to do it on my own, there are so many people involved in a project like this, the support has been awesome,” he says.

Graeme will put five years of hard work, passion and determination on the line coupled with significant financial investment when he competes in 42nd edition of The Dakar Rally in the deserts of the middle east next January.

The second largest motorsport event in the world has been set for Saudi Arabia with 137 motorbikes from 60 nationalities battling for honors in the iconic event widely regarded as the ultimate test of man and machine.

“It is humbling to be the very first Zimbabwean to qualify for this event on a motorbike,” Graeme tells Zim Morning Post.

“I think from the day you decide ‘I want to do the Dakar,’ you have to build experience, race internationally, and prove to the organisation that you have the mental fortitude and physically experience to go and say ‘I’m ready.”

The path to Dakar Rally 2020 has not been easy.

“Look, if you stop working and concentrate 100 percent, maybe in a year or two you can get the qualifications done to do it,” Graeme says.

“I have taken four and half years, perhaps 5 years – with funds permitting, time off work, holiday, family, and other work commitments to get five international races under my belt. Then you submit your application.”

Zimbabwe’s off-road motorcycle rider who spent his childhood on a large cattle ranch in central Zimbabwe near the town of Mvuma wants to use his Dakar experience to boost an already rich motorsport heritage in Zimbabwe.

“I have put in my application, As the first Zimbabwean biker. I want to grow the exposure of the sport in Zimbabwe and give Zimbabwe a positive story,” he says.

Born and raised in the outdoors where exploration, adventure and motorcycles where the order of the day, the 32-year-old says the globally acclaimed off-road endurance event is as financially taxing as it is physically demanding.

“You are probably looking at US$150,000 – US$160, 000 total budget to qualify, then to get there with your team, mechanics, entrance fees, your expenses, flights,” he says.

“I guess the tangible value (one gets) out of it is a medal. What that medal stands for is that you are one of 0.0002 percent of the population who can say they have finished the Dakar on a bike. There are only 2700 something people who have finished the Dakar on the motorcycle in over 43 years.

“There is no huge financial reward. It’s not the Formula One where they are millions of dollars, it’s more of the challenge. I guess what I see in it is that you fly the flag of your country on the global stage. It’s the second most followed sport in the world after Formula One,” he adds.

Graeme qualified for Dakar Rally 2020 as part of the BAS Team, which has some of Southern Africa’s most accomplished off-road racers.

The team includes Ross Branch aka “The Kalahari Ferrari” who placed 13th overall in 2019 and was crowned the fastest ‘Dakar Rookie’.

It also includes Kirstin Landman, South Africa’s top female enduro racer and Kenny Gilbert, a multiple South Africa Cross Country Champion.

“The potential for sponsors is endless as the BAS team will probably have a lot of regional media coverage during the rally,” Graeme says.

“For some who want to come on board sponsorship wise, you not only be riding on a Zimbabwean flag, but you will also be tapping into the Botswana market, South Africa right up to Kenya where rally has a big following.”

Graeme who first picked up a bike to compete in off – road trail and enduro riding at the age 14 year believes his Dakar Rally sojourn will change his life forever.

“I think there is huge opportunity to leverage from it. I think the tangible part is credibility, your tenacity, attention to detail, and determination. I mean it’s a big platform to launch other business ventures. Everyone who has done the Dakar has used it as a very humble but worthy platform,” he says.

As far as doing his homework, Sharp has explored vast swathes of the southern Africa, along the way stopping to take notes from former Dakar Rally motorcycle competitors.

He says the forays into the wilderness combined with previous races in North Africa and Mexico have set him in good stead ahead of the toughest two week challenge of his life.

But just as a Zimbabwean continues to overcome hard odds, he will find a way to leave an indelible footprint in Saudi Arabia.