The Victims Speak: The 2023 Toyota Desert Race Car Fire Tragedy

Winnie Motswagae
By Winnie Motswagae 1.3k Views 10 Min Read
10 Min Read

Just as the 2023 Toyota Desert Race was coming to an end, a tragedy unfolded at a designated car park reserved for event attendees in Jwaneng, Botswana. Some individuals that had a braai by the car park accidentally ignited the nearby grass when the braai stand fell, ultimately sparking a devastating fire that engulfed 49 cars. As we delve into that fateful day, we bring you a series of interviews with the individuals who witnessed their prized vehicles consumed by the relentless blaze, sharing their firsthand accounts and reflections on the Desert race car fire.

Installment #1

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Q: Can you tell me a bit about the car you lost in the fire, and share a fond memory of it with us?

Let me start this off in Early October 2018. I was 36 years old. I purchased my very first car, a black BMW 320 e90 320i Something I had dreamed off and worked very hard to save for. It finally happened. To say I was very happy would be an understatement. This car really helped me with so many things. It would be very hard to condense all my experiences (good/bad) related to that German machine of mine to just a few sentences. Perhaps my earliest most memorable of the experiences was showing up in Kanye soon after I bought the car to surprise my son and show him my very first car and taking him for a ride to Gaborone with it. Moments like that are priceless. He was proud of me, most importantly, I was proud of myself. What an accomplishment.

Q: Was this your first time at the Toyota Desert race?

It was maybe my 5th time at the event. I always go with my boys and we have a great weekend of watching the race and camping. We try to avoid the traffic and noise so we camp in places on the outskirts of Jwaneng like Maokane, Lefoko and Mokomba.  This time however I had prior commitments that weekend so I couldn’t camp like I normally did. Luckily, I was free on Sunday, so I decided to take a drive to Kaduwe spectator point to watch the cars take their first lap. From there I went back to Jwaneng where I decided to just go ahead and watch the rest of the race. So, we were shown to the designated parking spot and I parked my car and walked to the spectator view point. It was roughly a 1.5km walk from that designated car park to the spectator view point.

Q: So, how did you find out about the fire?

While we were watching, I must have been there for about 10 minutes, people started getting phone calls about the fire, social media was abuzz with videos also. Then when we looked, we started to see the smoke. My first instinct was to run so that I could rescue my car. That’s exactly what I did. It was a long stretch to trek to get back to the car. All I had on me was some water and I just kept running until I got there.

Q: What did you find when you got there?

When I arrived on the scene, I found that my car was still far from where the fire had started. It had not yet caught fire. What’s crazy is that after I parked, I passed by those guys that had a braai stand that were having a braai. They asked me to buy some but I said no and started my walk to the view point. It was evident that the fire started there at that stand and that it fell and caught on to the bush. And with no water on site, the fire quickly engulfed the first car. Those people were also drinking some alcohol when I passed them. My car was the 46th car from where the fire started. Had the Fire Department responded on time, the fire probably would have only burned 20 cars at most, by my estimates.

Q: What prevented you from getting your car out in time?

There was a lot of smoke. And we were being prevented from going towards it. There were some that were also exploding. You can imagine just how hysterical we were. We were informed how much of a hazard it would be to try and rescue the cars. So, I ended up just watching my car go in flames. The only thing I could be grateful for was that, no one was harmed, only the vehicles. It was very sad.

Q: So, what happened next?

The fire truck only arrived just as the very last cars were burning to an ash. After we saw all our cars burned to ash, we went to the police station and got our statements taken. All of us did. There was really nothing more we could do. So, I called a cousin of mine that stays in Kanye and asked him to come and pick me up in Sejelo and he took me to Lobatse where I stay.

Q: Are there any valuables that you lost in the car?

Apart from the car, my house keys were in there, my cards, camp chairs, cooler box and clothes worth about P2k in there. It obviously was a major inconvenience to replace cards and house keys and also cost me some money. It was all very sad.

Q: How has life been since this terrible tragedy?

It’s not been easy. Even up to now. I do work in Lobatse Monday to Friday but I do have a side hustle. I am a broiler farmer and my poultry is located about 90km from where I stay. I used to go there using my car on weekends. And if there was an emergency, I could just go after work using my car. It’s really been a tough adjustment. I can’t afford to buy another car to be honest.

Q: Was the car ensured?

No. I did not have insurance for my car. I would say about only 10% of the cars that burned were insured. 

Q: Following the incident, have the organisers being Botswana Tourism Organisation reached out to you regarding possible compensation?

We tried to engage all the stakeholders involved following the incident. We spoke to BTO, District Commissioner, the town council Mayor as well as the Police. BTO has really been silent on this issue. The only stakeholder that has gotten back to us is the Jwaneng Town Mayor. She brought up an idea of possibly being able to set up a fund of some sort for us to get some compensation. This would strictly only be on a compassionate basis of course. And she has also advised that we keep following up with the organizers on this. As for the police investigation and whether or not it has been concluded, we were told that the District Commissioner would be the one to update us on the case but so far nothing has been communicated to us. 

Q: Have you attempted any legal action pertaining to this matter?

We sought legal counsel only to understand what we would need in order to open a case. We however have not taken any further legal action as we are still hoping for some kind of compensation with help from the Mayor. We also have to search deep in our pockets for money to engage lawyers so, it’s still something we are discussing. Cases can take up to years in arbitration and the fees associated with that time are a lot. To be honest, it is truly disheartening because I really am a patron of this event and the organizers are being very silent with regards to possible compensation. 

Q: In conclusion, what message are you hoping to impart to anyone that reads this article?

Honestly, however they can help will be welcome. We lost so much and it’s not easy picking up the pieces. 

For donations and any help one can offer you can reach the spokesperson here: +267 75 216 133

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