South Africa | Motorcycle Adventure
Canadian Thomas Bain was a prolific road builder. In the waning years of the 19th century he designed and constructed an extensive labyrinth of dirt roads opening South Africa’s vast interior to the primary mode of transport of the day—the ox wagon. Among the 24 significant routes he created, there is one that stands as his magnum opus. That road was destined to become one of his last, most assuredly the longest, and arguably the most famous. When he cut the narrow 87-mile dirt passage through the rugged Baviaanskloof and Kouga mountains in the 1880s, he couldn’t possibly have envisaged that, in time, it would become the renowned off-pavement destination it is today.
The BMW R 1200 GS Adventure takes us into the heart of the Baviaanskloof. (Click image to enlarge)
The laborious engineering endeavor resulted in the Baviaanskloof Road. Located in the Eastern Cape Province, 75 miles west of Port Elizabeth, it has become legendary among the world’s adventure treks. The rugged dirt passage runs through a protected wilderness area encompassing 467,000 acres of unspoiled scenery teeming with wildlife. The isolated route traverses towering gorges, deep valleys, steep cliffs, and breathtaking plateaus that were created by tectonic movement that curled the mountains up on themselves 300 million years ago, and then patiently waited for man to invent vehicles to tackle it.
Coincidentally, as Bain’s convict labor was gashing their way through the dense mountain passes, halfway around the world Gottlieb Daimler was dabbling with his first forays into marrying a combustion engine with a bicycle. The German inventor (who later teamed up with Karl Benz to form the Daimler-Benz Corporation) was rewarded for his efforts in powered, two-wheeled experiments by officially being credited with building the first motorcycle in 1885. (Click image to enlarge)
In the years since, motorcyclists—enjoying the fruits of prodigiously evolving technology in their mounts—have become some of the Baviaanskloof’s most avid and adept conquerors. The route’s broad range of terrain, challenges and length, combined with the remoteness of its location and kaleidoscope of scenery, renders one of the most pleasurable and rewarding off-road experiences in the world. We couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate locale to ride BMW’s latest incarnation of its revolutionary off-highway machine, the R 1200 GS Adventure.
The GS series represents one of BMW’s most successful lines of motorcycles. An iconic machine, it emerged in 1980 from the company’s goal to design a long-distance touring motorcycle with off-road capabilities. In doing so, BMW virtually invented the Adventure category of motorcycling. The Munich-based company has continued to refine the prized creation since its inception, ensuring its status as one of the finest, most versatile machines in the class.
The Adventure moniker denotes modifications that extend the capabilities of the standard R 1200 GS (an accomplished machine in its own right) and result in an even more impressive, globe-trotting workhorse, specifically targeted at conquering overland expeditions. The new machine’s functional elegance and impressive performance both on and off the road, combined with its Swiss Army knife practicality, cries out for travel and, yes, adventure. The African continent and Thomas Bain’s road beckoned. (Click image to enlarge)
Although our assault on the legendary Baviaanskloof would be undertaken with the typical challenges of an off-road venture—eating dust while wrestling motorcycles over rocks and through water crossings under a scorching sun—demanding a “roughing it” kind of attitude during the day, our evening’s accommodations would be anything but. Our trek began with a stay at the extraordinary Pezula Resort Hotel and Spa, South Africa’s premiere luxury resort hotel. Located in The Garden Route region in the township of Knysna, near the confluence of the Atlantic and Indian oceans, Pezula is an oasis of relaxation. The atmosphere helped dissolve the drain of 36 hours in transit from the States and let us gather our strength for the excursion ahead.A relatively short ride from the Pezula Hotel the next morning had us at the base of the Outeniqua Mountains and the end of pavement. As we passed the last village, a group of children waved enthusiastically. Beyond, a single road ascended into the primitive remoteness.
The early, easy-going sections of the route gave us the opportunity to acclimate to the new GS Adventure. One of the most expansive features of the machine is the 8.7-gallon fuel tank—3-1/2 gallons more than the standard GS—which can prove to be critical when riding in remote environments. Cruising at a steady speed of 50 to 60 mph, this capacity gives the Adventure a range in the neighborhood of 465 miles.
Stylish hoops of stainless steel protect the 1170cc flat-twin configuration engine from the elements and give the Adventure a rugged demeanor. Producing 100 horsepower and tractor-like torque, the proven Boxer Twin is highly versatile. Delivering excellent performance in street-going situations the Adventure also possesses forgiving manners for technical off-road situations as well as stability at speed on wide open stretches of pavement-free road.(Click image to enlarge)
A six-speed gearbox feeds power to the rear wheel via an enclosed drive shaft. The benefit of a driveshaft on a motorcycle destined for long distance travel, perhaps in remote areas, removes the vulnerability and maintenance needs of a link chain. The water, sand, dirt and basic wear and tear encountered off-road conspire to destroy chains.
At 564 pounds wet (with its massive tank full of petrol), the GS Adventure is not going to win any bathing suit competitions. But this is the only drawback to the machine. In off-road situations, with the inevitability of a fall, getting the behemoth GS back up on its wheels often takes the strength of two men.
Once underway and up on the footpegs, the bike feels remarkably agile. However, you wouldn’t want to get into serious single-tracks that require putting a foot down or situations necessitating muscling the motorcycle—a losing proposition with the hefty GS. But for dirt roads and sensible trails, the Adventure is a phenomenally gratifying motorcycle. It can open up an entirely new horizon of two-wheel experiences. The trick to riding these large off-road machines is to lug the motor and let the torque roll the GS over the terrain. The Adventure soaks up the ruts and bumps, tracking remarkably well for a half-ton motorcycle.
The Adventure’s rugged aluminum side and rear top cases add a functional, militaristic look to the machine, while providing a volume of 112 liters carrying capacity. They are perhaps the only luggage cases that look good with acquired scratches and dings, wearing the patina proudly as an off-road badge of honor.
Traditional cross-spoke wheels are fitted for all-terrain performance. Spokes allow for a certain amount of rim flex, essential for absorbing the impacts sustained riding off-highway. An ingenious flip down brake pedal accommodates off-road riding, compensating for the change in angle of the rider’s foot while standing. Extra-wide foot pegs reduce rider fatigue and tubeless knobby tires complete the Adventure package.The first day of riding was relatively easy, allowing us to blast along on the GS at a good clip and penetrate the South African interior. The route gradually tightened in on itself in a series of steep turns that steadily took us up into the mountains. The landscape changed dramatically, from vistas and winding dirt roads, to heavy foliage and rock cliffs.
The day ended with some rather humorous slow going up a road of deep sand that tossed half the members of our tour on the ground; the relatively harmless falls bruised more egos than bodies. The GS is built with the understanding that people who ride it are most likely going to take it off-road and BMW wisely designed the machine to brush off low-speed falls with aplomb.
The group takes a water break deep in the Valley of the Baboons. (Click image to enlarge)
After the spoiling we received at the Pezula Hotel, we assumed a night in the bush would be relatively uncivilized. How wrong we were. Emerging from the thicket, dirty and tired, we arrived at a parcel of land on the grounds of the Sederkloof Lodge where luxury bivouacs had been erected. Sixteen private, spacious tents, each equipped with a plush queen-size bed and fresh sheets awaited. Nearby, an open-roof, bamboo structure enclosed hot showers and toilet facilities under the African sky.
After washing off the day’s accumulated dirt, we were treated to a gourmet dinner laid out at the base of a rock cliff. Incongruous with the wilds of the surroundings, we drank wine from South Africa’s finest vineyards and dined on ostrich, as mysterious animal sounds emanated from the edge of the blackness. When we returned to our tents, we discovered our hosts had provided turndown service—not exactly roughing it. That night, I left the window panels unzipped; only screens separated me from the African night.
“Roughing it” in the South African bush. (Click image to enlarge)
The fresh air awoke many of us before dawn and we watched the eastern sky sunrise blossom. Today, we would enter the Baviaanskloof, and were told the ride would be a little tougher. As we strapped on our Camelback personal water carriers, our South African guide told us we were heading into, “Nirvana for off-road aficionados.” As the day unfolded, the dynamics of the road Thomas Bain created all those years ago changed dramatically.
The Baviaanskloof Road is passable most of the year with a two-wheel drive truck (although a 4×4 is highly recommended). The skill level required to tackle the route by motorcycle is intermediate or above, with off-road riding experience essential. Vast sections of the route are dirt roads with the occasional washed out segments that require a little finesse to negotiate. Water crossings are handled with a certain amount of guesswork, a little faith, and then simply a matter of just going for it. On the bright side, when the sun’s hammering down on you, the splashing drench of cold river water is really quite welcome.
Deep into the Baviaanskloof, we discovered that our expeditionary force was always under the watchful eye of the local inhabitants. They bounded through the trees and huddled in numbers in the thick foliage, curious to our passing. It was at a water stop, watching a family of the regal beasts nearby, that the name Baviaanskloof was translated by one of the guides. Derived from Old Dutch, it translates, quite appropriately to, “Valley of the Baboons.”
We traveled through thick foliage, water crossings, plateaus, along riverbanks, through dusty mountain trails, and along the edge of a gorge where the abyss played havoc with confidence and balance. We climbed from 100 yards above sea level to the zenith of the Baviaanskloof Mountains, an elevation of three-quarters-of-a mile. The fuel-injected BMW R 1200 GS Adventure performed beautifully throughout. It’s one of only a handful of machines built specifically for this kind of travel. Combined with the legendary dependability of the GS series, the new Adventure can take you far from civilization and, more importantly, back again.At the end of our ride, we reluctantly handed back our GS Adventures. After thrashing through the Baviaanskloof the bikes had accumulated an appealing layer of dust and dirt. The GS is perhaps the world’s only motorcycle that looks as good dirty as it does clean. The send-off to this off-highway sojourn was from the elegant Fancourt Hotel and Country Club Estate in George. During dinner, the restaurant staff serenaded us with traditional Afrikaan tribal songs.
Riding the Baviaanskloof is a unique off-road experience. The sense of isolation, exploring a pristine region little changed since the violent prehistoric seismic activity that created it, possesses all the essential elements for a cathartic, life affirming experience. Long after you descend the mountains and acclimate back into the world, you will have acquired a significant bookmark in your life.