2016 Honda Africa Twin Review – CRF1000L Test
We don’t always realize it at the time, but seeds of passion are sown at a very young age. As an adolescent and a beginner rider who could hardly touch the ground aboard my Kawasaki KX125 motocross bike, I had caught a glimpse of Jim McKay covering a vignette on the Paris-Dakar Rally on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
Witnessing dramatic helicopter footage of diminutive racer Gaston Rahier, all of five-foot four-inches tall, piloting the largest dirt bike I had ever seen across the sandy deserts of northern Africa at blistering speeds and seemingly defying the laws of the physical world, this small humanoid aboard an enormous mechanical mastodon, the imagery would stay with me for a lifetime.
At the time, I thought the bike was called an Elf, since that was the lettering that was emblazoned across the massive fuel tank. The next day I told my friends at school about the Elf motorcycle and the elf-sized pilot that raced it. From that moment forward, my KX125 didn’t appear so daunting to me.
The year was 1986, and Rahier was going for his third straight Dakar win aboard the air-cooled BMW R 80 GS, but there was a massive obstacle in his way. Honda Racing had just created and debuted the NXR750 Africa Twin, a liquid-cooled technological wonder that was designed from the ground up to win the Dakar Rally. That year, Cyril Neveu and Gilles Lalay gave Honda a 1-2 victory, with Rahier settling for third. The Africa Twin went on to win four straight Dakar Rallies.
A decade later, as a young man working in Europe, I was enamored with the Honda XRV650 Africa Twin, a street-going version of the NXR750, that was complete with handguards, a mega-sized aluminum skid plate, and the red-white-blue rally color scheme that matched the original Dakar winner.
Unfortunately, the XRV650 never made it Stateside, but that didn’t stop me. I still pursued my rally-adventure dreams, not in Africa, but in Mexico and Central America, and not aboard an Africa Twin, but on a BMW R 1200 GS Adventure. In a non-competitive way, I was reliving the imagery of an elf rid- ing the Elf, with the new GS Adventure nearly as big as Rahier’s, and with me, only five inches taller in stature than the legendary racer.
Life can be such a treat, especially when fantasy becomes blurred with reality. I find myself in beautiful Cape Town, South Africa, ready to adventure-ride through the southern tip of the continent on a brand new version of the Africa Twin—the 2016 Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin.
Nearly 20 years after Honda disrupted the rally world with the NXR750, it has debuted not one, but two new Africa Twins. The manual transmission model, with the usual host of electronic traction control and ABS, plus a Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT) version that promises performance levels that will enlighten even the most hardened adventure rider to the virtues and convenience of DCT.
As my South African hosts walk me through the parking lot to introduce me to the new Africa Twins, I feel excited and nervous at the same time, as if I were meeting a celebrity that I have watched from afar for years and, of course, they know nothing of me.
Aesthetically, the Africa Twin looks the part, the futuristic older brother to the NXR750, vociferously making its rally pedigree apparent with a racer-like high faring, integrated air ducting, and signature “twin ring” LED headlights that seem to exude a certain smug confidence that leaves no doubt that this is a Honda. The low-slung two-into-one exhaust is acoustically tuned to audibly match the bold CRF styling with a primal growl and pulsing beat derived from the 270-degree crankshaft and offset ring intervals.
The Africa Twin seems to be the perfect steed to explore the vast magnificence and topography of the Great Karoo. It is a semi-arid landscape that, to this North American, appears to be a land that time has forgotten, populated with such wild beasts and formidable monolithic rocky outcroppings. A dinosaur would not look out of place lumbering across the distant horizon.
Carving my way from the Aquila Private Game Reserve through sinewy tarmac roads, the Africa Twin feels stable and well-balanced fore-to-aft, with a neutral riding position and exceptional wind protection. The 21-inch front wheel is clearly optimized for off-road performance, but negotiating chicanes at freeway speeds feels natural with only medium inputs needed at the handlebar.
Light mist and drizzly rain provide the backdrop to one of the most famous stretches of road in South Africa—Bainskloof- pas. Constructed with convict labor and completed in 1853, the narrow passage hugs the steep sides of the Boland Mountains and crests nearly 2000 feet as it connects the Western Cape to the wild interior. It provides a blissful motorcycling experience, as long as one keeps clear of the hay bale-sized stones that act as a primitive guardrail to the expansive chasm below.
With 94 horsepower at my beck and call, I command the 998cc parallel twin to pull aggressively through the apex of the corners. The Africa Twin neither overpowers the chassis nor underwhelms the rider, but provisions power to the specifications necessary for a spirited ride. Moreover, the Unicam engine configuration is borrowed from Honda’s CRF-R motocross lineup, and produces a short, compact power plant that leverages a single cam to actuate intake valves directly and exhaust valves via rocker arms, creating a lower center of gravity that results in mass centralization and balanced handling.
Descending down to the valley below, the pavement dries and I back off the traction control from T3 to T1 to allow for sliding the rear wheel and short power wheelies, although the 21-inch front wheel provides subtle reminders that hooliganism is better saved for off-piste maneuvers.
Touring through the towns and villages of the interior presents a stark contrast in socioeconomic conditions to the wealth of the coastal communities—a reminder of the oppressive government of the not-so-distant past. Yet, the smiles and hospitality from the locals, whether chatting it up at the filling station or sharing a slab biltong—cured meat jerky—at a roadside stand, engender a spirit of hope and the belief for a brighter future.
The dirt jeep roads that connect through this desert landscape are a dusty reminder of the terrain found in the southwestern United States, and it is immediately clear that the Africa Twin is eager to live up to its legacy. Now mounted with Continental Twinduro TKC 80 knobby tires for the dirt, the Africa Twin’s feeling is one of complete stability and confidence, which is very surprising for a bike that tips the scales at 511 pounds.
Twisty hard-packed re roads beckon acceleration, and at high speeds, hitting rocks, roots, ruts and other obstacles is unavoidable. However, the Honda Twin soaks up the undulations without deflection or chassis disruption.
Adding two clicks of additional spring preload to the Showa cartridge forks reduced the fork dive while decelerating on the tarmac, and the setting works just as well in off-road conditions to keep the bike riding higher in the stroke. As the Africa Twin encourages both wheelies and jumping with modest airtime off-road, this setting has multiple advantages.
The ABS brakes work very well off-road, and can be left engaged in nearly all situations. When desired, ABS can also be switched off to slide the rear wheel to cut tight corners before accelerating through the exit of the turn.
Thoroughly impressed by the manual-transmission version of the Africa Twin, I skeptically throw a leg over the auto-clutch DCT model with bated expectations, and was completely blown away! It is a little less sporty on the street, by virtue of the fact that there’s not a lot that the rider needs to do, which can be a welcome reprieve for a commuter fighting city traffic.
The hard-pack jeep trail eventually ascends and transforms into jagged rocks and cobbles. I am a bit worried that the DCT will fall short, but to my surprise, this is where the DCT transmission really shines. Even though it is 23 pounds heavier than its Africa Twin sibling, the feeling of additional weight is negligible, and beyond the occasional grab for the non-existent clutch lever, the experience is very much the same, except that I’m free to concentrate my focus on the terrain, and point-and-shoot using the throttle and brakes.
The options available with the electronic DCT transmission are plentiful. I found that by switching the transmission to the sportiest S3 setting and enabling the direct shifting Gravel mode, the DCT was an absolute blast to ride. Although there were a few situations where I would have wanted a lower gear, 95-percent of the time the DCT matched my preference. Moreover, by flipping a handlebar switch to manual mode, the DCT can be paddle-shifted, enabling the left thumb to downshift with a push of a button or upshift with a index-finger pull of the trigger, adding a whole other layer of off-roading fun to the Africa Twin.
Still somewhat incredulous, I pull off the trail and onto a hard-packed sandy dirt area to put the DCT to the test. I stand up on the pegs, turn the handlebars until they hit the steering lock, and slowly execute figure-8 turns using nothing more than throttle and rear brake inputs. Flawless! The split personality of the DCT is very appealing.
Winding my way back to the coast, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Indian Ocean, tourism is in full force, facilitated by an enticingly favorable exchange rate from US dollars to the South African rand. Opportunities abound for extreme outdoor activities, not the least of which include diving with great white sharks, complete with videographer and an edited DVD that includes said tourist and the obligatory hackneyed Toto soundtrack. As if a divine sign, the setting sun provides a visual reminder for the need to reach my final destination, a proper South African grill, or braai.
Entering the Aquila Private Game Reserve, I do a quick double take at what looked to be a unicorn, of all things, lying on the ground—which would be entirely plausible given the magical experiences I am enjoying aboard both versions of the Africa Twin. Later, I was told that what I spotted was a gemsbok (large antelope) with one of its horns missing. I like my version of the story better.
The glowing mesquite of the braai wafted through the air as a grizzled man dressed in a well-worn apron heaved two-inch thick slabs of ribeye and porterhouse steaks over the re, adding to the glistening spicy boerewors sausage that was set to the side over lower heat.
With a quick show of egalitarianism, my South African hosts voted that this braai would be at least 100 times better than any grill I’ve ever enjoyed in the States. Not wanting to be an ungracious guest, I smiled and neither confirmed nor denied their assertion.
Asked if I wanted a “dop,” I quickly surmised that it meant an alcoholic drink. I ordered a deliciously cold Carling Black Label beer, which was the ultimate match for my steak, which was surely big enough to feed the entire Flintstone family with plenty left over. Situated on top of a bed of pap cornmeal porridge, this hunk of porterhouse was a carnivore’s feast, and the only out- come acceptable to my guests would be to finish the entire lot.
The braai hit full swing, and chatter and eyeballs fixated on both Honda Africa Twins parked just a few feet away. I related the story from my childhood about the Paris-Dakar Rally and Gaston Rahier competing against the unstoppable Honda NXR750 Africa Twin.
The conversation quickly turned to heated banter over whether Gaston Rahier, if he were alive today, would choose the manual or DCT version to win the Dakar Rally. After much debate, it was decided that due to the simplicity and ease of use, that the DCT would be his weapon of choice.
Thoroughly content, I admitted that the South Africans were right; this braai was hands-down the best grill of my life. But, I remained adamant that what I saw earlier—even though I was consumed in the rapturous bliss of the 2016 Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin—really was a unicorn, and they were okay with that.
- Helmet: AGV AX-8 Dual EVO
- Jacket + Pants: Dainese D-Explorer Gore-Tex
- Gloves: Dainese X-Run
- Boots: Sidi Adventure
Photography by Zep Gori, Francesc Montero, Felix Romero and Ula Serra
Story from spring issue of Ultimate MotorCycling magazine; check out the digital version.