South Africa 2011

Ever since our first tour in California in 2010 we have constantly been planning our next trips. In the 12 months following California we had gone up and down the UK on several long weekend rides, been to Paris, Brussels, and spent a week touring the North of Spain.

In July 2011 my work was taking me to South Africa for a conference and of course in our minds this became our next touring destination. It was a fantastic opportunity to do some biking in a country both of us knew very little about. We had sketched a rough plan; spend some time visiting friends in Cape Town, and rent a motorcycle for a 5 day tour. But that was as far as we had planned… We knew nothing of South Africa and all we could do was ask our non-biker South African friends to recommend some destinations and read guide books; all very helpful but not geared towards a motorcycle holiday.

4 weeks ahead of the planned trip we ran into Alex at the Adventure Travel Film Festival organised by the iconic Austin Vince and Lois Pryce. We had come prepared with a map of South Africa, hoping to find someone who had ridden there who could give us some tips. We met Alex and was the best encounter we could ever have hoped for!

Alex runs Kaapstad Motorcycle Adventure Tours, a company specialised in tailor-made motorcycle tours in the Western and Eastern Cape regions of South Africa. He has spent many years in South Africa and knows the roads like the back of his hand. He is also a ranger there so has an intimate knowledge of the country. Alex was at the festival to promote his company but unfortunately he could not accompany us on such short notice. This, however, did not stop him from taking the time and effort to help us plan the coolest motorcycle trip we’ve done so far! Within minutes of meeting him we were all looking over a map of South Africa; Louise and I were frantically drawing on it and taking notes of Alex’s recommendations on routes to takes, places to visit, accommodation, people to meet etc. After about an hour we had our trip all planned and couldn’t contain our excitement for the trip ahead. Alex went so far as to email us a couple of days later with links to Google maps and guesthouses and a detailed itinerary for the 5 days; talk about a useful encounter!

I met Louise in Cape Town after my conference and we spent 4 great days discovering this fantastic city; but neither of us could wait for the Monday morning when we’d pick up our bike. Monday came and at 8am sharp we were standing next to a BMW 1200GS, being taught how to unlock the aluminium panniers and where all the buttons were. Now; I know that some people have views about the 1200GS but we were going to ride for 5 long days, 2 up, with a lot of distance to cover, so we decided that it may be the best option; and we were not disappointed. I ride a Kawasaki Nomad 1600 at home so I am used to big bikes and had no problem handling the GS.


Day 1

Once all the paperwork was signed and my credit card swiped through, we pointed our front wheel north out of Cape Town and headed for the mountains. Whoo hooo! This was going to be fun!

The first destination was Hermanus, on the coast, south east of Cape Town. As we rode out of the city, heading north we were both overtaken by a feeling of elation; the weather was fantastic, the bike felt great and we were finally riding in Africa! We made it out of the urban traffic, past the dockyards onto the N1 highway and towards the Cape wine region. Because Hermanus is only 1h30min away from Cape Town we took to the long way round and took in some beautiful scenery. As soon as you are out of town, and in the mountains leading to the wine valleys the scenery changes completely and you could be excused for thinking you are in the Rioja region. We stopped at the Solms Delta winery for a taste of local wines, surrounded by historical Cape Dutch farm buildings.

After we tasted and bought some wine (the rider spat it all out, I promise) we headed towards Hermanus, our destination for the night. Alex had recommended we stayed in Aloe Guest House which we did (www.aloe-guest-house.co.za/). It was an unassuming building from the outside but the inside was great. The guest house has secure parking for the bike which we appreciated and offered great big rooms with even bigger bathrooms; all fitted to modern standards. After a drink and a look at the map of Hermanus we headed out to the centre for a well deserved dinner. Hermanus was pretty quiet that night; I guess it’s understandable for a Monday night in the height of winter…but we found a welcoming Italian restaurant, had our food and headed back to the guest house to call it a night….And enjoy the totally underrated comfort of a hot water bottle! Now, whereas the weather in South Africa in July is comparable to spring in the UK, it does get pretty cold at night. And South Africans, instead of wasting energy on heating have just continued using the old system of the hot water bottle. It’s cheap, easy and it works wonders! As a matter of fact I’ve decided that it might be a biker’s best piece of equipment when touring in the colder months; small, robust, cheap, easy to use and very effective. Enough said.

Day 2

Morning number 2 saw us departing from Hermanus, riding through the waterfront. We didn’t spot any whales (bit too early in the season) but couldn’t help stopping to take in the beauty of the coastline and the warmth of the splendid morning sun. We had a long day ahead, 360km to Oudtshoorn; the Ostrich capital of the world. The road took us passed Swellendam, before which we had decided to do some off-road… We took some dirt roads and got totally lost. Not a problem though because in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by miles and miles of fields we came across the smallest train station. It was a bit surreal, there it was, a miniature stone built, victorian style train station… It must have been used to transport crops in the past. In any way, the railway helped us find our position on a map and soon enough we were back on the tarmac. We stoped for lunch in Barrydale, a small town on the R62, and one of the first nice surprises we cam across; imagine a small isolated village, with only a couple of tarred roads, but with a quaint deli in the middle. After lunch we still had quite some way to go and we decided that our last stop would be Ladismith where we stopped for tea and cake. The weather was becoming quite cold and the sun was now pretty low. We still had a couple of hours of riding before reaching Oudtshoorn. We rode the last hour in the dark, not recommended on a bike but the winter sun sets early in South Africa, and I guess we were fooled by the vast distances to cover 2 centimetres on a map of the UK looks ok; on a map of South Africa it’s at least  an hour’s ride!

First impressions as we entered Oudtshoorn were not great. We were cold, tired and did not know where our guesthouse in the dark of the night. We stopped on the side of the road to read our guidebook but were on our way quickly as we had attracted some dodgy characters… To be fair, if I was a dodgy character I would certainly be interested in 2 lost Europeans on a £12k bike… Anyway, after some searching and a bit of luck we found our guesthouse. Lavender Guest House had been recommended to us by Alex and we were not disappointed. It was a beautiful old stately home that had been converted in a guesthouse. We were the only guests that night and after giving us the keys the landlady’s mother, a lovely lady who spoke little English, left us alone; Goeie Nag!

We dined at Jemima’s  which had a fantastic menu. This was to become a habit in South Africa, but this restaurant was really top notch. I had the mandatory ostrich steak which was a delight. We highly recommend you have dinner here if ever you are in Oudtshoorn, it’s the kind of quality you get from high-end restaurants in Europe, but about 2 or 3 times cheaper.

Day 3

We woke up quite early and decided that we would not have breakfast at the guesthouse. Our guidebook recommended to pay a visit Buffelsdrift game park and we decided to try to get a breakfast there. Great idea! On arrival we were seated on a sun drenched terrace/observation deck overlooking a natural pool with hippos on the opposite bank. The breakfast was “international hotel” style, ie good and plentiful and once again very affordable.

Kawasaki Nomad 1600

The bike I currently use for my tours is a 2005 Kawasaki Nomad 1600. I’ve come to realize that it is one of the best bikes to tour Europe and it really does it for me. Other choices would have been a BMW 1200, either the GS or the RT but I do enjoy a bit of chrome and a bit of noise…

I didn’t buy the Nomad with the view to tour much on it. I guess the idea was to treat myself to a big beautiful piece of machinery.  And I quickly found out that out on the open road this thing really comes to its own!

Once you get used to the sheer size of it, the Nomad is a very comfortable bike to ride. It is quite impressive at first; the wide handlebars and the huge tank give the rider the impression that they have bitten more than they can chew. But once you’ve covered a few meters you realise that it is a surprisingly well balanced machine with very stable and light steering. The saddle is very wide, giving the rider plenty of space to move around. Same for the big floorboards. The passenger is treated very well too, with ample seating space and passenger floorboards. One thing to note is that the Nomad is so wide and stable that adding an average sized human on the back of it does not affect it at all. No change to handling, no change to power.

The engine is impressive as well. But one has to remember that this is a big bore V-twin. This is a class of its own and should not be compared to other engine architectures. I have to say that I was a little confused in the beginning. I was expecting a 1600cc engine to blow my socks away; after all, it’s nearly 3 times bigger than a Honda Hornet so it should go 3 times faster right? Nope. What it does is give the rider tonnes of torque to play with. And that’s how it should be ridden.

The Nomad ticks many of my boxes and it has a lot of the things I look for in a bike; style (debatable for some), space, noise and a certain degree of practicality. I know the latter may come as a surprise to some but with such big hardbags the rider can take whatever they need for any type of trip. This is actually one of my criteria for bikes; storage. I hate carrying gear in a rucksack, or having to loop my chain around the handlebar while riding. Each pannier carries about 35L; plenty for anyone! In addition to that there are lots of places where one can add power plugs, or fix a GPS etc…

 Accessories

I’ve added a few bits to my bike. It is a good tourer out of the box but it can do with a few more touring essentials.

The first change I did was to add a SwitchBlade 2up windshield by National Cycle; it is a really tall screen that can come off the bike in seconds. Helmet buffeting is a big problem when touring for hours; it can really ruin your experience. That’s why I think is is essential to have good wind protection.

The second addition was an intercom system. I had tried a Bluetooth system and, while they are good enough for around town, I quickly found that it was useless on the highway. So I invested in a Starcom Advance system. All hard-wired. These things are great! It’s basically a little aluminium box with lots of plugs that you hide somewhere in your bike and connect to when you want to listen to music, speak to your passenger etc… Mine came with a Bluetooth option which means it connects to my phone (although I’ve never used it). The sound quality is excellent and one of the clever tricks is that it automatically adapts the volume level to compensate for surrounding noise. This is really a must have for long tours. Listening to music (in background) and being able to discuss with your passenger really enhances the touring experience. I would recommend it to anyone. You can find second hand units on eBay for around £100, and seeing that they are bullet-proof you can’t go wrong.

Next on the list was a GPS unit… Yep, I know that one of the joys of touring on a bike is to take the road less travelled and to get lost on purpose… But I have such a bad sense of direction that I always get lost… especially in London! Like everyone I enjoy using maps of countries I visit to plan my trip and to visualize the roads ahead. But nothing can beat the practicality of a GPS unit when you are looking for your hotel in the centre of a city you’ve never been to at the end of a long day in the saddle. I didn’t buy a motorcycle specific unit. I thought that they were too expensive for the use I’d make of it. So I bought a Givi S950 pouch and a TomTom One XL that I attached to my handlebar. This GPS set-up works really well for me, the TomTom has a big screen which I find great. I enjoy having all the information on speed, speed limit, ETA etc etc right below my line of sight. I think it actually makes me safer as don’t have to look down to the instrument panel on the tank. The only issue I have is that this unit is very basic. It’s difficult to plan an itinerary with stops along the road. It also can’t record where you’ve been, what your speed was and “essential” information like that. But it always brings me to my destination safely.

I recently found a pair of SwitchBlade lower wind deflectors on eBay for a bargain. These are chromed lowers which, as the name suggests, deflect the wind that otherwise finds its way from under the windshield to your face. I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of the look but they make an enormous difference in terms of wind protection. I can honestly say that now, riding on the highway at 70mph I find myself in a cocoon and I love it. “Fair weather” rider you say… Well, maybe that’s correct but frankly for me this really enhances my biking experience on long rides.