This is a longer version of an article published by BIKE in June 2000

FLY-RIDE TO CAPE TOWN

 

"Ooh dearie me," everyone tutted. "In South Africa, you're bound to be shot/stabbed/mugged and generally ripped off."

So let's bottom that one first. We didn't. Instead, we had two weeks in bikers' heaven, meeting some of the nicest people and riding some of the greatest roads in the world.

Then there was: "I say, old chap - two up trail riding on a Triumph Tiger? You'll come back with four broken legs and a hernia."

Fair enough warning on Point Two. Venturing off the black stuff on Hinckley's monster trailie can be a bit of a buttock-clencher at the best of times. Throw in a passenger and a set of Givi panniers the size and weight of a three piece suite, and I will admit to a touch of the colly-wobbles.

But again, it all turned out rather well.

The decision to ride in South Africa was virtually an accident. Plan A was to head to Morocco on our own bike (BMW R850R) for a bit of March sun, but the logistics were against us: a day from Wales to Plymouth, a day on the Santander ferry, two days through Spain, ferry to Africa, then the whole lot back again.

Much as I love riding, it all sounded like hard work for a couple of days in Berber country. So I called bike trip specialist H-C Travel and asked if they had any fly-hire packages. Not in Morocco, they didn't. Local bike hire companies are, um, unreliable and insurance is a nightmare.

What about Cape Town, said H-C's super-helpful David Grist? How do you fancy a 10 day unaccompanied dirt-riding tour with all accommodation and flights thrown in, plus a one night stopover in the city at each end? A perfect fit for the two weeks we had available. 

The choice of bikes was basically a medium-weight trailie, such as a Kawasaki KLR 650/Suzuki DR 650, or a big Triumph. Hmm, I reasoned, the Jap one-pots would be great solo (and cheaper), but a bit pile-inducing for my beloved on the back and seriously short on luggage capacity. Anyway, we've survived dirt roads in Canada and the USA on a rented R1100GS, so the Trumpet can't be that much different, can it?

Yes it can, actually. At 460 lbs dry, the old-model Tiger is 46 lbs lighter than the BMW, with a chassis and suspension that's far more forgiving on the rough stuff. There's no way you would want to take one up a typical British trail (i.e. extended trial section or bottomless mire), but South Africa is something else.

Gravel roads in the Cape run for thousands of miles and they are utterly, fantastically brilliant. 

If you want to ride through some of the most glorious scenery in the world, with virtually no traffic, this is the ONLY way to go.

On a UK trail scale of one to 10 (where 10 is Gas-Gas territory), around 95% of the 1000 miles we rode on dirt were grade one or two. Most of the rest was grade three, with only a few very short patches above that. Plenty enough for adventure, but if you want non-stop enduro stuff, enter the Paris-Dakar instead.

Every inch of the route had been ridden and surveyed by Johann Van Bierck, owner of the Le Cap Triumph main dealership, who rented us the bike. This is a man who believes in preparation to the point of obsession: he actually phoned H-C to find out how much we weighed, so he could set up the suspension properly and ask if we were happy with the Metzeller Sahara 3 Enduro tyres he was planning to fit.

Arming us with a stack of well-marked maps and instructions (donít use this clay road if it's raining, Tigers are useless in soft sand, call me any time if you hit problems etc.), he could not have held our hands any tighter short of coming with us. Every night he phoned wherever we were staying to check if we were OK - a sensible move, given some trails were so remote that it could be days before anyone found us in the event of a crash or breakdown.

Fully loaded, with five gallons of gas on board, gravity dictated that the Tiger needed treating with maximum respect when the going got gritty. But the essential rules of dirt riding apply, only more so: relax, don't panic, let the bike have its head. Use the throttle not the brakes. Think ahead. Don't be a hero (the last one is my personal favourite).

With only a 19 inch wheel up front, the absolute rule when tackling really loose, rocky or rutted stuff was to cog it down a few gears well in advance and apply some welly (standing up and throwing your weight back motocross-style is not popular with passengers).

I forgot that just twice. The worst was when I hit the debris of a stream bed which crossed the trail, at about 50 mph in sixth gear, but with my brain in neutral. I panicked and shut the throttle, which loaded up the front end, starting a God-almighty tank slapper. Much undignified leg-waving later, we came to rest in a gully, thankfully upright and intact.

On many trails it was perfectly possible to blat along at 50 to 60 mph, relaxed enough to enjoy the scenery. It's also an ideal speed at which to engage in a bit of ostrich racing: the big birds are happy to have a go on the straights, but their top end is restricted to about 50.

As for the tortoises we occasionally met sauntering down the road, no contest - even on a Triumph.

Thanks to Johann's route-planning, we crossed more mountain passes than most Swiss see in a lifetime, including the fabulous Swartberg - dozens of miles of hairpins, climbs and descents on gravel that is tricky enough to make it fun, but not so hard as to wear you out on what ended up as a 200 mile day.

Our most heroic episodes were taking on a couple of roads that were allegedly closed by landslides, brought on by the tail end of the cyclone that devastated Mozambique in February. Yep, I discovered, Tigers really are pretty useless in deep soft sand - and they can be a bit of a handful on piles of loose boulders where the road has been taken over by the river.

In both cases, the tough sections were mercifully short and involved little more than making Liz walk, while I got up on up on the pegs and threw in the odd dab (OK, so there was one leg-flail, but nobody saw). Emergency Plan B would have been to unclip the luggage and let some air out of the tyres. Plan C was to push. Plan D was to go back and take a longer road round.

Johann's choice of tyres proved to be excellent, with the Saharas providing a good balance of grip, steering feel and stability, wet or dry. He has ridden these trails before on road-biased trail tyres, which he says can make the Tiger a real animal. They even managed to wear pretty well, with plenty of tread left and no shouldering after a total of more than 1500 miles.

Apart from needing to shed a couple of hundred pounds (the Tiger is almost exactly TWICE the weight of my Serow trailie) it proved a bit of a star on the dirt, all things considered.

The engine is surprisingly gutsy at low revs, thanks partly to surgery by Johann on the airbox to free up airflow as well as preventing  the filter clogging solid with dust every 100 miles. It also makes an endearing variety of noises (it's called character, mate) depending on load and speed: from gruff growling, to barking, to a wild howl on full chat - all accompanied by the characteristic Triumph whistle.

Come to think of it, the thing sounded and pulled  remarkably like a turboDetroit diesel. More Caterpillar than Tiger.

There were very few moans from the back as the well-damped long suspension soaked up most of the punishment. Overall, the bike proved totally bullet-proof, needing only one small chain adjustment.

The security of hard luggage was a bonus for the few times we parked up in towns, as well as enabling the memsahib to bring along the contents of the bathroom cabinet, various wardrobes and a library. I mean, how can a gel possibly cross Africa with anything less?

The downside of all this suspension and weight was felt most, ironically, on the 500 miles or so of tarmac we travelled. South African metalled roads are, with few exceptions, as brilliant as anything in the Alps or America, but almost totally without traffic. Or speed traps. Or police.

Endless, empty straights blasting down beautiful valleys - twisting  passes swooping over breathtaking mountain ranges: these were the times when I would happily have  switched for a bike with better handling and go. If you want to make the most of some of the best road biking anywhere, head for the Cape - on a good road bike.

Hitting 70 to 90 plus in the twisties made the Tiger vague and wallowy - never alarmingly, but enough to take the edge of enjoyment off committed scratching. The motor's good mid range turned more frantic and harsh when pushed. And braking caused the forks to dip faster than a lift with a broken cable. An R1100GS would have annihilated it here - but scored lower on the dirt.

But the worst feature of the old Tiger is that silly excuse for a fairing. It must have been designed by a 'style consultant', because it looks nice and is literally worse than useless: it concentrates wind blast straight at you head, so you can't ride above 20 mph with your visor open (a real pain off road). Of all the screens I have ever used, this is the only one that manages to amplify noise, buffeting, turbulence and pressure, all at the same time (a real pain on road).

Accommodation booked via Johann for the trip was varied and for the most part superb - from a seaside hotel in the upmarket resort of Knysna, to a cottage on the edge of the Little Karoo desert, miles from the nearest tar road. Several nights we stayed with Afrikaner farm families and enjoyed fantastic hospitality everywhere.

If you want to take your familiar lifestyle on holiday with you, try a different trip. South Africa is very different from home - much more so than America - and at the same time  reassuringly familiar (a good place to buy mint Morris 1000s). Everyone we met was astonishingly friendly and helpful. And the food was great (try the ostrich biltong - better than pork scratchings).

Is it dangerous? Yes and no. Crime in the cities and big towns is very bad - especially around Johannesburg, where some hire companies won't even let you take a bike. But Cape Town itself is a lovely and relatively laid back place - San Francisco to Jo'burg's New York; and the rural areas of the Cape province are a different world.

If you know where you are going, your chances of hitting trouble are very low indeed. Farmers don't bother to lock their doors at night and crime rates approach zero. If you feel worried about setting off alone, you can always join a group trip organised by a company such as H-C Travel, with choices ranging from camping to de luxe hotels.

Going totally independently in South Africa is certainly an option. You can pick up cheap flights and bare bike hire easily. And the rand is so worthless that the country is almost embarrassingly cheap - dinner, bed and breakfast in a two star hotel for £13 each, petrol 30p a litre, brilliant wines £2 a bottle, beer 50p a pint, top restaurant meals around £5.

Would we do it again? Yes. Biking in South Africa is a world away from our cold, damp, crowded little islands. It may have cost the same as a good used bike, but the experience will last forever. 

For:

Gravel roads, tar roads, climate, scenery, friendly people, culture, food, low cost of living, brilliantly organised trip. Tiger surprisingly good off-road.

 

Against:

Long way (Manchester - Amsterdam - Johannesburg - Cape Town: over 16 hours). Gap between rich and poor is depressing - but improving. Perceived danger. Tiger less happy on-road.

 

Best time to go:

March/April or October/November: South African autumn or spring. Summer can be too hot, winter cool and wet.

 

Recommended:

Open face helmets and light leathers/pukka off road gear. Anything more is a sauna. Anything less is stupid.

Tour price of £2700 for two included: KLM scheduled flights (sod cattle class charters), bike hire (unlimited miles), luggage, insurance, maps, 12 nights accommodation (good quality en suite, dinner, bed and breakfast). Deposit/damage excess: first £500 (returnable). Riding gear available.

 Contact: David Grist, H-C Travel, 01256 770775, http://www.hctravel.com