A riders unforgettable first experience on gravel
Off-road in South Africa: If I can do this…
In October 2017, four English friends and I went to explore South Africa on a three-week tour. We rode our bikes from Johannesburg through the semi desert of the Little Karoo, into the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, then on to Cape Town and along the Garden Route, from where we ventured into Swaziland, then into the Kruger National Park and back to the Johannesburg. It was a truly epic tour, full of impressions and encounters. For me, one of the most memorable experiences of the trip was to say good-bye to the tarmac and go off-road for the very first time of my life.
Wide open country, the soil baked under the harsh African sun, the scrubs and bushes gnarly and bent from hot winds and the arid climate. The mountains in the distance appear blurred by the haziness of the hot air. Blue skies and the sun shining brightly. No traces of humans or animals anywhere to be seen. I am alone on this stretch of road. Road? What road?
The R 701 is a designated national road. However, in contrast to the smooth tarmac that usually covers the surface of the South African road network, it is a dirt road that stretches for 70 kilometres from Hobhouse to Smithfield in the Free State Province, which lies right in the heart of South Africa. It is a pretty wide road, which runs straight for most parts. The surface is ribbed, a never ending sequence of bouncy bumps, where the ground has been pushed together and compressed by vehicle heavier than my 700 GS. The gravel is made up of crushed, sometimes sharped edged rocks the size of my hand. In some places, they amount to just a thin layer. In other places, they pile up ankle deep.
Adventure comes knocking
It is the first time I am taking a motorbike on anything other than asphalt. The idea to spend the next one or two hours on a gravel road makes my heart pound heavily under my jacket. My throat has gone dry, and despite the heat, my hands feel cold in my leather gloves. Joe, the owner/operator of Due South Motorcycle Tours, has obviously sensed my nervousness. “If you want to, you can avoid the gravel, ride a tarmac road that goes around, and meet the group on the other side”, he offers. I shake my head. I came to South Africa for an adventure. No way I am going to chicken out at the first sign of one actually knocking on my visor.
We stop at the beginning of the track to grab some water and get some instructions for the upcoming off-road stretch. “Take it easy, ride your own ride, get out of the saddle in order to take weight off the tyres, don’t fight the bike, let it pick its way and try to steer softly, do not hit the brakes too hard if you can possibly avoid it, go gently… and enjoy yourselves!” Joe’s advice sounds easy enough to follow. But still, as I twist the key to turn on the ignition, my stomach also twists and turns into a big, nervous knot.
And then it happens…. As the wheels it the gravel, I feel the bike taking on the bumps and skidding stones with no problems whatsoever. I hardly give it any throttle, but the GS moves along at some speed anyway. Surprisingly enough, I do not find it difficult at all to sit back and relax. Sit back? No, get up! As I stand up on the pegs, I accelerate a little and suddenly find myself overtaking the rest of the group. I cannot help it but start giggling, then laughing out loud under my helmet. I do not hold the lead position for long as the guys are picking up speed. We all come to a stop when all of the sudden the gravel is covered by a freshly laid layer of mud. The South African Road Authorities seem to do something that they think of as upgrading. The road works are in full progress as we approach. Lorries dump soil on the gravel, workers spray water on it, bulldozers flatten the mixture into one mucky mess. There is a bend coming up, so we cannot really see for how long the road works are going on and whether there are more obstacles along the route. Joe quickly overtakes and sets out to explore the construction site. After a few minutes, he phones us and gives us the go-ahead. The road works only last for a couple of hundred meters, its mucky but doable, and the vehicle drivers know we are coming and they will let us pass.
And off we go. We skid and slide our way through the dirt, muddy water splatters everywhere. I can feel the rear tyre slip a few times, but I manage to hold the bike upright and steer it back on course. The road workers watch us as riding past, giving us the occasional thumbs up. The experience does not last long, but it puts an even bigger smile on my face. Gosh, I think I could really get used to this.
Horse power multiplied by two
After the road works, it is back on the gravel. My friends ride swiftly ahead, I follow them at my own pace. Two men on horseback come my way, riding along the grass shoulder of the wide track. I give them lots of room as I pass them, but maybe not enough. A third horse they were leading on a rope behind them suddenly breaks free. Maybe it was scared from the sound of the bike’s engine, maybe it just felt bored, who knows. But it runs out right in front of me. I hit the brakes as hard as I dare to and manage to come to a standstill just in time. My heart races inside my chest, but despite the rush of adrenalin running through my body, I find the time to admire the beautiful creature that is now cantering away from me. The sun reflects on the light-brown, shiny coat, sprinkling it with specks of gold. Its almost white mane and tail are flying. It is a picture of freedom and pure joy, and in this very moment, I can fully identify myself with it.
Yes, I can
As I ride on for the rest of the route, I marvel at the vast African sky. Its colour is so intense, a piercing blue that I have never seen anywhere else on my travels before. It seems to go on endlessly, spanning highly and widely over the arid landscape until in the very distance it meets the mountains of Lesotho. I stop the bike and look around. I feel like I could burst with happiness, the feeling you only get from being at the right place at the right time, not wanting or missing anything. And a thought suddenly pops into my mind: I am riding off-road in South Africa. If I can do this, I really can do anything. And I know, I will keep this thought with me for a long time even after the ride ends.
As I get to the junction where the gravel meets another asphalt road, I catch up with my friends and our guide Joe. As I take off my helmet, they all look at me curiously. I grin back at them, and in their eyes I can see the same sparkle that I know they can see in mine. We congratulate ourselves on having ridden the gravel and enjoyed it.
Since that day, I have done some more off-road riding, both in South Africa and in my home country. But this first gravel ride was special, a memory that is sure going to last for a lifetime.
By: Diana Runge
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