BMW X-Challenge First Ride: RTW Here we Come

Bringing the Piglet Home – riding my future RTW bike up from East London to Johannesburg.

In February 2014 I bought a second-hand BMW X-Challenge as a platform for my “Round-the-World Bike Build”.

Two really cool things about this particular bike:

  1. It comes with some of the expensive RTW kit that I would have had to import with any other option I looked at. Oh and low mileage to boot.
  2. It’s in East London (South Africa), about 1000km (600 miles) from my home  in Johannesburg, thus forcing a trial-by-fire intro.

Of course, some would cry “What a risk, mudda fugga!” given the whole sight-unseen-different-city-altogether thing. Yeah, I do rather feel like a modern-day cowboy. I’ll keep you in suspense as to how the transaction pans out :/

In the meantime, here’s a picture of the monster:

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Let’s back-track a bit though to get you up to speed with what has happened so far…

(Skip to 1st riding day)

Friday 7th of February 2014

After scanning the classifieds for days on end, looking at BMW X-Challenges (specs here) on offer, I’ve come to the realisation: These puppies will have high mileage. Last sold in South Africa in 2009, the chances of finding one with less than 15,000km on the clock are very slim.

Well, what do you know? An option pops up on Gumtree: 2007 model, 8,500km and some cool Touratech bits. It looks like this:

XC2

After thinking about it only a little bit, I contact the seller and we arrange for a viewing.

I could hear the guy MILES away – that SBK pipe is LOUD! Love it 🙂

Really cool extras fitted (after market hand guards,  radiator guard, bash plate).

The bike is in fair condition, but the engine casings have some scuff marks on (from MX boots you see). The seller is a super cool dude (Ryan), who ditched a corporate job a couple of years ago and turned freelance photographer. We end up talking much longer and much wider than just biking. Loving like minded people!

Anycase, I make an offer (a bit lowballed, I admit) and we agree to mutually “think about it”.

Though it comes with cool accessories, there are a couple of big, expensive items which will have to be added. In my mind, and from what I’ve read, these are:

  • Rally fairing
  • Long Range tank
  • Rear Racks
  • Coil-over-shock rear suspension

There are probably many other things to really prepare it, but these are the big ticket items and would add up to R30k – R50k ($2.8k – $4.8k), depending on what you buy. That’s excluding shipping and import duties…sigh. So on top of my offer, I’d have to spend this extra to get it properly prepared for a big trip. Which is fine, since I have about 2 years to do it in…

We agree to touch base on Monday, allowing ourselves some time to consider…

 

Monday 10th of February 2014

I’ve mailed the guy, SMS’d and called. No response. I WANT THIS BIKE!!

By the end of the day, after hearing NOTHING I’ve decided to let it go…He calls back (like Wednesday or something): “Sorry, there’s someone else interested who has met the asking price, just waiting for final confirmation.”

Will let me know by Saturday if it is still available. F.F.S. Ok, like I have a choice…

Saturday comes and goes, no further comms. I guess that’s that, eh?

Back to the drawing board and ah, for the thrill of the chase…

So understand this: I’m dealing in cash here, trying to avoid getting into debt on such pleasurable things. The offer I made was pushing me a little bit, but doable given what  I was buying here.

 

Sunday 16th of February 2014

The eyes, they are a-wanderin’ . I’ve spotted another option, but at a cost too high for me to consider. Long term it works out much cheaper though, since it has some of those expensive items already fitted. Rally Fairing? Check. Long Range Tank? Check. That’s R30k right there…

Here’s the advert:

XC1a

I’m eyeing the ad the entire day: Should I, shouldn’t I? Finally, at like 20:00 I SMS the seller: “Will you consider a cash offer of [value much lower than asking price]”…no reply…no reply…no reply…

At 21:00 the reply comes back – “how about [slightly more than my ridiculous offer]?”.

“Let me think about it – I’ll phone tomorrrow” I say. I play the scenario in my head over and over. What if its a scam…what if there’s something wrong I don’t know about? What if…what if…

 

Monday 17th of February 2014

I call the seller (Hein) at 08:15. Says he: “Dude, that offer is too low considering what the kit had cost.”

Agreed totally, but I need to fly down to East London and ride back up. Risks & costs you know.

I reiterate my CASH offer and decide: If he accepts, it is a mini sign from the gods of distant desert landscapes. If not its “just tough luck”.

Hein asks to consider until the evening. Alrighty then – let me know.

Again, its this crazy waiting game. By 23:00 I’ve heard nothing and quietly lie on my bed in a foetal position, sobbing with disappointment.

 

Tuesday 17th of February 2014

I have a hectic day ahead, but this thing is messing with my head. I decide to get it out my system so real work can get done – just phone the guy and put it to bed.

  • Me: “Hein, do we have a deal or can I move on”
  • Hein: “Ag nee wat” [Heck, no]
  • Me: “Ok, well, good luck with the sale then”
  • Hein: “No, no! I mean I’ll sell it at your ridiculous offer”
  • Me: “[deleted expletive], [deleted expletive], [deleted expletive]. Cool – thanks! I’ll pop you a mail with a proposal on how to proceed.”

Alrighty! I draw up the sale agreement and email it through. Game on!

Now, as the day draws on, I start realising: This guy could be getting other offers, I might be in for a huge disappointment. But what if it is bogus? This could be an expensive freaking lesson…red flags go up on all sides: I WANT the deal to continue, but I need to know who this guy is…and I need a signed sale agreement back.

Google to the rescue: The name/surname turns up quite comprehensively, and he seems to be connected to a very reputable, big brand bike shop in East London. Also rather well known in the rider community there. Sigh of relief. Now, if only I can get my signed agreement back to at least have something in writing…this deal could still be lost…

 

Wednesday 18th of February 2014

Finally! The signed agreement turns up on my fax machine (old school, yeah!) – let’s move!

In the back of my mind I’m constantly aware: this could be bogus or this deal could be lost. Acceptable risk? Best thing is to move quickly, I decide.

I check the diary…if I shuffle things around a little I could get it THIS WEEKEND! Move meetings for Monday/Tuesday, book leave for the two days. Too freakin’ easy.

I book a flight to East London for Sunday morning, sounds so close!

Now, paying the seller…a defeated red flag waves with resignation.

I guess we’ll know soon enough…

 


Sunday 23rd of February 2014

The day is “finally” here after a whirlwind couple of days to ensure everything is ready for two days away from work. Admin sorted (like updating my will, no paranoia here)…

Not much to be said for the red-eye flight at 06:30 or the plane-breakfast…At 07:15 and 30,000 feet there is no chicken or beef option, just a simple yes or no.

I’m travelling light. A backpack with one change of clothing, thermal wear in case it gets cold and some toiletries. Oh, and a whole host of electronics…laptop, iPad, phone, GPS, chargers.

My planned route looks as follows:

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The idea is to go North-East from East London, then shoot North towards Barley-East, on towards the border with Lesotho at Lundean’s Neck and Telebridge. After this, more or less hugging the border on main-ish roads through Zastron, Wepener, Ladybrand, Fouriesburg. Finally Clarens, Bethlehem and home in Johannesburg.

For all the suspense, there isn’t much to say about the collection. I arranged a taxi to Hein’s house. He in the meantime has been waiting for me at the airport. Minor hiccup, but finally, I lay eyes on the Piglet. It is as described, just much taller in real life…the tank up front adds to the sense of bulk.

It is surprisingly light and easy to pick up off the side stand, even without getting on. Of course, I nearly drop the bike trying to put it back down…the airshock (rear) decompresses fully when weight is taken off. The “dynamic result” is that, as you start getting off (i.e. tip-toeing on one side), it lifts up. This essentially pivots you over your foot, ever higher. Weird and fun, but not on day one.

The bike has a couple more scratches than I anticipated, but such is life – its been used for what it was built for. Hein mentions that the battery ran flat and has been replaced…fair game. The generator on the X-Challenge is a weakness and runs at levels significantly lower than the F650GS, which has the same engine. Weight-saving you see. This is all cool, but on a RTW machine, you would like a more beefy setup to cope with load demand for GPSs, cameras, heating kit, etc. Any case, its in the back of my mind and will make a return shortly…

After sorting out all paperwork, filling up with water and getting kit strapped down, I am on my way. Everything feels different – the single cylinder engine feels way more pokey at lower rev range than the twinnies I’ve been riding off late. Some vibrations through the seat, but nothing too bad. It is BOUNCY – this suspension is awesome!

Sure as hell, I hit some gravel within the first 10km – the suspension works a treat soaking up everything. This thing is nimble!

I take a break to reflect & enjoy the adventure I’m on:

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After 80-odd kms, I arrive at Stutterheim and decide to fill up.

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It doesn’t look like much of a picture, but wowser it talks. So, I arrive at a COMPLETELY empty forecourt, not a car in sight. As soon as I stop, cars are piling in, all wanting to use the pump I just stopped at. Well, you’ll just have to wait.

We proceed to fill both tanks, me fiddling with the keys trying to unlock the tank for the 1st time. More cars arrive.

All done, time to pay – step away to the window to pay with a card sir. Ok. More cars…

As I’m busy paying, a kind gentleman start making conversation…nice bike, where are you from where are you going, where are your mates, bla-bla-bla. “James” seems like a good bloke and nice to have a friendly chat, but let me just finish up here. Getting back to the bike (and piles of cars), James shows his true colours: “Don’t you have a R10 for me boss.” Like fuck, no. Said of course in a firm but friendly way and with the resignation of a world-wise traveller.

Getting on the bike, and trying to start it, there’s nothing. Uhmmm, I hope the battery is ok? In the meantime, the cars are now hooting (despite the fact that there are 3 other pumps open, WTF??) Pressure mounts. I frantically stab at the starter button. Since I’ve shown James away, I’ll have to push this beast out of the way on my own…like hell am I asking for help!

I decide to follow the old English tradition: If something goes wrong, make a cup of tea. I park up, secure everything and get some things to eat and drink from the shop nearby. I decide to sit in the shade and contemplate life to allow my mind to figure out a way to solve this problem.

It’s solution: Push every button on the handlebar until something happens. This works, of course, and after pushing the kill switch again, and then the starter, the engine fires! Eureka, let’s go!

I follow the road East out of town, directly onto gravel, which will be the standard for the next 85km. After the recent rains in the area, the roads are damp-dry, but the rivers are full! Not being used to the bike (or gravel riding for that matter), I take it extremely easy. A luxury SUV passes me at some point. So embarrassing!

How’s this for a full river?

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I believe this is in fact the Kei, one of the major arteries in the region, and involuntary name-giver of the “Transkei”.

Not too much further, I take a break at a deserted petrol station:

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Nearby, a car waits to be filled up…its been a while it seems

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The sections of gravel and tar come at regular intervals breaking the monotony inherent to rural roads on single-cylinder machines. I reach Ncobo and start heading to Maclear. Clouds are rapidly forming to the South-West, and fast moving North-West, directly into my path.

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A little further on, at the top of a hill, I park up and start preparing for rain…its going to happen soon.

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The first drops start pelting my visor and helmet just as I start going downhill on the Northern slope of the mountain. Wet roads are always fun on a new bike. Still better than a day of golf.

Up ahead, I can see a bank of black clouds towering high into the sky. Brace yourself, this is going to be interesting. I do a mental check: Laptop & iPad – secured and waterproof. Cellphone – top breast pocket, moderately secure.

Just as I’m resigning myself to the fact that I’m going to get wet through, I glance at the GPS and see the road curling away to the North-East, away from the rain. Sure as hell, the roads dry out! I open up and make a run for it. That was close.

About 40km on, the fuel light indicates a mandatory stop.  I pull into a fuel station and fill the main tank. This should see me through until tomorrow.

With a weary eye on the ever-approaching clouds, I set off towards Barkley-East. A quick lesson in geography: The high temperatures in the coastal region charges the air with moisture. This is blown deep inland, where the moist air is forced upwards by the barriers of mountains that separates Lesotho and South Africa. I’m approaching this barrier and rain is inevitable. If not this afternoon, then definitely during the night and into the morning.

From the top of Barkley Pass, which affords a sweeping view to the South, I can only see cloud cover. To the North, a couple of slivers of sunlight pierce the darkened sky. Having climbed from sea-level (East-London) to about 1100m, there is a chill in the late-afternoon air. I consider putting on my thermal wear, but decide against it. I hit the road with resolve: I want to sleep in the mountains tonight!

Not wasting any time on getting through Barkley-East, I quickly fill up with cash and head for the Wartrail road. It awards in bucket loads:

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If you are ever in the area, be sure to head into this paradise. On the plateaus, the gravel is hard packed and fast. Every now and again, it dips into a river valley – making for some interesting riding negotiating the rutted roads. Inevitably, the road snakes out of the valley, onto the plateau and the fast riding continues.

Until of course, there is a reason to stop, like so:

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The mountains in the area are constituted mainly of sandstone, and all the older buildings, big or small, are constructed from bricks cut from the stuff. It is awesome.

As I’m riding, I consider how it is that one gains experience, and how each experience builds on another. If I had to face these badly rutted roads earlier in the day, I would have freaked out. Instead, I first had some light gravel. Then some wet tarmac. Now, I’m getting rutted loose gravel. What’s next?

Of course, the gods of adventure-riding grin. “How about some wet loose gravel?” they boom with distant thunder.

I can smell the rain in the air and the steam from the warm, humid soil mixes with the cold mountain air. Pine and Cedar (or Poplar?) forests add their aroma to the mix. Exquisite.

The road is damp at first and I can hear the gravel being picked up by the aggressive tyre pattern and thrown against the mud guards. Then, the pattering becomes sloshing as the road turns to mud. The centre section of the road is high and slopes down to the run-off areas next to the road. The front wheel knows exactly where it wants to go…

I fight it initially, my body tense and rigid from the stress and inexperience. Hitting a hidden rock, the front shudders and I can feel a slide coming on. Fuck, like I want this right now.

Luckily, the bike stays upright, but I am badly shaken. Its getting late, I’m tired from riding all day.

Suddenly, the valley opens up and I am greeted by a glimpse of heaven:

IMG_1079This is adventure riding.

I get off, taking a deep breath, savouring the mountain view and scents.

Consulting the GPS, I discover there is a guest farm not more than 15km away. If only I can survive this…

When finally I arrive at the gate, I am cooked. The last bit has taken every ounce of concentration. Arriving at Reedsdell Guest Farm could not have happened sooner…

After a quick kit-down, I take a look around.

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Yes, that will do.

Feet in the air and a beer in hand. Tonight there will not be any “Sunday Night Blues”

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Monday 24rd of February 2014

The farm has Wi-Fi, and I manage to connect to let loved ones know I’m safe. When attempting to update my blog, I realise the laptop’s keyboard does not work…Oops, so much for waterproofing.

It rained all night and I battle with a tough decision over breakfast: Do I head straight over Lundean’s Neck and home, maybe even trying to make it back by the evening, or do I head towards Rhodes, spending a bit more time in the area? The latter reeks of risk and adventure, since the roads are sure to be wet and slippery and there is a good chance of more rain.

I ponder this while breakfast is being cooked by Annaliena:

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She speaks very little English, but, admittedly more than the primary-school isiXhosa I have at my disposal. We manage with basic greetings and establishing names.

Over breakfast my decision is made: You don’t pass through this area without going to Rhodes. Regardless of vehicle or weather.

The route incorporates three passes and looks like this:

RhodesMeander

On the menu then: Bidstone Pass, Carlisles Hoek Pass, snack and coffee in Rhodes, Lundean’s Neck Pass and then the slog North and home.

I set off, to find the roads as wet as I expected, and the rivers much higher than I’ve ever seen in this area.

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Being mostly a grainy kind of sand, grip is excellent in most places. When I’m confronted with the turn-off to Tiffendell Ski Resort via the Bidstone Pass, I think only for a moment. Hell yes! The road becomes narrower and occasionally, a canopy of willow trees would darken the road.

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Hitting the lower slopes of the climb up the mountain, I immediately sense that today is not going to be a walk in the park. I’ve been here twice before – the 1st time on a Triumph Scrambler, shod with off road tyres and wet but manageable conditions. The 2nd time was in a Landrover Defender, a doodle given its low-range gearing, 4 wheel drive and high ground clearance.

This time, going up, the road is extremely rutted and streams are having their way, following whatever path they feel like. Of course, this throws the bike every which way as I battle to stay on top.

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Several switch-backs force the road ever upwards:

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The tyre thread gets clogged with mud and stones, the speed too low to clear the grooves.

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This obviously makes the going even more treacherous and the camera is put away for the time being…

Until, of course, I look back down the valley, and realise it is just too magnificent not to share:

IMG_1089The remaining part of the climb is tackled with focus and concentration, and I take a brief rest at the top.

IMG_1091 Hardly any picture will do justice to how far and wide the vista is. This really is “on top of the world”.

The cold really sets in, and a light mist start descending. The adventure gods have yet another ace up the sleeve: Just as you start relaxing, we throw some rain and slippery jeep track your way. Oops, careful, mere mortal.

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Of course, for seasoned offroad riders, this is not a problem. For a newbie, on a strange bike, its slightly different. I learn quickly that its best not to go NEAR the grassy centre sections, those are slippery as all hell. The ruts on the side are not much better, but at least they “capture” the wheels and sort of run in the direction I want to go  – forward.

Relief is provided by a closed gate, forcing a pause, dismount, open, ride through, dismount, close, ride on.

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The area reminds of the Scottish highlands (I would imagine…) or, closer to home, the grassy, rocky plains around Dullstroom. The occasional dam appears. Some of these even run over the road:

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Adrenaline (almost) mixes with water…Looking to my left, the turn-off to Tiffendell beckons. Recently re-opened, this the only ski-resort in South Africa creates a reason for people to visit my favourite South African town, Rhodes.

I merely pause for a quick photo and run around the bike to warm up my body. The icy wind does not help!

For the next 5-10km the road gets significantly better with hard packed surface and winding open corners. I let loose on the throttle a couple of times to feel the rear wheel stepping out as I exit some nice sweepers. Fun all the way!

Next up is Carlisleshoek Pass with extreme gradients, nice switchbacks and some cemented sections.

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Descending into the folds of the mountain valley again, the views are dramatic!

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Further down the valley, streams that are normally only a trickle now roar across the road.

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Luckily, the sub-surface is not slippery and I make a through without a tumble…

Finally, I approach Rhodes with huge joy – this is the most charming, remote town in South Africa!

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Taking a detour to savour every street, I end up at the hotel and order a coffee and carrot cake. 11 o’clock tea time all ye’ at the office!

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I can do this every Monday…

Reluctantly, I finish up and hit the road, which rewards in bucket loads. The sun starts coming out and the road, while still damp, loses its extreme muddiness.

The road traverses hills and valleys with hardly ever a single bit of straight, level sections. This is heaven!

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Huge sandstone boulders block a valley next to the road, adding contrast in colour and depth:

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In the back of my mind I know the fun will soon stop, and I will exit this area. It makes every vista ever more precious. The road remains interesting, as if to slow my progress down, begging me to stay longer and see more.

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Imagine being on a date with Scarlett Johansson. Three-course meal and as you’re about to part ways, she suggests you have a coffee at her place. Exactly like that. Wartrail you beautiful thing.

In fact, not exactly like that. Imaging she suggests tequila body-shots…this is what Lundean’s Neck is like, as you leave this region. Travelling South-to-North, a pretty undramatic climb takes you to the top of the high mountain ridge.

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Then, the road unfolds itself into the valley and the river far below:

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The Piglet takes it all like a professional with not even a headshake to rebuke me for my lack of riding skill.

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Approaching the river (which forms the border between South African and Lesotho), villages starts appearing and I am cheered on my locals. The open-face helmet I’m wearing allows them to see my huge grin as I pass. This is fun!

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I’m ever aware of the approaching rain and cast a beady eye at the sky. To the South-West, an ominous dark mass rumbles and warn me to take precautions, its going to get wet and cold very soon.

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I make haste on wide, familiar roads and pass the turn-off to Sterkspruit. Shortly after, I cross a bridge which is guarded over by an old bus. Lo and behold, the driver is behind the wheel!

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I stop for a quick chat and photo and assures me the bus used to run not 5 years ago. And he plans to get it going again…such optimism!

Sadly, the remainder of the day has not photographic record, since it started raining shortly after and continued all the way to Clarens. Wet, dirty and totally exhausted I roll into town at about 18:45 to find accommodation. A happy dinner of Eisbein and beer after a warm shower sets me up for the best night’s sleep in the whole world.

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On Tuesday, I hit the road early and with 1st sunlight. Clarens waves goodbye:

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A little further on, the Easter Freestate welcomes me with open plains, splendid colours and an icy wind.

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The adventure stops here, unfortunately. I make it home by 10:30 and on to the office by 12:00. The ride, however stays in my mind for a long time.

As yoda would say: “Do it again, you must”.

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Dream, build, ride, repeat