Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Bike inspection in Mexico
According to some, planning is just as much a part of the trip as anything else. They see it as fun, exciting and important. Not me. For starters plans never work out, which kind of eliminates the 'important' part of it, and there is nothing 'fun' in working your way through piles of paper and e-mails either. To me the whole planning thing is about as exciting as bookkeeping. An unfortunate necessity, nothing more.

When you live on an island, like we did, planning the transportation of your mode of travel is another boring necessity. Since 9/11 the world of transport had changed. It seems everything is now seen as a potential bomb, ready to be blown up. No longer could we simply call a shipping line and ask them to send our bikes, we had to supply piles of paperwork, e-mails and even packing the bikes was now subject to strict rules and regulations. What a joke! Do these people really think a terrorist will take his own bike with him in a container and then wait 4 weeks while it's in transit before he can blow it up? Wooden crates now have to be made from certified steam treated wood, while they stand on a wooden container floor which isn't. Customs don't allow your bike to leave the country if you can't proof it actually entered it too… you would think that the bike being there is the proof that it entered, but no, you need a piece of paper to show that it did… Countries like New Zealand are even more problematic and add the 'quarantine inspection' component to it. Another joke; as if diseases don't enter New Zealand via air, sea water, Albatrosses, Penguins, thousands of tourists that arrive every day and even via shipping containers that continuously travel all over the world without being steam-cleaned or fumigated.
The result of all these mindless regulations is that shipping has become an expensive business, so expensive that the actual shipping itself is less than 50% of the total costs and it requires more paperwork than ever. How can anyone call this fun?

Crating up in New Zealand
As our plans included a wide range of countries, we had a lot to sort out. Could we even cross the borders, what do we need on visas and paperwork for the bikes, how long can we stay, are our driver's licenses valid, was Mike allowed to ride his bike on just a learner license, how do we arrange insurance… and the list goes on. Mind numbing stuff that would be so boring to do that I probably wouldn't even want to do the trip anymore before I was halfway through sorting all that out.
I opted to look at the bikes first. Reading the brochures, checking and comparing specs and going for test rides could be fun. Once I'd sorted that out I might have the energy to do the boring paper trail, I figured.

Costa Rica border
Which motorcycle?
We didn't have the bikes to do this kind of trip, according to the local motorcycle shop. I had a Triumph Bonneville T100 that I bought 3 years earlier and served me well, but according to the salesman it could hardly be considered a viable travel bike. I thought differently. The T100 is fine on gravel roads, has tyre sizes that allow for gravel orientated tyres, has a low centre of gravity, had only 40.000km on the clock and most importantly: I like it!

Jeanette had the lower SE version of the same Bonneville, which turned out to be a problem. Where the T100 is fine on gravel, the SE was horrible. And we had quite a bit of gravel to do! To make things worse the front's 110/70-17 size means it's limited to road tyres only, and a 120/70-17 wouldn't fit. We looked at buying a set of T100 wheels for the SE, plus standard T100 forks and shock absorbers and realised it was cheaper to buy a new motorcycle. My son didn't have a bike at all; he didn't even have a bike-license! So we had to start looking for two bikes, but which ones?

Nice people with a 1200 GS, it worked for them but the owner
is somewhat more capable than most of us!
Checking through the various forums and books on the subject it seems that every Tom, Dick and Harry with a lot of money buys himself a BMW 1200GS Adventure and then spends more money at Touratech to pimp it up than Paris Hilton does on a shopping trip. Once fitted out, most of them hardly get off the pavement and are used for little more than a holiday trip. Very exciting and adventurous. But according to the marketing people you need this kind of bike for anything more than the local grocery run, conveniently forgetting people already travelled the world by motorcycle in the 1930s. True, comfortable suspension is not a bad thing, but being able to mount and dismount without the aid of a stepladder isn't a bad thing either. Lots of horsepower, or KiloWatts as it's now called, seems to be another necessity to move your tent and personal belongings. At least 100 and when you really want to have fun 135 seems to be required, which is strange as camping gear is now lighter than ever before and we're not going all that fast as we want to be able to look around us and see where we are. Of course we can't do without a navigational system of at least $1800. Why that is all necessary is beyond me.

Matt and his favourite bike, a KLR650.
I've personally never been an 'adventure' rider. Never liked the style of adventure bikes and never had the desire to 'conquer' the world. The whole concept of 'conquering the world' is ridiculous to me, the world has been around for millions of years and will hopefully be around for many millions more. We are not even a split second in the earth's timeline and nothing more than a speck on it's surface. What do you mean we can conquer it? Does an ant conquer us when it walks on our foot?
Let's be honest. There is hardly any real Adventure in this world anymore. The world has been travelled round by thousands of people of all backgrounds and on all kinds of motorcycles, cars, trucks, bicycles, on foot and probably someone somewhere has even done it on roller skates. The nomads in Mongolia don't look surprised anymore when another alien on a motorcycle dressed up like Darth Vader comes rumbling out of the steppe, for them you're just another joker on a bike. But adventure is big business and if we believe the marketing hype then we can't do without it. Going on a holiday trip is old fashioned, we now have to go on an Adventure. 

For me travelling is seeing the world, experiencing it's incredible beauty, it's variety and it's vastness. I don't have the need to conquer it, nor the need to take the most difficult road to go somewhere. I won't skip seeing something just because the road is bad but at the same time I'm not looking for bad roads either. My bucket list isn't filled with roads but with places I want to see. I don't need 300mm of ground clearance as I'm not going rockclimbing. I'd rather have both feet securely on the ground. Still, they have their advantages. Long travel suspension for instance is a big bonus, even on-road. Maybe even more so on-road with today's apparently acceptable standards in road repairs. A long range fuel tank, on the other hand, is a mixed one for me. The range is welcome, the extra fuel isn't. I'd like minimum impact and thus lower consumption. 

A family of 5 on a 125… you don't need big to travel
The longer I thought about what we wanted and what we wanted it for, the more I disliked 'adventure' bikes and, for that matter, most motorcycles available today. Too many are over complicated and form over function models. Many years ago we had simple motorcycles. They were mainly made for the man in the street who needed to go to work. They took dad to work during the week and hauled the whole family in the sidecar during the weekend. That, to me, is a real dual-purpose machine. Cars were still too expensive then, I wish they still were as it would at least halve the congestion. Motorcycles could be repaired, had to be as we simply didn't have the money to buy a new one every second year. Motorcycles were designed for such a life too. 
Now they're a fashion statement. An expensive fashion statement with a pre-defined lifespan. After buying a new motorcycle, the marketing men and women have figured out a way to get even more money out of us: it's called accessories. After spending several thousand dollars for a new bike, we have to fork out several thousand more on comfort seats, better suspension, different exhausts, etc.

The longer I thought about it, the more I didn't even want to buy a new motorcycle anymore… and felt lucky I already had what I wanted. But, as Jeanette and Mike needed a motorcycle, we went and checked out what was available. It wasn't much. If you don't want a big unwieldy monster for which you need a daily dose of steroids to move it round, the choice is very limited. Looking at the offerings I realised that the simple motorcycle simply doesn't exist anymore. For a simple 350 or 500 single you'd have to buy an old one and restore it. The only option for a new or reasonably new seemed to be a:

Royal Enfield 500
Most people laughed at me when I suggested it. Going round the world on a 21hp motorcycle? They thought I was crazy. Yet when you think about it they make more sense than a 1200GS. Fuel costs are a large part of the travelling budget and big fuel tanks an expensive option. A Royal Enfield is frugal and doesn't need a big tank to travel long distances. The standard Royal Enfield tank should give a range of 435km. Maybe not quite the same as a BMW 1200GSA but filling up the Enfield would only be 14.5 litre, not 33. They are simple, simple to maintain, light and easy to handle etc. I seriously thought about buying one, wrote to Royal Enfield and received an astonishing reply: although Royal Enfield claim their new engine is very good, they would not give us world wide warranty…! Royal Enfield was out of the picture. 

Yamaha XT250
Seemed a good option on paper. Light, simple, by all accounts frugal and long travel suspension. Seemed good until Jeanette tried one for size in the shop. She's not the tallest person in the world but had to fold herself on it as the XT250 is extremely small. The seat is narrow and it has a fuel tank the size of a Coca Cola bottle. Frugal maybe but still no decent range. A few years earlier I had a short test ride on the previous model and liked it very much. Easy to ride, good suspension and well proportioned. Now the designers in Japan had applied a weird styling to it with the emphasis on an ultra low seat and wacky shape and graphics. Apart from the styling the rideability had suffered too, what a shame. Still, it would return 37km/litre and the previous model was capable of doing the trip as has been proven by an English lady.

Maybe it's me but for some reason I felt uncomfortable with the idea of Jeanette trading in her Triumph for a Beemer. The feeling got worse as we approached the showroom and found ourselves surrounded by BMW logos and tasteless BMW cars. The BMW shop had a second hand G650GS and a brand new Sertao, both could be taken for a test drive. As soon as they realised we were looking for two bikes, the salesmen started dancing round us like mosquitos on a summer's evening. Despite the sales blurb I had made my choice in less than 4 seconds, the 4 seconds that followed pressing the starter button! What a horrible engine! It's idling like a cement mixer, an old worn out cement mixer… I slowly twisted the throttle and discovered that depending on the chosen revs, every body part could be given the African massage. When I enquired about the engine, the salesman said 'yeah unfortunately it's now made in China, and it shows…' and here I was thinking we were buying European.

Jeanette still went for a test ride but returns just 10 minutes later and doesn't look happy. I'm taking the Sertao for a run with Mike as a pillion. The Sertao was new but still sounded like someone was trying to do the dishes with a lawnmower, the vibrations were the same as the older model too.
The air filter on a BMW 650 is where the tank is normally found, just in front of you. A good idea as it keeps the centre of gravity low. BMW omitted one thing: silence the air intake. Opening the throttle resembles the effect of pulling a pig by the tail and results in very weird gnorking noises coming out of the 'tank'. The suspension is fine, the seat seemed fine and the seating position as well. The brakes are good, it handles fine, it's actually a not a bad bike… if only that engine wasn't there. The BMW salesman, funnily enough, agreed and pointed us into the direction of the 800GS....

For some reason the 650 single BMWs sold in the USA don't vibrate anywhere near as bad as the ones sold in Australia, nor do they rattle like the Australian models. The salesman in Tasmania suggested the Australian market was fed by BMW with engines made in China... maybe he was right?

Triumph Tiger 800
As I like my Bonneville and as I'm impressed with it's reliability and build quality, looking at the Tiger 800 was logical. Unfortunately Triumph didn't think it was necessary to have a Tiger 800XC demo available, so we could 'only' take the street-Tiger for a testrun. I didn't like it much. The seat and seating position is good, as are the brakes. The suspension was hard and it has a sports bike engine. It'll do 140km/hr all day but won't potter around. We want to travel the world, see the places we go to and enjoy the ride. We want to be able to potter and we will also have to walk our bikes through difficult and/or muddy sections; we're not trying to set any new land speed records so we don't need a sportsbike engine! No matter how hard I looked at it, the Tiger 800 didn't make any sense for what we wanted to do. It might have been different had I been able to take an XC Tiger for a run but that wasn't available for many months. We could hardly postpone the trip to suit Triumphs' schedule.

Suzuki DR650SE
Still, could be worse… The Suzuki DR650SE. Mike liked the look of it… Yes I know he has no taste, we're working on it as best we can, although on days like this it feels like we're loosing the battle. I took one for a test run. After two kilometres I've had it with the Suzy. Motorcycles are supposed to have a seat. The function of a seat is to be able to sit on it with a certain degree of comfort. Suzuki doesn't seem to understand that bit. Yet Suzuki even wants me to believe it's a dual-purpose machine, I have no idea which two purposes. By all accounts the DR650s are reliable, they have been around for a long time too. On paper they make a lot of sense...

Triumph Bonneville T100
I'm riding home on my Bonneville and realise how simple and good it is. No cementmixer sounds, no dental filling destroying vibrations, no sore arse, and easy to manoeuvre at low speeds. But the experts say it's not a travel bike… Jeanette takes my T100 for a spin and likes it as much as I do. 'That's the bike I want' she says. Thank goodness! We go back to the Triumph shop, the salesman jumps as he thinks we've decided to buy a Tiger 800XC after all, but we did order a new T100 Black instead with the same trade-in as offered for the more expensive Tiger! Jeanette's bike is sorted, now all we need is to find something for Mike.

Yamaha XT660R
Yamaha is a strange company. They created a market with the XT500, which looked good, followed by a XT550 that didn't. The XT600 rectified that somewhat, although still nowhere near as good looking as the original 500. The Tenere 600 was a very good travel bike and then they made the XT660R… Engine wise it's an improvement over the 600 but the styling and especially the colour scheme is weird to say the least. In Australia they only sell them in blue/black, which makes them look cheap and nasty. We had dismissed them simply because of their looks. The new Tenere, apart from being overpriced, is very high and I'm not convinced about the seat. 
In 2008 Yamaha also made the XT660R in black. No idea why they stopped that colour scheme as it looks so much better than the blue/black version. We spotted a 2008 model in black with just 2300 kms on the clock. It had barkbusters and a very sturdy bashplate fitted plus a Ventura bike pack system. Still, it's a 660cc single and with recent experiences with the BMW and Suzuki I wasn't convinced. How wrong I was! It's an absolute great bike. The suspension is nothing short of superb. It's light, it's a joy to ride and the engine is a gem. It's a single and will therefore never be as smooth as a twin or a triple, but this thing is very smooth for a single and perfectly usable. I've had a 600 Yamaha years back and loved it, this newer XT660R was just as good if not better. After just a short test ride I had made my mind up and Mike fully agreed. The fuel tank is admittedly on the small side but having had it now for a while we've discovered that it's very good on fuel, returning 27 km/litre on a regular basis, meaning the smallish 15 litre tank will still give a theoretical 400 km range.

So, we were going to travel the world on two Triumph Bonnevilles and a Yamaha XT660R. Are they the perfect bikes for such a trip? No, not at all but at least our dental fillings are safe. Jeanette's T100 Black is a beauty, which gives me something nice to look at too! 

The ideal machine
So are these, to me, the ideal machines to do such a trip? No. To me the ideal machine to do such a trip on would be something that is easy to maintain like one of Val Page's designed BSA singles. Why? Because more than 60 years ago he designed a range of motorcycles for the man in the street; simple, rugged, durable, easy to maintain and frugal. They would be perfect for a trip around the world in my view. Despite being made well over half a century ago, and despite the factory closing down some 40 years ago, one can still get every part for them. Ignition systems can still be bought new and repaired. Carburettors, suspension parts, gearboxes, can all still be bought and repaired today. Repairs are simple and can be done by any mechanic, not just the one with the right computer. Try that in 30 years for your current motorcycle. They don't need a 30 litre tank as they consume half the fuel of an adventure monster and they don't weigh a tonne either. 

From what is available new today however; the Triumph Bonneville, to me, is by far the best looking bike out there. It's also the only one that comes close to my ideal bike. Very close. It's great off road and very good on gravel. It's simple, it's not aggressive, a pleasure to ride and it looks great too. You could argue that the Scrambler would be a better option; and in many ways it would be. It's engine is even more flexible than the Bonneville version but the exhaust pipe is downright dangerous. Imagine a fall and that pipe slowly burning through your leg... I'll stick with my T100, thanks!

Mike wanted right from the start a more off-road capable motorcycle. He would have considered a Triumph Scrambler, if Triumph had been smart enough to realise it desperately needs a 48 Hp machine to attract learners and not make the same mistake the british bike industry made 40 years ago (and Harley Davidson makes today): not realising it needs to attract young riders. Still as it stands; the Yamaha XT660R is in my humble opinion the best option out there. Even compared to bigger motorcycles. The GS1200 is credited as the best of the best. Having seen virtually everybody struggle with it's size and weight I'm not convinced. The BMW 650GS was a big disappointment as it seemed so good on paper, the Suzuki DR650 was not even a contender. The Triumph Tiger doesn't know what it is and the Explorer is more than just overweight; it's obese.

Now all we needed to sort out is panniers, bags, crashbars, charging our cameras, iPods and laptop….