“HAVE YOU DONE THE DOOHICKEY?”

Done the what? Is that some kind of dance? Like first cousin to the Macarena, perhaps? No dudes, it is just KLR speak. Kawasaki’s venerable KLR 650 has been around, in various forms, for almost 40 years. Actually incredible that you can buy a bike that has been made, without many changes, for this length of time. The other interesting thing is that the KLR is not really good at any one thing, yet it has enjoyed huge popularity wherever it has been sold. Google any epic ride around the world, be it a Round the World trip or traversing the Great Alaskan Highway, and I will bet that a KLR has done it. So to what can we ascribe the KLR’s success? In essence, simplicity, practicality, reliability and fantastic value for money.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira

Current KLR’s have been upgraded to the point that they must be close to the most reliable bike on the planet. The bike sports a fairing and screen that allows comfortable cruising at the legal limit. It also has a decently sized tank, upwards of 22 litres. Allied to reasonable consumption you have a good range of around 440 k’s or more, depending on cruising speed and conditions. The seat is good, by dual sport standards. It is also endowed with a sturdy rack incorporating a tool kit. The frame is steel, and able to mount panniers without buckling, like alloy framed dual sports. The motor is a water-cooled single, with twin cams, in a mild state of tune. The gearbox is a 5 speeder.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira

Oh, the Doohickey!, I’m sure you are chomping on the bit to know what that is. It is the tensioner mechanism on the balancer shaft chain. In early years this was prone to failure. If your bike started vibrating significantly it was a sure sign that your “doohickey” had come apart. If you were unlucky the bits would get into, and often trash your motor. Kawasaki eventually upgraded the tensioner around 2009. Most KLR aficionados will tell you that you should still do the aftermarket mod, ‘cause the Kawi mod was a bit iffy. So now you know. Get your Doohickey done!

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira

In the final form of KLR that came to SA, the bikes were pretty sorted. Firmer suspension, thicker spokes and upgraded alternator to power accessories, it was all there. So, whilst the KLR is good at nothing, it is quite decent at damn near everything. I love it’s old world simplicity. Turn the key, rotate the handlebar mounted choke lever, give a whiff of throttle  and the KLR leaps into life. Back off the choke to a fast idle and by the time you have donned helmet and gloves, you are ready to roll. Oh yes, turn the tank petcock to “open”.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira

Right off idle you have torque. Some of the forums I have read reckon that the KLR will rotate the earth before it stalls in first gear. Although heavy for a dual sport, when compared to a Honda XR 650L or a Suzuki DR 650, the kawi is a much better touring ride. Both the other bikes are better off-road, but have no wind protection, small tanks and racks for seats. The Honda also vibrates like a demon at highway speed. The Kawi might not dance off-road, but it will always get you there in it’s reliable workmanlike way.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira

The KLR has been around for such a long time that you can get any accessory that you can ever want, or think of. Despite upgraded piston rings, also around 2009, the bikes tend to use oil if revved over 5000 rpm for long periods. I suspect that the crankcase breather can’t quite cope at high revs, so it tends to build crankcase pressure and blow oil out of the breather and into the airbox, from where it is sucked back into the motor and burnt. This is not uncommon amongst big singles and twins. With a 16 tooth front sprocket installed, the Kawi runs at just over the legal limit at 5000 revs. At this speed, you get around 22K/litre.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira

Happy days. The motor is smooth and happy at this speed, and runs up the steepest of hills in top gear without bother or shedding any speed. You kind of get a serendipitous feeling as you thump along, just knowing that all is really well with your KLR. It is probably similar to the feeling that Toyota Landcruiser owners get when they are overlanding. The pleasure of knowing that you can take the reliability of your wheels for granted, so just bring on the adventure. The less electronic features your bike has the better.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira

Let me give you an example of electronics gone wrong. Traction control works by two wheel-speed sensors, feeding front and rear wheel rotation data to the engine management computer. Should your back wheel rotation speed exceed that of the front wheel by a certain margin, the computer assumes the back wheel is spinning up. It cuts the power to your back wheel to equalise things again. All good. Until, for example your front wheel sensor stops working. The computer assumes the back wheel is spinning out of control and, yes, you guessed right, cuts the power. A mechanical error message appears on your dash, telling you, according to your handbook, to take your bike to the dealer to run a diagnostics programme.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira

Problem is, you may be on the road of bones in Mongolia when your pride and joy says, “Houston, you have a problem”. Fact is, in essence, there is nothing wrong with your bike! But, and here is the thing, you don’t know that. You see yourself stranded in the wilderness, and promptly curry your rods! See why I want to do my next really “wild ride” on a KLR?. Every fancy electronic gizmo on your bike, that looks so good on the spec sheet, could become an unsolvable ball ache, when you are stuck in the back of beyond. Just ask the guys who’s bikes stopped reading their “keyless entry” fobs when they were far from home. Or near to home, for that matter!

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira

Ultimately we will have to just don our big boy pants and tough it out. Fact is, the industry will keep playing with things that aren’t broke, trying to fix them. In the meantime I am just going to enjoy my KLR, thanking the gods of things mechanical, rather than electronic, that my Doohickey is fixed!

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira

On the 18th of December the KLR and I are cruising to Nieu Bethesda, overnighting there, then on to Prince Albert, where i am meeting a couple of mates. Together we will traverse the rugged and magnificent Swartberg Pass, then wind our way down Gamkaskloof to Die Hel. Then i will simply go where the fancy takes me and my trusty KLR. Can’t wait! Tell you all about it in the new year.

My name is Dave Cilliers. I consider cars as four wheeled shopping baskets and only worth using as a last resort! For years bikes have been my primary transport. Racing, touring, commuting or just kicking up dust on African tracks, I have owned over 270 motorcycles and ridden millions of kilometres. I am happiest when sharing my passion for motorcycles with like minded people whilst traversing Africa in search of adventure.