Nothing elicits a feeling of longing and nostalgia in me more than watching a YouTube clip of bikes and buds on a road trip through an arid landscape. I literally feel the heat, smell the dust, revel in the amber glow of the sunset and live for the African aroma of a “hardekool” fire. You may need the coals of that fire to cook your meal, warm you or maybe just to sooth your soul with its primal endless attraction and comfort. It was in this mood, that my son, also Dave and I packed our two SYM 300cc scooters for what promised to be another epic road trip. Dave was to ride the EVO GTS, while I was on the CITYCOM 300i. The EVO, as I mentioned in my recent review, is exactly that, having grown to 263.7cc’s from what started life as a 250. The CITYCOM has a newer bespoke motor of an actual 278.7cc’s. Ceramic bore and all, it is high tech and punches way above its weight. The CITYCOM sports larger,16 inch wheels, with the GTS rolling on more “Scooterish” 13 inchers. Enough specs, this is about the ride!
The GTS packs a bit easier for a trip as it has a larger cavity under the seat, which swallows an amazing amount of stuff. The passenger seat backrest serves as a great backstop for a waterproof stuffbag which is easily secured to the passenger seat by utilising the grab rails as anchor points. This has you ready to roll in no time. The CITYCOM was not much more of an issue. The grab rails also work a treat as they extend around the back of the bike. My trusty “All Terrain Gear bag” went at the back with my ground sheet, self inflating mattress and camping stool giving me something to lean back against. The bikes were both fuelled up, so we rolled out of my yard at midday on the Thursday preceding the Easter weekend. We were hoping to get the jump on the ZCC pilgrims travelling to Polokwane for their Easter celebrations. However, the N1 was very busy as everyone seemed to have the same idea about getting a head start. Tollgates and heavy traffic are a recipe for delays, causing kilometre plus, long log jams. Being on scooter’s, we quickly realised that the SYM’s gave us the freedom of the highways as well as the cities! Cruising effortlessly at 115 to 120, they sped past the traffic and short circuited the cues at the tollgates. Running at around 6500 rpm they are at there torque peak, so hills are a non issue. We snuck past a 4 kilometre long traffic jam at the exit to Modimolle. Chuckling like dervishes, we wondered at anyone dumb enough to travel far on an Easter weekend on anything with more than two wheels. When will they ever learn?
Travelling on way less busy roads we spotted Impala, Sable antelope and Warthog as we scooted to our first stop for a belated lunch at the Zeederberg Centre outside of Vaalwater. After inhaling a couple of sizeable burgers, we topped up our fuel tanks to see what sort of consumption we were getting at open road speeds. We were gobsmacked to find that both bikes were delivering just over 30 K’s to a litre! With tanks of over 10 litres that meant an easy 300 K’s range. Scooters exhibit a somewhat choppy ride compared to a conventional motorcycle. This is probably due to limited suspension travel, allied to a stiff monocoque chassis. Comfort remains substantial due to sumptuous seats and decent damping. Wind and weather protection is excellent. The CITYCOM is so good that it creates a slight vacuum behind the screen which almost pulls your upper body slightly forward. You soon get used to it and cruise along without any wind buffeting and minimal noise. The GTS screen is further from the rider and a bit lower, so whilst it negates wind-blast on your chest, it does allow more air onto your torso. This is actually comfy when the weather is hot as it allows you to cool off. Numb-bum is simply not an issue on either bike.
We rolled up to Martin’s Drift Border post in the late afternoon and it took about an hour to get through both sides and into Botswana. There is always a heightened sense of purpose and anticipation when you have dispensed with border formalities and are once again “loose on the land”. A quick fuel up and we were on our way to Palapye and Itumela Camp for our first night in Bots’. The two SYM’s ran into a stunning African sunset. The surrounding bush had a strong green tinge from the recent rains and the sky was just about cloudless. As the sun ebbed from the sky, the last rays lit up a zig zag cloud formation that lined up perfectly with the road ahead. The road took on a molten silver hue and seemed to take off into a fiery trail into the sky. As if this was not sufficiently surreal, a glance in the rear view mirror showed a huge orange full moon rising directly behind us. We stopped to take photos which can never do justice to the spectacle that we were witnessing. We then jumped back on the bikes and rode into the gathering darkness.
I never ride at night on country roads if I can avoid it. The risks are just off the scales; potholes, animals and cars without lights, you name it. What added to our woes was that there was quite a heavy volume of oncoming traffic. This meant we were forced, for the most part, to travel on dims. The two SYM’s have excellent lights, especially the GTS with its side running lights as well. Even on dims, they give a good spread of light. It was this wide peripheral vision that saved my bacon. A dark brown donkey suddenly walked into the road just metres ahead of me but the light from the CITYCOM reflected off his lighter underbody, allowing me to swerve with literally millimetres to spare! Severely rattled, I waited for a car to pass us then slotted in behind him for the last 30 K’s to Palapye. He could run interference for us and prevent us having to wear any errant animal. Needless to say, it was a relief to pull into Itumela and settle in with a well deserved ‘frosty’.
The next morning before seven we rolled out of our campsite invigorated by a good night’s rest. We soon settled into a rhythm with both the SYM’s and us loving the cool, crisp morning air. Fuelling just before Francistown, we pulled in for a good old Wimpy breakfast before heading north towards Nata where, for me, the “real” Botswana begins. I haven’t commented on how the scooters were running because, other than the fact that they were running sweeter and stronger with each passing kilometre, there is nothing to add. By now they had earned our complete and utter respect! It would not be long before they raised that respect another notch or two.
The 180 K’s to Nata is punctuated by some short road repairs and off road deviations. No sweat, the super SYM’s took it all in their stride. Then we really put them to a test which, with hindsight, was a tad crazy. We pulled into Nata Sanctuary, which gives one access to the pans proper. I actually stopped, out of curiosity, wondering how wet they were and if perchance the flamingos were “at home”. “The road is passable and, yes, the flamingos are in” said the lady at reception. Ok then, but is that 4×4 passable or will two wide ranging brave-hearted city slickers manage the calcrete, washed out, whooped, fesh-fesh infested goat track to where water cover the pans for as far as the eye can see? Water that would now be tinged pink by tens of thousands of flamingos. Well, we paid our monies and took our chances. Gingerly you must understand, because I want to return bikes in the same condition in which I get them.
In no time the two SYM’s gave us huge confidence, even when traversing soft sand. Obviously the designers never had this in mind when they conceived these scooters, however the engine weight on the back wheel gives great traction and even the fuel is under your feet. The centre of gravity is so low that they have no tendency to topple over like so many adventure bikes. They were an effortless blast to ride down the sand track to the pans.
The sight of the flamingos in their thousands was spectacular. As an encore we got to ride within a hundred metres of a large herd of wildebeest. Shaking our heads in wonderment, we took some pics then retraced our tracks and got back on the tar for a few more K’s before pulling in to Nata Lodge for some welcome cold beverages.
We now had only a short hop to Elephant Sands, our final destination, so we got back on our Scoot’s and fuelled up with petrol and a stash of water in Nata, before riding north for just over 50 K’s. Just before the Lodge, we pulled into a siding where water was being pumped into a Scania tanker and trailer.
This would in turn be emptied into two pans for the benefit of the wildlife in that area and specifically the large elephant population. We had passed two elephants already, browsing alongside the road. You have to remind yourself that you are not traversing a game park but are rather in Africa as God intended it – wild and free, for animals to roam where they choose.
Elephant Sands was established some sixteen years ago. A little more than two kilometres of sand jeep track takes you to the Lodge.
In the dry season, typically after July and until the rains start in earnest in November, this place is inundated with elephants who come from far to savour the 250000 litres of fresh water that is pumped for them daily from almost 14 kilometres away. Literally hundreds of these lumbering pachyderms will visit the drinking trough located a scant ten metres from the lodge. To sit after dinner next to the fire with a glass of decent red and watch the elephants interact as they jostle each other for a turn at the trough, is an experience that you will never forget.
It is uncanny how silently these huge grey wraiths appear as if by magic, and then, just as stealthily they fade away back into the bush. Getting up to go to the loo in the night needs a good look around as one can easily encounter an elephant or two on their way to or from the water. They are incredibly tolerant of people. A really dumb tourist, who seemed to think he was at the Hamburg zoo and approached really close for a selfie, was quickly put to flight when the jumbo being harassed seemed almost obliged to see him off with a mock charge and a trumpet blast before going on with his business.
We set up our tent, allowed our self-inflating mattresses to inflate, rolled out our sleeping bags and hey presto, it was time for a St Louis Export to celebrate an incredible day of SYMmetry. A bit of light entertainment was provided by a group of Adventure bike riders from Bothaville who were travelling with a back up 4×4 bakkie carrying their kit. They were literally speechless when the two SYM’s rode into the campsite. They ignored us like the proverbial stop street until we engaged them in conversation. Difficult to be hardcore in the wilds of Botswana on your GS’s and KTM 1190 when the “Freedom of the City” rolls in.
Highlight of any visit to Ellie Sands [other than the Ellies] is the dinners. Showered and fresh, we sipped on a couple of sundowners in the glow of another African sunset in really special surroundings. Elephants came and went from the water as the sun’s gentle glow receded into darkness opposite a full moon rising with such an orange glow that it could easily be mistaken for a massive veld fire on the horizon. Accompanying this spectacle was the wonderful aroma of roasting meat on which we would shortly feast. All was truly well with our souls! Elephants are fascinating to watch. Sitting at the fire, no more than four metres from the nearest ellie, you pick up the fascinating subtleties of elephant behaviour. There were a few really big guys at the water. Another front row forward type would approach and the posturing would begin. A violent shake of the heads would flail the huge ears producing a thunderclap of sound and a halo of dust around their heads. I could just imagine what incredible photo’s Kawasaki’s Chris Speight would capture of this jumbo spectacle, given his talent behind the lens. The giants face off, mock charging each other whilst trumpeting. Being that close to a bellowing elephant is not something easily forgotten. It is not at all unusual to see an ellie with his tusks nudging, no, shoving his buddy from behind, to move him from the water rather forcefully. You simply cannot tire of watching them.
Mike Toth, the lodge manager, has a special bond with one of the grey giants who is so well known to the locals that they have named him Ben in honour of the owner of Elephant Sands. A massive ulcerated wound on his foreleg hindered him drinking as the jostling at the water was just too painful. Mike got a vet out from Gabs who darted Ben, then cleaned the wound thoroughly and administered antibiotics. While he was recovering, Mike would water him with a hose into a drum set up in the campsite. Ben made a complete recovery, however he would seek out Mike, whenever he was around the lodge and Mike would water him from the hose. It got to the point where Mike would stroke Ben’s trunk as he drank. Almost a year went by without Ben putting in an appearance with Mike fretting that something had happened to him. On one day, he arrived with a small herd, watered and moved off. At that point Mike was alerted to his presence and called Ben by name. Hearing Mike calling, he broke from the herd and trotted over to greet his friend with an obvious show of affection. It is stories like this that fill us with wonder at the intelligence and obvious emotions that these magnificent animals possess.
By this time our delicious dinner was resulting in a serious case of “tight skinned Gorilla syndrome”. You know when your stomach distends from an excellent meal and pulls your eyelids shut! So off to our tent we went in the glow of the full moon and snuggled into our sleeping bags. We drifted off to sleep with ongoing “elephant music” in the background. What a privilege it is to live and ride motorcycles, in this most magnificent and diverse of all continents.
It was already light, but the sun had not yet poked its fiery head above the horizon when we emerged from our tent. The chilly morning air hinted at the changing seasons as I went through the familiar ritual of getting water going on my little gas cooker for that essential first caffeine kick of the day. Sitting on our camp stools next to our tent and trusty parked SYM’s, we sipped on piping hot coffee and watched the rising sun splash some early morning clouds the most magnificent orange, heralding in another African day.
Not wanting to let his never ending Ironman training slip, Dave jnr donned his running kit and set off for a trot accompanied by CITYCOM SYM and me. He did a quick twelve K’s in the fresh and pure Botswana air as I kept him company and played water-boy on the SYM. We passed a termite mound with the bleached thigh bone of an elephant imbedded horizontally through it. How the hell did that happen, I wondered? Was the bone lying on the ground and got lifted up as the mound grew or what? Nature never ceases to amaze! Back at the lodge we went about our morning ablutions, smacked a bacon and egg brekkie, then settled down on loungers next to the pool for a day of R and R. As the sun started to assert itself and the early morning gentle breeze dropped, we found it necessary to ward off that dreaded dehydration with the odd frosted beverage. Ain’t life just dandy?
Enter Raimon and Dominique. Lounging next to the pool we spied a couple of cyclists negotiating the sand road to the lodge. They made there way to the campsite, parked their well worn and heavily laden bikes against a fallen down tree, then walked over to the lodge for a cold drink. First impressions of Raimon were of a lean yet muscular man of slightly above average height, his olive skin tanned a deep brown by many hours of exposure to the elements. A bandana covered shaven head and a goatee beard just tinged with grey, gave him an almost piratanical air. Perfectly even white teeth, accentuated by his deep tan, punctuated his face every time he laughed or smiled.
His partner, Dominique, was tiny. Short, blond and impishly pretty with page boy short dishevelled helmet hair.
With both Dave and I being seasoned cyclists, it was only a matter of time before we struck up a conversation. It turns out that Raimon has cycled through almost every corner of the globe, covering over 60000 K’s to date. A couple of years back he met Dominique in South America where she was on an adventure of her own. She was smitten by the suave Catalan globetrotter, so she quit her job, bought a bike and joined him on his travels. She now works for six months in Switzerland then joins Raimon wherever in the world he might be at that time. They had already ridden 4500 K’s through SA, starting in Cape Town, up route 62, then dropping down to the garden route to PE, through the Transkei, across Lesotho and across the Free State into Botswana. They then crossed the Makgadigadi pans from Kubu Island, running out of food and water before reaching Gweta on the north side of the pans. Flip!, I’ve ridden a bike across the pans from Kubu and suffered the 30 K’s of deep sand tracks through the mopane forest before Gweta, and that was hard going. I can only imagine how deep they had to dig to do that on pedal power! Respect! Check out Raimon’s website on: www.bicicletaimanta.cat. It makes for fascinating reading.
There was another world travelling cyclist in the campsite too. A pretty dark haired girl named Tatiana. She has travelled solo on her bicycle across vast tracts of the planet. Unbelievable what courage and determination such an endeavour must require. Listening to these people share their experiences really gets you thinking. When you settle for the old nine to five, the house, wife, kids and picket fence, it comes at a price. It reminds me of the quote by William Wallace, the Scottish patriot who famously said, “all men must die, but only some men truly live”. We spend so much time gathering stuff that you can’t take with you when you snuff it and too little time enjoying the God given splendour of the incredible planet on which we live. We enjoyed an epic Elephant Sands dinner in the company of Raimon and Dominique. We drank a couple of bottles of good red whilst being enthralled by their travel tales. As if on purpose, the Ellies put on an amazing show for us. Double in number to our first night, they wheeled and turned, jostled for position at the water trough, trumpeting from both ends. You eat up to 250 kg’s of foliage every day and see if you too don’t get a trifle windy! Elephant sized rippers were the order of the night. The four of us returned to our campsite for a quiet nightcap, where we had a truly special elephant encounter. Standing around our braai place we noted a huge bull elephant coming from the water directly towards us.
We stood silently and overawed as the huge animal stopped literally within scant metres of us. He was so close that we looked up at him, getting a true appreciation of just how huge these animals are. For at least five minutes we simply stood silently in the presence of this magnificent beast. He then ambled silently past us on his huge padded feet and moved away into the bush. Thrilled and chilled at the same time by this encounter, we finished our drinks and prepared for bed.
Up at first light, Dave and I packed up camp, showered and fired up our magnificent SYM’s. A short hop to Nata Lodge for their expensive but extensive super tasty buffet breakfast, before retracing our steps south to the border. The ride to the border was swift, smooth and uneventful. It was mid-afternoon when we pulled in to Kwa Nokeng lodge on the banks of the Limpopo river, having despatched almost 500 K’s on our SYM’s. Sitting on the deck overlooking the river we slowly sipped on a cold one whilst marvelling over the comfort, reliability, brilliant fuel consumption and just general competence of our two SYM scooters. We found that we could average similar speeds to much faster vehicles as they would fly past us then get caught behind the next convoy of cars stuck behind a pedestrian truck. We would SYMply hold our pace and slip past the row of vehicles without even crossing the centre line. It would take the cars many minutes to catch us again, overtake and once again get stuck behind another slow vehicle. Once again we would pass and disappear into the distance. Great fun. The bikes ran better and better the more they piled on the K’s. Cruising at an indicated 120 was effortless with more in reserve for overtaking.
We slept in a Safari tent so as to get an early start the next morning. We were through the border by just before 6am and had to wait a couple of minutes for the fuel station to open. The border was a nightmare for some as hundreds of ZCC members returned to Botswana from Moria. Luckily we were going the other way so formalities were a doddle. The sun only rose around 6.30 off to our left as we sped towards Lephalale. Over the mountain and down to Vaalwater for breakfast and a most welcome cappuccino. Fed and watered we resumed our journey, joining the chaos of the N1 just after Modimolle. Thank heavens, once again, for the traffic carving SYM’s. The highway was traversed in next to no time despite the bumper to bumper traffic, made worse by the brain-donor traffic police and SAPS, who deemed it necessary to conduct a road-block on Easter weekend on the busiest road in the country. ‘Nuffsaid’!
Approaching the Rigel avenue, off ramp on the N1 from the north, you have a really long, speed sapping hill. To give you some idea, my CRF 250 Honda would struggle to maintain 120 kph up this incline. I decided to give the CITYCOM it’s head up this hill to see how it would fare. Driven by a mere 263cc’s and laden with all my camping kit, that phenomenal little scoot ran to 145 km/h and was still accelerating! Dave on the GTS was not far behind despite me getting the jump on him.
Just shy of 1900 kilometres over everything that Botswana could throw at them, and the two 300 SYM’s performed absolutely flawlessly. Incredible average fuel consumption of over 30 km/L and no oil used. SYM have built two scooters of which they can be justifiably proud. I would jump on either and ride them anywhere. Of the two, I would rate the more sumptuous EVO 300i GTS as the tourer, with the slightly sleeker and marginally perkier CITYCOM as the Sports Tourer. Whatever the adventure, commute or road trip, they are up for it! Question is, are you?
A huge thanks to Chris and Kibble at KMSA for entrusting us with these great bikes for our Botswana SYMmetry adventure. You clearly knew what these amazing scooters are capable of. As for our two SYM’s, it was a real wrench taking them back to KMSA. I even found myself talking to them when I was giving them a good clean. Talk about bonding with your bike! “Freedom of the City” is a given when you buy a SYM, you just don’t expect to get the “Freedom of the Country” to boot!
For more information on SYM products visit: www.sym.co.za