We told you about our visit to Val, Mpumalanga recently (which you can read here). Braam tells a similar story, but with emphasis on the bikes, we rode.
The year is 1985, in the small mining town of Phalaborwa, Limpopo province, South Africa. Literally translated, this means “better than the South”, with warm, humid but predictable weather patterns. Those in the know will be aware that this settlement is more famous for endless surrounds of bushveld wilderness, very close to the world-famous Kruger National Park. As kids, we would fall asleep at night, listening to the sound of jackal, lions and hyena, calling from the wild.
My friend Jannie and I were eventually gifted our tickets to endless freedom, the moment we received our motorcycle learners licences from the staunch, unfriendly and strict traffic officer in full dress uniform. You must understand, this was a big deal for any sixteen year old, raised to explore, investigate and live, blissfully unaware of the limitations of the grownup world that lurked in our distant futures.
This is just how it was back in the day. Our parents gave up on “micro-managing” us, because the families were just too large, with siblings wandering in every direction.
We both had 50cc motorcycles of the “Scrambler” type. Mine was a hand-me-down, red Honda MT5 and Jannie had a red Suzuki ER50. The world lay open before us…
At this point in time, there will be a vast readership that can relate to what I am saying. Many will pause, stop reading and perhaps start day-dreaming for just a moment. Most will get a keen smile and a shake of the head. These were magical times and we were the next generation, lining up to take our place on the centre stage of life.
Jannie and I started exploring. Every weekend we strapped khaki, canvas survival packs to our backs, filled with matches, old newspaper, pocket knives, drinking water, nibbles and raw meat sausages to “Braai” under the huge Marula trees somewhere far, far from home. And of course, we each had a few coins in our pockets. These were our independence rides, there were no cell phones, no cameras and no noise, apart from the calls of the wild, that would so regularly frequent the airwaves. The soulful days of blissful ignorance, just as it should be.
Our small 50cc scramblers later became 500cc Japanese monsters from the big four. Later on, still, came the craze of the new generation, ultra-large scrambler types, nowadays sporting capacities even larger than 1200cc. The world became a very small place, a mad rush to the next horizon, the next destination, in actual search of the simple days, yet we have forgotten how. Frowning on anything smaller than 800cc, we see more, but experience less.
With my gentle powers I have eventually managed to persuade quite a few of my hardened riding buddies to join me on smaller adventure type bikes for some really simple, basic, “going nowhere slowly” kind of experiences into Neverland and beyond. Recreating a familiar world, in a fresh, new way.
And now, in the year 2019, we relive our childhood once again. This time on bikes much smaller than any of us have grown accustomed to. The ZA Bikers crew decided it was time to sample three different offerings on the same trip.
Dave, the most experienced rider in our clan, took responsibility for a Suzuki 250 V-Strom. Dave has owned more bikes than he can remember, so has truly “been there and done that,” as the saying goes.
Simon, our editor in chief, grew up in Sheffield, England. It takes no rocket science to guess that he is a “Modern Classics” fan. Owner of a heavily customized Triumph Street Twin, he is new to adventure bike riding. He proof-reads all the travel blogs that Dave and I write and could not contain himself any longer, deciding to expand his biking horizons to include travelling on roads less travelled. He was responsible for the Kawasaki 300 Versys X, complete with original Panniers fitted. This demo unit was kindly loaned to Simon from the team at Fire It Up!
Bjorn, our resident photographer, likes the sporty end of the naked bike spectrum. Owner of a Yamaha MT09, he prefers to go everywhere quickly. He ventured along on a Honda CRF250 Rally. This bike was used primarily as his utility bike, whilst capturing some of our moments.
The Hondas distinctive design warrants a separate, more extreme test in the not too distant future. Honda intended for this to be much more of a play bike, with very limited carrying capacity, thus disqualifying it for some as a full-on adventure bike. Of course, where there is a will, there is a way, so somebody, somewhere, will devise carrier frames and strap on some soft luggage, proving me wrong by doing a trip around the world. Of that, I have no doubt.
As the planner and instigator of our trip, I organised myself a Zontes 310T. Keenly watching the growth of this brand locally, I have been looking forward to giving this Zontes a proper workout in some less than perfect conditions, to see what this Chinese bike is capable of. The bike I received from the Zontes team, was beautifully turned out in orange, complete with original black steel panniers and top box, which has enough carrying capacity to take along the whole family and then some.
The top box bracket did not arrive in time, so the team manufactured an interim bracket that worked just fine. The placement of the bracket was slightly forward, leaving little room for a passenger, as the pictures will show. I was assured that the original part will eliminate this challenge.
Let the games begin! A well-travelled friend helped me plan a trip to the sleepy town of Val, Mpumalanga. This interesting traverse consisted of mainly farm type gravel roads, with some shallow sandy patches thrown into the mix. Our biggest challenge, however, would be the hard-packed stretches with pebble-sized stones all over the surface. For many, this can be quite an unnerving experience as the bike moves around quite a lot underneath you. We would cross through only one or two villages and traverse very few tar roads.
This time of the year offers predictable, cold weather in the Highveld and we encountered quite a lot of wind on the vast open plains. It was a cloudless morning as we left the city noise behind in search of some fun, fellowship and new experiences.
From the outset, it became clear that it was a two-horse race between the Zontes and the Kawasaki. As the larger capacity bikes on test, they offered more in terms of performance, wind protection and general usability.
We did a high speed run on a quiet stretch of tar road, where the Kawasaki narrowly pipped the Zontes for top speed. I can only imagine what it looked like when we blasted down the road, lying flat behind the windshields reaching speeds of 155km/h on the Kawasaki, while pulling away from the Zontes at about three kays an hour, the Zontes showing a more optimistic 160km/h on its classy, modern and well laid out digital instrument panel.
We had so much fun doing this and I was reminded of the days of dicing on our 50cc bikes almost every Friday afternoon. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I suppose.
It must be mentioned from the outset, that all of these machines will happily cruise at 120km/h all day, every day. This is a question we get asked a lot because people are curious to know. Dave’s Suzuki 250 had a larger sprocket fitted to the front, giving it a more comfortable cruising capability. The Suzuki has enough torque and power to warrant such a move.
Off course, the Zontes and Kawasaki did not need these modifications. And interesting gravel road comparison ensued between these two. Two very different approaches catered for two different tastes. What I mean is that the harder suspension on the Kawasaki really impressed me in the upper-speed spectrum, whilst Simon grabbed every opportunity to ride the Zontes with its more plush suspension arrangement.
On that point, I noticed something very interesting. As a riding coach, I spend a lot of time looking at my student’s body language. In a nutshell, this tells me what’s going on inside his or her head. In Simon’s case, as the least experienced gravel traveller in our group, I noticed how much more relaxed and comfortable he was on the Zontes. I did not mind, as I was quite happy to spend that time on the Kawasaki, which worked better for me and my riding style.
The major strengths of the Zontes, according to Simon, was firstly the plush, forgiving suspension. The second thing was not only the lower seat height but how carefully the seat was shaped to be “instep-friendly”. The narrow front portion of the comfortable seat gave him more reassurance as a shorter rider. He also enjoyed the wide bars and neutral, relaxed handling.
As mentioned, the Kawasaki impressed me on most fronts. The only slightly annoying issue is the engine vibrations above 100 km/h. Exactly at highway speeds. This is very strange, as parallel twin-engine configurations are usually very smooth at any speed. In this case, the Zontes’ single-cylinder engine was almost faultless.
An outstanding feature on the Kawasaki was the very good braking power. It was more than adequate and very reassuring. I could detect no ABS interference, even on gravel. This is very good quality. This is probably the very area that the Zontes was weakest. The stoppers on the Zontes are adequate, at best. The rear brake lever travel is excessive before any deceleration is detected. The front brakes can at best be described as adequate. Upon mentioning this to the local importer, he assured me that an upgraded braking system had already been developed and is at the point of being fitted to future Zontes offerings.
As mentioned earlier, the Zontes was Simon’s happy place. The gravel became very loose at one point and we remedied this by simply deflating the tyres to 1.5 bar, front and rear. Simon could immediately feel the difference and from there on, he was an even happier camper. Of course, the trade-off is always that you leave the mag wheels more vulnerable to damage. We had no such issues on this trip, as these bikes are light in weight and therefore much easier on the suspension and wheels.
Dave was super content on his Suzuki V-Strom. As mentioned before, he has owned and experienced more motorcycles than most people would in a few lifetimes and this said as much about his character as it did of the mini Suzuki. A truly fulfilled traveller is one that evaluates every motorcycle on its merits. When you ride a 250, you evaluate it as such. I am sure I heard him singing in his helmet on a few occasions. Just a week before, he was testing the very powerful Suzuki Hayabusa, singing the same songs… Life is just good, all round!
Strangely, each of these three offerings would cater to quite a different crowd, which is what makes life so special. There is no such thing as the wrong motorcycle, just the wrong motorcycle for the wrong application.
In my mind, the Suzuki would be best suited as a commuter bike, for smaller riders. The bike is very user-friendly and would be perfect for beginners and those who want to just experience life at a more leisurely pace. Its dimensions were too small for me and I almost feel a bit crowded when on board. Of course, the motor is as smooth as anything and I experienced no vibrations.
Next up the Kawasaki. This bike is a “Jack of all trades”. I can easily live with this bike on a month-long trip throughout South Africa. In my mind, it was a great bike off-road and at the speeds that we travel off the beaten track, the intrusive engine vibrations do not come into play. Personally, I also enjoyed the more old school dash, that offers more info than I need. The build quality is solid and this bike handles anything you throw at it with the utmost of ease. I am surprised to not see many more of these bikes on our city roads. Surely a bike I would invest in.
Now for the Zontes. Overall, it was the most solid performer, in my opinion. The attention to detail is very noteworthy. The seat is meticulously sculpted for best function and appearance. The instrument panel is very hip and modern, with clearly readable flat screen information.
Functions include electrically activated screen adjustment, fuel cap and handlebar lock, together with keyless ride, among many other features. This bike will cater best for the new generation rider, who loves modern styling and lots of gadgets. In this regard, It punches well above its weight.
Zontes is certainly on the rise and will not go unnoticed for much longer. With constant improvements and exciting new models, they seem to connect with their target market better than most others. The new generation rider seems to welcome its new generation styling and specs. Time will be the final test to its rising popularity.
On the way back to the Big Smoke, we encountered punctures on both the Honda and Kawasaki. Weirdly, this is also the two tube-type bikes, that require lots of effort to fix. The Zontes and Suzuki, which are both tubeless, experienced no mishaps. How ironic was that? This is a huge benefit for these two bikes. In my perfect world, there would be only tubeless bikes. I have spent enough hours sweating behind a set of tyre levers to try and fix flat wheels. All part of the fun, I suppose.
And now onto the final word. As I got older, I started worrying less about seemingly important things. This, in turn, freed up much more time for me to enjoy life for what it was always supposed to be. I refer the reader back to the opening paragraphs, to a world much simpler, more carefree. A world where we make do with what we have. A world where we adapt ourselves to the journey, the smells, sights and sounds. A world, as simple as the one we experienced when we were richest in peace and ignorance. A world of blissful simplicity and lots of smiles. These bikes are the perfect companions in this simple world.
Ride on, my fellow travellers of this thing called life…