This was the winter of our discontent. Lockdowns, curfews, shuttered restaurants, booze bans, working from home, anarchy, arson and looting, the coldest, most miserable winter in more than a decade. Small wonder the mood in the country was pessimistic at best and desperate at worst. There was only one remedy, a long ride in the company of good maats on roads less travelled to warmer climes.
I called the friendly folk at BMW and asked if I could ride their R 1250 RT demo and they kindly agreed. There are four colour options in the new RT range. The colour I hoped for was Racing Blue Metallic and that’s exactly what I got when the motorcycle was delivered on Tuesday morning. I parked the bike in the sunshine and spent many minutes examining it in detail, drooling over its magnificence and the new (for 2021) features. The most striking enhancement is the new LED headlight cluster which fundamentally redefines the RT’s face giving it a more aggressive and purposeful look in keeping with BMW’s intent to brand the RT as a sports tourer as opposed to a sedate touring machine.
The other obvious upgrade is the 10.25-inch TFT display. The screen is so wide it reminded me of watching Cinemascope movies in my 1960s misspent youth. The display provides every conceivable data point from the electronic engine management system and in addition, gives the option to display maps and music selections when connected to the BMW Motorrad Connected App. Download the app, place your phone in the right-hand cubby hole where wireless or USB charging ensures you are always connected and ready for action.
On a beautiful Wednesday morning, our rendezvous was the Total Petroport on the N3 between Alberton and Heidelberg. Gus and Laurence were both riding their previous generation R 1200 RT machines, Jamie was on his R 1200 GS Adventure and Mikely was styling on his brand new KTM 1290 Super Adventure S. There was some debate about our route south. I wanted to ride the backroads and the others wanted to haul straight down the N3. We agreed to go our separate ways and to meet on the outskirts of Warden where the R103 and the N3 converge.
On the far side of Heidelberg, our routes diverged. I left the N3 and rode the R23 to Balfour and then hooked right to Grootvlei on the R51. I made it to Villiers in double quick time and crossed the Vaal River into the Free State but still, I was pretty sure the others were ahead of me. Just before the Villiers tollgate I picked up the R103, gunned the RT through the gears and settled into high speed, distance demolition mode. It’s 110km from Villiers to Warden and for most of that distance, the RT and I easily maintained 180km/h with the odd foray to ‘warp speed’ where the road beckoned faster, faster. It was an exhilarating ride. The RT was in its element and carried me in absolute comfort and safety across a landscape of golden fallow fields.
In places the R103 surface is rutted and there are some potholed sections but overall it’s no worse than most R roads in the country. Of course, the surface is not as smooth as the N routes but the electronic suspension insulated me from the irregularities and, frankly, 180km/h felt pedestrian. I experimented with the electrically adjustable windscreen and soon found the ideal height where there was minimal wind noise around my helmet and I could see over the top of the windscreen. I chose the display setting which provided all the information I needed on the long road: ambient temperature, time, range, engine coolant temperature, tyre pressures and speed. At a glance, I always had the assurance that all was well with the bike and my enjoyment of the blue missile grew with each passing kilometre.
As I neared the convergence of the N3 and the R103 I looked to the north and was delighted, yet not entirely surprised, to see four headlights approaching. It was a moment of purest serendipity as the group reformed and the five of us swept down the hill into Warden laughing in our helmets and giving high fives and thumbs up all round. We took the offramp to Bethlehem and stopped on the bridge over the N3 to rehydrate and compare notes. Gustav said, “You must have been flying because we were doing 150km/h down the N3.” “180” I replied in my most nonchalant tone.
Our midday destination was the Kestell Hotel. We rode southwest past Afrikaskop and short before long settled into the bar at the hotel for an early lunchtime snack. The hotel is owned by Martin and Elaine Potgieter and managed by their friend Andy Haramis. The bar is decorated with motorcycle memorabilia and bikers are assured a warm welcome.
From Kestell we rode south towards Phuthaditjhaba and then east towards Harrismith before riding the lovely flowing road that runs along the picturesque shores of Sterkfontein Dam to the summit of Oliviershoek Pass.
We stopped at the viewpoint to wonder at the vast fawn coloured landscape that stretched below us into the distance where land and sky met on an indistinct horizon. Oliviershoek Pass is a riders’ road, a challenging ribbon of tar which has been the ruin of many a poor boy and demands respect. It’s a thrilling ride and when you reach the foot of the pass it’s full-tilt riding across the rolling foothills of the mighty Drakensberg. We rode in a high-speed convoy and soon Bergville and Winterton were behind us. But the thrill of blasting down the R74 ended abruptly when we joined the N3 north of Estcourt.
The N3 was a mess. There were roadworks everywhere and in many places, the freeway was restricted to one lane in each direction with the velocity of the traffic determined by the slowest 26 wheeler. Every time I ride a bike I have reason to be grateful for two wheels as I weave my way through the chaos and pity the poor baastids trapped in their cages with no escape in sight. This was one of those occasions. We cruised sedately through the roadworks, sometimes in the yellow lines and sometimes in the lane which was closed for repairs. It wasn’t stressful riding but it wasn’t pleasant either so we left the N3 and rode the R103 to Mooi River. The R103 is a narrow, winding country road and sixty years ago it was the main route from Johannesburg to Durban. Of course, that was in the days when South African Railways was a symbol of national pride and there were no juggernauts and far fewer cars on the roads.
From Mooi River, we continued on the R103 through Rosetta to the legendary Notties Hotel for a cold one. We had planned to sleep at the Nottingham Road Hotel but unfortunately, there was no room in the inn so once we had quaffed our drinks we rode two kilometres to Gowrie Farm Golf Course where we had booked for the night. What a swanky joint! The members’ lounge, clubhouse and hotel looked brand new, the rooms were beautifully appointed and exquisitely furnished. In the twilight, the view from the lounge was an incomparable Natal midlands scene, the lake surrounded by manicured fairways and greens and rolling emerald hills blending into the purpling sky. All of this, for R850 bed and breakfast. When next you’re in the midlands spend a night at Gowrie Farm.
You’ll love it. That evening we dined like kings at Bierfassl renowned for its authentic German dishes. We all tucked into delicious 500-gram “ladies” Eisbeins which none of us could finish. Bierfassl portions are large! On the menu, there’s a 1.2-kilogram Eisbein but I think only a hungry lion could finish such an enormous slab of Shweinefleisch.
After breakfast on Thursday morning, we took the serpentine backroad that runs down the mountain past Balgowan and Lions River to Howick. We followed the N3 south and just before Hilton took the R617 westward into the mountains. The weather was perfect, the road was in good condition and we made excellent time with the mighty bulwarks of the Drakensberg looming ever larger on the western horizon. In the July orgy of looting and violence, Bulwer was badly affected. Most of the shops in the main street were burned-out shells and when I stopped for photos it was clear that photographers weren’t welcome so I got the hell out of Dodge City.
The road to Underberg was as beautiful as always even though the trees were bare and there were massive veld fires raging, sending towering columns of smoke into the sky. The R617 from Underberg to Kokstad is one of my favourite roads in all the land. It’s 110km of biking heaven characterised by flatstick straights, delicious sweepers and uninterrupted views of the Drakensberg to the west. My riding companions had stopped for lunch in Underberg and I didn’t see their bikes so I rode alone, ace pilot in a vast landscape, feeling like the last man on earth. It was a magical afternoon.
We regrouped in Kokstad and followed the N2 eastwards to the Indian Ocean. Soon after we left Kokstad the weather closed in and we rode under a low scudding cloud for the next 120km. It was pretty chilly, there was rain in the air and the N2 was unexpectedly busy so we took it easy as we ticked off the landmarks; Stafford’s Post, Harding, Izingolweni and Paddock.
As we approached Port Shepstone the clouds disappeared and we rode to Pistols Saloon in Ramsgate in brilliant late afternoon sunshine. After a good day in the saddle that first Castle Draught slid down effortlessly.
Laurence owns a magnificent home in Palm Beach and this was our slaap plek for Thursday and Friday nights. Standing on the deck we had 180-degree views of the moonlit ocean as we braaied, drank our wine and swapped stories like old maats do. Friday was a slack day. After a late breakfast, we cruised the coastal peripheral roads, stopped at Splash Rock for pictures and visited the memorial to the Portuguese vessel the São João which ran aground in 1552 near present-day Port Edward. We ate lunch at the Blue Lagoon in Ramsgate and after such a hectic morning I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed an afternoon siesta at Chez Laurence.
Saturday was supposed to be a relatively easy day in the saddle but it didn’t quite work out as expected. We left Palm Beach shortly after 09:00 and followed the N2 north. We stuck to the speed limit because we didn’t want to get gripped by the cops in Zero Tolerance land. At Park Rynie we struck inland on the R612 into the heart of rural Zululand and this is where things got a bit weird. The road winds up through hills covered in sugar cane plantations that stretch as far as the eye can see. The road is littered with cane stalks that fall from the trucks that transport the harvested cane to the mills. This was high concentration riding as we dodged the cane and the slippery patches where cars had crushed the stalks. There are dozens of small villages each with its set of bloody awful speed bumps to stop you from ploughing into the goats and cattle that wander across the road. We stopped in Highflats for fuel.
On a Saturday morning that town was bedlam, the road choked with taxis, pedestrians and stray animals. And after Highflats the 25km to Ixopo just got worse. There were three long Stop/Go sections where one half of the road had been excavated. I’ve never cared for Stop/Go nonsense so Mikely and I rode straight through and had no problems dodging oncoming traffic. We stopped on the far side of Ixopo at the Mariathal Mission and when the others caught up we followed the R56 northwest to Richmond through the valley of the Umkomazi River. The R56 is a special road that begs to be ridden briskly. Long sweepers and steep gradients deliver an exhilarating ride. We rode in a fast, tight gaggle relishing that ineffable camaraderie only long-distance bikers can know.
On the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, the traffic was a shambles and the group got separated. Mikely and I rode together and ploughed a path through the dense downtown traffic hoping we would find a sign pointing to the N3. It was hot and horrible and we soon discovered that red traffic lights meant nothing to the locals. Fifty years ago Maritzburg was fondly known as Sleepy Hollow. Those days are long gone. Now it’s a nasty, decaying, overcrowded slum. We eventually found an onramp to the N3 and rode north to our lunchtime rendezvous at the Notties Hotel. It was an uneventful cruise up the freeway but it wasn’t a happy time for the travellers on the N3 South. A 40-foot container fell off a truck and blocked the freeway. Two monster recovery trucks were attempting to move the container and the freeway was closed. The queue stretched for 10km and heaven only knows for how many hours the poor bliksems were stuck on that godforsaken road.
After lunch, we rode the N3 north at a leisurely pace and mid-afternoon parked the bikes in the grounds of the Green Lantern Hotel at the top of Van Reenen’s Pass. The Green Lantern has become a friendly destination for bikers and a motley crew of maats had ridden in from Joburg for a one-nighter with us. Before settling into the bar with the boys I walked around Van Reenen town taking photos.
The railway station used to be a busy place but now it’s derelict and vandalised, a poignant metaphor for the decay of this country. We spent a happy evening in the bar and fortunately, the bar closed early so the staff could get home before curfew. On Sunday morning after breakfast, we rode the N3 home to Joburg. For much of the journey, I set cruise control at 150km/h and relaxed on the pillion seat while steering with my knees.
The total distance for the ride was 1775km. The average fuel consumption was 16.6km/L. The RT was absolutely flawless; comfortable, swift and safe. It’s the motorcycle of choice for many men who love the long road. Priced from R341,600 your new RT awaits you at BMW Motorrad.
BMW R 1250 RT
For more information on the bike that we tested in this article, click on the link below…