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Going Nowhere Slowly (But Reliably) On A Hero

Photo credit: Harry Fisher

If you were planning a long trip on a motorcycle, which motorcycle would you choose, if you were in the enviable position of being able to choose any motorcycle you would like? Naturally, thoughts would turn to a dedicated touring bike if you were certain that every road you rode was going to be tarred. South Africa presents a different scenario, however, where many really interesting roads are dirt. In this case, an adventure bike is called for: a bike that can handle any surface thrown under its wheels and handle them all with equal ability.

So, adventure bike it is. The choice has been narrowed but, with the proliferation of adventure bikes on the market, there is still a decision to be made, not only in what brand to choose but what size. Every manufacturer worth its salt offers an adventure bike: most offer more with different engine displacements and physical sizes.

So, if we assume the ability to choose the bike on which you would undertake an adventure into the heart of South Africa, which would it be? BMW? Triumph? Ducati? KTM? Husqvarna? Yamaha? Honda? You can pretty much pick your favourite brand and go from there.

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But, where is the challenge in that? Where is the adventure? OK, so not everyone wants their ride to be a challenge and, as for ‘adventure’, I know that not every rider wants too much of that, either: plump for the soft life, full of comfort and excess power; rest securely in the knowledge that you will get there and back with the minimum of fuss or concern for the machine.

If you’re travelling a long way, you want something with a larger engine, to cover distances at speed and with ease. But, what if you don’t want to whistle past all the amazing scenery, and rush through all the small towns leaving nothing but a dust cloud in your wake and maybe an empty bottle at the local pub? What if you want the journey to be the experience, not the destination? What’s the point of all that vastness of landscape if you’re going too fast to appreciate it?

Photo credit: ZA Bikers

Such thoughts dictated the choice of mount for my own particular odyssey: that and a bloody-mindedness that told me to shy away from the easy route. There are quite a few small adventure bikes on the market, from the likes of BMW, KTM, Kawasaki and so on. Somehow, however, you just expect them to go the distance, because of their parentage: they really shouldn’t break.

There is another, not-so-obvious choice, however. What if I told you there was a motorcycle manufacturer that sells more motorcycles than the second, third and fourth-placed two-wheeler companies put together but does that in one country?

Hero MotoCorp is one of the largest two-wheeler manufacturers in the world. Since the company’s inception – in partnership with Honda – in 1984, nearly 100 million Hero motorcycles and scooters have been produced and annual sales in the past ten years have been anywhere between six and eight million motorcycles. And this is almost solely in India, don’t forget!

Photo credit: Hero Motorcorp

The Hero brand has recently been introduced into South Africa by the Fire it Up! group. While it is tempting to look at it as just another ‘cheap’ brand on the market, it has to be clearly understood that the Xpulse 200 that I rode is in no way a ‘cheap’ motorcycle. Inexpensive to buy and run, certainly, but not ‘cheap’ in the way we understand the term, as in ‘cheap and nasty’. Once you’ve read this account of my time with the bike, I hope you’ll come to understand what I am talking about.

So, there you have it: the cat’s out of the bag. Spurning all the easy options, I chose, for my mount on this epic voyage of discovery, not a thundering litre-plus behemoth but a diminutive Hero XPulse 200: 18 horsepower and 17 Nm of torque wrapped up in an off-road capable motorcycle, weighing in at 153 kg with a full tank of fuel. Hardly the stuff that epic adventures are made of. Or are they?

Photo credit: ZA Bikers

Given that my initial intentions were to ride towards the middle of nowhere and see if I could find it, my decision might seem a little odd but, as I have said, the journey was the adventure, not the destination: I couldn’t rush to get there, because where was I going? With no destination, I could concentrate on where I was. And that was the whole point behind choosing the Hero: I simply couldn’t decide to pile on the kilometres. Going nowhere slowly was the only option.

Also, there was a desire inside to see if a bike such as the Hero could complete such a journey. Many were the doubters, the cynics and the downright rude but the fact that I am here to tell the tale tells its own tale.

There is something liberating about setting off with no particular destination in mind. On the first day, I had only one goal: to get out of Gauteng and head for Bloemfontein, that city being chosen as the jumping-off point for the adventure, The route of Jo’burg, Vereeniging, Koppies, Kroonstad, Welkom, Virginia, Theunissen (where I paused to take a photo alongside the steam locomotive that serves as sentry to the small town.

Photo credit: Harry Fisher

What tales of travel and mighty effort would it be able to tell, was it able to, and what a sad end for a once magnificent, living, breathing piece of machinery), Brandfort and Bloem were as uninspiring as the names suggest, the countryside I passed through was exactly the same.

The roads were generally in good condition, apart from the stretch between Koppies and Kroonstad, on the R82, which was more pothole than road. It may have been straight as a die, but my course was anything but as I slalomed along its length. It runs for many kilometres alongside a double railway line and, if ever there was an indictment of the state of this nation, it was the broken road and the rusted, unused railway tracks that stretched into the distance, no train had passed over these metals for a very long time and, in all likelihood, never would again.

Photo credit: Harry Fisher

The Hero took this leg of the journey, the long, boring stretches of road through unspectacular scenery, in its stride. Cruising speed was around 100-110 km/h, not nearly enough to dispatch the distance without getting mightily bored but this was the first day and anticipation of what was to come made it bearable.

The city of Bloemfontein was utterly forgettable, seemingly not yet woken up from the Christmas period. Aloe Guest Rooms proved to be a smart and comfortable (and inexpensive) place to spend the night, with hosts Michael and Debs welcoming and hospitable. I spent part of the evening with their son’s boa constrictor draped around my neck as we chatted over a beer or two, which was disconcerting but ultimately uneventful.

Dawn on the second day brought the anticipation for the day ahead. I headed out of Bloem towards De Aar and then speared off towards Bethulie and Gariep Dam. Turning south towards Venterstad, I then speared off onto dirt roads to wind my way down to Middelburg by a very indirect route but wasn’t this exactly what I had set out to do? Go wherever the road took me?

Photo credit: Harry Fisher

By now I was fully appraised of the strengths of the Hero. This was very easy: it simply wasn’t going to let me down. Highway, minor road, tar or dirt, it was an amazing companion. Nothing rattled, nothing came loose, no matter the punishment the road meted out. The suspension might be basic, as you would expect, but it never felt out of its depth no matter the surface. Once I had gotten used to the fact that 100 km/h was my speed, it would hold that for kilometre after kilometre, sipping at fuel as it went. The seat was remarkably comfortable – dare I say more comfortable than many larger and vastly more expensive adventure bikes. Putting in a ten-hour day on a bike will bring out any shortcomings in the comfort of any bike and the Hero just didn’t have any – for me, at least.

Photo credit: ZA Bikers

By this point in the journey, I had a strange desire to see the sea and to meet up with the family, who were already swimming in it. Fair enough, I thought, but I wasn’t going to head there directly. Looking at the map, I saw that the Swartberg region wasn’t too far away and previous experience had told me that there was some amazing riding to be had.

Thus, from Middelburg, wheels were turned towards Graaff Reinet along the drudgery that is the N9 highway. I had promised myself that highways would form little or no part of my journey, that they were contrary to the premise of the journey, but I also accepted that, if they had to happen, I wouldn’t beat myself up. In actual fact, this particular stretch of highway is endlessly scenic, taking in the Lootsberg and Naudeberg passes and crossing vast tracts of the fringes of the Karoo Desert.

Photo credit: Harry Fisher

It was on this leg of the journey that I experienced the first twinges of range anxiety. The 13-litre tank on the Hero is normally good for about 300 km and I made a point of always filling the tank whenever I stopped if only to avoid such situations of anxiety in the middle of nowhere. Normally that worked but for some reason I forgot to do so in Middelburg after riding from Bloem, being lulled into a false sense of security by the fuel gauge that still read three-quarters full. Of course, twenty kilometres outside Middelburg, the digital fuel gauge read half-full but, with around 100 km to go to Graaff Reinet, I figured I would be OK.

However, cruising at full throttle at 110 km/h on the Hero uses more fuel than traversing the country on dirt roads with the result that the last 40 km into GR were taken at ever-lower speeds, eking out the remaining fuel with no desire to be stranded by the roadside. The last segment of the fuel gauge was flashing as, with relief, the indomitable Hero rolled into GR where we both slaked our thirsts.

The plan from here was to ride to Aberdeen and then cut across the country toward Beaufort West, which would be the overnight stop and a useful jumping-off point towards Prince Albert and the Swartberg Pass. From Aberdeen, the R61 forms a gentle curve across the Karoo to Beaufort West. It had been a glorious day, weather-wise, and as the clock ticked over 4 pm and I left Aberdeen, the sun was beginning to lower itself, casting ever longer shadows across the vast landscape.

Photo source: ZA Bikers

Nearing the end of a long day in the saddle, the prospect of another 140 km and nearly two hours of riding before engine stop didn’t exactly fill me with joy but the scenery was so beautiful, the wind so warm (and at my back, making things more bearable) and the horizon so vast, I really couldn’t find any complaints that would last more than a few minutes. Wasn’t the whole point of this trip to go nowhere slowly? To take notice of what I was passing through? To stop as often as possible to take it all in?

Ah, but there is something special about pulling over and shutting off the engine in the middle of nowhere. After the constant rush of air and the sound of the engine in your ears for hour after hour, stopping is an amazing sensation. The silence is completely enveloping: a silence as vast as the landscape. The peacefulness stops you in your tracks. So what if stopping delayed my arrival in Beaufort West? I had a tent with me. And a sleeping bag. If need be I could sleep under the stars.

Photo credit: Harry Fisher

But every time I would give in and get on my way again, only to stop as the next rise was breasted and the landscape once again opened up before me in all its glorious emptiness. Part of me didn’t want this moment to pass but another part of me wanted to reach civilisation. And so, at 6:30 pm, I rolled into the X-Adventure campsite just outside Beaufort West and switched off the engine after a twelve-hour day in the saddle. Another favourite moment on any journey, the moment you know you’ve done it, the satisfaction, the relief and the sense of achievement. Put up the tent, light a fire, cook a lamb chop, have a smoke, drink a beer, watch the stars come out, and sleep like a log. Job done.

Photo source: ZA Bikers

Up and away early, continuing south on the N1 to Kruidfontein, where I turned off onto dirt to get to Prince Albert, a very pretty town and the gateway to the Swartberg. The start of the Swartberg Pass lies just outside the town and, as my wheels turned onto it, the premonition of a great day’s riding ahead came to me.

Initially, the pass winds its way through a narrow gorge, hemmed in by towering walls of layered rock formations created over millions of years. The sun is shining but often you find yourself in deep shadow, the sun kissing only the upper reaches of the walls. Narrow and winding, the road climbs steeply and is mildly challenging but the Hero showed no signs of being out of its depth. If anything, riding a bike with a minimum of power prevents anything ever coming at you too quickly so there are never any moments of mild panic and plenty of time to take in the views.

Photo credit: Harry Fisher

I meet no one on the way up but, at the top, meet a couple of cars and three fellow motorcyclists on large KTMs. We chat and at no point do I wish I was on one of their machines. The Hero matches my own skill level and plugs on without complaint. Over the top and the Swartberge valley reveals itself far below, bathed in sunshine and a patchwork of different shades of green. By now I am fully in the groove and fall down into the valley in a series of breathtaking sweeps, shedding height with every metre of forward travel.

At the bottom, I turned left towards Cango Caves, the tarred road meandering its way through lush fields, warming in the sunshine. Past the entrance to the Cango Caves, I turn off-road once again to make my way to De Rust. I really don’t want this to come to an end. The warm sunshine, blue skies and easy pace that the Hero dictates suits my mood. From De Rust, I take the direct route to Uniondale along the R341 which like all the roads in this region, twists and turns through some incredible scenery. It’s still early and I am in no rush, by now having come to love the enforced limit to top speed. How much more I am seeing! How I enjoy stopping often to take it all in, deeply conscious that I am due nowhere at any time so, where is the hurry?

Uniondale arrives at last and, with it, the prospect of the Prince Alfred pass to Plettenberg Bay. Top up with fuel – both myself and the Hero – and we’re off, heading first to Aventuur, the road is yet another highlight in a trip full of them before the surface turns to dirt and we’re back into serious riding.

Photo credit: Harry Fisher

What an experience the Prince Alfred Pass is. Up and down, tight and twisty and then open and flowing: sandy, rocky, muddy in places, heart-stopping in others, never anything less than beautiful, often imposing and intimidating but never dull. The little Hero takes it all in its stride, confidence-inspiring and always willing. We stop for a beer at Angie’s G-Spot, a lovely bar and restaurant nestling in a little valley about halfway between Uniondale and Plett. There are dozens of bikes parked up – this is obviously a popular destination for a weekend ride – and the Hero and I immediately make friends as is only possible when two wheels are the mode of transport.

Photo credit: Harry Fisher

The Prince Alfred Pass will take you to either Knysna or Plettenberg Bay, the road splitting about 15 kilometres after Angie’s place. The road opens up here but it’s still dirt and it dips and dives through the wide valley before climbing up once again for one last breathtaking vista before dropping steadily down to the N2 just outside Plett. Any sadness that the day’s ride is coming to an end tempered by the fact that I am about to reunite with the family.

Photo credit: Harry Fisher

This wasn’t how I saw the journey unfolding and the whole point of the trip has altered since I left Johannesburg. But isn’t that the whole point of freedom, to choose how you shape your journey? I set out to find solitude but realised that what I really wanted was to spend time with loved ones: I had a dose of solitude and now I was ready for company.

The next few days passed in a haze of sun, sea, sand, food, good company and a sense of deep gratitude: gratitude for a life that has enabled me to experience and appreciate so much and bathe in the love of a family. But the memories of what I had ridden through were still very clear in my mind and I was eager to continue the journey, even if my wheels would be pointing towards home and the commencement of another year of, well, who knows what?

Photo source: ZA Bikers

It was easy to delay departure for a day as the weather was foul: raining buckets and cold. The next day was dry but cloudy and the Hero and I could once again hit the road. Now, the journey towards home is much different to the journey away from home. Very quickly, a sense of ‘let’s just get there’ takes over, especially if there is a deadline to meet. It’s almost as if there is a sense of ‘the fun is over, time to get back to reality.’ But there was still the Prince Alfred Pass to do in the opposite direction and, despite the rain having made things, er… interesting, should we say? it was just as good the second time around.

Uniondale appeared and, despite the urge to simply meander my way back, I was in a different frame of mind this time. I knew it was going to be a two-day trip but I just wanted to get it over with and it was at this point that, for the one and only time, I wished I had something a little faster to ride, for sitting on the highway for hours on end is not what the Hero was built for. Don’t get me wrong, this amazing bike sat for hours on end at full throttle and very near the red line without complaint, sipping at fuel and remaining comfortable. It simply would not break or give up. But I couldn’t help reflecting that another ten or fifteen horsepower and another ten clicks of torque would turn the Hero into a bike eminently suitable for South African riding conditions.

And so the kilometres passed under our wheels. Willowmore for a delicious breakfast, Graaff Reinet for fuel, Colesburg for lunch and towards Bloemfontein as the shadows lengthened. Hours and hours of deathly dull highway leavened only by the humbling vastness of the landscape, beautiful under the flawless blue of the sky.

Photo credit: Harry Fisher

I considered pushing on into the night and reaching Johannesburg but wiser counsel prevailed and, with Bloem apparently completely full in terms of accommodation, I finally turned the bike off forty kilometres shy of that city and took a chalet at Tom’s Place Resort. Simple and inexpensive, it had a bath and a bed, cold beer and food: all the ingredients for contentment.

The last 400 kilometres to home were almost a stretch too far but, as with the outward journey, there was the satisfaction of the destination – in this case, home – to look forward to. Also, there was a sense of achievement and confounding the naysayers by undertaking a 3,000 km trip on a 200cc Hero, costing R49,000 brand new, and coming out on top. Had I proven anything other than my own possibly misguided desire to not take the conventional path? I’ll freely admit there were times when I wished I was riding something larger but these were far outweighed by the times when I realised I had made the right decision and I was on exactly the right bike for what I wanted and needed to achieve.

The last 100 kilometres via Vereeniging were covered with some trepidation. There was no reason to believe the Hero would let me down but the mind plays tricks when the finishing line is in sight and the seemingly impossible (or, rather, improbable) has very nearly been proven to be possible. I had no need to worry, the last few kilometres past Jo’burg CBD on the double-decker highway and winding down through Houghton were accompanied by waves of relief and a perhaps misguided sense of achievement. Would anyone else have been mad enough to do this? Does it really matter?

Photo source: ZA Bikers

The stamina of the Hero constantly amazed me. It used no oil whatsoever, nothing came loose, it proved to be comfortable, reliable – bulletproof, even – frugal (for the record, I spent R1,700 on petrol) and never not surprising in its willingness to simply carry on long after the rider considered giving up.

As an adventure bike, it was excellent and, if the suspension is relatively unsophisticated, it was more than good enough for the available performance. The crash bars, sump and hand guards and oil cooler were all reassuring presences but the most comforting thing was the fact that, had I dropped it, the relative lack of speed would likely limit damage and it would be easy to pick up without doing myself an injury.

The big question, of course, is whether I would do it all again, knowing what I now know. That’s difficult, with the memories still fresh in my mind. On the whole, I rather think I would, but I would like a few more horses and torques to make 120-130 km/h cruising possible. I spoke to Hero South Africa about this and, strictly off the record, it appears that they have been talking to Hero India about just this, pointing out the relative differences in riding conditions between here and India. Perhaps this might prompt a slightly larger engine? If that happens and the price and reliability remain unaffected, then any arguments against considering a Hero as your next adventure bike simply melt away.

Photo credit: Harry Fisher

As always, I sit here writing this wishing I was back out there on the road, with nowhere in particular to go and no rush to get there. But I get the feeling that the memories of this particular trip will take a long time to fade, lasting long enough to make me hungry for the next time I turn whatever wheels I may have in the garage towards the horizon in search of adventure, companionship, solitude or simply some wide open space in which to pull over and enjoy the silence.

My thanks to Hero South Africa for entrusting me with the XPulse 200 despite having no idea what it was to be subjected to. To be fair, even I had no idea but it survived and I can’t be anything but impressed.

Hero XPulse 200

For more information on the bike featured in this article, click on the link below…

Harry Fisher
Harry Fisher
From an early age, Harry was obsessed with anything that moved under its own steam, particularly cars and motorcycles. For reasons of a financial nature, his stable of fine automobiles failed to materialise, at which point he realised that motorcycles were far more affordable and so he started his two wheel career, owning, riding, building and fixing many classic bikes. Then came the day when he converted his love of bikes into a living, writing, filming and talking about them endlessly. The passion for four wheels never left him, however, and he has now converted his writing skills into singing the praises of cars in all their infinite variety. Bikes are still his favourite means of getting around but the car in its modern form is reaching a level of perfection that is hard to resist. And they're warmer in winter....
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