My alarm is set for 4:45 a.m. on Saturday, just in case I oversleep. I need not have bothered. The anticipation of a day trip with my mate, and fellow journo Brian Cheyne, on our Desert Xs got some gnawing excitement going that was enough to have me bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 4:30. A quick coffee out of my Ducati mug (just to set the tone you know…) and dive through a shower, dress in my kit laid out the previous night, and I was good to go. Dressing in motocross pants and enduro boots always adds to my anticipation. It holds the promise of smashing some decent dirt. It was still dark as I wheeled my spotlessly clean Desert X out of the garage. We are a weird lot. We clean our bikes to go and ride in the dirt…go figure!
I revelled in the crisp early morning air. The promise was for a sweltering day, so we planned to ride as much as possible in the cool part of the day. I rolled into the Rosehaven Fuel stop on the N4 just after 6:00, having stopped to snap the obligatory sunrise pic featuring the achingly beautiful Desert X, to find the ever-punctual Brian sipping on a coffee. We had a brief chat with Mike, the driver of a black Porsche Speedster, also enjoying his classic ride in the early morning cool before riding east. A couple of pics along the way and a ‘special stage’, where I ran the X onto the redline in top gear, helped to ward off any highway boredom. It also got us to our brekkie stop at Milly’s in no time. These Desert Xs have no shortage of shove!
We rode through Machadodorp, which I was pleasantly surprised to see was reasonably clean and tidy, then onto Barberton Road, before taking the left turn to the Nkomati mine and onto the scenic dirt road to Waterval Boven. We explored some peripheral tracks down to a little cabin by a lake in a most beautiful setting. It had me reflecting on the great philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s quote in his book ‘On Walden Pond’. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”. Motorcycles have played that role in my life. The simple pleasure of riding a bike satisfies the soul in a manner that few other activities can. Motorcyclists do, by and large, really live!
We rode on, revelling in the effortless ability of these spectacular bikes. The motor, in Enduro mode, produces seamless torquey shove. The long wheelbase, relaxed rake, and supple suspension backed up by the factory steering damper inspire huge confidence and uncanny stability. You find yourself relaxing and enjoying the whole riding experience. The X seems to dance in the dirt in a way that belies its size and weight. What an absolute thoroughbred!
We popped into Tranquilitas Campsite situated on the edge of a gorge with spectacular views, walks, mountain bike trails and a climbing wall. Great place for a weekend away enjoying nature. Then it was back onto the tar. Brian showed me a second tunnel that runs adjacent to the tunnel on the N4 between Waterval Boven and Onder. It is the original train tunnel built by the Zuid-Afrikaansche Spoorweg Maatschappij way back in 1892. Completed in 1893, it was lined with superb stone masonry which harks back to a time when things were made to endure for ages. You enter the old tunnel from the eastern side, and you exit to the most beautiful panorama of the Elands River valley, with a great view of the waterfall cascading down from the plateau into the valley below. How could I have traversed this road countless times and never seen this? Probably because I was too intent on getting back on the main jet as I exited the tunnel!
The sun was now making its presence felt, so we swept through the long sweeps down the valley to Ngodwana, where we turned right up the mountain to Kaapschehoop. If the truth is told, a slight red mist descended, and the Desert Xs flew up the mountain running line astern. The road has great long sweeps, but the surface is bumpy enough to unsettle the firm suspension on a sports bike. No problem for the Desert X though. The Pirelli Rally STRs stick like the proverbial poo to a blanket, and you can let the suspension deal with the bumps as you strut your stuff. These bikes make so much sense. You get to have an amazing riding experience irrespective of the road surface. You can hang the back wheel out on the dirt and then strafe bends on the tar with equal vigour.
The riding position is also such that you don’t have to have your chiropractor on speed dial. You just get so much motorcycling enjoyment in one package. The 937cc L-Twin Testastretta Desmo motor is perfectly suited to this bike. The electronics allow you to make the most of what the motor offers. You can tailor-make the power delivery, traction control, engine braking and wheelie control to suit your preferences. The Brembos are powerful with excellent feel, ensuring superb braking ability on all surfaces. Using all this ability to the max, we blasted up the mountain to Kaapschehoop, and a welcome pitstop at Nagkantoor, our watering hole of preference. We were fortunate to be greeted by one of the small herds of feral horses which frequent the town and surrounding forests.
Thirsts slaked, and feeling chilled despite the mounting heat, we reflected on the joys of being loose on the land on two such spectacular Italian thoroughbreds. We rolled back down the mountain to fill up at Ngodwana. Feeling the heat build up as you descend to the Elands Valley floor is uncanny. Top-up completed, we rode down the valley to turn left up Schoemanskloof. Recently refurbished, it makes for superb riding. Trucks and slower traffic are despatched with disdain by the Ducs. Prod down on the quick-shifter, get on the gas, then snick it back into the top as you get back up to speed. Sublime!
Just before the ridiculously expensive tollgate before Machadodorp, we hooked a right onto a dirt track which undulated through the countryside offering stunning views and a variety of surfaces. Rocky loose climbs, sections with rain furrows, and smooth jeep tracks transitioning to smooth dirt, all handled without fuss by the Ducatis. The road eventually joins the N4 between Milly’s and Belfast. We ran at a decent clip to Alzu, where we stopped for a bite before the quick squirt home.
Fed and watered, we said our goodbyes as I was going off left at Bronkhorstspruit, and Brian went right. Half an hour later we were home, pleasantly weary from an awesome day’s riding. Henry David Thoreau, if you could just have hooked yourself up with a bike, you would not have had to park off at a pond in the woods for a year to make sure that you truly lived! Unfortunately, the world had to wait another generation for that pleasure. We are literally living at the end of an era. Bureaucratic pressure may just scupper this pleasure for us in years to come. Thoreau was a true visionary when he also famously said “That government is best which governs least”. Preach it, brother! Stock your garage with your dream machine while you still can and TRULY LIVE.
Ducati Desert X
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