I typically plan a bike trip to kick off my December break. December is not great motorcycling weather, either too hot, humid, or wet, depending on where you are planning to ride. Botswana is my go-to place, despite being afflicted by all the above weather conditions, because it frees me from an even greater evil…people! I don’t put roaming on my phone, so I am free from this curse of our modern age too. Blissful solitude!
My son Dave is a chip off the old block, so when he heard my plan for Bots, he was all in. It was at this point in the conversation that the planning took another twist. Instead of heading north on the Tiger Rally Pros, we decided to go slow and simple. I would ride my Suzuki 250 V-Strom SX, and Dave would ride his BMW 310 GS. The so-called ‘commuters’ would carry us and all our kit far and wide. You all know how anticipation grows as the date of departure draws near. We just wanted to ride and forget all our daily strife for a while.
The bikes carried all our gear to camp, cook our food on occasion, and the few items of clothing we would need when not riding. What to take and how to pack it is just part of the fun. At last the 14th of December dawned and we rolled out of Pretoria, both maybe just a little apprehensive as to how we would adjust to the more sedate pace of ‘Tiddler touring’.
We stopped for lunch at the Vaalwater Hotel. As expected, it was hot and humid so the ice-cold draught that washed down our burgers went down singing hymns. We planned to sleep over near the border to cross over into Bots early on day two. The bikes had allayed all our fears. They were revelling in their open road duty. Both bikes were running a tooth bigger countershaft sprocket to allow for higher speed cruising at lower revs. The little Beemer is transformed. It has sufficient torque to run up all but the steepest hills in top gear and cruise way more smoothly. The tiny ‘Strom does need the gear lever stirred on occasion but now has a usable fourth and fifth, providing good overtaking or hill climbing drive.
Cruising at a relaxed 100 to 105 km/h true speed, we averaged 30 km/L for the trip. Headwinds and hilly terrain hurt consumption, but conversely flat roads and tailwinds are your friend. This is motorcycling in its purest form. You engage with the bike constantly, eking out the best from the diminutive engine. As the kilometres rolled by, our admiration for these superb little bikes grew.
Long rides develop a rhythm of their own. You find yourself getting settled and comfy on the bike and you are acutely aware of the engine’s sweet spot. Both bikes could easily run 300 k’s before fill-ups. This is on a 12l and 13,5l (BMW) tank. We rode the quieter road from the border up to Selebe Pikwe, then joined up with the A1 for the last 80 km run into Francistown.
Splash’n dash and we soon despatched the 180 k’s to Nata, stopping at Nata Lodge, that oasis for thirsty travellers. Checking the weather app, we were chuffed to see that the chance of rain at our planned stop at Elephant Sands was a mere 3%. Camping at one of our favourite spots in Bots was a go, or so we thought…
It is only a 56 km hop to Elephant Sands, north of Nata. We rode out of Nata anticipating putting up our tents, then chilling in the pool with a cold St Louis, toasting a superb day of tiddler touring. Those weather app guys would not know their arses from their elbows! Literally 3k’s from Elephant Sands we stopped and pulled on our rainsuit jackets. The sky had turned as black as night and the 3% looked more like 103%.
With big fat raindrops starting to hit us as we climbed back on the bikes, we rode into an apocalyptic storm. The road was instantly awash, with the bow waves from oncoming trucks almost engulfing us. We were almost blown off the bikes by the gusty wind-driven rain. The visibility was so limited that I overshot the entrance to the lodge and had to turn back as I saw it out of the corner of my eye.
The blessing was that the deep sand was now packed hard by the rain, and we easily rode the 2 odd k’s of dirt to the lodge. In the immortal words of Kenny Rodger’s song, The Gambler, “You got to know when to hold it and know when to fold it.” After a couple of “vuil cokes” to settle our nerves, we booked a safari tent for the night. Any thought of camping faded away as we watched a camper chasing after his dome tent as it was blown across the campsite.
In typical wild African weather fashion, the storm abated, and we watched as elephants revelled in the abundant water and the cooling downpour. Showered and in dry clothing, we cooked dinner on the veranda of our tent, then we strolled across to the lodge, sat by the fire and sipped on a bottle of red, toasting our first night in Botswana. All was truly well with the world. The rain, unexpected and ferocious as it was, had brought an indefinable bonus to our first day. It was almost as if Mama Africa was saying, “I’m wild and free and unpredictable as ever, take me for granted at your peril.” She rolled back the storm clouds and the stars, like pearls around her neck, shone brightly in the Botswana sky. Watered and fed and pleasantly weary from an eventful day, we climbed under the duvets on our comfy beds and slept the sleep of the truly blessed.
The life of a triathlete never lets you off the training hook, so at first light, Dave was off on a run with me riding along on the ‘Strom, giving him a flight option if part of the Botswana wildlife put in a sudden appearance. The air was still cool, and puddles of water reflected the early morning clouds in spectacular fashion. It was one of those moments which you wish you could just capture and hold for posterity.
I rode ahead down the main road, stopping every so often. The remains of a young elephant a few metres off the road told the story of Africa from the beginning of time. Life and death are constant companions. Embrace life in its entirety as you never can tell when it is your time to cross the rainbow bridge. The Bible tells believers that we are “sojourners in this land. It is not our home; we are just passing through.” We do not get to decide the length of our individual journeys. We just need to fill our journey with as many moments as this, as possible. That, my friends, is why we ride motorcycles.
After a hearty breakfast, we were back on the bikes and riding ever north. The landscape in Botswana is predominantly flat, with endless open vistas. Perfect for small bikes as you don’t have much in the way of hills to contend with. The mechanical cruise control on my Suzuki worked a treat. Resting on the brake lever, it holds the throttle open allowing you to rest your throttle hand.
Pandamatenga is the breadbasket of Botswana. As far as the eye can see the bush has been cleared to make way for crops. There are several SA farmers managing farming operations at Panda, so it is common to hear Afrikaans spoken by women doing their shopping. It was then on to Kasane, stopping only for the odd Eli to cross the road. We surveyed the damage to a truck that overturned just before Kasane. It’s load of steel girders strewn across the veld like a giant game of pickup sticks. ‘How’ is the question that comes to mind when you see this carnage? Open road with long benign bends. Most likely falling asleep at the wheel, lulled into sleep by the monotony of endless k’s at the wheel, ferrying the goods that feed the infrastructure of our complex world.
A cold beer at a lodge overlooking the magnificent Chobe River and then it was the ride through the Chobe Game Reserve. Because this is the road that takes travellers to Namibia and the Caprivi Strip, the authorities allow motorcycles to traverse the park. You sign a register when entering as the only formality. We cruised the park at the speed limit of 80 km/h, game-spotting as we went. It was already hot so there was not much to see.
Some magnificent kudu and the ever-present elephant were about it. Our destination was Mwandi View, a lodge overlooking the Chobe River floodplain. We had enjoyed sundowners and experienced a magnificent sunset at Mwandi during a 4×4 trip through Savute and Moremi earlier in the year. This was when the plan to return on bikes was hatched. We enjoyed two relaxing days at Mwandi, with Dave doing his obligatory training runs, after which we chilled around the camp, letting the tension from a busy year ebb away. We watched zebra on the floodplain, feeding on the nutrient-rich grass. It is hard to imagine this savannah submerged annually by the water that flows down from Angola. A good reason for another bike trip perhaps?
Our two days at Mwandi flew by and it was back on the bikes for the long haul home. We left in the cool of the early morning, entering Chobe just after 6 AM. What a different game-viewing experience that turned out to be. Barely into the park, we stopped to watch Wild Dog right next to the road. I love these painted dogs! Elusive and scarce, they make for amazing viewing. A bare 10 k’s further on a journey of four huge giraffes ambled across our path. Then it was a breeding herd of elephants, with the matriarch leading the tiniest mini-me newborn calf across the road, surrounded and protected by the herd.
The final wildlife act came in the form of a herd of buffalo grazing next to and crossing the road. Almost a ton of African bovine mean. When you pass these guys bare metres away on a bike, and they fix you in their bright-eyed beady gaze, it makes for some arse-puckering moments! That is literally the only moment on the trip when I would have liked big bore accelerating ability! Luckily, they let us pass through their turf and we continued on our way, super chuffed with our Chobe wildlife experiences.
We decided to put in a big day to shorten our last two days, so we smashed over 600 k’s and after traversing 8 k’s of dirt from the main road, pulled into Woodlands Campsite, 16 k’s before Francistown. Spoiling ourselves after the long haul we decided to forego camping and booked into a well-appointed and superbly comfortable chalet overlooking a verdant lawn down to a dry riverbed. Each chalet has a dedicated braai area on the river’s edge. Woodlands is a must for your first or last night in Bots. It offers excellent value and is in the bush away from hustle and bustle. The shop at reception does pre-cooked meals, braai packs, wood, beer and wine, so your every need is catered to. The campsites are shady and tidy, with a pool for hot travellers.
Sitting at our campfire we gazed fondly at our two plucky little bikes that had carried us in absolute comfort across Botswana. Big bikes are obviously cool but there is something to be said for the simplicity and engaging demeanour of light and agile small bikes. You don’t mess with settings and modes; you just hop on and ride. They traverse dirt effortlessly; you don’t find yourself fighting excess power and weight.
Whilst both bikes performed faultlessly, perhaps the Suzuki deserves an honourable mention. It is comfy and well-appointed. The USB charging port was a boon for charging cell phones while riding. It would be perfect for powering your GPS too if that is how you roll. The riding position on both bikes is comfortable, I never felt cramped or fatigued despite my 6’3” frame. We swapped bikes on occasion. The extra grunt of the BeeEmm was welcome, but it was not as refined as the little Suz. The kicker for me is that the Suzuki will set you back under R60k. You could do your RTW trip on this little beast, and it will not let you down. Dave too bonded with his little GS all over again. We agreed that tiddler touring is a blast, and we are already planning the next trip.
We got back on the road early the next morning and after breakfast at the Francistown Wimpy, it was to the border and back into SA. Let me just say that the border crossing at Grobler’s Brug/Marti’s Drift is an absolute shamble. The border is swamped by hundreds of trucks that carry goods up and down through this border. The management on both sides is non-existent. Trucks clog the bridge, not allowing tourist vehicles to cross. We crossed on the pedestrian walkway adjacent to the road across the bridge, thanks to the tidy dimensions of our bikes.
It is obvious that a commercial port of entry should be created to alleviate the present mess, but that would be expecting too much, I suppose. I am certain that tourism is being negatively affected, but I don’t think that either country gives a fig! Officials look like they are on a go-slow. The sad story of Africa. It is paradise ruined by arrogance, greed, bribery, corruption, and the lack of vision which, if addressed, could transform it into a powerhouse. These are the things which you reflect on when you have significant helmet time.
We pulled into a spot called De Kuile, 10 k’s before Lephalale (Ellisras). It is an old-school campsite with air-conditioned chalets on the river, we stocked up on grub and drinks in town, then settled down to the final night of our tiddler tour. We braaied, drank and chatted into the night. We reflected on another epic motorcycle-fueled adventure. The bikes performed flawlessly. Lubing the chains was the sum total of the maintenance required. Nothing broke or fell off. They consumed no oil and very little fuel. They ran for hours on end still 3,000 rpm from the redline, courtesy of the altered gearing, so we never felt that we were even stressing them. They are epic bikes!
The next morning, we got back on the road so early that we were too early for breakfast in Vaalwater, so we lashed a coffee and rode on. Back on the highway, we dialled the little bikes to 120 km/h and in no time we rolled into Pretoria. As is my habit, I unpacked the bike, allowing it to cool completely, then washed and polished the wee ‘Strom. What a beastie! The gateway to real adventure may not be as inaccessible as you think. Why not make 2024 the year that you embrace life again? Do it your way and for you. As flawed as it is, it remains a truly wonderful world out there.
Suzuki V-Strom 250SX
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