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BMW R18 Roctane Road Trip

Image source: BMW

There are five siblings in the BMW R18 family. R18, R18 Classic, R18 Bagger, R18 Transcontinental, and the newest addition, the muscular R18 Roctane. Funky name, funky motorcycle. The most noticeable difference between the Roctane and the other R18s is the 21-inch front wheel which, combined with a rake of 34.7 degrees and trail of 7.3 inches, lends it an authentic American cruiser look.

The Roctane is a long, low, lurking beast with a seat height of just 720mm. The gloss black engine, drivetrain, front forks, headlight, handlebars and alloy wheels are complimented by the black chrome exhausts and the Mineral Grey Metallic Matte tank, mudguards and luggage. It’s a dark symphony in which the beautiful whole is greater than the sum of its Berlin Built parts. Best of all, the Roctane is completely naked as all mega cruisers should be even if your intention is road-tripping instead of cruising the boulevards on the hunt for a foxy pillion.

1802cc of Berlin Built power.

On Thursday morning I met Riaan Schickerling and Samantha Potgieter at BMW Montana in Pretoria North. Over coffee, we discussed the remarkably robust sales of the R18 family. The standard R18 is priced from R325,550 and the top of the range Transcontinental starts at a mere R436,050. Seems that well-heeled South Africans are developing an affinity for these BMW flagships, direct competition for Harley-Davidson. The Roctane is designed to sharpen that competitive stance. The weather forecast for the weekend was a little daunting. Rain was expected for the entire route that I and a bunch of conneckos would ride. Then again, I’ve never been a fair-weather biker. I had excellent rain gear stashed in the hard luggage and, in any case, what’s a ride without a bit of adversity?

Since I moved to Nelspruit two years ago, I’ve spent as little time as possible in Gauteng. As I rode the N1 south towards Johannesburg I realised I’d forgotten the daily stresses of living in that massive conurbation. The N1 was choked with five lanes of traffic in both directions, and this was 11:00 on a weekday morning. It got even worse on the four-lane N3. It’s one of life’s great mysteries that in South Africa all the idiots and their retarded relatives in their crappy little Renault Kwids and Kia Picantos head straight for the fast lane and refuse ever to budge. I took it easy and rode mainly in the less congested left lanes.

Just past Alberton, I took the slip road onto the R59. It was a relief when I left the main arterials and followed the country roads to Henley on Klip and thence to Deneysville. On the deserted back roads, I soon found that 150km/h was a comfortable cruising speed despite the absence of a windscreen. It felt great to be in the wind on a big bruiser with the aerodynamics of a brick, an elemental experience which took me back fifty years to the days when all our bikes were naked, days when I dare say, we were tougher riders than we are now. My destination for the day was Lake Avenue Inn which used to be home to the legendary Deneysville Motorcycle Museum. After John Boswell’s untimely death, most of the motorcycles have been returned to their owners and the museum is no more. I spent the afternoon and evening reminiscing with John’s life partner Charmaine and the locals about the heydays of the museum, ate an early supper and was in bed by 21:00.

Image source: Lake Avenue Inn

My rendezvous with the Joburg-based boys was at 10:00 in Heilbron, a mere 80km from Deneysville. I ate breakfast, said my farewells and rode south under low wimpled clouds, the colour of a television tuned to a dead channel. There was rain in the air but it didn’t seem imminent so I didn’t bother to don my rain gear. Thanks to the bountiful summer rains the Free State scenery was a feast for the eyes. The R57 traverses beautiful bucolic countryside; limitless green pastures grazed by fat cattle, brimming dams teeming with wildfowl, fields of tall mielies stretching to the distant horizons, willow fringed streams meandering through the veld, and stands of towering ancient bluegums. It was a tonic for the soul.

Early morning on the limitless plains between Sasolburg and Heilbron.

Five maats were waiting for me at the garage in Heilbron; Gus, Andy, Jim, Roman and Rob. They were all riding BMWs, GSs and RTs. We weren’t in any hurry and rode at an easy pace as we continued south on the R57 to Petrus Steyn and thence to Reitz. We stopped at the Royal Hotel in Reitz for midmorning toasted sandwiches. I wasn’t sure of the Roctane’s range because, for reasons known only to BMW, there’s no fuel gauge and the almost illegible digital readout in the headlight nacelle doesn’t show range.

Royal Hotel, Reitz. Friendly joint for a mid-morning break.

Reitz was founded in 1889 and named after Orange Free State president, Francis William Reitz, father of Deneys Reitz the Boer War warrior and author. Reitz to Kestell is 70 kilometres. That “road” bears mute testimony to the scourge of corruption that has plagued this land since 1994. The first 40 kilometres are littered with vicious potholes that will speed you on your journey to Valhalla, the hall of the slain, should you hit one of them. In places, the tar surface is non-existent for hundreds of metres. If it had been raining we would have been in trouble on a slimy dirt track. This nightmare is Ace Magashule’s legacy. He was Premier of the Free State for a decade and in that time he and his despicable spawn looted the province. Of course, nobody went to jail. The upside to that hellish ride was that we had the opportunity to view the massive shallow pans which are a feature of that landscape and home to flocks of hundreds of flamingos. After that horrible ride, we needed a drink and stopped at the Kestell Hotel for a cold one before continuing south.

The “road” from Reitz to Kestell. Arrogance, Nepotism, Corruption.

The road to Phuthaditjhaba arrows towards the picturesque sandstone Maloti Mountains which loom ever larger on the southern horizon. Near Phuthaditjhaba there’s an archetypal flat-topped mountain where I habitually stop for photos because it provides such a dramatic backdrop. Today was no different. I signalled to the rest that they should ride on and they disappeared in the direction of Harrismith. I rode up a rutted sandy track and stopped in a field to take pictures. We had ridden into warm early afternoon sunshine and the cloudscape over the mountains was equally dramatic.

Maloti Mountain Majesty on the road to Phuthaditjhaba.

Pleasant duty done I set off in pursuit of the others. Approaching Harrismith I turned right onto the R74 which parallels the shores of Sterkfontein Dam to the summit of Oliviershoek Pass. It was turning out to be a great day in the saddle on a brilliant bike in Big Sky Country. Full of the joys I set cruise control at 100km/h and trundled along bellowing road songs in my helmet; Bon Jovi’s – Dead or Alive, Neil Young’s – Long May You Run, Deep Purple – Highway Star, The Doors – Riders on the Storm.

Sterkfontein Dam.

Viewed from the top of the pass the lush rolling hills of Natal spread out like a thrown blanket to the distant vanishing point where land and sky become indistinguishable. Oliviershoek Pass is a favourite road for bikers. It’s fast and challenging and descends 471 metres down the Drakensberg escarpment. There was construction on the pass. In four different places, tar gave way to gravel and the intelligent thing to do was to take it easy. At the foot of the pass, I gunned the Roctane across the flatlands and short before long turned off to Amphitheatre Backpackers where we met our maats Rodles and El Gordo who rode inland from the coast. Now we were eight for the road. Backpackers turned out to be a most convivial, cosmopolitan joint and we spent an hour and a half swapping stories with a gregarious bunch of wimmen of many nations.

Summit of Oliviershoek Pass. On a clear day, you can see forever.

Back on the road we blitzed to Bergville. On a long downhill I tucked in as best I could and saw 200km/h on the Roctane speedo before I backed off. Pretty good for a big, butt nekkid behemoth. We fuelled in Bergville then rode the R616 towards Ladysmith, a road I had never ridden before. We rode under a threatening sky across a verdant bushveld landscape. I had never seen bushveld so green, the lush veld grasses standing dense and thigh high. It seemed as though nature was taking over the planet as the greens splashed sprays of apple, antique bronze, celadon, olive, and jade across the veld like rivers of paint on a massive palette. Captivating scenes like this are the reason we bikers ride the backroads, roads that lemmings in their cages will never know. After 50km we turned left onto the R103 towards Ladysmith and almost immediately turned right onto the narrow paved track that winds across the veld for a few kilometres to Platrand Lodge.

When we checked into the hotel we realised we were the only guests. It was a strange, subdued evening. The bar had the ambience of a sepulchre. The dining room echoed around our lonely table. The lamb curry and lamb chops were not lekker. My usual bottle of Two Oceans Sauvignon Blanc seemed to have fishhooks in it. Our jokes and stories fell flat and conversation flagged. Even a round of Captain Morons couldn’t resurrect a gloomy evening. We were conscious of being the impediment standing between the staff and their families so we finished our drinks and went to bed early.

Platrand Lodge. Accommodation was OK. Lamb curry not so much.

Wakkerstroom was our Saturday destination. It was a cool overcast morning that augured well for a trivial day in the saddle, less than 300km. Friday night blues were a thing of the past and we enjoyed a lively, leisurely breakfast before heading out. Jim, Roman and Rob had only planned for a one-nighter and rode north on the N3 to Joburg. The rest of us rode into charming, teeming, downtown Ladysmith. Sheesh! What a mess. Hawkers, taxis, dogs, goats, potholes, broken traffic lights, jaywalkers and litter everywhere.

We got out of the cesspit as fast as we could and followed the N11 north for 60km to the start of the R68. We rode across rolling green countryside that became more mountainous the further north we travelled. Many years ago the junction of the N11 and the R68 Sunset Rest Hotel was a welcome sight for weary travellers. It was an attractive yellow-faced brick hotel surrounded by gardens. Sadly, those days are gone. The roofless ruin of the hotel is a hollow shell. Every piece of metal has been ripped out of the walls and every room has been vandalised. I have tried to discover what happened to Sunset Rest but even Google doesn’t know. I assume the hotel closed down and barbarians descended on the defenceless property.

This used to be the Sunset Rest Hotel at the intersection of the N11 and R68 to Dundee. Speechless!

In a sombre mood, we rode due east to Dundee and stopped on the far side of town at the Talana Museum. The Battle of Talana Hill was the first major clash of the Second Anglo-Boer War, fought on 20 October 1899. 4000 British tackled 3000 Boers and won a tactical victory in that the Boers abandoned their positions. But the British lost 41 killed, 185 wounded and 220 captured or missing, heavy losses for an opening skirmish against a wily enemy. The museum is home to fascinating artefacts from the battle, a well-tended graveyard with headstones that tell poignant stories of young lives that ended too soon, and massive machinery from the coal mines in the area. The museum and its extensive grounds are immaculately curated. We spent two educational hours scoping the exhibits and taking photos. If you’re in Dundee with time to spare the museum is well worth a visit.

Talana Museum in Dundee is well worth a visit. The Museum features Second Anglo-Boer War exhibits and artefacts from the Natal Coalfields.

Our planned fuel stop and lunch stop was Utrecht 90km away. We rode the R33 and R34 at an easy pace enjoying the bikes, the cool weather, the scenery and the camaraderie of the open road. We rode straight through Utrecht and stopped at the country club on the eastern side of town. The staff were super busy preparing for a big wedding later in the day. We ordered toasted sandwiched so as not to complicate matters. I think they appreciated the consideration because the sandwiches were stuffed with delicious fillings and we each got a mega serving of delicious freshly fried chips.

Lekker Crew! Jim, Rob, Gordo, HZ, Andy, Roman, Rodles, Gus

From Utrecht, we rode due west on the R34 and rejoined the N11 north of Newcastle. The bulwarks of the Drakensberg loomed large on the northern horizon and soon we were hauling up Laingsnek with Amajuba, Hill of Doves, silhouetted against the western skyline. The Battle of Majuba Hill on 27 February 1881 was the final and decisive battle of the First Boer War and a resounding victory for the Boers whose fire and manoeuvre tactics left the British shooting at ghosts. The British lost 92 killed, 134 wounded and 59 captured. The Boers lost 1 killed and 5 wounded. It was a rout.

On Laingsnek the Roctane was in its element. For such a big heavy bike the Roctane displays excellent handling capabilities and it was my great pleasure to grind the hero blobs on the hinged footboards through the tight corners on the pass. At the top of the pass, we cruised through Charlestown and into Volksrust. That town is infested with so many 26 and 34-wheel juggernauts that it’s almost impossible to navigate, but we persevered and eventually rode east on the R543 to Wakkerstroom.

Interesting juxtaposition of German engineering, American capitalism and South African vandalism.

The Wakkerstroom Hotel is a very pleasant old-world hostelry which serves a community of artists and bohemians who have made the hamlet their home. Fortunately, Wakkerstroom has escaped the crass commercialisation that infected Clarens. These days Clarens suffers an infestation of Range Rover, Mercedes Benz, BMW and Lexus SUVs sporting delicate splashes of designer mud. To date, Wakkerstroom has escaped that ignominious fate. We settled at a shady table in the grassy courtyard of the hotel and sipped our beers as the shadows lengthened and purple twilight descended. The walls of the hotel dining room are decorated with the stuffed heads of many antelope. At dinnertime, it was kind of weird to chow down on a dik steak while imagining the judgmental stares of dozens of herbivore glass eyeballs. But I soon recovered from the awkward pangs of guilt as I dispatched my vleis washed down with an exceptional bottle of Rupert & Rothschild Classique. It was a riotous soiree as the five of us made up for the disappointment of the previous evening. We eventually sashayed to our rooms sometime after 23:00.

Wakkerstroom Hotel dining room. I felt a little uncomfortable as I tucked into my steak.

I never saw the other four on Sunday morning. They all decided they needed to get home in a hurry and that suited me fine. I was in no mood to get up early and I was looking forward to a chilled ace pilot ride back to Joburg. Over the years I’ve been to Wakkerstroom many times and in all those visits I’ve never been able to get a decent photo of the NG Kerk that dominates the centre of the town. The gates are always locked to keep mischievous people away. But on this morning as I ate breakfast on the hotel verandah the church bells rang out. Pink Floyd’s lyrics sprang to mind: “Far away across the field, the tolling of the iron bell calls the faithful to their knees to hear the softly spoken magic spells.”

I finished breakfast, packed the Roctane and rode into the grounds of the church. In every Platteland town, the most significant building is invariably the NG Kerk. I love the numinous beauty of these magnificent edifices and the history and nation-building they represent. I stepped into the vaulted interior and sat quietly for some minutes listening to the dominee’s words. The church can seat hundreds of people but on this Sunday there were less than 50 in the congregation. Die ontvolking van die platteland – the depopulation of the rural areas – began after WWII as industrialisation boomed. Wakkerstroom is fortunate. Many NG Kerk in small towns stand empty for weeks or even months.

Wakkerstroom NG Kerk. One of the most beautiful churches in the country.

I took my photos and rode west to Volksrust thinking solemn thoughts about the perilous state of this fair land. I took the most direct route to Joburg via Standerton, Greylingstad, Balfour and Heidelberg. It was one of those lovely summer days when the air seemed luminous and tangible. I experienced a strange feeling of timelessness and unreality as I cruised homeward bound, ace pilot tracking across a vast highveld landscape.

Ancient iron girder bridge over the Sand Spruit between Standerton and Greylingstad.

That was a splendid 1600km weekend in the saddle. The Roctane was an outstanding steed; comfortable, surefooted, swift and reliable. If the opportunity arises I’ll happily ride serious distance on a Roctane. There’s an allure to riding a big naked beast and braving the elements that you don’t experience on a touring bike shrouded in body panels. I loved the Roctane. Perhaps you will too. The R18 Roctane is priced from R391,050.

BMW R18 Roctane

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



Pricing From R391,050 (RRP)

Brand: BMW Motorrad

Howard Stafford
Howard Stafford
I started riding in 1970 when I was a schoolboy. The first motorcycle I owned was a brand new 1972 Yamaha RD350 which cost R989.00 from Jack’s Motors in Main Street. Since then I have owned and loved dozens of bikes. My passion is long-distance riding either with a tight group of good mates or ace pilot. In 1996 I sent an unsolicited article to Bike SA magazine. Simon Fourie published the story and that was the start of a 25-year relationship with Bark Essay. In those 25 years, I rode more than a million kilometres on more than 500 different motorcycles. Biking has enriched my life. I have made many lifelong friends and ridden amazing roads to remote destinations. That’s what life’s about and that’s why we ride.