Patrick Moore discovers a world of adventure just a few hours ride away from Johannesburg
Over the last decade, South Africa’s Cape Coast and Karoo areas have become well known to international adventure bikers as regions worth exploring. Honda even chose to launch its new Africa Twin down there, late in 2015, such is the quality of riding. Having ridden there myself I can’t deny the attractiveness of places like the Karoo Desert and the Cederberg Mountains.
But, they’re only two of a dozen South African adventure biking gems, and by gems I mean places with roads ranging from sand highways to goat tracks to sweeping ribbons of tarmac, accommodation from budget backpackers inns to five star bush lodges with casinos and helipads, all in warm, year-round sunshine.
Tourism is fast becoming South Africa’s economic mainstay, so with all of these adventure biking areas available, it makes sense to tell you all about one of the best, which lies just a couple of hours ride north of Johannesburg, in Waterberg.
During December of 2016, I decided to revisit the Waterberg after an earlier reccy trip had indicated excellent adventure motorcycling potential. My other reasons for visiting Waterberg were more personal. In 1979 I had excavated the area as an archaeologist and, since then, South Africa has undergone massive sociopolitical changes – I was curious to see how the valley had changed over the years. I also wanted to give the new Africa Twin a good workout on typical African gravel roads and revisit the nearby Makapan Valley.
Joining the trip was Heine Engelbrecht, one of Honda’s True Adventures African wing, riding manual and DCT examples from his new fleet of Africa Twin bikes, and my long time riding buddy Roger Gannaway, riding a BMW F800GS and also keen to test the Africa Twin. Jacques Viviers from Modimolle also promised to join us on his Yamaha Super Ténéré a few days into our ride.
Our journey out to Heine’s training centre was uneventful. Once there, we jumped onto our bikes and headed for our hunting lodge near Vaalwater, deep in the Waterberg’s heartland. A few miles north of Beestekraal railway siding we turned northeast onto a dirt road, heading for the tin mining and game farming settlement of Rooiberg. This gravelly, rural dirt road was perfect for testing the new Honda’s ‘Africa fitness.’ I settled down to a steady 50-60 mph cruising speed and set about evaluating its brakes and handling.
A few hundred metres progress was enough to feel the machine’s steadiness, and dodging rocks, ruts and potholes proved its agility. Counter steering was easy and the ergonomics spot on. The seat was comfortable and the sitting/standing riding positions were perfect for my average-sized frame.
Wider footpegs would have been nice to have, but the suspension was pretty effective – I could take my eyes off the road and enjoy the scenery, safe in the knowledge that no unseen rocks or ruts would cause a tank slapper severe enough to unseat me.
Front-wheel braking was excellent, with the ABS working perfectly on even the roughest surface, but the rear brake was relatively ineffective, with a long travel and an inaccessible pedal. Personally, I like to rear-end trail brake, which reduces back wheel bouncing over corrugated surfaces, so this could be improved, especially for use on African roads.
The instruments were easy to read, except in direct sunlight. A broader foot and a projection for its deployment would improve the side stand no end and selling the bikes with centre stands fitted would also make tyre changing easier – something we’d come to learn.
The bike has been criticised for its relatively low 95bhp output, but anyone who tries to apply even that much power on a dirt road will learn a painful lesson. Low to mid-range torque are what make for easy, enjoyable progress on dirt, and the CRF1000L has enough of that to keep any sane rider happy. Engine braking is pretty good too, which extends brake pad life, while the rims remained virtually undented, despite some seriously rocky encounters.
These comments apply to both the DCT and manual models, apart from one important difference as we discovered on the road. Just past Rooiberg, the manual bike’s front tyre punctured as I was riding on loose gravel chunks. I pulled in the clutch lever to prevent torque from speeding me up, which would have caused the increasingly wobbly front wheel to turn sideways, dumping me on the ground.
A gradual, controlled loss of speed saw me safely stopped 100 metres later, for our second puncture repair of the day, but not the last of the trip. But here’s the issue – the DCT bike only allows neutral selection at standstill, so being on one in that tricky slowdown situation could have been problematic. Sure, closing the throttle should have kept everything under control, but an inadvertent blip of power could have had expensive results!
Enough of the new Hondas for now then, and back to the ride. Having repaired the puncture with the aid of some handy rocks, we continued towards Vaalwater. Deepish sand was no problem. We followed car tyre grooves, then sat back and gassed it to get to the front wheel skimming the road surface. Apparently, Alfie Cox used to practice for the Paris-Dakar Rally on these roads, where the sand can be thirty to forty centimetres deep in places.
The scenic Bakkers Pass provided enough rocks and ruts to stress test suspension quality, while sand-covered corrugations and a few deep puddles kept us on our toes and proved that all electrics were waterproof. After refuelling in Vaalwater we motored on out to Wilde Avontuur Lodge. After 180 miles of hard riding, we enjoyed a warm shower and a tasty barbeque supper before retreating to our comfortable beds.
At breakfast the next morning we consulted my large-scale off-road-specific map. It promised dirt roads north-eastwards, which is where we headed after our hearty American-style feast.
We set off for the day and found ourselves riding past impala, giraffe, waterbuck and wildebeest, and the occasional warthog venturing onto the road – testing the Africa Twin’s emergency braking. Some really deep sand caught me napping and almost had me down, but emergency counter-steering and the bike’s spot-on handling kept me upright and intact. Some long straights allowed me to open the taps.
On arrival at the town of Modimolle, we suffered our third, rear-wheel puncture. Fortunately, it happened between a petrol station and a Wimpy restaurant, where a chatty old ex Rhodesian biker loaned us his car’s jack while Heine and Roger set to work. Old Len had been a Triumph Bonneville riding ducktail in the 1960s. With nails extracted and tyre reinflated we crossed the road back to Wimpy, where Heine slaked the thirst he’d built up wielding spanners and plotted a route back to our base.
Thirty miles out of town the manual bike’s front tyre punctured again. Removing the rubber from its rim revealed a 20mm long split in its sidewall, which we superglued and duct-taped for good measure. We carried bottles of water mixed with dishwashing liquid to lubricate rims for easier tyre replacement, but another puncture before we’d reached Vaalwater’s tarmac tested our patience.
I was beginning to think that mousses or tubeless tyres might be the way to go, when it occurred to us that all the front wheel punctures had been impact pressure-induced splits in tubes, not thorn or stone holes, so something was amiss with suspension or tyre.
The bike’s front forks felt fine and the tyre was a quality German article, so what was going on? The next morning the answer came to me. My 100-metre slowdown on gravel after day one’s second puncture must have damaged the front tyre’s sidewalls so that it could no longer resist impact compression effectively, hence its tube was taking the force, causing it to split. Thankfully Jacques Viviers was only a phone call away in nearby Modimolle – he promised to despatch a new tyre and some backup tubes.
After another high protein breakfast, we left the lodge and headed north. Roger had a go on the manual bike and suffered our first puncture of the day, while I enjoyed zipping along on his relatively light, well kitted F800GS. Heine split the punctured tube and placed it over the new one as additional protection, using duct tape to keep the tubes together.
Some 45 miles later, we arrived at Mackouwkuil Lodge, complete with a concert hall, German chef, pub, swimming pool and Out of Africa style luxury tents. Roger and I plotted how to get back here with our wives – we figured there were some serious Brownie points up for grabs.
Out of Mackouwkuil’s gates, we turned north and soon we were cruising along smooth tarmac, which took us past a private zoo – we stopped for a snack. Photographing wild animals near the bikes had been difficult, as the game generally fled when we pulled up, so I persuaded Heine to ride the more photogenic DCT bike in among the cages, where it elicited some interest from the lions.
Back at our base, there was good news – a new Pirelli front tyre and two tubes, to replace the knackered Mefo and replenish our supply of spares, was waiting for us. Pub chairs made for handy patch compressors and tube repairs were checked for airtightness in the swimming pool. All passed muster.
The next morning, we made for Rankins Pass. A few miles into the ride, Heine flagged me down. Roger was missing. I turned around to see the manual Africa Twin and Roger lying on the ground. Luckily nobody was seriously hurt.
Roger’s armoured jacket and trousers had protected him as he slid along the tarmac after a 45 mph fall, caused by another front wheel puncture. The twin had some damage to its crash bar and footrest, but nothing major. The road was busy, with trucks and SUV’s passing us as we loaded the damaged bike onto a local’s pickup truck.
A superb game meat barbeque rounded off what had been an interesting day. We plotted a route for tomorrow’s ride to the Makapan Valley. Jacques’ GPS duly led us through a spectacular mountain pass on our way to the town of Mokopane, where we visited the Arend Dieperink local history museum.
The next stop was the Makapan Valley, where my memories of hot days working in trenches and warm nights sorting artefacts by candlelight began. What I remembered to be primitive mud huts were now new brick houses; progress had certainly been made. We continued on to a historic cave site. A well informed local guide was showing visitors around and telling them the story of the bloody siege of Chief Mokopane and his followers in 1854, led by a commando of avenging Boers.
Enlightened, we proceeded back up the tar road towards the uplands that overlooked the valley and the plains stretching away to South Africa’s borders with Mozambique and Zimbabwe. A few drops of afternoon rain greeted our arrival at the new telecommunications installation, where the landowner was parked, gazing fondly at the beautiful vistas and his plump cattle.
He immediately authorised us to keep riding the area, then explained that he came up there to lift his spirits when depressed, as he was busy fighting cancer. We wished him well, then followed a dirt trail until it ended overlooking the Valley from where we had ridden.
The vegetation in the alpine area was grassy and scattered with protea bushes, in contrast to the much denser, thorny biome back below us. Eastwards there were thunderstorms raging, dumping much-needed rain onto the thirsty citrus orchards and maize fields below us.
Black eagles rode on the thermals high above us, while Roger tried to convince us that the new telecommunication installation’s white sphere was actually an alien egg. I didn’t quite believe him, but we were in an enchanted part of Africa, where absolutely anything can happen, so who knows…
On the way back out of the Makapan Valley, we stopped at the Ficus Iron Age site. I had excavated the site back in 1979 and it was overgrown, but I could still recognise where my trenches had been, and the wild fig trees, after which the site was named, were bigger than ever. Back in Mokopane, I realised that the sleepy town of Potgietersrus that I remembered had grown into a thriving, bustling mini-metropolis complete with shopping centres and new hotels.
A fascinating series of cliffs topped with what looked like rock walls called for a photo stop, then we were back on the bikes. About 20 miles out of town the heavens opened and we rode through three thunderstorms, with rain, wind, hail and sunshine thrown at us as we wound our way through rocky passes.
ABS and traction control came into their own as we blasted through puddles and dodged stray cattle, before enjoying the sensation of warm air blowing through our sodden riding gear.
As children we used to call the combination of rain and sunshine a ‘monkey’s wedding’, so I doubt that there were many monkey bachelors left by the time we reached Wilde Avontuur Lodge, where further excitement awaited us.
As I rode towards our parking spot Andries waved me vigorously away, then explained that a deadly spitting cobra was coiled up under some decorative driftwood at the Lodge’s entrance. Snakes have their place in nature’s great pest control scheme, but not right next to passing guests, so Andries had no choice but to despatch it.
The next morning we bade our generous hosts farewell and headed back to the fleshpots of Gauteng, which gave me the opportunity to try the DCT bike on tarmac. Using my thumb and fingers to change gear felt pretty weird at first, more so than the bike’s ability to shift up and down by itself, but after a few miles, I decided that the system works well and definitely conserves rider energy. If I rode principally on tarmac I would go with it, but as someone who’s learned that the most beautiful and enchanting parts of Africa lie at the end of a dirt road, I would only buy the manual version.
Tarmac handling, braking and overtaking were all top class, as was a hooter loud enough to alert minibus taxi drivers of my presence. Although I didn’t have a pillion, I’m sure the bike would be comfortable two-up, making it an excellent all-rounder.
After a recent six-bike comparative test for Dirt and Trail magazine, we agreed that it was the most versatile bike of all and therefore the most logical buy for our diverse local conditions. Multistrada Enduros and KTMs might be sexier and potentially quicker, but the CRF1000L does everything well enough and comes with Honda’s rock-solid reliability, which tipped the balance in its favour.
When I dropped Heine’s bike off at his Magaliesberg base, he was keen to see my photos and hear about the rest of our trip. On the way home I rode into another thunder and lightning rainstorm but survived with nothing worse than a soaking.
Once into a warm bath, I thought about what my friends and I had experienced, and what it might mean for bikers to visit our part of South Africa. We had encountered first-rate riding, hospitality, game viewing and beautiful scenery just a few hours ride from South Africa’s biggest cities, in a safe environment being developed specifically for tourists.
The Waterberg is a superb adventure biking area, but it’s one of many in South Africa, so if you’d like to treat yourself to an outstanding biking holiday in an interesting place with lots to offer, it could be worth adding to your destination shortlist.
Alternatively, you could consider our lush, historic Mpumalanga province, the spectacular Drakensberg Mountains, or neighbouring Botswana’s Kalahari desert.
Thank you for reading my account of our trip and feel free to contact me on [email protected] if you would like more information about South African adventure biking.
Want to ride Waterberg?
Return flights are available from London to Johannesburg for about £500, though this varies depending on your dates of travel. Once in Johannesburg, it’s just a two-hour drive or ride to the start of Patrick’s route.
Get your bike there
There’s nothing quite like exploring on your own bike, and getting your bike to South Africa is hassle-free thanks to Motofreight. At current prices, Motofreight can freight your bike to Cape Town using their structured sea freight service, which starts from £775 for a BMW R1200GSsize motorcycle. Visit www.motofreight.com for more information and details of how to book.
Kaapstad Tours start from £995 per person, and the company offers numerous routes across Southern Africa. While planned tours don’t go through the Waterberg area, bespoke tours can. For more information on these visit www.kaapstadmat.com Southern Cross Rides specialises in paved routes out of Johannesburg and Cape Town and makes use of luxury accommodation and services throughout the duration of their tours.
Tour prices vary according to the length, but a five-day tour starts at £1,850 including bike hire, helmet, jacket and gloves, accommodation and meals and refreshments, while a 19-day national tour tops out at £5,800. For more information visit www.southerncrossrides.com or email [email protected].
Tetanus, Hepatitis A, Typhoid and Yellow Fever are best done four-six weeks before entry. Malaria is a risk during summer in areas bordering Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
South African Rand, exchange rate varies according to political factors, up to 20 to a Pound, or 15 to a Dollar or Euro. Visitors generally find South Africa excellent value for their money.
When to go
All year-round, but our June to August winter can be dry and dusty, October to March summer is hot, wet and muddy. September or April/May is recommended.
Foods to try
South Africans have a constitutional right to barbeque (braai in local parlance) everything from seafood to game, but vegetarian food is also available. Local specialities, such as bunny chow, bobotie and melktert are well worth sampling. Gourmets can indulge in crocodile tail (rather tasteless actually) and we have vibrant microbrewing and wine industries. Drink bottled water only.
Where to go
“A world in one country” is South Africa’s tourism logo and for once it’s actually true. Snowy peaks, jungle, savannah and desert are all here, along with tens of thousands of miles of dirt roads and well-established biking culture.
Biking places worth visiting are the gemlike Midvaal Motorcycle Museum, Kyalami and Red Star Raceway tarmac circuits and Rim and Rubber biker’s restaurant, in Johannesburg. Our Classic Motorcycle Club meets in southern Jo’burg on the first Sunday of every month, there’s a speedway track in nearby Walkerville and ridable trails everywhere.