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8 golden rules for a truly great motorbike road trip

Paul Ash shares the lessons he learnt while tackling the lonely mountain roads of the lowveld, from Joburg to Hazyview, on a Honda Africa Twin

23 July 2017 - 00:10 By paul ash

It is the stuff of dreams, this picture. Two bikes thudding along under dark skies on a lonely mountain road.
It was a reminder of trips I had done on bikes - the Baviaanskloof, Vietnam by scooter, 5,000km in the Karoo in winter - and it made me long to be back in the saddle.
A few days later, under a pale sun, I head east on a borrowed Honda Africa Twin.As Joburg recedes in the side mirrors, I feel a slow-burning happiness as the bike and I settle into the rhythm of a long road trip.
The ducks are lining up nicely: clear skies, an empty highway, the thrum of the engine, felt, rather than heard, by the tingling in my feet and fingertips, and the anticipation of strong black coffee and a toasted chicken mayo at the Belfast Wimpy before we turn northwards to Long Tom Pass.
Tonight I will sleep in the Lowveld at the edge of the Kruger Park. Until dusk, it is just me and the bike and a topo map full of mountain roads.
No GPS, no phone (at least not one that I can hear), no tinny music on headphones, no distractions, in fact, except those that come from riding a bike down a long and lonely road.Even as I am alone with my thoughts, I am acutely aware of the present dangers - a 4x4 coming up fast, a person walking by the highway, silhouetted in the sun, and gouge marks in the tar.
Each thing wants a decision - Slow down? Go left? What if? - and I remember that once upon a time I rode the country from end to end, riding each day to a set of rules that were refined and pared down until they became the essence of what makes a good bike trip. (And, yes, they're good for car road trips too).1) TRAVEL SLOWLY
We travel too fast these days. Good highways and safe bikes (and cars) have turned us into speed freaks. If you're going to be in a hurry, hey, you may as well stay at home frootling about on social media and dreaming about the slow trip you're going to do one day.2) TOP UP. OFTEN
I am the son of a pilot. "The most useless thing in the world," he told me one day as he topped up the tanks of a Cherokee Six with sweet-smelling Avgas, "is fuel in the bowser." Put another way, top up when you can.
It means not running out of gas on a lonely road after dark (more on that later) and also means slowing down the journey - which is the whole point of a proper road trip anyway.
3) DON'T BE OUT AFTER DARK
There are a lot of hazards out there on our roads and not all of them are cars driven by crazy people. Potholes, wandering cows and speeding kudus, stray dogs (dead or alive), broken-down trucks by the roadside, and the occasional badly parked bulldozer - I have encountered all of them on my bike travels. It's bad enough dealing with them during the day, but positively trouser-soiling at night.
I have a long way to go today - at least five hours of road time. Adding another three or four for exploring and considering the limited daylight hours of winter, I have figured out a decent route beforehand.
I'll skip Dullstroom so I can amble over Long Tom and visit the Lone Creek Falls in Sabie. That'll leave enough time in the day to hop over Bonnet Pass for my traditional (single) beer at The Royal Hotel in Pilgrim's Rest as well as visit a secret swimming spot near Graskop and still cruise down lovely Kowyn's Pass to Hazyview before dusk.4) START EARLY, FINISH EARLY
I like to be on the road by first light. Usually that means I can make the miles to my night-stop before mid-afternoon, giving time to explore.
But today, I'm cutting myself some slack - this is about the road and the bike (which is as fine a machine as I have ever encountered) and the sheer joy of traversing as many mountain passes as I can squeeze into the daylight hours. Given more days, I would be doing maybe 300km a day. Like I said, take it slowly.
5) HEED THE LITTLE THINGS
A decent road trip is a whole collection of moments, some good, some annoying, some without much import until you piece it all together into a tapestry at the end of the day.
My day begins with an unplanned stop at a garage off the highway near the airport after I feel the bike get a little squirrely under me and get nervous about the tyres. It takes time to find a garage - Boksburg is strange turf for me - but when I do I am waved into the forecourt like royalty.
"I need to check the pressures," I say, fumbling under the seat for the manual which - despite my own sage advice - I have not read."About 22 bar," says the attendant, pointing to the sticker that I have not seen on the swingarm. He's right. We let a little air out of the front tyre. Back on the road, the Honda feels like a different bike. No squirrels. The tyre is not about to tear off the rim and send us hurtling into the sun. I relax a little.
A little later, I am rolling east on the highway again. The little detour has cost me 45 minutes - a few minutes in the garage and a few frustrating wrong turns as I hunt for an eastbound onramp. But it has given me something else - the sun is higher and the light is no longer scorching my eyeballs.
Now I can see what's going on, watch the land rolling past in flashes of brown veld and stands of dusty green gum trees. And I can think about the road ahead and the cars behind. A small thing but a big thing.7) TAKE THE BACK ROADS
The best thing you'll read in Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance (read it if you're interested in philosophy; it will teach you nothing at all about bike repair) is when author Robert Pirsig writes about finding the good biking roads on a map: "If the line wiggles, that's good. That means hills.
If it appears to be the best main route from a town to a city, that's bad. The best ones always connect nowhere with nowhere." It's true that in Africa sometimes the back roads will also be the main roads. But we have a fine mesh of unexplored blacktop and dirt roads, there for the riding.
It's Saturday so there's quite a bit of traffic around Dullstroom but when I turn on to the Long Tom Pass road, I have it to myself. I ride slowly so I can see the spectacle unfold around me. At the top of the pass, the air is crisp.
Smoke from a sawmill lingers in the valley near Sabie. The blacktop gleams in the sun. I roll down the pass, feeling the wood-scented air warming up around every bend.
8) SMILE AT THE BIKERS. A LOT
When I roll into Pilgrim's Rest in the early afternoon, I am wreathed in smiles - the ride from Sabie and over Bonnet Pass has been one of the best of my life, helped by a machine perfect for these roads with their deep curves.
I roll to a stop at the Central Garage and switch off. The silence settles like a cloak. A deep voice bellows, "Honda. Africa. Twin."
A biker in road-worn, metal-strewn leathers gives me a thumbs up. It is Albie Eagar, who, along with his wife Jackie and their friends astride classic Honda Gold Wings, have stopped on their way to Hazyview.
We talk bikes and roads. They buy me a beer which I drink on the verandah while the light turns gold. "Isn't it amazing," says Jackie. "A biker will always come up to another biker and make friends. People in cars don't do that."
I'd like to stay and chat, but the road is calling - two mountain passes and a secret swimming hole. I saddle up and ride back over the mountain. Life is good.• The Honda Africa Twin was on loan from ADA...

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