By Hugo Minnaar | Published on 2020-04-16
Soon after Jaco and I met in 2011 we started to dream about an epic motorbike trip. At that stage neither of us had a license or a motorcycle.
To get in the game I bought a Motomia Pachino that came with soft luggage. Jaco bought a 2009 Kawasaki KLR 650. I then kept the luggage and "upgraded" to a Bashan Xplode 250cc. Life happened, I quit university in 2012 and set off for Israel for three months. Back in South Africa, Jaco and I decided that we had to do the motorbike trip over the Christmas holidays.
We agreed that the Bashan Xplode wasn’t going to cut it, so I found a 1987 Suzuki DR600 on Gumtree for R15 000. It was immensely powerful but sorely needed a service. I took the bike to Jurgen from Le Cap Motorcycles. He uncovered a lot of gremlins, like the front wheel bearings that was set in a coke tin. The bike needed new sprockets, a new chain, compressor cable, front and rear wheel bearings, fork boots, brake pads, taillight, speedo cable, and the list went on. Another R7000 in repairs. New Mitas EO7s were also fitted. At last the bike felt "almost new" except for the bent forks that didn’t get fixed.
On Boxing day of 2013, we finally set off to Namibia with no plan. Little did we know what adventures lay ahead. With the bike undergoing so much repairs I basically didn’t ride it at all before setting off. This was thus our first encounter with long distance adventure riding. On the very first day in the Cederberg mountains I fell over as I admired the scenery for too long and didn’t see the bend in the road. Then 50km outside of Calvinia the Suzuki ran out of fuel, I haven’t used a full tank before so didn’t know what mileage I could get. For some reason we also didn’t fill the 10 liter jerry cans we carried, as we were still in South Africa.
Jaco also realised he took way too many things and left some books and extra shoes in Calvinia. The next night we found ourselves at Katkop 50km from Brandvlei, which itself is already in the middle of nowhere. We ended up at Katkop after meeting a bike enthusiast at the fuel station in Brandvlei who invited us to the farm his staying on. Since we were on an adventure, we threw caution to the wind. We ended up staying there for five days.
During this time the Suzuki got some more repairs as she was using a lot of oil. Bernard, from Katkop, happened to be a motorbike mechanic and had a shed full of tools powered from the battery of his old Mercedes. The Suzuki’s barrel was honed, oil rings adjusted, new gaskets made, carburettor needle reset, all whilst being 300km from the nearest big town. Bernard wanted to order new parts but all the part shops were closed until at least 7 January - another week. He could thus just clean everything and hope for the best. The only thing he needed was silver paint for the gaskets which could be bought in Brandvlei.
I borrowed Jaco’s KLR and set off for Brandvlei. On the way there the radiator decided to relieve itself all over my pants. I was covered in scalding hot radiator fluid. In Brandvlei I topped up the radiator with water and found the paint. On the way back I had to stop a few times to stop the bike from overheating. I realised I needed more water in order to continue. Bernard assured us that this was a very friendly community despite the big yellow signs on the farm gates with AK47s proclaiming that trespassers will be shot.
I spotted a farmhouse close to the road and drove past the sign into their yard. Since it was in the middle of the day there was no-one outside. I considered just "stealing" water from a tap, but then someone spotted me through the window. A man in his 80s came out and asked what I wanted. I mumbled something about water, and he invited met inside. The couple both in their 80s lived on the farm alone. The wife immediately offered me tea and biscuits. We talked for a while and then I asked again if I can get some water for the motorbike. They initially thought I just wanted water to drink for myself. I finally made it back to Katkop having to give Jaco the bad news of his radiator problems.
Finally, after New Year’s we entered Namibia. We went to the Fish River Canyons and felt like things are finally going well, apart from the fact that Jaco forgot his air filter at Katkop. Luckily he had a spare.
Then the Suzuki’s starter problems came. It only had a kick starter with a compression lever, but no matter what we tried it just wouldn’t start. The only thing we later learned that worked was when Jaco gave me a pushing start. This entailed Jaco having to run with his full kit in the scorching December heat. I would have given up on the first day, but he did this almost every day, a few times per day, for the next two weeks. This is probably the ultimate test of true friendship and Jaco passed it with flying colours.
In Swakopmund, I cleaned the spark plugs and the carburettor and then the kick starter worked again for a few times, but invariably we had to resort to the running start technique. Together with the starter problems, the Suzuki smelled of rotten egg. The battery kept on cooking over and all my lights were blown. Only back in South Africa I eventually found out it was all related, but more on that later.
We visited Spitzkoppe, Brandberg and made it all the way to Opuwo. We decided to do Van Zyl’s pass despite a cholera outbreak in the region and our families begging us to turn around.
This is where our real problems started, but it had nothing to do with cholera. Within 30km of leaving Opuwo Jaco’s jerry can flew of the bike and he lost all the fuel. We decided to push on realising that we now probably wouldn’t make it into the Marienfluss but might still be able to do the circuit down Van Zyl’s pass and back to Opuwo.
Soon after leaving the gravel road the day of falling started. By the time we reached the Van Zyl’s pass campground we each fell about 10 times, mostly in the soft riverbeds. After one of these falls Jaco bent the KLR’s handlebar while trying to pick the heavily laden bike up. For the rest of the trip he also got to experience the pain I’ve had the whole time from driving with bent forks and thus having to use more muscles in the one arm.
At one point we also lost the way, we had no GPS, and the 4x4 tracks we were following ended abruptly where it made a U-turn, but we couldn’t find where it went after the U-turn. While driving in circles we passed the same Himba kraal a few times. Three women came out and we desperately tried to ask where the campground was using hand signals for "sleep" and "road" and "where".
After driving in directions that were pointed to, we just ended up back at the Kraal until finally they walked with us to the road that we somehow missed. We finally got the campsite just as the sun set, completely spent and falling over one last time.
The next day we contemplated whether we should continue or turn around, we decided to at least check out the road until the we reached the "feared" rocky section of Van Zyl’s pass. Soon after leaving camp we already had to go down rocky sections where we probably wouldn’t make it up again. The road and scenery were amazing, and I didn’t fall once. Euphoria set in and it felt like I was invincible. We made it to the Marienfluss viewpoint just above the steep downhill section. Full of confidence I proclaimed that I would make it down the worst section driving at normal speed without falling.
Once there I, however, resorted to walking with my feet on the ground and breaking as I went. I was almost through the section when I pulled the front brake too hard and the bike fell over. The gear lever got completely bent, and the engine cover got a nasty gash in it with oil slowly seeping out.
Jaco made it down without falling. At the bottom of the pass I realised I couldn’t shift passed the second gear. A long day’s riding still lay ahead. More soft sand was waiting. I continued in second gear falling a few more times. After one such fall the bike just wouldn’t start again and Jaco was already out of sight ahead. There I sat in the scorching heat. Out of frustration I tugged at the gear lever and felt something "click".
Jaco eventually realised I wasn’t behind him anymore and turned around. Just as he reached me, I tried the kick starter again and the Suzuki roared to life. To my surprise I could also shift past second gear. From there we rode like the wind. We were flooring the bikes going up steep rocky sections as if it’s nothing, bouncing from rock to rock and getting air.
This is what riding is all about, that indescribable feeling of adrenaline rushing as you’re low flying over the earth. Just you, the machine and absolutely nothing else around. Especially in this part of the world where it is just sand, stones and mountains around, like some apocalyptic world where you are the only survivor.
That night around the campfire we couldn’t stop talking about how much fun the road was and how we couldn’t believe making it over some of the technical sections. Jaco still had enough energy to find two big quarts of cold beers in an unmarked hut a few kilometres from the campsite.
Before going to bed we still had repairs to do. Jaco had to patch the Kawasaki’s radiator again and I tried to fix the cut in the engine cover with steel putty.
We didn’t think it was possible but the next day driving back to Opuwo was even more fun, at least the first section before getting back the gravel road. It wasn’t without its obstacles. At one point we lost each other for more than an hour. We had no radio’s; there’s no cell reception and we couldn’t hear each other even when pressing the hooter. I eventually turned around and retraced my steps, finally finding Jaco where he also retraced his steps – on foot. He had to cross a particularly wide and soft dry riverbed and didn’t want to ride through it again. In the end he probably walked more than 5kms. Back at the bikes we shared a hot beer – not the smartest move.
20km before Opuwo we both had to switch to reserve and we only just made it into Opuwo. Even though it was already late, and we were very tired and suffering from heat stroke (and warm beer) we decided to push on towards Epupa Falls. We rode with the sun setting in our eyes. Somehow, we made it to the top off the falls in the last twilight. What a magnificent sight. To top it off we enjoyed a cold beer on the veranda overlooking the falls. The long day was all worth it.
The next day we gave the bikes thorough services. We realised the bikes might not make it much further. At one point we thought of going through the Caprivi and down Botswana, but we were also a bit tired and missed our girlfriends. We thus decided it was time to head South.
The heat was also getting more intense. Before leaving from Epupa we took cold showers with our riding gear on, completely soaking our jeans and jackets. We jumped on the bikes and set off, but within 10 minutes we were completely dry and hot again.
The Suzuki got particularly stubborn. The next morning no amount of pushing seemed to work. Jaco got completely exhausted. I even tried pushing Jaco a few times, but nothing worked. Finally, we tied the Suzuki to the KLR with a rope. We got to speed, and I released the clutch in the second gear. As the bike sprung to life with it’s loud signature backfire, the knot in the rope magically came loose and sped past Jaco not even taken to the risk to stop. I left Jaco behind to deal with the rope and only stopped 150km later in Kamanjab. Jaco still had to fill up his radiator every 20km with water from his papsak.
In Windhoek I patched the engine cover with Q-bond, which did the trick as the leaking finally stopped. The steel putty didn’t seem to "stick".
I cleaned the spark plugs again, topped up the battery and bought new light bulbs. For the next few starts Jaco were off the hook again. We made it back to Stellenbosch in just three days from Windhoek, while still avoiding tar roads as much as possible.
Back home the Suzuki went it for some more repairs and diagnostics. And first the rectifier was blamed, but later it turned out that a new starter coil was needed. They converted the dual sparkplug setup to a starter coil with just a single spark plug and voila. The bike kicked to life every time on the first try and the battery did not boil over anymore.
Had I known about this and fixed it before we set off, the trip would have been much easier, but perhaps not as memorable. Easy for me to say, Jaco was the one who did all the hard work of pushing me.
Moral of the story: If you are going to cheap out on a 25-year-old bike at least bring a very good friend.
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