Annual BMW Biker's Gathering 2004, Clarens, Golden Gate, Free State, South Africa

Author: Steve and Carole Eilertsen. stevei@icon.co.za

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When you leave the main arterial routes of South Africa you step into a different world. Gone is the fast-food, instant-gratification, image-conscious, money-orientated,  boutique world of the Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg. 
At 11am on Saturday 19 June we pulled into Heilbron, a large country town on our way to Clarens for the Annual BMW Biker's Gathering. Our decision to take the back routes would mean more variety and a substantial saving in road tolls which could be utilised for a large breakfast on route.

We rode up and down the main CBD of the town. Fertiliser, tractor tyres, live chickens - even a large supermarket, but no coffee shops, no restaurants, no fast food, no MacDonalds! Then I remembered to take my helmet off and put my country-hat on - the local hotel is where it all happens! 

The Commercial Hotel in Heilbron may look a dump, but as with many country towns it provides the only social venue for things like food, drink, weddings, birthdays etc. And so we entered the 'always-dark', 'always-dingy' pub and putting on my best Afrikaans I asked the bar lady for a breakfast menu. When will I learn? They didn't have a breakfast menu. They did not have a lunch menu or a dinner menu for that matter! However if I cared to look at the chalk board they did serve one dish - steak, eggs and chips for R25-00 (6USD). An hour and a half later we emerged!  But it was OK. They also served us Moer-Coffee - a traditional country coffee blend completely unavailable in boutique Johannesburg coffee shops that tastes like the nectar of the gods! 

 

By 2:30pm the mountains of Golden Gate were in view. I love vast open spaces and the icy blast of the winter air on my cheeks. I drank in every moment, every panoramic view and savoured each and every kilometer. (You'll now understand why we didn't travel with one of the many groups that blasted past us, their rapt attention fixed on the horizon for a town not yet in view.)

There is a wild, desolate loneliness about the towering sandstone cliffs of the Golden Gate which Carole and I are particularly fond of. This is why we chose, four years ago, to trundle our wedding guests from Johannesburg to share in our ceremony in a tiny chapel in the town of Clocolan, not far from Clarens. This is a very special area!

None of this tells about the BMW gathering except for its well chosen venue. Yes, people complained about the cold but I have toured South Africa in my biker leathers at the height of a summer heat wave. Give me winter any day!

This gathering of the BMW clan offered Carole and I, not the best 'Club' people around,  a rare opportunity i.e. to ride the 4x4 trails and dirt road routes of this wilderness area with Jan du Toit and other experienced off road riders.

Off road BMWs like the GSs and Dakars sell very well but events that allow city riders to utilise their bike's capabilities are few and far between. With this in mind I enrolled for the most difficult off road route scheduled for the Sunday morning - a ride on a 4x4 route to the top of a mountain to visit a large cave where woman and children hid from the British soldiers during the Boer War at the turn of the century.

They say that 'fools rush in where angels fear to tread'. When Jan says that parts of a ride are  'quite difficult' it is not the same as me saying that a route is 'difficult'. One should always take a comment 'from whence it comes'. Coming from Jan . . . as I learnt later . . . when it was too late . . . meant it was kamikaze stuff! Balls to the wall, heart in the mouth, am I going to die now or later . . . stuff.

Carole meanwhile had her own problems. She rides off road but is not very confident yet. She joined up with the crowd doing the easy, off road jaunt. She found that nothing is that easy when you have to ride at 80kmh off road!

 

The whole weekend was incredibly well organised and attention to details was meticulous. On my ride, we had the comfort of a backup vehicle i.e. a  brand new BMW X5! This vehicle coped very, very well but still managed to loose a few pieces along the way due to the difficulty of the terrain. The ride went without incident and beside the psychological support, the vehicle was not needed. It did mean however that our packed lunches arrived cold and intact - something that would not have happened if we had had to use our topboxes!

Another brand new vehicle on the ride was the R1200 GS. Jan and a few other riders put it through its paces on this solid rock hillside which formed part of our trail. They liked it very much and appreciated the 'missing' 30kg when compared to the 1150 GS. Only time will tell if the design is tough enough to take on this type of punishment on a regular basis. In reality I guess many owners will buy the bike for its tough off road potential but seldom call on it to deliver.

All this talk of expensive hardware. Why is it that riders will spend over R100000-00 on new, big, off road bikes, ride them off road but then neglect to fit engine protectors and crash bars? I personally know of two 1150 bikes that fell over on much easier trails than the one I did and cracked their tappet covers. Fortunately, Rupert was there, an experience BMW mechanic who was able to execute a Pratley Putty repair on the trail so that the bikes could complete the ride. Back in town both of these bikes will need expensive but unnecessary repairs and one hopes that their bikes will return to their owners fitted with some protection.

Going up this hill side shown here on the left under full power with its 90 turns was not that easy and I was glad when I got to the top. (see pic  below)

On the far side one can just make out the trail down into the valley. When doing a ride like this I am pleased about two things. My F650 is a lot lighter than the 1100s. There are times during a difficult patch that a bike threatens to fall over and then it is a lot easier to fight a smaller, lighter bike upright. Secondly, my old 1994 F650 bike is exactly that . . . well maintained, but old! Exposing it to potholes, boulders, mud, water, dust and potential damage is OK. Repairing an older bike is just as costly as a new one, but I saved R50 000-00 before I even started the engine  . . . and that amounts to a lot of repairs and services!

Our trail ride was an unhurried affair with frequent stops - something I appreciated as it gave me the opportunity to rest and consider the 'meaning of life' before launching myself and my bike in the teeth of the trail once more. Over this terrain a fair degree of aggression was essential.

In the pic below Jan asked us to gather around with a stone in our hand. He said that the stone represented our egos - and that riding off road trails was not a good place to have one. Therefore we had to throw the stone as far into the valley as we could before continuing. This done, and after some icy cold refreshments from the X5, we were on our way again. At the top of the next hill we parked our bikes and continued on foot down to the cave where we had the packed lunch provided by the event caterers.

I prefer to ride at the back of the group where the air is less thick with testosterone! The added benefit is that I get to see which line is best (assuming there is one!) The down side is that I seldom get the photograph the most difficult sections as I am the last rider through. The pic below however was an exception. This rocky section ended with a sharp 90 bend to the right, up a few large steps of rock before we could ride into the clear again..

This trail ride was not without its moments. My ability to ride 'up' is OK, but my riding 'down' is still suspect. At one point on the homeward run the trail dropped steeply before make a 90 bend to the right. The ground was very loose and stony - in fact I had had difficulty finding enough traction to get up a few hours before. As the corner rushed up on me I made a bad mistake. Instead of looking through the corner, I looked down at the crap that my tyres had to find traction on. I froze. I couldn't turn but neither could I brake! As the bike headed for the edge I considered bailing off but as there did not appear to be a life threatening drop, I held on for dear life! My last decision was "Don't grab the brakes, keep it upright, keep moving". We went over. The bike had a lot of momentum and plunged down first one drop and then another. I remember my neck whipping back and forth and my helmet partly covering my eyes. The scrub was dense. I had no idea of where I was going. We crashed through another thicket and the ground leveled out. Although uneven, the terrain was now rideable. I coaxed the bike into a wide right hand turn, and then gassed it through the virgin undergrowth towards the trail. Moments later I brought the bike to a sharp halt perpendicular to the trail. I had survived! It took a lot of maneuvering to get the bike back onto the trail. I then gunned the bike down the steep, rocky path not wanting to loose my nerve. Five minutes later I caught up with the group who had stopped for a break. They were on their own mission and I was able to sit back on my bike and breath 'long and deep'.

Back in the city I re-lived this wonderful day's riding over and over. I love this stuff!!

The following day Carole and I wanted to ride together. She was ready for something a little more challenging and so we joined up with a group of 10 other bikes and did the ride that runs parallel to the Caledon River. The bikes below are on the South African side with Lesotho being across the river.

This three hour ride was fantastic. This is one of those rides that can  be fun for everybody regardless of ability. One can usually see a good distance ahead allowing the experienced riders to ride very quickly despite the constantly switching direction of the trail. A more difficult version of this same ride exists on the Lesotho side of the border - a ride that we will return for some time in the future.

The following day we headed back to Johannesburg and our corporate existence, but it was OK. A weekend like this every few months and I can find it in myself to love the city as well - and I can get a different type of breakfast on every street corner!

A word of congratulations to BMW Motorrad South Africa for organising this event. You guys did a great job. Thank you! We'll be back next year.

 

 

  

 

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