Planning - Riana, Australia
According to some, planning is just as much a part of the trip as anything else. They see it as fun, exciting and important. Not me. For starters plans never work out, which kind of eliminates the 'important' part of it, and there is nothing 'fun' in working your way through piles of paper and e-mails either. To me the whole planning thing is about as exciting as bookkeeping. An unfortunate necessity, nothing more.
When you live on an island, like we did, planning the transportation of your mode of travel is another boring necessity. Since 9/11 the world of transport had changed. It seems everything is now seen as a potential bomb, ready to be blown up. No longer could we simply call a shipping line and ask them to send our bikes, we had to supply piles of paperwork, e-mails and even packing the bikes was now subject to strict rules and regulations. What a joke! Do these people really think a terrorist will take his own bike with him in a container and then wait 4 weeks while it's in transit before he can blow it up? Wooden crates now have to be made from certified steam treated wood, while they stand on a wooden container floor which isn't. Customs don't allow your bike to leave the country if you can't proof it actually entered it too… you would think that the bike being there is the proof that it entered, but no, you need a piece of paper to show that it did… Countries like New Zealand are even more problematic and add the 'quarantine inspection' component to it. Another joke; as if diseases don't enter New Zealand via air, sea water, Albatrosses, Penguins, thousands of tourists that arrive every day and even via shipping containers that continuously travel all over the world without being steam-cleaned or fumigated.
The result of all these mindless regulations is that shipping has become an expensive business, so expensive that the actual shipping itself is less than 50% of the total costs and it requires more paperwork than ever. How can anyone call this fun?
As our plans included a wide range of countries, we had a lot to sort out. Could we even cross the borders, what do we need on visas and paperwork for the bikes, how long can we stay, are our driver's licenses valid, how do we arrange insurance… and the list goes on. Mind numbing stuff that would be so boring to do that I probably wouldn't even want to do the trip anymore before I was halfway through sorting all that out.
I opted to look at the bikes first. Reading the brochures, checking and comparing specs and going for test rides could be fun. Once I'd sorted that out I might have the energy to do the boring paper trail, I figured.
• Which motorcycle?
We didn't have the bikes to do this kind of trip, according to the local motorcycle shop. I had a Triumph Bonneville T100 that I bought 3 years earlier and served me well, but according to the salesman it could *************sidered a viable travel bike. I thought differently. The T100 is fine on gravel roads, has tyre sizes that allow for gravel orientated tyres, has a low centre of gravity, had only 40.000km on the clock and most importantly: I like it!
Jeanette had the lower SE version of the same Bonneville, which turned out to be a problem. Where the T100 is fine on gravel, the SE is horrible. And we had quite a bit of gravel to do! I don't know who at Triumph came up with the idea to replace the 19 inch wheel with a 17 inch one, but it was a dumb idea. The execution was even worse; instead of adapting the geometry, they simply dropped the wheel straight in… steepening up the rake and thus creating something that handles like a shoppingtrolley. To make things worse the front is limited to road tyres only, so the SE had to go. My son didn't have a bike at all; he didn't even have a bike-license! So we had to start looking for two bikes, but which ones?
Checking through the various forums and books on the subject it seems that every Tom, Dick and Harry with a lot of money buys himself a BMW 1200GS Adventure and then spends more money at Touratech to pimp it up than Paris Hilton does on a shopping trip. Once fitted out, most of them hardly get off the pavement and are used for little more than a holiday trip. Very exciting and adventurous. But according to the marketing people you need this kind of bike for anything more than the local grocery run, conveniently forgetting people already travelled the world by motorcycle in the 1930s. True, comfortable suspension is not a bad thing, but being able to mount and dismount without the aid of a stepladder isn't a bad thing either. Lots of horsepower, or KiloWatts as it's now called, seems to be another necessity to move your tent and personal belongings. At least 100 and when you really want to have fun 135 seems to be required, which is strange as camping gear is now lighter than ever before and we're not going all that fast as we want to be able to look around us and see where we are. Of course we can't do without a navigational system of at least $1800 and we also can't be without a mobile internet connection to share every breath we take with the rest of the world via the various anti-social media or plant them in movie-form on You-trash. Why that is all necessary is beyond me.
I've never been an 'adventure' rider. Never liked the style of adventure bikes and never had the desire to 'conquer' the world. The whole concept of 'conquering the world' is ridiculous to me, the world has been around for millions of years and will hopefully be around for many millions more. We are not even a split second in the earth's timeline and nothing more than a speck on it's surface. What do you mean we can conquer it? Does an ant conquer us when it walks on our foot?
Let's be honest. There is hardly any real Adventure in this world anymore. The world has been travelled round by thousands of people of all backgrounds and on all kinds of motorcycles, cars, trucks, bicycles, on foot and probably someone somewhere has even done it on roller skates. The nomads in Mongolia don't look surprised anymore when another alien on a motorcycle dressed up like Darth Vader comes rumbling out of the steppe, for them you're just another joker on a bike. But adventure is big business and if we believe the marketing hype then we can't do without it. Going on a holiday trip is old fashioned, we now have to go on an Adventure.
For me travelling is seeing the world, experiencing it's incredible beauty, it's variety and it's vastness. I don't have the need to conquer it, nor the need to take the most difficult road to go somewhere. I won't skip seeing something just because the road is bad but at the same time I'm not looking for bad roads either. My bucket list isn't filled with roads but with places I want to see. I don't need 300mm of ground clearance as I'm not going rockclimbing. I'd rather have both feet securely on the ground. Still, they have their advantages. Long travel suspension for instance is a big bonus, even on-road. Maybe even more so on-road with today's apparently acceptable standards in road repairs. A long range fuel tank, on the other hand, is a mixed one for me. The range is welcome, the extra fuel isn't. I'd like minimum impact and thus lower consumption.
The longer I thought about what we wanted and what we wanted it for, the more I disliked 'adventure' bikes and, for that matter, most motorcycles available today. Over complicated and form over function. Many years ago we had simple motorcycles. They were mainly made for the man in the street who needed to go to work. They took dad to work during the week and hauled the whole family in the sidecar during the weekend. That is real dual-purpose.
Cars were still too expensive, I wish they still were as it would at least halve the congestion. Motorcycles could be repaired, had to be as we simply didn't have to money to buy a new one every second year. Motorcycles were designed for such a life too.
Now they're a fashion statement. An expensive fashion statement. Manufacturers don't want us to repair them anymore, they want us to buy new every second year. In fact they dictate us to by making spare parts unobtainable or so expensive that we will have to buy a new bike. The old one disappears on the scrap heap. A whole motorcycle on the scrap heap because just one of it's many components doesn't work anymore... Is that acceptable?
It shouldn't be. Manufacturers should be able to refurbish what they have made. Simple as that. We don't need every motorcycle to have a different alternator, computer, ignition system and the like. There is no need for it as there are already plenty of good working systems available. But motorcycle manufacturers want them different because that means they become unavailable in a couple of years and we have to buy a new motorcycle. That is called marketing...
But even if we do buy that new motorcycle, the 'sucking as much money out of you as we can' attitude doesn't stop. The marketing men and women figured out a way to get even more money out of us: accessories. After spending several thousand dollars for a new bike, we have to fork out several thousand more to fix it's faults. Comfort seats, better suspension, different exhausts, etc. Why we find that acceptable is a mystery to me. Just imagine buying a new car and the salesman telling you it's seats are uncomfortable but for a couple of hundred more we can get the comfort seat option... Or a couple of grand for proper shock absorbers... We wouldn't accept it and look for another brand, but we do accept it if it's a motorcycle, which is already overpriced compared to that same car.
I didn't even want to buy a new bike anymore… But, as Jeanette and Mike needed a bike, we went and checked out what was available. It wasn't much. If you don't want a big unwieldy monster for which you need a daily dose of steroids to move it round, the choice is very limited. From small and simple to expensive and absurd, just to get the complete picture. The BMW 1200GSA falls in the later category in my view. I can't think of any place in the world where I could justify the need for one. Not even Mongolia or Africa. Maybe especially not there as they are way to heavy. On the other end of the scale we find cheap bikes which are still anything but simple. The little buzboxes might be ok for a small Asian but not for a European sized person. Looking at other offerings I realised that the simple motorcycle simply doesn't exist anymore. For a simple 350 or 500 single you'd have to buy an old one and restore it. The only option for a new or reasonably new seemed to be a:
• Royal Enfield 500
Most people laughed at me when I suggested it. Going round the world on a 21hp motorcycle? They thought we were crazy. Yet when you think about it they make more sense than a 1200GS. Fuel costs are a large part of the travelling budget and big fuel tanks an expensive option. A Royal Enfield is frugal and doesn't need a big tank to travel long distances. The standard Royal Enfield tank should give a range of 435km. Maybe not quite the same as a BMW 1200GSA but filling up the Enfield would only be 14.5 litre, not 33. They are simple, simple to maintain, light and easy to handle etc. We seriously thought about buying one, wrote to Royal Enfield and received an astonishing reply: although Royal Enfield claim their new engine is very good, they would not give us world wide warranty… So Royal Enfield was out of the picture.
• Yamaha XT250
Seemed a good option on paper. Light, simple, by all accounts frugal and long travel suspension. Seemed good until Jeanette tried one for size in the shop. She's not the tallest person in the world but had to fold herself on it as the XT250 is extremely small. The seat is rubbish seat and the fuel tank the size of a Coca Cola bottle. Frugal maybe but still no decent range. A few years earlier I had a short test ride on a previous model and liked the bikes very much. Easy to ride, good suspension and well proportioned. Now the designers in Japan had applied a weird styling to it with the emphasis on an ultra low seat and wacky shape and graphics. Apart from the styling the rideability had suffered too, what a shame.
Still, it would return 37km/litre and is capable of doing the trip as has been proven by an English lady.
• BMW G650GS
Maybe it's me but for some reason I felt uncomfortable with the idea of Jeanette trading in her Triumph for a Beemer. The feeling got worse as we approached the showroom and found ourselves surrounded by BMW logos and tasteless BMW cars.
The BMW shop had a second hand G650GS and a brand new Sertao, both could be taken for a test drive. As soon as they heard we were looking for two bikes, the salesmen started dancing round us like mosquitos on a summer evening. Despite the sales blurb I had made my choice in less than 4 seconds, the 4 seconds that followed pressing the starter button! What a horrible engine! It's idling like a cement mixer, an old worn out cement mixer… I slowly twisted the throttle and discovered that depending on the chosen revs, every body part could be given the African massage. Idling shakes every bone in your hands and arms, about 2000 revs gives rattling shoulders, 2500 judders your jaw and tests your dental fillings, 3000 results in eyeballs bouncing in their sockets, 3500 is an alternative to the Mongolian spine treatment and 4000 combines all of the above while changing your whole body into an ageing collection of rocking bones at an AC/DC concert! Truly amazing Bavarian engineering… or is it? The engine seems to be designed by Rotax and, depending on which salesman you talk to, is made in Germany, Italy, Austria or even China… and here I was thinking we were buying European...
Jeanette still went for a test ride but returns just 10 minutes later and doesn't look happy. I'm taking the Sertao for a run with Mike as a pillion. The Sertao was new but still sounded like someone was trying to do the dishes with a lawnmower, the vibrations were the same as the older model too.
The air filter on a BMW 650 is where the tank is normally found, just in front of you, and that makes for strange noises. Opening the throttle resembles the effect of pulling a pig by the tail and results in very weird gnorking noises coming out of the 'tank'. The suspension is fine, the seat seemed fine and the seating position as well. The brakes are good, it handles fine, it's actually a not a bad bike… if only that engine wasn't there. Riding it is even worse than idling! It vibrates like a cheap Chinese pneumatic hammer at every engine speed. Just 10km underway and my fingers start to tingle! You'll never have a smile on your face with that prehistoric engine, which is just as well as you wouldn't have any teeth left within an hour. Which idiot thought it was a good idea to fit a well thought out bike with such an archaic lump and stuff a pig under the tank?
As soon as the road opens up I give it some more throttle, which results in the pig under the tank gnorking even louder, body parts vibrating everywhere and the realisation that any long trip on this bike would be very tiring. I'm subsequently trying the ABS and even that disappoints. Sure it prevents locking up a wheel but does that so poorly that the braking distance is doubled compared to a skidding tyre. So you won't slip; but still crash into the big tree you were trying to avoid.
On the return trip I experiment with higher revs and speed… who knows things might improve? Imagine what happens when you double the speed of a cement mixer… things didn't improve!
All the time I had just one question going round and round in my head: how can anyone fit such a basically good bike with such an archaic pneumatic hammer of an engine? It's not just the vibrations either, gearchanges are notchy, the clutch is a switch, the engine makes unhealthy mechanical noises and there is always that gnorking pig under the tank…
The BMW salesman, funnily enough, agreed and pointed us into the direction of the 800GS. One look at the 'seat' was enough for me to not even consider it. It's looks might be ok for a Mad Max movie but let's be honest; it's not something you would consider having in your photos as an improvement.
• Triumph Tiger 800
Having a Triumph made us look at them as well as they make 'Adventure and Touring' bikes. I don't like the term 'Adventure bike' but the 'Touring' part is what I was after. We're taking the Tiger 800 for a test run as the Tiger XC wasn't available for a test ride… anywhere in Tasmania! It wasn't even going to be available for many more months to come either. what a good way to sell a bike… Apparently Triumph Australia thinks I will spend 18.000 dollars on a motorcycle without being able to take it for a test ride. The salesman tried to save the deal by telling us the standard Tiger rides exactly the same, yet when we both mention the stiff front suspension after the test ride, he tells us the XC has far better suspension…
So what was it like? Well, if you think the Tiger 800 is a great touring bike then you'll be disappointed. It's suspension is uncomfortably hard. There isn't much you can do to change the front except fitting new springs and a re-valve, while the rear would need a different shock absorber to change it into something that actually absorbs the shocks. What is it with motorcycle manufacturers that they deem it acceptable to sell a bike a for $18.000 dollars that you still have to spend thousands more on to get it right?
The second main problem with the Tiger is it's engine. It's a sportsbike, not a tourer. It'll do 140km/hr all day but won't potter around. We want to travel the world, see the places we go to and enjoy the ride. We want to be able to potter and we will also have to walk our bikes through difficult and/or muddy sections; we're not trying to set any new land speed records so we don't need a sportsbike engine! The result is that the throttle is very sensitive, which in combination with the stiff suspension makes it hard to keep a constant speed on bad roads. The engine also radiates an enormous amount of heat, so much so that it becomes uncomfortable on a warm day. Wind protection is minimal as it's windscreen produces more turbulence than anything else. Triumph knows it doesn't work and therefore has a higher and adjustable screen in it's accessory list, again trying to wring more money out of you.
No matter how hard you look at it, it doesn't make any sense. It's topheavy because of the big 3 cylinder lump, it's not very good off-road, it's tank is too small and it's fuel consumption too high and to top it all off daily maintenance is a pain. Everyone who has been on dusty roads knows you have to clean your airfilter on a daily basis to keep your engine alive. To do that on the Tiger you'll have to take the fuel tank off and disconnect the high pressure fuel line, which will be covered in dust which will find it's way into the connectors… There is a pre-filter available for it, but Triumph should have come up with something better.
If you want to travel, you'll also need panniers of some sort. Try and fit that to the Tiger… The idiot who designed the muffler must have been working as a sewerage plumber before he joined Triumph; it's huge! Mounting panniers on that means they'll be hanging half a mile out just to clear the stupid muffler. What you end up with is a very wide and very topheavy bike. Triumph should have a hard look at what the boys and girls at Yamaha have come up with for the 660 Tenere, or even the 1200 Tenere for that matter.
Another problem we found is that Triumph has nothing in the LAMS approved category, which in Europe means that A1 or A2 license holders can't buy a Triumph, so learners like Mike can't buy any Triumph motorcycle for the first 4 years. How hard can it be to make a 48HP 650 when you already have a 675 engine in your lineup?
• Suzuki DR650SE
Still, could be worse… The Suzuki DR650SE. Mike liked the look of it… Yes I know he has no taste, we're working on it as best we can, although on days like this it feels like we're loosing the battle. I took one for a test run. After two kilometres I've had it with the Suzy. Motorcycles are supposed to have a seat. The function of a seat is to be able to sit on it with a certain degree of comfort. Suzuki doesn't seem to understand that bit. It's so bad that I stop and check to see if there is a seat or I'm just sitting on the steel frame. Add to it that it rides like a tractor, feels like a tractor and vibrates like a tractor and you'll get the idea that I didn't like it much. Yet Suzuki wants me to believe it's even a dual-purpose machine, I have no idea which two purposes.
I'm riding home on my Bonneville and realise how simple and good it is. No gnorking pigs under the tank, no cementmixer sounds, no dental filling destroying vibrations, no sore ****, easy to manoeuvre at low speeds. Jeanette takes my T100 for a spin and likes it as much as I do. 'That's the bike I want' she says. Thank goodness! We go back to the Triumph shop, the salesman jumps as he thinks we've decided to buy a Tiger 800XC but we did order a new T100 Black instead with the same trade-in as offered for the more expensive Tiger! Jeanette's bike is sorted, now all we need is to find something for our son.
• Yamaha XT660R
Yamaha is a strange company. They created a market with the XT500, which looked good, followed by a XT550 that didn't. The XT600 rectified that somewhat, although still nowhere near as good looking as the original 500. The Tenere 600 was a very good travel bike and then they made the XT660R… Engine wise it's an improvement over the 600 but the styling and especially the colour scheme is weird to say the least. In Australia they only sell them in blue and black, which makes them look cheap and nasty. We had dismissed them simply because of their looks. The new Tenere, apart from being overpriced, is very high and I'm not convinced about the seat.
In 2008 Yamaha also made the XT660R in black. No idea why they stopped that colour scheme as it looks so much better than the blue and black. We spotted a 2008 model in black with just 2300kms on the clock. It had barkbusters and a very sturdy bashplate fitted plus a Ventura bike pack system. Still, it's a 660cc single and with recent experiences with the BMW and Suzuki I wasn't convinced. How wrong I was! It's an absolute great bike. The suspension is nothing short of superb, have a good look at that Mr Triumph; it comes standard with suspension! It's light, it's a joy to ride and the engine is a gem. It's a single and will therefore never be as smooth as a twin or a triple, but this thing is very smooth for a single and perfectly usable. I've had a 600 Yamaha years back and loved it, this newer XT660R was just as good if not better. After just a short test ride I had made my mind up. This was so much better to ride than the BMW, Suzuki and even the more expensive Triumph. No need to upgrade the suspension, no need for a comfort seat; just a great bike straight out of the box. The fuel tank is admittedly on the small side but having had it now for a while we've discovered that it's very good on fuel, returning 27km/litre on a regular basis, meaning the smallish 15 litre tank will still give a 400km range.
So, we were going to travel the world on two Triumph Bonnevilles and a Yamaha XT660R. Are they the perfect bikes for such a trip? No, not at all but at least our dental fillings are safe and we won't be chased by bears looking for BMW air filter pigs. Jeanette's T100 Black is a beauty, which gives me something nice to look at too!
• The ideal machine
So are these, to me, the ideal machines to do such a trip? No. To me the ideal machine to do such a trip on would be one of Val Page's designed BSA singles. Why? Because more than 50 years ago he designed a range of motorcycles for the man in the street; simple, rugged, durable, easy to maintain and frugal. They would be perfect for a trip around the world. Despite being made well over half a century ago, and despite the factory closing down some 40 years ago, one can still get every part for them. Ignition systems can still be bought new and repaired. Carburettors, suspension parts, gearboxes, can all still be bought and repaired today. Repairs are simple and can be done by any mechanic, not just the one with the right computer. Try that in 30 years for your current motorcycle. They don't need a 30 litre tank as they consume half the fuel of an adventure monster and they don't weigh a tonne either.
From what is available new today however; the Triumph Bonneville, to me, is by far the best looking bike out there. It's also the only one that comes close to my ideal bike. Very close. It's great off road and very good on gravel. It's simple, it's not aggressive, a pleasure to ride and it looks great too. Because let's be honest no one in their right mind can describe an adventure machine as good looking, they are ugly things designed with only one thing in mind: to make you think they can conquer the world. Beauty doesn't come into it.
My son wanted right from the start a more off-road capable motorcycle. He would have considered a Triumph Scrambler, if Triumph had been smart enough to realise it desperately needs a 48Hp machine to attract learners and not make the same mistake the british bike industry made 40 years ago (and Harley Davidson makes today): not realising it needs to attract young riders. Still as it stands; the Yamaha XT660R is in my humble opinion the best option out there. Even compared to bigger motorcycles. Sure the GS1200 is credited as the best of the best. Having seen virtually everybody struggle with it's size and weight I'm not convinced. The BMW 650GS was a big disappointment, the Suzuki DR650 not even a contender. The Triumph Tiger doesn't know what it is and the Explorer is more than just overweight; it's obese.
Now all we needed to sort out is panniers, bags, crashbars, charging our cameras, iPods and laptop….