My plane landed in Dakar, a place whose name was synonymous with BMW’s off-road rally motorcycles of the early 1980s. Riding modified R80G/S boxers, Hubert Auriol and Gaston Rahier brought BMW several victories in those early days of the famed Paris to Dakar rally.
That was at a time when the company was better known for building conservative, utilitarian twins than for producing off-road-capable desert rally machines. The Dakar name still conjures images of monumental sand dunes and desert riding adventures.
I was soon to experience both, but alas, not at the legendary city on the western tip of Senegal. The Airbus A340 had actually stopped there to refuel before taking off to Johannesburg, where a connecting flight took me to Windhoek, capital city of Namibia, where the real adventure began.
There, I met with Hendrik von Kuenheim, general director of BMW Motorrad, as well as several other figureheads of the German firm and nine other journalists that had been invited to join them.
Trouble was my luggage — which included all my riding gear — failed to follow suit, leaving me with a helmet and the clothes on my back.
And so began my five-day adventure tour into the Namibian desert.
WHY NOT START WITH A SAFARI?
The following morning the group gathered to start out for the Erindi Game Reserve, 220 km northwest of Windhoek. Thankfully my colleagues had gathered a riding jacket and boots for me to wear, though I was so relieved to be taking off with everyone that I would have ridden naked!
Arriving at Erindi early in the afternoon we almost immediately hopped into Land Rovers and went on a safari. An African safari is everything you’d expect it to be; you drive through the wilderness and observe the wildlife, sometimes from very close range.
It wasn’t long before we came upon a male lion that decided to lay down to rest across the path we were on. Entirely unperturbed by our presence, it lay there panting without a care in the world. Although the animals in the game reserve aren’t fed, they are free to hunt — and there’s a wide selection on the menu, including kudu, impala, wildebeest, hartbeest and zebra.
As the sun began to set we came upon four female cheetahs on the prowl to trap a young springbok for their evening dinner. One cat took off in one direction to get behind the springbok and chase it towards its three co-conspirators for the kill. They didn’t succeed on that first attempt, but our tour guide informed us they’d keep at it all night. Sucks to be a springbok.
The next day we headed west to Swakopmund, a seaside resort town that was founded by German settlers in the late 19th Century.
Leaving Erindi we stopped for fuel in Omaruru, where a street vendor was selling what was apparently the local delicacy: mopane worms. BMW’s Dr. Axel Thiäner was the first to taste the unsightly morsels, trying to convince everyone else they were yummy — he even bought a bag full — though Italian journalist Riccardo Capacchione, who also ate one, told it like it was: “They taste lika sheet.”
Needless to say, the bag remained full.
The dirt road on the way to the Swakopmund was difficult to negotiate because it included occasional soft, sandy patches on the mostly hard-packed surface.
Just because we were riding with BMW’s decision makers didn’t mean we would ride like sissies, and Ronald Moeller, general manager of sales planning at BMW Motorrad duly crashed hard, breaking his clavicle and shoulder and ending his ride early.
Soon after passing through Uis, a former tin mining town, the landscape changed from rolling hills to flat, parched desert, and temperatures rose from the mid-20s Celsius to the mid-30s. Reaching the coast we turned south towards Swakopmund where the architecture reflects its Bavarian heritage with many inhabitants still speaking German.
SURFIN THE DUNES
Swakopmund is near the top end of the Namib Desert, so we began the third day by taking a detour to nearby Dune 7. Located 10 km east of Walvis Bay it’s the highest dune along the coastal dune belt at 130 metres tall, and we stopped by not just to admire it, but also to ride its slope.
Now, the last time I’d ridden in sand was during the GS Trophy, which I found to be so difficult I almost expired from exhaustion. It’s understandable then that my enthusiasm to play in a mound of sand big enough to bury the Montreal borough in which I reside wasn’t overwhelming.
But, I did pick up some pointers from my Trophy experience — and I couldn’t pass up another opportunity to practice them, so I aimed the GS up the side of the sandy behemoth and gassed it.
To my surprise, after some initial squirming about at the bottom, with the throttle pinned in third gear the bike smoothed out and I surfed effortlessly up the side of the dune. The difference between my GS Trophy experience was that here the sand was smooth and consistent, not a narrow path messed up by 4×4 tire tracks.
I made three runs at an angle up the impossibly steep slope, then stopped to shoot some pictures in time to see South African journalist Gavin Morton attempt a straight-on, full-throttle run up the slope.
It was a balls-out technique that warranted admiration but ended up with a tankslapper about a third of the way up as the hapless Morton was body-slammed hard into the side of the dune.
Although he didn’t break anything (aside from the bike), he was too banged up to continue and his ride also ended.
I was starting to wonder if I’d found myself in some sort of new Survivor show where you get stretchered off the continent instead of voted off the island, but fortunately he was to be the last casualty.
CHANGING OF THE SCENERY
Heading back east we left the desert and entered Kuiseb Canyon, where the scenery did another about-face. Sandy flatlands turned to greener canyons. The road, now paved, snaked along a gorge and we railed towards our destination for the day, Sossusvlei Lodge.
We were to spend two nights at the lodge, located on the eastern edge of the Namib Desert at the mouth of Sossusvlei, a 30-km-long salt and clay flat flanked on either side by
high sand dunes. And what a dreamy stay it was.
We had dinner under the stars in the courtyard, where I sampled a bit of almost everything we had seen during our safari at Erindi (save for arrogant lion), which included kudu, ostrich, hartbeest and zebra.
Alas my gluttony and taste for exotic game came with a price, as the beasts came back to haunt my dreams and I tossed and turned all night.
The next morning loud rapping at the door signalled a brutal 5:00 AM wake-up call. My sleepless night was timed well though as we were to park the bikes for the day and take a guided tour by four-wheel-drive of Sossusvlei. The tour included a stop at Dune 45, where we’d hike along its ridge to the top to be rewarded with a spectacular view of the area, as well as a stop at Deadvlei, a surreal dry pan strewn with dead trees.
On the last day we rode back to Windhoek, though there was one more surprise in store for us. Until now the weather had been warm and dry – but not today.
Temperatures dropped to the low teens and we got caught in a torrential downpour. Worse yet was the lightning, which was threatening to be more dangerous than the rain-slicked gravel roads under our wheels.
Though cold and wet, it was still very exciting, as we blasted along the waterlogged dirt roads, traction not any worse than when they were dry, but without dust obscuring the view. Despite the rain, our tour ended on a high note and we dropped the machines off at the BMW dealer in Windhoek.
YES, THEY RIDE
Aside from the visual splendour that Namibia offered, I was most impressed with our BMW hosts. Von Kuenheim doesn’t just sit behind a desk at BMW making decisions on what bikes will reach the market based purely on marketing research. He gets out there and rides the bikes, in the environment they were meant to be ridden in. He owns several BMWs, including an HP2 Sport, HP2 Enduro and a C1 scooter that he uses to commute.
He has the power to make changes to BMW motorcycles based on his riding impressions; the bruises on his calves after our ride are a possible indication that future F800GS models might be getting removable passenger footrest brackets (your legs bash into the brackets when dabbing a foot down for balance).
Rudi Probst and Liane Drews, both in corporate communications at BMW and along on the tour, are true enthusiasts who ride regularly at home. Probst has a collection of vintage Hondas, including an old XL250 he’s restored and a modified Z50 Monkey, which he proudly boasted is legally rated at 45 km/h but will now easily do twice that (but you didn’t hear it from me).
Drews currently rides a Yamaha TDM850 that she wants to soon trade in for an S1000RR. Drews, who was the only female on the ride, made all of us journos look like pussies; she rode the whole distance on an R1200GS.
As for the F800GS; it’s my second African excursion on the machine and I’m getting very fond of it. It has proven easy to manage over a wide variety of terrain, especially with the Metzeler Karoo tires that were installed, and it’s tough as nails. All the F800GSs survived intact (except for the two that were crashed).
There are a couple of things I’d suggest changing however. The forks need firmer springs (an easy, inexpensive fix), the front wheel needs a stronger rim (more difficult and more costly, but still a relatively easy fix), and the passenger footpeg brackets need to be removable (currently, only a hacksaw will fix that), for I too bruised my calves.
So, my Namibian experience may not have been a real Dakar-like adventure – especially the accommodations. Our equivalent of a bivouac was luxuriously lavish lodging in game reserves, some even equipped with spas.
We didn’t have to navigate on our own, as Karoo Biking provided a tour guide, and we weren’t as rushed as Dakar racers to reach each day’s destination – we actually had time to take in the sights, which were absolutely breathtaking.
In retrospect, I think I missed at least one opportunity to make it a truly memorable adventure – I should have had one of those worms.