Bruno on the Road – A Southern African Adventure

Anyone who loves to travel will know that a real road trip is not just about where you start or where you end up. It is about the journey and everything that happens in between. This is what is important. What makes one feel free on the road. On the journey, time seems to stand still. The very concept of it doesn’t exist when you allow yourself the freedom to really plug into the experience. The right now. Days and nights bring with them new and exciting adventures, challenges and weird and wonderful insights. Small towns that make you feel like you’re on the edge of the world invite you with warm, welcoming arms and it is in these spaces that the most salt of the earth people can be found. It is as if, for the time being, the limitations of the structured world left behind become inconceivable.

This sense of unadulterated freedom becomes, for me, even more palpable on a motorbike. Zero distractions. Zero barriers between you and the external world. Being present on the bike is not something you have to work on. You just…are. After a few weeks of staying put in Cape Town, the burning desire to get out onto the road became too apparent to ignore. So I contacted my good friend and avid adventure biker, Hein de Vos, and we began to curate an epic voyage into the unknown. There was no way we were going to allow winter to hinder our plans and, instead, decided to embrace the chill and take it on with gusto. After deciding on a destination that would allow us to fully immerse ourselves into the heart of winter, as well as see some dramatic changing landscapes and experience a range of rugged terrain (tar roads can become exceptionally monotonous after a while), we decided on a trusty steed that would be the most well-suited to the expedition ahead.

Destination: AfriSki Mountain Resort in Lesotho to try our hand at some skiing (also a nice reason to dig out our passports again!).

Trusty steed: The brand new KTM 1290 Adventure R – a ground-breaking new machine from KTM that is, quite simply, in a league of its own.

Thermals, dry suits (something you absolutely cannot go without!), buffs, gloves, beanies and countless pairs of thick socks and we were off. Because of the nature of the trip, the season, and the long days we had planned on the road, we knew we would be wearing the majority of our gear for most of the time. The surplus would be tucked away in a waterproof giant loop soft pack – a great choice for more hardcore off-road expeditions which easily straps on to the back of any dirt bike without hindering space on the saddle and adding too much excess weight.

Spirits high, we hopped on a plane, flew to Johannesburg and met the exceptional team from KTM South Africa who handed over our machine for the journey ahead. First impressions? It’s a big bike. No doubt about that. In fact, according to KTM, the 1290 ADV R is the biggest, baddest travel adventure bike on the market that still offers genuine off-road ability to the average rider. Hein (who would be piloting the vessel for the duration of the road trip) is a lover of more excitable dirt bikes and all things analogue. Naturally, he was sceptical at first and worried that the bike would be (a) too heavy to navigate the mountain passes we had on our itinerary (Sani Pass in particular) and (b) too computerised and over-engineered without much feedback to the rider making it a more comfortable yet lacklustre ride. He was more than willing to be proved wrong, however, and as soon as we were sufficiently suited and packed up, we hit the road on Bruno – our herculean steed, with only 35 kms under his belt, about to embark on his very first expedition.

The intention for the first leg of our journey was to get where we needed to go (the gorgeous KwaZulu Natal Midlands).. fast. The underwhelming straight stretch from Johannesburg to said destination is a boring one, so we buckled up and put the KTM’s street mode (and sport mode) to the test. From the beginning it was evident that the bike was supreme, even for straight highway use. There was more than enough power (it is, after all, essentially a super bike engine fitted into an off-road beast) and we soon found Bruno’s sweet spot for cruising. Like all vehicles, this is the spot where all the mechanical components working at the same time find a vibrational harmony and we found this to be at 5000RPM at top gear at around 150 km/ph. Above that can be handled with ease but at that particular cruising speed, the bike feels like butter on the road. Power to overtake, good fuel economy, quiet wind and zero vibrations. He was purring along to KZN.

After a fuel-stop and obligatory Wimpy lunch in Harrismith (because let’s be honest here, no South African road trip is complete without at least one Wimpy meal!), our next stop was a pub in Nottingham road, where we met a more than amiable couple who insisted we join them for a tipple. Having done the majority of our first day’s travel, we obliged and I settled in for a glass of red wine while Hein opted for a coffee while we shared kindred stories of travel and adventure. On our departure, the two insisted we take the half a bottle of red wine with us to enjoy that evening. Not taking no for an answer (even after insisting we simply had no space for it), we took said bottle of wine and gifted it to a friendly stranger in the parking lot before setting off again. There was magic in this exchange but we didn’t know it yet.

We made our way to Underberg and en route, encountered (quite accidentally I might add) our first stretch of gravel road. We swiftly switched Bruno into off-road mode, taking his power down from 160hp to 100hp with exceptional traction control and the ability to just open him up without giving too much power to the rear wheel which meant it wouldn’t spin up. All of a sudden, the bike came alive. Once we were on the dirt, the weight felt like nothing and Bruno became nimble and agile, easing into corners and exuding confidence which, in turn, created an incredible sense of ease in the rider (and pillion). The sun set as we headed into Underberg and we had the opportunity to test out the exceptional LED lights – a supreme addition to a supreme bike. These are essentially spotlights and offer a more than decent spread of 180 degrees so you can look into your blind spots with ease. We drifted through the early evening blackness and finally arrived at Khotso Adventure Farm – a working horse and sheep farm located on 1300 hectares of land at the foot of the Southern Drakensberg Mountains. We were welcomed by Alexis, general manager and all-round great guy, who gave us sherry and fed us a home-cooked meal in front of a roaring fire before showing us to our rondawel for the night (where we snuck a very bulky Bruno into the lounge for a sleep-over!). 

The next day, well-rested and excited for the next leg of our journey, we tucked into a hearty breakfast (again home-cooked by our gracious host) and headed out to do some Midlands meandering. It is essential to spend at least one day exploring the magnificent Midlands if you can. Winding roads, beautiful green, lush landscapes and loads of quirky, quaint stops along the way. It is a magical part of the province and showcases the very best in artisanal craftsmanship from food to almost anything you can think of. We opted for something a bit more high-end before making our way up Sani Pass the next day and spent the night at Waterford Manor – a beautiful property situated in Mooi River outside the small village of Rosetta. We settled in to our stylish accommodation for the evening and sat on our veranda to debrief the day’s events. Just as we sat down, a gentleman from the neighbouring unit approached us. “Sorry to bother you folks,” he said. “I have this half bottle of red wine that I have no intention of finishing and was wondering if you would perhaps like to enjoy the rest of it amongst yourselves?” – And there it was. The magic of the previous day’s exchange! Our half bottle of red wine had found its way right back to us. Moments like these are what it is all about. We poured two glasses, smiled, and toasted the magic a road trip brings.

Day three. Time to put big ol’ Bruno to the test. Sani Pass – known by some as the mother of all mountain passes in South Africa – is situated between KZN and Lesotho and is a challenging drive with all the drama, scenery and unpredictable weather conditions expected from a pass with a summit altitude of 2876m above sea level. Having gotten to know Bruno pretty well over the previous two days, and knowing the riding ability of my adventure buddy, I wasn’t nervous. The only cause for concern was the weight and how it would handle navigating the extremely tight switchbacks which make up the majority of Sani Pass. We headed up the mountainous pass and discovered almost immediately that the KTM 1290 ADV R reigns supreme on this kind of terrain. Any adventure biker will tell you that one of  the hardest things is to ride slowly and make tight corners, especially with a bike that size, but we managed to make it the entire way up, seated and with both feet on the pegs which is almost unheard of. Even when encountering traffic and having to switch lines, the change of direction midway was handled with agility, ease and comfort and an undeniable intuition from the bike – it just knows where you want to go and it goes there. A phenomenal trait of any bike, never mind a bike of that stature.

Once at the top, we toasted with an ice cold Maluti beer, had a quick bite at the infamous Highest Pub in Africa and jumped right back on Bruno, giddy with excitement to explore Lesotho and get to AfriSki Mountain Resort. We absolutely loved the roads in Lesotho. Long, sweeping mountains passes climbing up and up and up; tight switchbacks on tar; exceptional panoramic views; frozen waterfalls; traditional herders wrapped in Basotho blankets tending to their sheep. It was a pure eyegasm from the moment we entered the kingdom. The chill factor didn’t go unnoticed though – it was cold. And because of this, the possibility of black ice on the road en route was high so instead of leaning the bike into corners, we were steering which generally puts bikes of that size out of balance. Not Bruno. The linear power distribution and torque coming out of corners meant that we purred along once again. The bike really instils confidence in the rider and pillion and doesn’t do anything unexpected. Everything that happens is due to input and it does exactly what you think it is going to do. No surprises. He kept his course with absolute comfort.

We arrived at AfriSki in the afternoon, unsaddled our steed and settled in to our home for the next two nights. It was Bruno’s turn to take a break and time for us to get our ski game on (after a hot meal and good nights sleep that is). AfriSki Mountain Resort is an all-year mountain adventure destination which offers a multitude of winter and summer fun. It’s biggest draw card however is the winter experience which is quite simply unheard of in Africa. With the introduction of top-of-the-range snow making facilities and lifts, the resort operates just like a European ski village and runs like a well-oiled machine. Everything from the accommodation, restaurant, ski school, equipment and snow passes all allow snowboarding and skiing to flourish in the Maluti mountains. And it’s not just that. The atmosphere is electric and the people are warm, jovial and high-spirited. Always. I felt as though I was on the edge of the world somewhere. Surrounded by the warmth of the Basotho locals as well as a whole host of international travellers who had pulled in for the season to share their knowledge of skiing and snowboarding with the less-capable (like us). That being said, however, we took to the slopes like ducks to water and on our first day (with a little help from Mikeala, our Slovakian ski master) we were whizzing around like we were born for the powder! 

After only two nights at AfriSki, we felt as though we were saying goodbye to family. It may sound cheesy, but I can’t tell you how connected you end up feeling to the people there. During a day on the slopes, it is impossible to not make friends and at night, revelry is abundant at the Gondola Café where the staff put on shows, quiz nights and all kinds of fun activities for guests to enjoy. It’s a special place and if it’s not on your bucket list, it should be. We left AfriSki reluctantly but the minute we were back on Bruno, adventure mode kicked in once more and we were rearing to hit the road. We descended from the 3050 m above sea-level haven in the clouds and headed back down into South Africa, coming out the other side of the country into Clarens – known as the Jewel of the Eastern Free State. This creative hub and artists’ hide-out is just full of nature, art and fun. Being creative people ourselves, we felt very much at home in Clarens and wanted to find a spot for the night that really got our imaginative juices flowing. And we found just the place. Kalm Guesthouse is quirky, ornate and exciting with vibrant splashes of colour and bold, colourful designs. It feels like a bit like an eccentric design space but with the homely warmth of a guesthouse made possible by the awesome hosts Karen (who is responsible for the great décor) and husband, Malcom. We stayed in rooms called, Anybody’s and Somebody’s and spent the night in front of the warm fire, playing backgammon (a travel backgammon set is a winner!) and reviewing the massive archive of memories we had already collected in just five days on the road.

With Golden Gate National Park on its doorstep, Clarens is the perfect base to explore this beautiful space, renowned for its golden-hued sandstone sentinels and abundance of caves and shelters. We headed off early the following morning to do just this and after enjoying the scenery, headed up to Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge, the highest lodge in the Northern Drakensberg sitting at 2220m above sea-level, for lunch. Once we were sufficiently stuffed, it was back on Bruno and off to Parys – our final stop over before heading back to the big smoke. We encountered some more long, corrugated gravel roads on the trip to Parys and this was the first day of the entire road trip where I started to feel discomfort on the gravel as a pillion. After very quickly realising that the only reason for this was because we were riding in street mode on gravel, we switched Bruno into off-road mode and voila! The suspension became far softer in this mode on the compression so I no longer felt the jagged, high frequency corrugation. A good note to remember for those riding with pillions. Though street and sport come with more power and are perfectly suitable for one rider on a gravel stretch such as that, for those riding shotgun, it’s definitely not as comfortable.

We soon found ourselves winding the small town roads of Parys and made our way to our final stop – Mistique Waters, a stunning guest house situated right on the banks of the Vaal River. We were warmly welcomed once again and hit the hay that night with bellies full of wine and home-cooked food. It felt as though we had been on the road for a month. And didn’t want to stop. We packed up the next morning, left Parys, drove through a giant cattle herd in the North West Province and stopped in Magaliesberg for a celebratory beer before returning Bruno and catching our evening flight back to Cape Town.

Saying goodbye to our trusty steed that got us safely to all of our destinations without so much as a hint of a glitch was tough. I was amazed at Hein’s complete turn around from cynicism to pure, unadulterated love, respect and adoration. The bike can really do anything you ask it and is truly the first of its kind. All bikes have limitations: a superbike can’t go off-road; and off-road bike can’t be a superbike. Not the KTM 1290 ADV R. This machine is not just capable (and so capable that it will take a true cowboy to ever even come close to reaching its potential!), it is exceptional. On any terrain. And to get that right is a first for the biking world.

As we took to the skies, we were full of gratitude for the freedom we had experienced. The magic on the road when one embraces the spontaneity, unforeseen adventures and all kinds of other possibilities is one-of-a-kind and real. It’s what a road trip is all about. There isn’t a single way to put down in words the experience itself which is why I encourage everyone to just get out there and do it. Be it by bike or by car, the road is full of endless possibilities, life lessons and more. Embrace the magic. Embrace the journey. Embrace the road trip.

Recreate Our Road Trip

  1. Johannesburg – KTM South Africa – Riaan Neveling – riaan@ktmsa.co.za
  2. Underberg – Khotso Adventure Farm – www.khotsotrails.co.za
  3. KwaZulu Natal Midlands – Waterford Manor – www.waterfordmanor.co.za
  4. Lesotho – AfriSki Mountain Resort – www.afriski.net
  5. Clarens – Kalm Guesthouse – www.kalm.co.za
  6. Parys – Mistique Waters- www.mistiquew.co.za

Text © Julie Graham  |  Images © Hein de Vos & Julie Graham

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