Book Chapters: 16 Arak 17 Bad Day at Laouni 18 The Far Side 19 A Blue Man 20 The Hills are Alive
After my batty Benele excursion of 1984 I brushed my hair, straightened my tie and bought myself a sensible XT600Z, just like I always knew I would. This was the slightly better 55W version of the original kick-only Tenere, distinguishable by sloping speedblocks on the tank (more here). All I did was add thicker seat foam and fit some Metzeler ‘Sahara’ tyres – a rubbish choice for the actual Sahara, as I was to learn. Using no rack was another mistake which nearly cost me the bike. My learning curve was still as steep and loose as a dune slip face. In fact, there was so little that needed doing to the Yamaha that I moved the oil cooler from down by the carbs up into the breeze over the bars. And I painted the bike black because I still hadn’t shaken off my juvenile Mad Max phase.
With my £5 ex-army panniers slung over the back, in December 1985 I set off for Marseille, bound for Dakar via Algeria, Niger and Mali. As I mention in the book, I was adopting a new ‘go with the flow’ strategy’. Instead of being ground down and resentful by the setbacks of my previous calamities, I’d just take the reversals on the chin, bounce back, and move on. On this trip that stoic philosophy was to get a thorough road test!
Pumped out in Thailand for no less than 32 years up to 2018, Kawasaki have exhumed their KLR650, at least in North America. It was as popular there for real-world travels as Yamaha’s Tenere singles were in Europe and Australia.
In 2001 four of us rode KLRs along the sodden trails of British Colombia and the Yukon, Those old dogs lapped up their back-country beating as only a Jap dual sport can. Read a retrospective of the KLR decades at Rider magazine.
In the 2020 edition of AMH8, I predicted (right) the discontinued KLR would come back either little-changed but with EFI (like the KLX250), or they might repurpose the revvy Versys 650 twin with a 21-incher to take on the XT700. Kawasaki are the least adventurous of the Big Four when it comes to travel bikes and chose to keep things simple, do the minimum necessary short of Bold New Graphics, and keep the price low. Yes we’d all have loved to see something snazzy and new in this segment, but now I think about it, they did the right thing. At least a decade overdue, the new model has been restyled and incrementally improved with EFI, optional ABS and a modern LCD dash. Plus you get a chunkier one-piece chassis, 50% more output from the alternator (364w), LED lighting and near identical but reportedly firmer suspension. Most importantly, they kept it cheap at just $6700 (ABS + $300, same a CB-X in the US). That’s under £5000, but you can be sure if it ever gets to the UK (very unlikely) they’ll just switch the dollar sign for a £ and anyway, magazine reviews will bury it alive. For up to another $grand (and 15 more kg) you get the factory accessorised Traveler and Adventure models. Serious travel bikers will always be better off buying the base model with ABS and picking their own gear.
Keeping the low compression ratio, power remains the same chuffing 40-hp, but weight had jumped to 207 kilos (+3kg for ABS). To be fair that’s with a nearly full 23-litre tank so it’s about 192kg dry. That’s still more than a similar CB500X, or about the same as an XT700. I get the complaints about the staggering weight for a single cylinder. The 2018 model was 196kg and many twins and even triples are now lighter than the new KLR. But the commonly read whining about not having ‘more-must-be-better’ six gears goes right over my head. If the engine is torquey (with EFI it will be even more so) stick with five wider (stronger) gears. EFI will make it more economical and smoother. An easily achievable 25kpl (59US, 71UK) adds up to nearly 600km or 360 miles which is plenty. The saddle will be causing acute agony long before then though an adjustable screen will help collect the bugs. The new KLR is technically similar Yamaha’s XT660Z which came out way back in 2008 (not in North America) but was gone within a decade due to emission regs. You do wonder if North American regs are less strict than the EU. That could explain why the other carb’ed, big single dinosaurs like the DR400Z and DR650S ($6700; 166kg; 13L tank) and the XR650L ($6999; 158kg; 11L) are still sold there when even the injected WR250R has been dropped.
Lacking bodywork, those two are something like 20% lighter than the new KLR, even if they carry around 8 kilos less fuel. Suspension is better too (or there’s more of it) but despite that, for years and years the KLR still managed to trounce both as a travel bike. More off-road oriented riders put off the portly KLR will be hoping Suzuki or Honda will get round to injecting their 650s too.
Some are bound to be disappointed by the new KLR – hoping it might be something like an AJP PR7. Me, I think the new KLR will pick up right up where it left off. The 34.5-inch seat height will put discourage some, but old fans will upgrade without thinking about it and enjoy a smoother, more economical engine, with more charging power, modern clocks, slightly better suspension and a load-carrying chassis that looks as tough at the XT660Z. When we are able to start travelling world again, the new KLR will take the rough roads, gravel trails and crumby fuel in its stride.
I don’t write about this mad, two-week trip in Desert Travels, so lap it up here for free.
You’d think I’d have learned something after my 1982 Saharan fiasco on the XT500. Well I did. Despite it all, I was still fascinated by the Sahara and wanted to go back and do it properly this time. When it was good it was epic and other-worldly, and if you came from one of the less edgy suburbs of South London, the Sahara made quite an impression: nature stripped back to its raw bones of sand and rock. And right down the middle lay the frail ribbon of road they called the Trans Sahara Highway which I’d ridden off the very end of a couple of years earlier on the XT.
By 1984 I’d settled for an easy way of despatching for a living: working long but steady hours for a London typesetting outfit, delivering advertising copy on the one mile between Holborn and the West End. (You can read all about that and a whole lot more in The Street Riding Years.) There was no longer a need to ride an IT250 or a 900SS should you get sent to the other side of the country on a wet Friday evening. For this job a dreary commuter bike was sufficient. And none came drearier than Honda’s CD200 Benly twin (below left), a single-carbed commuter ridden by stoical Benlymen. Riding up to 12 hours a day on a hyper-dull CD can drive you a bit crazy at 24 years of age. Your mind begins to wander.
Knowing I was into trail bikes, a mate put me on to a mate flogging an AJS 370 Stormer (above right) for fifty quid. The Stormer was a vile, shin-kicking British two-stroke motocrosser that was the polar extreme of the Benly. In a flash of brilliance which years ago had given birth to the Triton cafe racer cult, I figured I could marry the two and make something more desert rideable and less boring: a Benly-engined, MX-framed desert racer!
Over the summer of 1984 the machine took shape in my artfully appointed design studio in London’s literary Bloomsbury district. It took two goes to get a bike shop to correct the engine alignment mistakes of the former. But here it was, suspended by some Honda XL250S shocks as long as truncheons, and silenced by VW Beetle tailpipes, a cunning, lightweight trick you may recall from the BMW I rode with in Algeria in 1982. The job was finished off by replacing the dinner-plate rear sprocket with gearing more suited to horizontal applications. Topped off with a classic speedblock RD250 tank, I added a ‘Moto Verte’ sticker so there’d be no mistaking what an international, Franchophilious guy I was. I took it out to the woods near Addington to see what it could do. The result was similar to dragging a dead dog around on a lead. The VW pipes reduced the power at the rear wheel to quite possibly single figures. The foot of clearance needed a running jump to get on the bike. And the AJS conical hub brakes where a requirement by the then powerful Ambulance Drivers’ Union to ensure their members were never without work scraping Stormer riders off the sides of buses.
I dubbed the joke-bike ‘Bénélé‘ in mock-envious recognition of Yamaha’s near-perfect XT600Z Ténéré which I’d spotted in a Sydney bike shop a year earlier, and which was itself based on Yamaha’s Dakar Rally desert racers. More about them, later. So what do you do with a dumb-arsed desert racer? You ride it to the Sahara of course, but in a little less time than was available. You pack a 3500-mile trip to North Africa into two-weeks and schedule it for September when you imagine peak summer temperatures are on the wane. This time there’d be no miserable mid-winter transit of Europe and the northern Sahara, as in 1982.
My goal that year was a mysterious massif of conical peaks which I’d photographed south of Arak on my way to Tamanrasset in 1982, and which I’ve since learned is called Sli Edrar. The Bénélé’s top speed was no more than 53mph, and even at that speed it felt unsafe, should a squirrel run out in front. So to get a good run-up I rode straight from work on Friday night down to a mate’s in Canterbury, close to the port of Dover, ready to catch an early ferry next morning.
By maintaining momentum, Monday night found me camped back among the magical limestone outcrops of Cassis, near Marseille, ready to hop on the ferry to Algiers the following morning.
After the rubbish set up of the XT500, you can see I had an all-new ultralight soft luggage arrangement. No more sawn-off chemical tins poorly lashed to Dexion racking. A small canvas pannier hung on one side with a 10-litre jerrican inside; a thin cotton Times newspaper delivery bag dangled off the other with 10 litres of water. And an over-huge tank bag sat on the flat-topped RD tank. A sleeping bag was lashed in front of the headlight – Easy Rider style – and kept the bugs off the Benly headlight. Cunningly, I lashed a tool bag with other heavy items under the lofty engine. If my mass had been any more centralised I’d have become a Black Hole right there and then.
My first memory of Algeria that year was being a little unnerved that as far north as El Golea it was already 35°C by 9am. If you live in Yuma that’s probably no big deal in September, but for a South London boy it was a bit of a shock. I filled up in town and set off across the Tademait plateau which had spooked me on my first transit in ’82. The next town (or anything) was 400km away. I buzzed along at 9.8hp/hour and by early afternoon dust devils or mini tornadoes were whipping across the baking gibber to either side of me. I recalled how a mate said he’d been knocked off his XS650 by one in Turkey earlier that year.
I was already tired, thirsty, sore and hot when up ahead what looked like a huge wall of sand hundreds of feet high hurtled right across the blacktop like a train at a level crossing. Only as I neared it did I realise it was the mother of all whirlwinds, a huge cauldron of rotating sand. I turned the wick up and the motor droned as I punched the Benele into the sand wall. Inside, visibility was lost as grains pelted me from all directions and I struggled to keep upright or even know which way upright was. And then, as I slipped into the windless eye of the maelstrom, the sand grains briefly turned into pelting raindrops. WT jolly old F was going on!? Search me, but before I knew it, I’d blasted out of the spinning tornado’s opposite wall, this time shoved left onto the roadside gravel. Now I knew how those roadsigns got flattened into the dirt…
Just as in 1982, the Tademait had terrorised me and I vowed to ride into the dark to be off the plateau before stopping. I continued into the dusk, pulling up briefly with the engine running to remove the sleeping bag off the headlight, before pushing on from the big switchback descent from the Tademait to the desert floor. That night I stripped off and lay in the dirt by the bike, listening to what sounded like the oil boiling in the crankcases, hours after switching off. I wasn’t hungry but I drank and drank and soon fell asleep where I lay. Tomorrow I was passing In Salah, the hottest town in Algeria, before heading deeper into the Sahara.
New daypacks join Kriega’s long-established five-strong R range from 15 to 35 litres. You got the snazzy colour-backed Trail in 9 and 18-litres and the bigger more urbanesque Max 28 which expands to take a helmet.
Supplied free for review and testing
What they say: The TRAIL18 Adventure Backpack utilises Kriega’s groundbreaking Quadloc-Lite™ harness, combined with high-tech construction materials to meet the needs of the adventure rider. Composed of three sections: A heavy-duty zip access 7-litre rear compartment which is a perfect storage area for a Tool-Roll and water bottle or the optional 3.75L Hydration Reservoir. This area also has a small internal waterproof pocket for a phone and wallet, combined with the main roll-top body providing a total of 12-litres 100% waterproof storage. The innovative Hypalon net also provides more external storage for wet gear.
What I think:
• Roll-top compartment • Comfortable to wear; sits well on the back • Removable waist straps • No compression straps • Durable 420D Cordura body • White waterproof liners in two compartments • Hydrator-ready • External hypalon net • Smooth-gliding main zipper • Colour-backed Trails aid viz • 10 year guarantee
• Bulky roll-top small inner pouch • Expensive • Quadlock-Lite interferes with jacket pocket access
Review For years I’ve been happy enough with my dinky R15, once I cut off the unneeded compression straps and removed the unnecessary waist strap. I’ve used it for weekends in Wales, backroads and tracks in the Colorado Rockies and Baja, and of course on my Morocco tours and rides. The main compartment was big enough for my laptop in a dry bag plus the hydrator, with bits and pieces in the PVC mesh inside pocket and the bigger outer pocket.
The longer Trail18 will be a nifty replacement. Straight away I like the coloured back panel. Often on my tours I try to ID riders up ahead and anything non-black makes it a whole lot easier. I dare say it will be for them too. You often get thin bungy elastic laced across daypacks as a quick and easy place to stuff stuff. Kriega have thought it through a bit further by using a distinctive hypalon net panel with the elastic strung along the edges and attached closely at the base. This way, what you stuff in there – mucky bottles, baguettes, wet cloths – won’t fall out the bottom. And if you want more colour or don’t like this arrangement, you can easily unlace the elastic and remove the hypalon panel.
I can see a use for this feature buying some food on the way to a night’s lodging, or securely stuffing a jacket or overpants in there on a hot day when you don’t want to dick about with the closures. It’s possible the excess elastic and cinch fittings above may flap about in the wind behind you, but tucking the end in is easy enough.
Behind this panel is a full-length 11-litre compartment with a removable white waterproof liner and a clip-down roll-top. The great thing with roll-tops is that even if you forget to do them up right, stuff stays in. No more clattering laptops on leaving airport baggage scans with unzipped zips.
Behind that compartment against your back is a smaller 7-litre zipped compartment with no liner. Inside are a couple of tabs to hook up your hydrator (more below) and down below a couple of sleeves for drinks cans or 500ml water bottles. A smooth-running (non water-resistant) one-way zipper only comes right down on one side (below) so forgetting to do it up ought not see things fall out so readily. It includes a finger-hooking ring pull which can only be in one place when closed, but I always add a bit of bright tape to make this puller easier to locate.
My only mild gripe with the Trail is the bulkiness of the roll-top/clip-down waterproof liner’d 1-litre pouch with a phone-sized zip pocket attached in the inner compartment. I know it’s waterproof but the roll-up takes a lot of space and clipping it down would be a faff. I’d have preferred a bigger version of the plastic ripstop zip pocket from the R15. But then again, you can easily drop a big camera in here and be reasonably sure it will stay dry.
The long mesh-padded back panel seems stiffer than my old R15 so the whole thing doesn’t rest quite so unobtrusively on your back, which may actually be a good thing. The waist strap can be removed and there’s also a door hook tab plus a chunky carry handle. Mine weighed in at 1550g and a Trail18 costs £179. Impressions added here once I get to use it.
The Trail is hydrator-ready with a slot for the hose to come over either shoulder and a velcro tab inside the back from which to hang the bladder. Kriega’s stubby new 3.75L (7.9 pint!) Hydrapak Shape-Shift reservoir is made to fit both Trail models by fully expanding to fill the space below that bulky top pocket. Nearly 4 kilos of water is a lot to carry on your back, but maybe that’s what some riders need. The rubbery TPU bladder has the same fold-and-clamp, easy fill and clean opening as the original one, as well as the clip-off and insulated and UV-proof hose with hopefully a less-brittle bite-valve on the end. I tucked my nozzle end under a tab on the front of the strap, but Kriega offer a velcro attachment tab which may well work better if the hose is on the short side for you. It costs £45.
In a line: It was interesting to dip a toe into BigBikeWorld, but as expected,, it’s way too big, heavy and juicy for my sort of easy off-road riding prefs.
• Looks good • Torquey 270-° motor • You just know it will start and run; Honda piece-of-mind • Adjustable Palmer screen • My DIY rear tubeless worked well • Seat not bad. Nice and roomy for once, even with the step • Stock suspension (with rear PLA) fully adjustable • Modes aplenty, if you like that sort of thing • With a fair wind, 400+ km range from 18.9-litre tank
• Felt big and top-heavy at low speeds • That’s probably down to the minimum 870mm (34.2″) stock saddle height • Radiators are vulnerable in fall overs • Could not squeeze more than 22.7kpl/64mpg out of it • Some hand-numbing vibration from the bars • USD fork seals seem to be a weak point • LCD display annoyingly reflects head and not bright enough; hard to read at a glance
Review It was just the right trip to try one of those big-arsed advs I’ve never really been into. A long approach ride followed by short off-road excursions specifically chosen within the bike’s (and my) limits. I’d planned to get a feel for the bike beforehand in the High Atlas on my February tours, but that was another of the many things which didn’t pan out on this doomed ride.
So, despite big plans with two other Big Twins for a Sahara Road Trip (right, pah!) , all I managed was to ride alone 2500km down the Atlantic Highway to the Mauritanian border, then ride it most of the way back until Covid-19 and a freak incident brought this stillborn trip to a premature end.
On the road Riding out of a town near Malaga, initially the loaded-up Honda gave me a fright – I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. I hadn’t noticed it on the way to the removalists in Essex a couple of weeks earlier, but in the bends the bike didn’t feel secure, seeming to both over- and understeer. I knew my knobbly front/road rear tyre set-up was unorthodox, but it’s surely only half as bad as the many times I’ve ridden on full‘do-it-all’ tyres. Though maybe on on bikes this big. Braking into bends, the front Motoz moaned in protest but brand new tyres usually lose this edgy skittishness after a couple of hours. Sure enough, the AT settled down and I adapted as we rode over the Sierra de los Nieves (below) and past the famous White Villages to a regular place I know, half an hour out of Algeciras port. Here I took a day off, resorting my gear, keying in waypoints and filling the glued-and-taped rear tubeless wheel with Slime which fixed the slight air loss once and for all.
Engine and transmission The 1000L has more than enough power to deal with anything you’ll encounter on the road; it’s on the dirt where the mass will hold back most riders and if you like that sort of riding, it’s frustrating. Promotional antics as shown left look impressive but are so far removed from everyday reality that someone should call Trade Descriptions. This was my first bike with more modes than a Casio G-Shock XL: three power levels plus User (custom), as many levels of traction control (plus off) and the same with engine braking – a new one on me. ABS can be switched off at the back only. Initially I rode in ‘P1 – Gravel’ (least power) thinking it may be best for economy (more below). After that I left it in ‘Tour’ (P3 – highest) where the engine was smoothest. It’s a 270-degree twin (below) which is hard to dislike, the stock pipe makes a fruity sound and the temperature bars never budged. But having tried or owned a few other 270° twins in recent years, Yamaha’s 695cc CP2 still feels like the best of them to me. Characterful, economical and with enough poke to get you there without weighing a quarter of a ton. My first choice would have been a used XT700, but it was way too early at the time. The gif below shows one of the beneficial characteristics of a 270°-twin: one piston is always in motion when the other has stopped and is on the turn. Crossplane they call it (CP2) – it’s good for traction and it feels and sounds like a Ducati.
I got a manual gearbox only because I’ve ticked off DCT and couldn’t face the thought of a heavier-still bike. As it was I spent most of the miles in top gear. Had I got off-road I might have had more to say about the gearing and indeed the traction control and a whole lot more. Clutch actuation and gearchange selection were fine.
Economy On the A1 motorway down to Agadir I spent a couple of days establishing the exact fuel consumption so I’d know what to expect when it mattered down south. I’ve often wondered if lower power modes equate to better fuel consumption. You’d think so because less powerful bikes like a CT125 are amazingly economical. But it seems not. Cruising along at a very modest 105kph/65mph – in other words, with a barely open throttle: • ‘Gravel’ mode (‘P3’). True 19.8kpl (19.1 indicated). Range 380km indicated. • ‘Tour’ mode (‘P1’): true 22.7 (ind: 21.5). That’s 64UK or 53.3US. (Fuel converter table on the left).
In P1 Tour the engine felt noticeably smoother and more responsive and what’s more, the range jumped to 430km which was good to know. In the CRF1100L graph above, the percentages shown are throttle openings, not power. Nail the throttle (‘100%’) in any mode and you get all the beans. But at small openings (‘25%’) as you’d use noodling about off-road, power is reduced, presumably to constrain wheelspin or unwanted lurches. It’s true that traction control does that too, but that can be turned off. If, as I have, you’ve ridden without TC most of your riding years, you may initially prefer that until you get to trust TC1, as most AT riders seem to settle on. Or you may wonder do you need power and traction and engine braking modes at all. Ride appropriately to the conditions. It’s an inexpensive and, with TC, I would say rather crude spin-off from ABS electronics, of which I am a fan.
Other observations I made while watching the Moroccan countryside inch by: Speedo is the usual 8% over Odo is 1% over (measured over 100km against GPS and autoroute markers) Economy estimate read-out is ~4% under. True economy is a tad better than shown Range I never relied on this but should have checked when I took on 18.2 litres into the 18.9-L tank. At a catastrophic 15.5kpl (37mpg) into a stiff headwind (while still holding a steady 110kph cruise) the remaining 0.7L would have got me another 11kms.
I now realise something about bikes of 1000cc+ – in my book overkill for a solo travel bike. Either the great weight or swept volume or both hold the economy back, no matter how slowly you ride. My best reading of 64mpg closely correlates with 65 I recorded from an as-slowly ridden 1200GS on my tours one time. You may think so what, you get to blast past anything you want on the highway in comfort. That is true but to me a proper travel bike inspires confidence on all surfaces; otherwise it’s just a road bike of which there are plenty out there.
• Front Motoz Tractionator Adv • Rear Michelin Anakee Adventure (tubeless) • Palmer Products adjustable screen • Barkbusters • Adv Spec bar risers • Strapped-on baggage (below) • Wired in USB and GPS More here
Comfort The good thing about a big bike is that for once, I don’t feel cramped. Everything is a natural distance away for my size and the excess of power does have a certain relaxing effect. The adjustable and much taller Palmer Products screen (below) made a huge difference, ridding me of unpriestly turbulence, even with a Bell Moto III.
It wasn’t until I got to the turn-around point 50 miles from the Mauritanian border (and following a quick ‘how-do-you…’ youtube) that I finally managed to lower the saddle. I’ve only just realised just how tall the AT’s is at 900mm or 35.4″ – a bit much for a bike this heavy. Lowering it gets you down to 870mm or 34.25” and there is an 840mm optional saddle. The principle is clear, but getting the notches to line up correctly took a lot of faffing. I’m 6′ 1″ so have long enough legs but can’t say the lowered saddle was night-and-day – the bike still felt top heavy at times. Sat down, the 30mm bar risers felt little different from stock, but gave the benefit of being able to stand naturally without stooping and doing so the bike felt comfortable – just like the oversized trail bike which many owners speak of. On the road I did notice a bit of white-finger vibration from the right bar, but that was about it.
Suspensionand brakes One good thing about spending 1000s on a modern, top-of-the-range adv is you get decent suspension. Sadly I didn’t get a chance to try it out much off-road where suspension performance is much more easily assessed, but at the very least both ends could have been fine tuned to work for my all-up weight and riding style. Same with the brakes which i didn’t push due to the knobbly front tyre, nor to a point where ABS was engaged. The ‘creeping’ of the front Motoz’s knobs under tarmac braking did initially take some bike off the front.
Durability and problems Who knows what sort if shape it’ll be when I get it back, but the only thing that fell off was a footrest rubber – probably not tightened up properly when the shop refitted them from the Off Road School. Refusing to be beaten by this calamity, I replaced it with a scrap of roadside tyre. Because of the spread of lockdowns as the pandemic escalated in March 2020, I was already planning to leave the bike in Marrakech and fly out. But even that plan was nixed when I rode over some debris just out of Tiznit. Whatever it was flicked up and poked through the bash plate and the sump, losing all the oil.
Summary The Africa Twin was the first big adv which successfully drew riders off their GS12s or stopped others buying the popular BMW. It’s a great road bike, but aren’t they all these days. On my ride down the Atlantic Highway I wasn’t convinced it was going to become magically manageable once on any sort of unconsolidated terrain. It would become what it clearly was, a big, heavy bike with a tall saddle and high centre of gravity when loaded and tanked up. The big worry would always be: one little misjudgement and you’re faced with the daunting task of trying to upright the bike. An AT falls over a lot flatter than a GS12 resting in it’s cylinders. It’s one reason I loaded baggage on the sides of the tank. But by now 99,999 other owners suggest that Honda must have got something right and there may well be an element of me taking out my unlucky trip on the poor AT. We’ll see how I feel when I get to ride it back, maybe over some of the trails I know in the Atlas.