Wednesday, 11 December 2013

This IS Africa!

I didn't just do 4X4s, Lamborghinis and jetplanes, I did two-wheelers, too. Especially when it's in some exotic location like South Africa, and at the invitation and expense of some well-heeled party like BMW.

IT’S Africa. This succinct phrase seems to be explanation enough whenever a wide-eyed visitor to the continent expresses awe, amazement or wonder.
A hole in the ground, about three inches (70cm) across, one of many that dotted the wide expanse of grassland, had prompted a question.
“It’s a mouse hole,” the tour guide explains with a knowing grin, obviously anticipating the next query.
It comes. “That’s huge … you must have very big mice here!”
“It’s Africa,” he replies, and that says it all.
Africa is home to the planet’s most fascinating creatures – the biggest, tallest and swiftest. A huge land of dazzling contrasts and breathtaking beauty.
It is also the ideal place for BMW to show off the R 1200 GS enduro tourer, the latest creation from its motorcycle division, BMW Motorrad.
Apart from grassy fields with giant holes and fantastic wildlife, South Africa offers a kind and temperate climate, well-designed roads with cambers and curves (that make for motorcycling heaven), which pass through some of the most spectacular landscapes money can’t buy.

Top Gear Malaysia editor Hezeri Samsuri.
And so it came to pass that I recently found myself in a town called George, about 400km east of Cape Town. It is a small settlement, the sixth oldest in South Africa, and famous for being the starting point of the Garden Route. As the name suggests, motorists are in for a visual treat.
The roads take you past lush plains painted in various shades of green, with a dash of brown for contrast, and a range of rugged mountains which form an imposing backdrop.
Take a right turn somewhere and you head for the mountains, which loom larger as the macadam snakes its way upward. It makes for a great drive in a nice sports car; still, it is nothing short of awesome on a powerful and well-behaved motorcycle.
BMW’s R 1200 GS qualifies as a powerful and well-behaved motorcycle, but it is also much more than that. It represents the sum total of lessons from over 80 years of history, of concepts laid down early in the 20th Century, and of technology that is so cutting edge that it continues to evolve every day. It is the mechanical embodiment of the philosophy that true principles and values need never change, and improvements should never cease.
The bike is virtually all new, sharing little with its immediate predecessor, the R 1150 GS, except a lineage that goes back to the world’s first super enduro – the 800cc R 80 GS that was shown to an unsuspecting world in 1980.
In those days, there were small and light dirt bikes with single-cylinder engines of up to 500cc, at the most. Big multi-cylinder engines were found only on big, heavy road bikes. GS, which stands for Gelande Strasse (German for “off-road” and “road”), changed all that.
Initially, sceptics thought the Bavarians had gone mad. As a university student then with a youthful passion for powerful motorcycles, I also thought it would never work because no one would want a scrambler so huge that you could not possibly do motocross with it, and a road bike that could not possibly keep up with the others because it looked so tall, bulky and ungainly.
The Paris-Dakar rally, which started around then, proved the critics wrong. Today, the GS family are the best-sellers in BMW Motorrad’s line-up, and every other motorcycle maker has big dual-purpose machines in the catalogue.

If you want to see the world from a motorcycle saddle, a bike like the GS is ideal. It’s built tough to take the pounding, and has a big low-revving engine designed to lug plenty of luggage without complaint, kilometre after kilometre. Since most customers don’t actually ride around the globe, there must be something appealing about owning a machine that can do it. It helps you look like you could – should you ever feel inclined to.
With the big GS Boxers (so named because the engine pistons’ back-and-forth motion resembles the punching fists of a boxer) accounting for 15% of all BMW motorcycle sales, no effort was spared to ensure the new model would be significantly better than its predecessor.

The single biggest advance the BMW engineers have achieved in crafting the R 1200 GS is represented by a plastic drum (in BMW blue, of course) which holds 30 litres of water. On it is painted a white circle and cross hair, representing the target – lose 30kg. It was a reminder for the engineers who turned up for work each day that weight was the enemy.
That would be a significant achievement these days for a compact car, and really quite incredible for a motorcycle of this size, which typically weighs about 250-260kg.
The strict diet of precise calculations, new construction techniques and high-strength lightweight materials worked, and the big machine weighs in at a trim 225kg, ready to hit the road with oil, fluids and a full tank of fuel. On top of that, they pushed power and torque up by about 18% and fuel consumption down by 8%!
The horizontally-opposed twin engine, a BMW trademark since the 1920s, retains the traditional look but has been totally revised inside and out. A balance shaft was added (for the first time in a Boxer) to achieve smoothness at high speeds, plus loads of new electronics. Light materials, such as magnesium, and the most advanced calculation and simulation methods have been used extensively to keep the weight down. All these trimmed off 3kg, despite a 40cc increase in displacement over the old engine of the R 1150 GS.
The unique Paralever rear suspension and the Telelever front, and every other structural part of the machine were also subjected to the same ruthless weight loss regime by the fanatical slave drivers in Munich, who trimmed a kilo here and a few hundred grams there, while increasing strength and stiffness.
The result is a wonderful ride, although getting on the machine is a tall order for the vertically-challenged, which would be anyone under 170cm. The seat height is 840mm; you can swallow your pride and ask for a lower seat (with thinner padding).
Styling has also been improved, although this is a subjective area. The 1150’s beak-like over-fender looks like it has been tacked on to the bulbous tank; the new design sports lines flow more smoothly, and the Telelever’s “chicken wishbone” does not look so prominent.
A stab of the starter button produces a throaty, yet muted, growl from the exhaust. It sounds great but a check on the source of the sound reveals that even BMW has not been able to overcome the bane of chromed pipes, which turn blue, with a hint of gold, when subjected to heat.
Blipping the throttle at standstill without having any gear engaged causes the bike to lean to the right. Yes, this is a true BMW, and that tilt is an unmistakable by-product of the rotating crankshaft’s torque. Once on the move, though, the torque is cancelled out by the driveshaft.
The 20l fuel tank forms a big hump in front of the rider, and the typically-built Asian will probably find balancing the machine quite a handful, especially when it is difficult to get both feet planted firmly on either side.
Once in motion, though, all these niggling concerns vanish and the rider becomes one with the machine. That may sound clich├ęd but it is so true.
A hundred horses pulling an all-up weight of 225kg bike plus 80kg rider wearing 10kg of helmet, boots and protective clothing translates to a power-to-weight ratio about five times higher than your average family car with just the driver on board.
Unlike motorcycle engines of yore, modern bikes like the R 1200 GS have plenty of torque on tap throughout a wide range of revolutions – over 100Nm from 3,500rpm to 7,200rpm – so gearshifting is pretty much optional when cruising.
At the South African speed limit of 120km/h, you can stay in 4th, 5th or 6th. If the need to overtake arises, 4th will do, as will 5th or 6th. The engine is not loud enough to overpower wind noise at those speeds and the only way to find out which gear is engaged is to look at the indicator on the instruments. I found myself doing that a lot.

The light weight relative to its size means the R 1200 GS is susceptible to crosswinds. My machine and I were pushed about several times when hit by strong winds blowing across the vast plains, and also in the mountains, where valleys can funnel air currents into gusts.
The modest windshield does an excellent job of protecting the rider, but only against the wind generated by forward motion. Crosswinds result in severe and tiresome buffeting, and comfort is to be found only in riding a bit slower. Of course, ‘‘slow’’ is relative on a machine like this.
BMW picked a great place to showcase the R 1200 GS’ talents, with the winding roads drawing out an outstanding agility that leaves the rider begging for more.
The protruding cylinder heads typical of the Boxer always look like they’re in danger of scrapping the tar when you lean the machine over, but they never do. Lean left, right, left, right, left again, and some more as the corner tightens, and the bike just responds as if it were an extension of the rider. Beautiful balance, ideal riding position, lovely engine. This is magic, as only bikers know it.
There were moments when the roads were dead straight, and there was time to savour the scenery. The brown and green on one side of the mountain range give way to craggy scarps as the road climbs up, through a mountain pass and over to arid semi-desert on the other side, where orange and yellow hues dominate.
And, always, the rider has to keep an eye out for gazelles, elands, kudu and ostriches. It’s wonderful to see familiar scenes from National Geographic, but also important not to run over something big. It’s Africa, after all.
BMW Malaysia will bring the R 1200 GS here later in the year but, sadly, the taxman has not been kind to bikers. The import duty levied on big bikes used to be 60%. Now, it’s 50%, plus another 50% of the total in the form of excise duty. With a retail price of about 12,000 Euros in Europe, the R 1200 GS will likely sell for well over RM100,000 here.
You could try to explain why anyone would spend so much on a motorcycle by waxing lyrical about the engineering or technology, the styling or build quality, the charms of that Boxer engine, or that dream of selling off the house to go riding around the world some day. Or, you could simply say, ‘‘It’s a BMW’’.