Some Roman guy said it a long, long time ago, and Jim Freeman believes it (again) after he (again) crossed the Tankwa Karoo on the latest version of the iconic Honda Africa Twin Adventure bike, the CRF1000L.
Somewhere, like a trillion years ago, when my voice was breaking and I started growing hair on various parts of my body other than my head, I attended high school in Johannesburg and learned to ride motorcycles and read Latin. I was better at the former but – to this day – I recall some of the latter.
Some Roman numpty – Pliny the Elder, if Wikipedia gets it right – said (or wrote) **“Ex Africa semper aliquid novi”** … always something new from Africa. And so it is with Honda motorcycles.
Amid all the bikes I have owned, borrowed, or been loaned, I have long aspired to be the possessor of the old 750 cc Honda Africa Twin – also known as the king of the Paris-Dakar rally. I was in the position to buy one a couple of years ago but decided rather to buy a BMW F650GS Dakar because the technology of the Japanese competitor was more dated than that of the German.
I have never regretted the decision because the Beemer (fondly known as “The Betsy”) is virtually indestructible and its agility on dirt roads is rarely seen, let alone matched by other motorcycles of its size and type.
I love The Betsy dearly and I felt somewhat like a cheating spouse when I picked up the 2018 Africa Twin at the beginning of December. However, since I knew I would have the Honda for only a week, there was no risk of my relationship being fatally compromised.
The History of the Twin
The Honda Africa Twin was born thirty years ago, initially as a 650 cc machine, but the Japanese quickly added another 100 cc to the engine and that is how most riders remember the motorcycle – as a 750 cc dual-sport with a detuned V-twin engine that kept on going and going. It became a cult-bike among adventure riders and many hearts were broken when production stopped in 2003.
There was much glee – and some trepidation – among the ranks of greybeards when Honda resumed production of the model three years ago. Glee because there was going to be an Africa Twin again, but trepidation because, **gasp shock horror,** it was going to be … an automatic (albeit with a conventional shift option).
As if to placate us (but more probably because that is the way the adventure-biking market has evolved over the decades), Honda has added a further 250 cc to the motor and the 2018 Honda CRF1000L is a big boys’ bike. Literally: short-arses, look away now because the seat height is a minimum of 900 mm.
Like its predecessor, it is also an extraordinarily handsome bike with the manufacturers retaining the striking blue, white, and red livery that made the old Africa Twin so distinctive (slightly redesigned for the 2019 model year). Honda had obviously not only done its homework but also done something right in design and manufacture: the new Africa Twin sold 51,000 bikes globally during the next two years, with nearly half of the buyers opting for the automatic version.
Ahhh … but what of the ride? What of the Honda-unique automatic dual-clutch transmission (DCT) technology that was developed to provide off-road ability? At first glance, it looks like any other bike until you look down next to your left foot and notice the absence of a gear-shift.
Then, and I had to be told this, where the clutch lever would normally be on the left handgrip was something that **looked** like a clutch lever but actually was a parking brake that can get locked into position to prevent the bike from rolling when it is stationary.
Once I got the bike started and in gear, I was off like the proverbial rocket and, yes, I was in love within 100 m. The bike is big – the Africa Twin Adventure Sports model tested weighed 245 kg – as well as high and broad but it **feels** light; a delightful combination of weight and power distribution as well as a lovely riding position.
I was in top gear in next to no time and already over the speed limit, so I rolled off (no more throttle cable, it is electronic and the acceleration/deceleration is really responsive) and experienced my first misgivings. The bike was very quick to gear up, but almost reluctant to gear down and I found myself still in sixth when ideally I should have been in fourth or even third.
The bike chugged and wheezed asthmatically and I thought, “Okay, this does not feel right … what if this happens when you are in sand or on gravel?” I was sure, though, that I was the one at fault and, as soon as I got home and in the absence of any owner’s manual (or tutelage at vehicle handover), I went online to find out more and quickly discovered there are four easily engaged rider modes; Tour, Urban, Gravel, and User.
The latter offers three power delivery modes, the same number of engine braking modes and seven traction control settings (traction control can be disconnected if you want to get really sporty). There is also a “manual” override where you use triggers on the left grip to shift up and down.
After messing around in the vineyards around my home to get a feel of things, I strapped my camera bag, toiletries, and a change of clothing onto the bike (adventure bikers own a surfeit of bungee cords) and set off up the R304 to Malmesbury and Riebeek-Kasteel. Just before “Kasteel”, I turned into one of the olive groves at Kloovenburg at the top of the Bothmaskloof Pass.
There, overlooking the verdant valley all the way to the Voëlvlei and Elandskloof mountain ranges, is a memorial to Pieter Cruytoff of the Dutch East India Company who “discovered” the route into the valley in February 1661. His expedition group camped on the site that night and history records it was attacked by lions.
It was misty in Riebeek-Kasteel the next morning and I was in no hurry to get going, so I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with former radio personality Allan Barnard at his Kasteelberg Country Inn and Bistro. Though there is any number of good restaurants in the village, it is to this one that I return again and again.
The mist having burned off, I opened the throttle and roared over the mountains to Ceres and beyond. At a fast pace the Twin handled the curves and straights like a trouper and the 24.4 litre fuel tank showed little sign of running thirsty at higher speeds. Nonetheless, I filled up in Ceres because, if the riding to that point was in the nature of an appetiser, we were now getting down to the meat-and-potatoes part of the journey.
Any adventure rider in South Africa knows the road through the Tankwa Karoo. The R355 (at something over 200 km) between Ceres and Calvinia is the longest gravel road in the country and it is iconic not only for its length but also for its toughness on tyres … and, often, on riders.
It is, however, the kind of road for which the Africa Twin Adventure Sport was specifically made. The R355 undulates rather than bends and you could easily imagine you are doing the Dakar (whether in Africa or South America) and open up on the gas. The day I rode it, though, there was an evil crosswind and – as I am sure you know – leaning into the wind to maintain a straight line has its downside when the wind abates.
No matter what you are riding, it is no fun when you suddenly veer into a long strip of loose shale. Crossing the Karoo in the heat of summer you begin to fantasize about something cold and wet, and once I had done about 40 km of dirt, the oasis called the Tankwa Padstal appeared in the distance. It is a legendary pub among adventure riders; for one thing, you can get running repairs to your bike while you hoover a hamburger and frostie.
Only thing is … it is closed on Wednesdays. And yes, it was Wednesday.
The bike: Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin Adventure
Engine: Liquid-cooled four-stroke eight-valve parallel twin
Displacement: 998 cc
Bore/Stroke: 92.0 × 75.1 mm
Power: 70 kW @ 7,500 rpm
Torque: 99 Nm @ 6,000 rpm
Fuel capacity: 24.2 litres
Consumption: 4.6 ℓ/100 km
Transmission: six-speed DCT with on/off-road riding modes
Seat height: 920 mm standard/900 mm low
Ground clearance: 270 mm
Kerb weight 253 kg
Brakes: 310 mm disc (front)/256 mm disc (rear) with ABS
Price: From R182,300
We like: It is big, bold and beautiful … everything and more an Africa Twin should be.
We do not like: It is confusing to ride after being on a conventional bike for 40 years – but we are willing to learn. This is not a climb on and ride like Alfie Cox bike…
RoadTrip rating: 95%