The land where dreams come true

Published: 17 March 2000

SUNSHINE all year round. Smooth, grippy and challenging back roads through beautiful scenery. A virtually zero police presence. And a biker-friendly public which treats motorcyclists like every other road user.

This unbelievable biking scenario sounds more like a Hollywood script than anything that could ever happen in real life, but for some lucky people, this utopia is actually a reality which can be experienced 365 days a year – in South Africa.

OK, you’ll have to travel a fair few miles to get in on the scene, and the country isn’t without its share of bad press, but the feeling you get when you ride around out there makes you seriously think about emigrating. Looking back on my recent trip, I don’t know why I came home. I’ve never had so much fun on a bike – ever!

I’d already been there for two days to test Kawasaki’s new ZX-12R. This had given me the chance to acclimatise to the country, and what I’d seen made me realise I wanted to experience its charms without the pressures of pandering to photographer Howard Boylan’s constant request for pictures.

It must have been good if I thought it was worth getting up at 6am... on a wintry Sunday morning. But winter here means that even then it’s around 10°C and rising. By the time you’ve got your leathers on, and your engine and tyres warmed up, it’s up to 15°C.

Today, with the ZX-12 test report safely e-mailed back to the office and the photos winging their way home on a 747, Iwas determined to find out if a South African motorcyclist’s life really is as good as it seems.

Getting out to the biker’s haunt at Kosmos, about 50 miles from the centre of Johannesburg, didn’t take long. Well, we were on the Kawasaki and a seriously modified Triumph T509. Our guides for the day, from the Japanese firm’s local importer, were on ZX-9Rs, ZX-6Rs and a Triumph T595.

Even at this early hour everyone is wide awake, brimming with enthusiasm and raring to go. There’s no doubt it’s going to be a race to the wire. " Gatso " and " speed restrictions " aren’t part of the vocabulary in this part of the world, and our companions only know one way to ride – fast.

I learned that as soon as we turned on to a sliproad for a stretch of dual carriageway. In Britain you’d be aware that coppers could be lurking, so you’d take it carefully until you’d checked the traffic for white Volvo T5s.

But over here that’s not even a consideration. Speed limits exist, but they aren’t really enforced, meaning my companions have hit the throttle stop before I’ve changed gear.

Within minutes the pace is red-hot and we’re thrashing along at serious speeds. It feels safe, but you wouldn’t dare do this back in the UK.

You can overtake on either side, so there’s none of the frustration of not being able to get past lane-hogging traffic so typical of motorway travel at home. And cars are much more pro-biker, moving out of the way at the earliest opportunity to let you get on with your mission.

Suddenly the pace gets even hotter as a spirited driver of a Porsche 911 turbo indicates he wants to join us for some fun. He floors his black beast and is smiling with satisfaction as he starts to leave us behind. But Boylan has other ideas and takes on the responsibility of flying the flag for Britain.

But the Porsche is soon running pretty much flat-out. The driver still looks friendly, but his slightly smug expression is completely wiped from his face when he realises the Kawasaki’s headlight beam is burning a hole in his bumper and it still has plenty more power to declare. Good on the driver though, he quickly moves over and grins as the bike leaves him for dead.

This a great place for seeing just what you can get from your bike at the limit. Generally the roads are good and there’s very little traffic, especially if you get up early.

As we turn off the main route and approach one of the area’s favourite bikers’ gathering spots, our guides warn there might be a few police around – but for good reason.

" The Bridge " is where riders like to meet to race each other flat-out along five miles of the straightest and smoothest dual-carriageway you’ll ever see.

On most weekends you’ll find a gang of people here, and whenever a new bike is launched this is where owners come to test the manufacturers’ top speed claims. It’s South Africa’s version of the Ace Cafe in the ’60s, except ton-up boys could be substituted for 170-up lunatics. And there’s no cafe...

It sounds great, but flying along with well over 150 on the clock comes with risks. It’s not coppers, car drivers or even human. No, the biggest threat comes from cattle, which stray across the Tarmac whenever they feel the grass is greener on the other side of the road.

The police know the risks, and that’s why they cruise by now and again. You can’t blame them – can you imagine cleaning up the mess...? With local knowledge at hand you quickly learn where the cops and wildlife pose the greatest threats, and where to back off.

Today there’s no-one speed testing at the Bridge, so we move on to find some challenging roads. In this region of South Africa the corners are more of the fast, sweeping variety than the tighter stuff we’re used to back home, but at the speeds we are going they all seem quite tight!

By now the temperature is high enough to cause a bit of a sweat as the bikes are hustled through the bends. The plus-side is that this has helped the tyres heat to the point where they offer an obscene amount of grip. Apart from slicks I’ve never known rubber to stick so convincingly to the road.

This means it’s almost as easy to hold the bikes flat-out on the back roads as it is on the motorways. There are few cars and the more open nature of the routes means there’s plenty of visibility. Only blind rises need caution, though our spirits are so high that we simply use them as take-off ramps for monstrous wheelies!

As we near the Kosmos meeting place we’re joined by dozens of other bikes, and judging by what most riders are on it seems that, just like in the UK, sportsbikes rule the roost. This is even more obvious when we arrive.

Around 500 bikes are parked up and R1s, Blades, ZX-9s and GSX-Rs dominate the car park. There are some older and less sporty models like Guzzi Le Mans, BMW tourers and even the odd Harley, but the Kosmos really is the centre of the universe for superbikes.

It’s just like Box Hill or Matlock Bath, except a thousand times better. For a start you don’t need to wear two jumpers under your leathers to stay warm, there are no police cars patrolling the entrance waiting to pounce and the menus on offer look like they’ve come straight out of a fancy restaurant rather than a downmarket McDonalds. And with a beautiful view of a nearby lake, the place offers the perfect opportunity to sit around and talk bikes.

By now I think Iknow what riding in South Africa is all about, but a chat with some of the Kosmos regulars gives me a much better insight into their life. This has been a popular gathering point for more than 20 years and it’s now the place to be seen. Most people come here to show off and chat over a snack and a drink, but the really serious guys turn up early, organise a race and leave the site for a thrash.They are back at 8am – now that’s commitment!

It’s rare to see police out here. Johannesburg has some fairly serious crime to control, so they seem to concentrate on that. And it’s a good job. Over half the bikes here don’t have number plates. Owners get a £30 fine if it’s missing, but that’s far cheaper than any speeding fine.

Other machines look more like racers than road bikes. And I’m not talking about a flashy race replica paintjob and aftermarket bodywork – these things don’t have lights and run on slick tyres! It turns out their owners only come here once in a blue moon to catch up on the gossip, and they usually stick to track days for their kicks.

These are hugely popular over here. Booking early is essential as the wait for the best events is 12 months! Despite this, most riders Ispeak to have experience on a track, but this isn’t surprising when Ifind out how much they cost – £40 for more than four hours on Kyalami’s World Superbike circuit.

And it’s not just the cost which isn’t the same as track days back home – the whole way of thinking behind these events is very different. For instance, everyone taking part has one-to-one tuition and crashing will see you kicked off the course, as will breaking the speed limit. Yes, they don’t care how fast you go on the road, but get too carried away on a circuit and you’re heading for an early bath. It seems very strange, but the ruling was introduced to stop racers turning up to test, disrupting proceedings.

Everything seems cheap over here, until you get people talking about the prices of bikes. Suddenly it seems like I’m back at Box Hill as people go on about how they’re being ripped off. Most big bike owners are aged 30-45 and need a decent income to afford their machines. New bikes are slightly more expensive than the UK (yes, it’s true), but the average South African earns far less than us. A ZX-12R will cost a few hundred quid more than it does here, at £9300, but that’s a year’s income to many riders and they need to be dedicated to own one.

The bike market is much smaller than it is in the UK, with a measly 10,000 machines registered last year. Bikes are considered a bit of a luxury and they’re used for leisure only. You don’t see them being used for commuting and smaller bikes are rare. Riding is not as seasonal at it is in the UK because of the weather, and some people, like ex-pat Alistair Hurst, prefer to ride in winter.

He said: " It’s great here, but it’s too hot in summer. Temperatures get up to 35° and there can be some very heavy rainfall for a few hours in the afternoons. In winter it’s much cooler and more comfortable.

" But when your only complaint is that it’s too hot it’s not that bad, is it? You can’t fault riding here. I can thrash my Bimota SB6R without the risk of getting caught. The roads to the north of Jo’Burg, in the eastern Transvaal, are some of the best in the world. Many riders trailer their bikes there, thrash around for the weekend and then drive back home. "

South Africa’s biking fraternity is a man’s world and women are rarely seen riding. Roma Staines is an exception, and she loves caning her GSX-R600 round the back roads. " I often get looks of surprise when I take my helmet off, " she said. " There aren’t many of us and most don’t ride sports bikes. They prefer cruisers, but I like going fast. I’ve ridden my husband’s Hayabusa a few times and I really like it, but the new GSX-R750 is the bike I really fancy. "

Just like in Britain, bikes are experiencing something of a renaissance over here, and this is confirmed by Honda’s local sales manager Steve Davis. He said: " We’re struggling to meet demand for the new Blade and SP-1. I reckon I could have doubled my order and still have had a waiting list.

" Biking is a superb thing to do out here. The weather is fantastic, the police are liberal and theft isn’t a big problem. That’s why it’s attracting many new people. And though you have to be comfortably off to afford a new bike, there’s a real cross-section of people riding now.

" We’ve got the weekly TV show Twistgrip, which is dedicated to bikes, and the public accepts us much more these days. The smelly rogue image has long been forgotten. "

Davis sums up biking life in South Africa perfectly. Riding is a pleasure in the UK, but only when several things come together, like the weather, the roads, a lack of police. Over here, people take all that for granted.

They say America is the land where dreams come true. If you’re a biker, that land is South Africa.

South African Motorcycle Tours organises riding trips to this great country. Details:0027-2179-47887.