May 7 2008

Start of a new obsession

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Not sure where this will end up, but the process is fun.

It started… gee, where did it start? Technically it started nearly 6 years ago, when I saw some dirt-bikers in the high country while on a 4WD trip. My best friend and I made ourselves the promise that we’d do the same by the end of the following year, and we kept that promise. We did some homework, ordered matching bikes, and in one July day we sat our learner’s permits and picked up our new rides.

I guess for me it had always been about adventure riding more than dirt-biking, though I didn’t know there was a difference back then, and there certainly wasn’t a dual-sport bike to be had in the 250cc range. We settled on Kawasaki KLX250’s. 4 stroke. Water cooled. Quiet. Gutless. Perfect.

Our kept promise took us back to the high country on our own bikes later that year. Two complete rookies, doing what we set out to do. And not particularly well. But we had a ball, and were well looked after by a couple of experienced riders who have since become great friends.

April the following year we planned and executed a 10 day trip through central and western Tasmania. We set ourselves up with back packs, saddle bags, a GPS and a tent, and off we went. It was an unforgettable adventure: two green riders on green bikes with bright yellow L plates. What an absolute blast!

Over the years in between we’ve continued to ride, though the stuff of life has all too often got in the way of getting out on the bikes. Though it took me a while to realise it, I was also frustrated by the fact that my bike really wasn’t set up for extended journeys on-road. Mostly I’d leave it at my friend’s place, since we rode together and he lived closer to the tracks we liked. But even when I had it at home it was never a daily ride. I toyed with getting a road bike, but what I really wanted was something that could go anywhere.

OK… confession time. It was after watching Long Way Round and Long Way Down (though not in that order, incidentally) that I got the itch to do something. A little sad, but I might as well admit it now.

Plan A was to get the bikes to Adelaide, then stick them on the Ghan to Alice Springs (taking them off for a trip to Uluru etc) and Darwin. This would mean the bikes could still be geared for off-road work, since there wouldn’t be thousands of kilometres of bitumen to negotiate. Half an hour of snooping on the ‘net revealed that the Ghan won’t take bikes unless they’re on a trailer, behind a car. That’s crazy! The Spirit of Tasmania will take them across the wild waters of Bass Strait, but Great Southern won’t take them up a steel track.

Which leads us to Plan B, or perhaps Plan A-and-a half: still take the Ghan, but factor in a support vehicle and trailer for every 3 bikes or so. A weekend-long conversation with a great mate and 4WD guru (who immediately nominated himself support crew and relief rider) led to the plan in its current state, which I’ll get to in a minute (be patient). The cost of the Ghan for bikes, cars et al could well be significant enough to make trailering the bikes the whole way on bitumen a viable option. The only trouble with that is it wouldn’t be an adventure ride then. We’d leave the bikes on the trailers til we got to the dirt tracks… and that just didn’t sit with me.

So what if we rode the whole way?

And that’s where things got exciting and crazy, all at once. One support vehicle, carrying tools, spares and (for certain parts of the trip) fuel. First thoughts were toward a diesel troopie with long-range tanks. Current thinking is favouring a turbo-diesel HiLux dual-cab. It’s cheaper to run, and the wall between the cabin and the spare fuel will make the trip a whole lot more pleasant for the support crew. We’d sell the 4WD when we got back, and split the cost (or profit?) between us.

But what about these bikes? They’d have to be able to handle about 8000 km of bitumen, plus long stretches of who-knows-what, while carrying rider, gear, food, water and camping stuff.

The LWR/LWD inspiration meant that BMW and KTM were obvious choices. Claudio’s outing on a little Russian bike in the middle of LWR, not to mention countless shots of Ewan and Charley trying to lift the 1150/1200 Adventures, told us that the big BMWs were just too big. (If you don’t know what I’m on about, watch the show.) And the $25,000 price tag was a little steep, too. Next on the radar was the 650 Dakar. Still big, heavy and expensive. What I would have taken if I was an actor getting free bikes to ride around the world… but I’m not.

None of the current KTMs really grab me, at least not as a dual-sport bike. The only ones that seem biased that way are big. And they’re expensive too.

My internet searching quickly led me to the Kawasaki KLR650. Over 20 years old, but recently updated with a highway-friendly fairing and upgraded bits. Every review I found raved about it, and up against dearer and supposedly toucher machines it seemed to keep winning, and winning over the critics. Those who liked the old one suddenly loved the new one. Road-bikers who wrote it off as a dirt bike were pleasantly surprised at its on-road poise. Dirt-bikers who thought it had gone soft and compromised were stunned to find that it was better off-road than its predecessor.

So I took one for a quick spin the other night. Never ridden anything so large in all my life. But I like it. It feels good (not that I know anything), it’s reviewing very very well, and best of all, it’s dirt cheap.

I’m not ready to buy yet, but I’ll post here when I am. In the meantime I’m researching the mods, add-ons and accessories that would make this bike a great weekend getaway machine and (if all goes to plan) the bike that will take me on the trip of a lifetime.

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