While we were not bothered through the night by any loud visitors in the campground, in the morning over coffee we did find evidence of a very sneaky one. Around 8 or 10 metres from our tent, we found some rather large footprints in the sand of a rather large pussycat. Tan got the shivers when we later confirmed from a wildlife book that it was in fact a leopard wondering around in our campsite.
The night previous, we had discussed our plans for the days ride with all the bikers that turned up. After a couple thousand kilometres of commuting tar highways I needed some adventure, a challenge, to break the boredom, to peak my interest in the trip and get the blood flowing again. South-west of Elephant Sands is sparsely populated Botswana bush with many saltpans, sand tracks, baobab trees and not much else. I was going to go ride there.
In the morning we were greeted with the news that Ireen and Alan (2-up on a F800GS), Peter and Gabriel (both on R1200GS, the air/oil cooled versions), and Ido (F800GS) would be joining Tan and I on our adventure to Kubu Island, an isolated campground in amongst baobab trees in the middle of Sua Pan. With that news, it didn’t take much peer pressure to get Mark and his gen 1 KLR650 to come along too making a total of 7 bikes and 8 people, a group about twice the size of what is probably ideal. But we weren’t going far – what could go wrong?
Peter and Gabriel on their R1200GSA’s on the track out of Elephant Sands
All the big beemers would leave all their luggage but the bare essentials at Elephant Sands so they could ride the tracks as unencumbered as possible, whilst Mark, Tan and I all had places to be after the Kubu Island assault so we would go fully loaded – soft sand be buggered. We had been carting knobby tyres for the last 2000kms in anticipation of some actual proper offroad riding, so I finished the last of 4 tyre changes that morning. And with 90% of our stuff packed up, I heard the thoroughly deflating sound of my front tyre rapidly…. err…. deflating. Bugger.
Now the sun was very hot and angry and we were running a late. I wanted to be on the road by 11 or so at the latest, but replacing the front tube in the sun (I picked up a thorn for the record) and then a relaxing cool-down in the shade meant it was after 12:30 by the time we left. We only had about 175kms to travel, of which 91kms was bush track, but it still wasn’t a good start.
Alan and Ireen 2 up on their F800GS. It was great to watch these two ride together – together being the operative term. They really rode as a team.
In Nata, everyone fuelled up their bikes and had one last kind-of civilised meal at a local Portuguese chicken joint. Discussing rations for the ride, I was expecting about 3 and a half hours for the 24kms of tar from Nata to the turnoff and then 91kms off-road to Kubu Island campground, so Tan and I took 6 litres of water each being ~3 litres for the hot afternoon riding and 3 litres spare. Everyone else did about the same.
We re-grouped at the turnoff, let down tyre pressures and hit the trail at about 3, well and truly behind schedule, but we should still make the campground with at least 30 minutes of sunlight, probably more if we had a good run. Within about 200m of the tar, the trail turned to deep soft sand and the group quickly spread out as Ido and Alan got a feel for riding in sand – something they hadn’t done a lot of before.
At the Kubu Island turnoff – only 91kms of fun and excitement to go!
Mark lead the way for the first little while as he had done this route before
We stopped a few times to regroup and take photos and after about 30 minutes I found myself as tail-end Charlie, where Murphy’s Law kicked in and I soon got that horrible feeling of a flat front tyre. Shit. I nearly had the wheel off when Mark and Gabriel arrived to investigate why I’d disappeared from the back of the group. Pulling the tube out that I had only put in a few hours earlier, I found a patch failed over the massive pinch I got in the slippery culvert in Namibia, the same pinch that went through the side wall of my front tyre. I had patched the massive hole knowing full well it was pretty risky, but figured for the cost of a patch it was worth a shot, and now at ~15psi in the baking hot afternoon sun (the BMW’s told us it was low forties for the record) it failed…. terminally. In retrospect, no patch could cover such a massive tear.
Peter monstering the track on his big beast
Ido on his F800GS
The group waiting for me while I fixed my flat
We probably lost 40 minutes by the time I’d put in a spare tube and packed up all my tools again. With Tan in the lead we soldiered on and were making good time, Tan looking back when she could to check I was there, and me doing the same to check on Peter or Gabriel behind me. Everything was going quite nicely and we probably knocked off 20kms when we stopped for a proper break and to re-group. Every 30 to 60 seconds or so, enough of a distance between bikes to not ride in too much dust, another bike would arrive – until we got to 5. Mark and Ido never showed.
The DR ready to roll
We waited patiently and at one stage I was convinced I saw a motorcycle glinting in the sun way way off in the distance. But when it never came, I went back looking. And rode and rode and rode to the point were I actually stopped and considered whether maybe Mark and Ido might have taken one of the small sidetracks and gotten lost. However Mark had come this way before so the idea of him getting so “geographically compromised” was a little unlikely, even for a Victorian, so I kept riding.
Waiting for Mark and Ido
Milling around… we got lots and lots of practice at this
I finally stumbled on them a good 20 minutes back riding at a fair clip on a tight sandy bush track. Turns out the heat had delaminated one of Ido’s patches on his front tyre also. With that changed and pumped up (killing my neat little motorcycle compressor in the process – failed inlet valve) we made our way back to the group, arriving with the sun going down and finding Alan’s bike with only one wheel. Turns out he had a flat too – a thorn went through his rear tyre. It was official, we were having one of “those” trips.
Back with Mark and Ido and the F800 listing heavily at the bow
Everyone pulled off the road about 20m down to a flat spot near the edge of the salt pan and we made camp. Due to the oppressive heat, everyone was pretty much buggered, “utterly shagged” maybe is a better description, me especially so. It had been stinking hot, and changing my front tyre twice in the sun really took it out of me. We put up our tents and lit a fire and were instantly inundated in a tempest of suicidal beetles attracted to the light and cooking themselves in the flames like popcorn, complete with a rather satisfying “snap crackle pop”. The dead beetles were literally 10 to 20mm deep for a 1m radius around the fire before they collectively realised getting that close to the flames was a really bad idea and they should all just go to bed.
Gabriel and Peter helping Alan with his flat rear tyre
Getting the big 1200 off the trail so we can make camp
Ido and Ireen generously volunteered to cook dinner and did a camping-Michelin star job of bully beef in tomato and garlic sauce on rice, and Tan volunteered up peaches in custard with crumbed cinnamon biscuits for dessert served in the cut-off bottoms of water bottles. It was all rather civilised after an afternoon of labouring in the sun, and we went to bed well fed and happy and exceptionally tired.
After breaky and a couple coffees we hit the road again about 8:30am. Considering yesterday’s issues of bikes separated up hill and down dale I was especially conscious of the group getting split again, so I made an effort of stopping regularly to regroup. Thankfully this was easy as the next section of track was especially soft and deeply rutted sand, so stopping was only natural as a number of bigger bikes went belly up.
A 1200GS resting on its “off-road sidestand”
Gabriel giving it some to get through the deep soft sand
…and making a dust storm. These guys did really well on these big machines
And it didn’t take long before the group was split once more. Gabriel, Peter, Tan and I waiting under a tree before the others arrived after not too long, maybe only 15 minutes this time, Ido’s front tyre was once again the culprit. This time, in an effort to keep the group moving, Mark pumped a bunch of sealing goop into the tube and it seemed to hold. We kept going for another couple kays, and you guessed it, the group split again. This time it was Gabriel, Tan and I waiting in the nearest bit of shade, which is pretty meager below the collection of sticks that pass for trees in this part of Botswana.
Tan smartly took the ‘B-line’
We figured it must be another flat, so we weren’t too concerned that no one had arrived after 20 minutes or so. And even if it was an injury or something mechanical, with 4 bikes and 5 people back there it was obvious there would be little we could add to any situation. However after a good 40 minutes we went back to investigate and yep, another bloody flat. Ido’s heavily patched tube couldn’t handle the heat of the day and the low pressures for sand and duly expired, the sealing goop had merely prolonged its life a little.
I’m so ronery, so ronery…
Gabriel, Tan and myself. This is as far south as we got
By now it was 11:30am, the sun was blaring in full force and we were still 30kms from Kubu Island. Tan and I were still ok with 2 to 2.5 litres of water each, but some of the others were down as low as 1 to 1.5 litres with the nearest source of water being an adventure camp about 15kms away. However being the off-season, no-one was 100% certain it would be open. With that uncertainty, the heat, and the difficulty we had been having making progress, it became clear that the mood of the group had switched from going to Kubu Island to returning back to Nata.
As Tan, Mark and I were handling the conditions a little easier on our 650’s, and we had all our possessions with us to continue on afterwards (us west, Mark east) it was suggested that we go through to Kubu and the beemers would all return. Considering the water situation though I didn’t feel it was such a good idea to split the group, if something went wrong on the return at least a couple of us could make a mercy dash to town for water if necessary. So we all spun around and started to head back.
On the return journey, a re-group stop and the bikes are all coming!
With a change of direction we had a change of fortunes and we started off well, making light work of the trail in reverse. Who knows, maybe it was downhill that way? (it isn’t btw). I lead and stopped periodically and the group would always come back together, an unfamiliar phenomenon for us up until now. We made good time and rode back past our campsite and all the way back to where Ido had his first flat tyre the previous afternoon when I noticed Tanya had disappeared from my mirrors. I rode back maybe three of four hundred metres and found all the bikes parked on the trail and Tan looking a bit shell shocked sitting under a bush.
Turns out Tanya had hit a square edged lip while riding on a clay pan at about 60 or 65kph, her front tyre pinch flatted and instantly deflated and she binned it pretty hard to the left. The bike came down on her left foot, twisting her left knee a little and pinning her to the ground. Thankfully her right leg was free and she was able to kick it off. An impressive thing was that a lot of the weight of the bike was resting on the corner of the bashplate which was on the ankle of Tanya’s Sidi Crossfire, yet she had no pain or foot injury whatsoever. Thankfully it was one of those instances where you get what you pay for and the boots paid back that investment with interest. The Sidi’s really are a bloody great boot.
More time was lost and energy expended fixing the flat in the heat, the beemers again confirming a +40 day. Once underway again Tan went first so she could set a comfortable pace and regain some confidence after a heavy fall. Soon enough the group split again, with Tan, myself and Gabriel out the front and no sign of the others. After a sizable wait, Gabriel offered to head back and investigate the problem. 15 minutes later we heard the boxer twin return with the news that Alan’s F800 had died and was being towed by Ido’s F800! Alan had previously suffered some intermittent fuel delivery problems and assumed that a vacuum was forming in his tank, however this instance proved it wasn’t that – with the cap off it still wouldn’t go. So Ireen jumped on the back of Peter’s 1200 and out came the tow-rope.
The 3 of us waiting unknowingly while Ido is towing Alan through the sand
This sent shivers up my spine as I instantly thought we were about to have one F800GS with a fuel problem and another with a burnt clutch from dragging it through soft sand. But with that thought we heard the sound of motors coming up the trail and suddenly there is Alan’s bike going again….. an intermittent fuel problem on an earlier model F800GS? Sounded like a dodgy fuel pump to me. It was agreed he should lead the group and get as far up the trail while the bike still went, and Ireen would follow with Peter. It wasn’t long later though that Peter had an awkward drop, hurt his back, and Ireen got handballed on to Gabriel who took her the rest of the way. Fuck me, what a trip. But it got worse, I don’t know how, but it did.
With the beemers out front, Tan, myself and Mark ended up at the back of the group. Tan dropped her bike in a tricky soft bit not far past where Peter hurt his back. Mark and I helped her up and got her started again, but we hadn’t gotten far when Mark suddenly wasn’t behind me. I waited by the trail for a couple minutes, then went back looking to find Mark chilling atop his fallen bike.
The KLR is a bit porkier than the DR and in the heat of day it’s definitely a lot easier to right that cruise ship with 2 sets of hands. I made Mark pay the fee for me helping him lift his bike – a shaming photo as evidence – and when the right way up it cried the dreaded rrrrer rrrrrerr rrrrrrerrrrrr. Bloody flat battery, the stop start riding with the KLR’s thermo fan running combined with Mark forgetting to turn his ignition off with the bike on its side meant we were stuck, and with one last suck off my Camelbak, now out of water. What a bloody day.
Mark relaxing on his KLRmchair
Tan and I have Merritt plugs directly hooked up to the battery which in a pinch we can jump start from bike to bike with a special jumper cable I carry, however that is no good for helping anyone else. We made some vain attempts to move the bike but the strain on us in the heat with no water meant moving the bike by brute force wasn’t a clever idea at all, and the strain on my poor DR’s clutch if we tried to tow it was also out of the question. That meant that getting some help (we knew Peter had some conventional jumper cables) was the only real option. Mark parked himself under the nearest tree and I rode the last couple kms, maybe only 3 by this point, to the tar road.
Out at the road everyone was completely out of water and looked half dead. Ireen and Alan had gone, they went straight for town trying to get as far as possible with their intermittently functioning bike. Tanya was also gone; with me not showing she rightfully assumed that something was wrong so went for water, which was now critical. Everyone else was struggling for some shade under a tree. Tan returned with a backpack full of water bottles and was set upon like a sad victim at the start of a bad zombie movie.
Hydrated again (well, at least not so thirsty anyway), Peter got his jumper cables, fired up his 1200 and we went back for Mark. He might be a Victorian with a bad haircut and a KLR but we went back anyway, which was worth it as we got another fantastic shaming opportunity. While Mark was waiting on the side of the track, 2 blokes turned up with a nice new Landcruiser and offered Mark some assistance which he politely declined when he sighted an M16 assault rifle in the cab, claiming that the bike was too heavy to lift on with 3 people (not far from the truth). The heavily armed good Samaritans then went for muscle and returned with a couple local lads and lofted the bike on the tray and Mark too, and presented them to Peter and I riding up the trail. My immediate thought, what an ideal photo opportunity!
Peter preparing to go back into battle and retrieve Mark
The KLR was simple enough to bump-start when back on the tar road, and we all returned to Elephant Sands licking our lips at the thought of some cold beers and a hearty steak.
The KLR – recovered by some guys we are guessing were anti-poaching authorities. Nice one Mark! A rhino probably got killed while these guys were saving your arse! ☺
To wrap up though, I think everyone rode very well. Gabriel and Peter were impressive on their big 1200’s, proving that in the right hands the GS can take on sand. Alan and Ireen were exceptional, as Alan was not so experienced off road but took to it like a duck to water, and Ireen was a fantastic pillion moving in perfect unison with Alan. It was great to watch them ride together as a unit and they really managed very well. Ido was also not so experienced off-road but he also rode really well and learned fast on his F800. Although Mark claimed he hadn’t ridden a great deal of sand, he rode dirt bikes a lot as a kid and it showed having minimal issues on his KawaPiggy.
It’s just a shame we got an awful lot of bad-luck all come together in one trip. In retrospect we probably would have been better off to split into two groups riding independent of each other so that everyone would not be delayed by every issue. That really consumed our water reserves – sitting and waiting in the heat. The second issue was the tubes; old patched tubes and extreme heat don’t mix, and we paid the price with my flat and Ido’s as well. But it was a great trip nonetheless, everyone dropped their bike at least once, but we had some good times and some great riding and made many good war stories to recount drinking beers that evening back at Elephant Sands.