Fire! What do you save first?

Plett sunset

We’ve all been party to at least one discussion around what precious object we’d save if fire ever threatened our homes. Pets usually get a favourable mention, then maybe photo albums, passports, laptops, cameras, whatever. Fortunately, most of us never have to do it for real.

I now know the answer, because I had to make the decision for real, and the answer is my Rune. My wife and I had spent a couple of hours one Tuesday a few weeks ago shifting three of our bikes to our remote, secure storage unit 15 minutes away. It’s one of about 30 lock-up single-car garages, located on a farm, surrounded by grassland, complete with sheep, geese and exotic birds. The whole place is surrounded by fencing, with an electric gate. Seemed like a good solution.

We were chatting to our neighbours the very next afternoon and they mentioned that they’d just been helping their relatives evacuate their house on the Airport Road in the face of the advancing bush fire. That’s when I recalled that they farm the relatives owned was right next to our new storage facility!

Our own house had miraculously escaped being burned to the ground in a bush fire back in February – a fire that destroyed three other homes in the area and laid waste to thousands of acres of open land. This new fire was being driven by gale-force winds and was now threatening the western outskirts of our town. Our own house was reasonably safe, whatever happened, because all the surrounding vegetation had been burnt away in the previous fire. But the bikes…!

We collected my riding gear and hot-footed it over to the storage units. The glow of the approaching fire was clearly visible, albeit maybe a few kilometres away. We considered the logistics of moving all three bikes to a place of greater safety, but that was going to be quite an exercise as darkness fell and the temperature dropped. The wind seemed to be keeping the fire on a parallel path to the storage units, not on a direct path towards it.

Move all three? Leave all three? Move one? We decided to move one, and that was the moment of truth: we saved the Rune. I rode it past neighbouring farms, past the airport, the eerie glow of the bush fire acting as a backlight in the gathering gloom, Peter following in the bakkie. We left it in the car port of an apartment we have in a nearby golf estate and decided to risk leaving the Ducati and the TL in the storage unit.

We called the next day to check that they had survived the night, but the phone line was permanently busy. So we drove over and were relieved to see the storage area had escaped the fire, although several houses in the area had not been so lucky. We breathed a sigh of relief and decided to leave all the bike where they were for a few days.

Two days later, the fire came back – a fierce, raging tsunami of a bush fire, driven by winds of up to 150 km/h. It would claim seven lives and more than 500 houses as it swept from the western side of the town of Sedgefield to Plettenberg Bay, 50 kilometres to the east. Sadly, Ian Barnard, one of the four volunteer firefighters who’d saved our own home back in February, was badly burned in the fire, and a colleague of his died. The whole incident was classified as a national disaster for South Africa.

We still couldn’t reach our storage company by phone (it turned out the phone lines had been burned down) and so drove out to see the damage for ourselves. It dark now and that was one eerie drive. The Airport Road looked normal to start with, then we could see the smouldering tree trunks on both sides of the road: entire forests had been burned down, pine plantations and indigenous trees both. A road sign still burned on the right; a direction board was being locked by flames around its edges on the left; there was no one in sight.

The landscape has been changed so much that we drove past the storage area in the dark, not recognising any of the usual landmarks. Fearful that it had all burned down, we turned around and stared into the gloom, and there they were: 25-30 garages, still standing, seemingly untouched. In our headlights we could see that the grass had been burnt black, right up to the edges of the garages. The fire had burned out a few feet from the storage units, as you can see in the photo; the object on the left is a burnt-out freight container.


The next morning showed the full extent of the devastation: entire farms destroyed, houses gutted, vegetation burnt to a crisp. I’m happy to say that all three bikes were unmarked (the TL and Ducati in storage, the Rune on the golf estate).

Rune at Saarinen 3

But there was no getting away from the tragic loss of life, the hundreds of lost – and in many cases uninsured – homes. These losses hung like a pall over a dozen communities along the coast. And, as I was to learn, one motorcycle enthusiast whose extraordinary, unique collection was garaged only 800 metres from my two machines, had lost everything.


Escape into the smooth blue yonder

Dusty dirt road 1

The other day I wrote about living down a dirt road in South Africa’s Western Cape and waiting for a rare visit from a road grader to make it passable for road bikes (the image above hardly does justice to the rutted, potholed surface). Rarely has something as prosaic as a grader brought so much joy, such eager anticipation – but today that’s exactly what it did to me. It signalled freedom, the first chance to escape in two weeks.

Earlier this year my wife Peter and I made Plettenberg Bay our home. We still spend part of the year in Dubai, part in London and part in Jo’ burg, but Plett (below) is now our base; it’s where we have all our stuff, all in one place for the first time in years.


Part of the pleasure in all this was to be the fact that most of my bikes are here, and now so were we. The fly in the ointment has been that dirt road. It’s used by ultra-heavy logging trucks and trailers, and they churn up the dirt surface into deep corrugations that are misery to navigate in anything other than a tough 4WD or on a proper off-road bike.

I’ve banged on about the damage the road has caused my bikes, and I’ll stop now, but even our Tonka-toy-tough Nissan bakkie has lost bits along the way; one neighbour had a shock absorber fall off his Land-Rover, another lost his exhaust pipe, and another has been pitched off the road in his Suzuki Jimny three times in a week because of this surface.

They grade the road maybe once every four or five weeks, and for perhaps the first 24 hours it becomes a usable dirt road. Then the trucks come and carve their contemptible corrugations all over again. So three of my bikes have had to stay in the garage pretty much full time since our move south, apart from a few joyous moments on the Day The Grader Came.

Well, today was such a day, so I abandoned all other plans, such as they were, and headed for the highway on first the TL, which has had the least road time of late, then the Ducati, and finally the Rune. The V-Strom has seen more regular use in all weathers since it seems best able to withstand the abuse, so there wasn’t the same compelling urge to ride it.

The weather was perfect: dry, sunny, clear blue skies, maybe 23 degrees C, with a cool breeze that swept through my mesh riding jacket and felt fresh and invigorating. The newly graded dirt was by no means perfect, but it was passable, and the Suzuki felt wonderful once out on the tarred main road: stable, smooth, grunty. Every time I ride the TL it reminds me what a superbly balanced package it is and why I fell in love with the breed the first time I rode one in Hong Kong (and bought it on the spot).

The SportClassic was next up, and I treated myself to a new route blessed with a mixture of smooth, fast bends and long straights – perfect Ducati country. The Termignoni racing exhaust filled the air with its music, and God was in his heaven. Even the light traffic seemed to melt away.

Finally, out came the Rune, and my grin went to its widest setting. I’ve sung this bike’s praises before, many times, probably ad nauseum, but it just feels so right. Then standard Gold Wing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but its engine is a legend, and in its heightened state of Rune tune it combines utter turbine-like smoothness with a sporty near-wail and great throttle response. The riding position suits the bike so well, and it makes street-legal speeds of 100 to 120 km/h feel like fun. When the fancy takes you, just wind open the throttle in top and the bike thrusts forward.

The controls feel like they were designed by a top engineer at Rolls Royce, so smooth and precise are they in operation. The whole ensemble just works. It’s way off being perfect, mind: rear suspension is way too stiff, the riding position is not a long-distance charmer except for the ultra-tough, and the single seat prevents me from sharing the experience with my wife, or indeed anyone else. But the combination of the way it looks, the way it feels and the way it goes just adds up to one of the most superb bikes I’ve ever ridden. So by the time I trundled the Rune back homeward, I too was in heaven.

We’re looking into remedies for the road: getting heavy trucks banned on safety grounds, persuading the authorities to grade it more often, and investigating why the tarring has been postponed for four long years and whether it might be brought forward a bit. Some other road projects clearly jumped the queue, and I’m keen to know how and why.

I’m not hopeful, though, which is why I’ve just rented myself a secure lock-up storage garage 15 minutes from the house, on a farm, accessible via a tarred road and just a little stretch of short grass. The V-Strom will remain at the house to serve as a shuttle to the storage garage, and hopefully all four bikes will finally get ridden whenever the fancy takes me.

Waiting for the grader

TL in 2017

The dirt road that runs for a kilometre between our house and the highway gets so rutted that it literally breaks vehicles. Our Nissan bakkie has lost one mudflap and had all four of its wing valences loosened by the vibration; two indicator stalks have broken on both the Ducati and the TL; the TL’s rear indicators no longer work; the V-Strom has had both mirrors damaged; and the Rune has collected two stone chips and a fractured front indicator lens lug. The authorities planned to tar the road in January this year, but now say it will be 2021 before it gets done; this being Africa, who knows?

Being reunited with the bikes after months away in Dubai was too exciting to pass up on the opportunity to ride, so I took the Rune out and rode it slowly and gingerly over the ruts and through the loose rocks to the highway. Once there, it was bliss: that ultra-smooth motor, the solidity of the beast, the slight snarl from the exhaust, the ample power, and the just-cruisin’ riding position. Warm late-summer sun (this being the southern hemisphere) and a cool breeze just added to the moment.

Rumour has it that there are just five Runes in South Africa, although someone told me he thought there might be 20. Since I now have it on good authority that only 1,508 were ever made, the five figure is probably correct. The bottom line is that almost no one here has ever seen one, so any ride brings its share of smiles, questions, photographs and thumbs-ups.

When it came time to fuel up, though, I came across a quaint South African custom I haven’t experienced in 50 years of riding in dozens of countries around the world: the request that you get off the bike while it is being filled. I’d forgotten about this, and boy is it irritating!

One imagines that there must have been two or three incidents of bikes spontaneously combusting while at the petrol pump, their riders horribly burned or turned to ash in seconds. A quick search on the Internet shows no such record, so presumably this is a rule imposed solely by Shell. The problem, as any rider without a centre-stand knows, is that you can’t fill the tank to the brim while the bike is on its side-stand. In a country where the murder rate is sky-high and education standards are not what they should be, they sit around and make rules about filling motorcycles with petrol. Ho hum.

Next up was the V-Strom, because I knew it could cope with the road far better than the two sports bikes. Okay, it was still uncomfortable, but viable. I noticed that the tyres felt a little hard and lacking grip on the tarmac. The pressures were spot on and there’s ample tread left, but I think the rubber has hardened from three years in Dubai, where the summer heat plays havoc with tyres. Time for new boots. My nearest dealer quoted me for some Mitas E10 tyres and some Bridgestone Trail Wings, and I decided the original tyres weren’t so bad after all.

I treated the TL to its second new battery in two years. I have no idea what’s going on there – all the bikes have been kept on identical trickle chargers year-round. Might be the fact that the most recent replacement was Chinese. Fifty years on, and we’re saying the same things about Chinese product quality that we used to say back then about Japanese quality – but that changed fast. And I treated myself to some new riding gloves. I own about five pairs already, but two are with our bike in the UK and three were in a shipping container somewhere off the coast of Africa at that exact moment. Bad planning.

The road is so bad that the Rune, TL and Ducati are trapped in my garage until the road grader pays its next visit, so I’ve been looking for other solutions – like a secure lock-up garage accessible via a smooth, tarred road. Meantime, the new gloves have already started to disintegrate after about four rides. I checked the label just now. Made in China? No – Pakistan. Hmmm…