In June 2006 Paul Blezard went to Namibia to test BMW’s new R1200GS Adventure in a whole variety of contrasting conditions from tarmac to rocky piste, smooth dirt to soft sand dunes and also rode into the depths of Africa’s answer to the Grand Canyon.


The fleet of eleven R1200GS Adventures was waiting for us on the tarmac as our small turbo-prop plane lurched in the strong crosswinds before landing safely at Springbok’s tiny airfield in the North West corner of South Africa. By 9am we were on the road, heading north for the border with Namibia. Half of us were journalists, from Spain, Italy, Germany and the UK. I was the only Brit apart from globe-trotting actor and bike nut Charley Boorman for whom this was his first serious ride since crashing out of the Dakar rally six months before. The other five riders were all BMW personnel including Dr Herbert Diess, the head of the entire BMW motorcycle division, BMW Motorrad. There was also a back-up squad in two BMW X5 4x4s and a third X5 carrying a TV crew from a South African motoring programme.

We rode in convoy for the hundred-odd kilometres to the border at Vioolsdrif and a further hundred ‘klicks’ on good tarmac up Namibia’s B1 highway, the main route north. Even with the wide aluminium panniers on the back the Adventure still felt absolutely stable at well over 100mph and the big Adventure screen, combined with the wide 33 litre tank, provided superb protection from the windblast, which was cool when we first set off (it being mid-winter in South Africa) – but by mid-day it was like a hot summer’s day in England.

After an hour or so on tarmac we turned west onto our first dirt road, which, like many in the country, was smooth and fast. We then headed north up a more minor and bumpier one. It was on the first real corner of this dirt road that Toni, from the Spanish edition of Men’s Health failed to make the turn and cart-wheeled his bike in the boulder-strewn shrubbery, fortunately without serious damage to man or machine. It certainly provided a good test of the crash bars on the Adventure, and they came through with flying colours! (The only damage was a broken left spotlight and the clip on the left hand-guard snapped as it’s designed to do, while the panniers were severely dented but protected the rear end of the bike). The severely shaken but mercifully intact rider retired to the seat of an X5.

Toni from Spain and his GSA survived a cartwheel into the shrubbery

Further up this road there were some soft sandy sections, usually at dry river washouts, which some of the riders found testing, especially the young Italian from Due Ruote magazine who’d never ridden off tarmac before! My own biggest ‘moment’ that first day was on the approach to a level crossing hidden around a sharp 90 degree bend that had been put in so that the road crossed the parallel railway line at a safe right-angle. My heart missed a beat but I recovered in time to take a joyous flying leap off the raised level crossing.

Spectacular Views

Things got even more interesting when we took a much narrower dirt track towards the famous Fish River CanyonAfrica’s equivalent to America’s Grand Canyon. Hazards included some not-so-dry river crossings and the longest, softest sections of sand so far, which our Italian friend found very difficult. Phil, an ex-pat Englishman from BMW South Africa’s car division, also took a few dives, as did Theunis, the beefy TV presenter. The spare bikes and trailer were left at a farm since the road thereafter was really rough and rocky. Further on I got a front wheel puncture but rode it flat for the last mile or so to the next farm, which included the softest, sandiest section of piste so far across a wide section of flood plain. Even with the front tyre flat the Adventure still did the business – just stand up, lean back and keep the throttle open to keep it going straight.

At the second farm the tyre was successfully plugged from the outside with the standard BMW tubeless puncture repair kit and we continued on the rockiest track yet. This led us to the spectacular edge of the Fish River Canyon just as the sun was setting, providing spectacular views and great photos.

Blez and Charley Boorman on the edge of the Fish River Canyon

We then rode right down into the valley to the riverside just before dark. A superb temporary camp had been set up there, complete with bar and hot showers! A lamb had been roasting for five hours by the time we arrived and the evening passed quickly around the camp fire as the wheels of international camaraderie were oiled by good food and the odd beverage…

This lamb had been roasting for five hours by the time we arrived at the riverside camp




Day Two

It was cold when I poked my head out of the tent in the morning because the canyon was still in shadow but within an hour the campsite was bathed in warming sunlight as people slowly got their brains in gear over coffee and breakfast. The rear tyre on ‘my’ bike had mysteriously gone flat overnight, so I swapped onto the GS that Lachlan Harris had been riding while a spare wheel was fitted from the back-up vehicle. The rocky climb back out of the canyon was quite testing and we had to pull TV presenter Theunis Nel and his bike out of a bush on the way up. A few miles further on, I got a bit too cocky in the soft sand and suffered my first and only spill of the trip with a graceful and painless dive over the handlebars. As I dusted myself down I thought, ‘Well, if you’re going to fall off, that was definitely the right place to do it!”

Phil kindly took another dive in the sand which I was able to catch on camera and at the second farm, where we’d left the trailers the day before, Lachlan swapped the low seat from his previous bike onto his new one.



We retraced the previous day’s route back to the main dirt road, but this time I was riding nearer the front, chasing Charley Boorman on the sandy going at much higher speeds. It was Charley’s first proper ride since breaking bones in both hands in his ‘Race to Dakar but you wouldn’t have known it to see him ride! I was impressed by his ability – he’d clearly made a lot of progress since he did his first BMW Off Road training prior to going ‘The Long Way Round’ with Ewan McGregor in 2004.


Herbert Diess didn’t bother to turn his ABS off


On the previous day I’d ridden with the ABS switched off, but after momentarily locking the front brake about an hour into the second day I experimented with leaving it on and found that, in stark contrast to the system on the bike’s predecessor, the R1150GSA, the new 1200’s ABS works reassuringly well on dirt tracks. BMW Motorrad boss Dr Diess, who is an excellent dirt rider, said that he never bothers to switch the ABS off, while BMW SA’s chief off-road instructor Jan du Toit always does.



We paused to re-group at the junction with the main road and were entertained by Jan doing third gear stand-up wheelies for hundreds of metres back and forth along the dirt road. Impressive!


Charley B watches Jan du T pulling impressive wheelies….


We continued on to the Canyon Road House for an excellent brunch. The place had a kind of ‘Wild West’ feel to it, and was decorated with wonderful old Namibian motoring advertisements in English, German and Afrikaans. (From 1884 to 1915 Namibia was a German colony known as German South West Africa or Deutsch-südwestafrika). There were also old vehicles, and parts of them, dotted about both inside and out. For example, there was an entire section of a car, complete with rear wheel, in the washroom and a derelict old Honda Sports 90 outside, hanging from chains like a piece of modern art.




Old Honda as outdoor art…


Dirt Road Dangers


Although the main dirt roads in Namibia are wide and very well-graded, they do have a couple of hazards that keep you on your toes, although both are always well signposted. The dry river bed crossings can be very soft in places and the frequent cattle grids are only half the width of the road, so if there’s a car coming the other way, you’d better be damn sure that you can either make it over the grid before it gets there or stop beforehand instead.



The cattle grids are only half the width of the dirt roads


There’s also the blinding dust created by the passage of vehicles. We rode on to the official Fish River Canyon viewing point, which, unlike our overnight stop, is open to the public and provided some more great views and photos. We also met a group of South African bikers (all on BMWs, as it happens) coming out just as we went through the entrance gate.




The spectacular Fish River Canyon seen from the official viewing point



Back on the main dirt road I saw over 100mph on the speedo for the first time in my life on a dirt road. I thought that was pretty quick but Jan du Toit said he’d clocked 200kph – 125 mph!

Shortly afterwards we turned onto a much narrower and twisty dirt road that had some really nasty, almost ‘kerb-like’ bumps on it which showed that while the Adventure’s long travel Telelever front end is excellent, it still has limitations compared to the beefy and more conventional upside-down telescopic forks fitted to BMW’s competition-oriented HP2 (which I’d had the pleasure of racing in the Hafren Rally in Wales six months earlier). This road led to some fantastic dunes near the Gamkab river where we spent about an hour thoroughly enjoying ourselves. Despite its apparent bulk, the new 1200 is a lot more manageable and forgiving in tricky going than the old 1150 was and it was even more fun in the sand without the panniers.

(I’m not a huge fan of humungously wide panniers at the best of times; I think top boxes are much more practical in most circumstances, and especially in urban situations. My Givi Maxia top box is big enough to hold two BMW full face helmets without adding a millimetre to the width of even a scooter, whereas the Adventure 1200’s panniers make what is already a wide bike nearly as wide as a small car; no great problem in the wide open spaces of Namibia but a pain in the arse in London. Ironically Herbert Diess dropped his 1200 when he was nudged by another rider who mis-judged the width of his bike with the panniers on as he tried to squeeze past.




Blez gets the power down in the dunes

Jan du Toit gets the front end up in the dunes


The Namibian desert was greener than it had been for many years

We headed off into another amazing canyon while the back-up vehicles took the more direct route to our overnight stop. By this time our Italian friend, the rookie dirt rider, was exhausted and his bike was taken over by one of the support mechanics. Half way into the canyon Herbert Diess hit a rock really hard and dented his front rim so badly that it could no longer hold air.

That’s a big ol’ dent. No wonder the tyre wouldn’t hold air!

 With the spare front wheel no longer with us, Jan du Toit just hopped on the bike and rode it 40kms with a completely flat front tyre, cruising at 100kph most of the way! We joined the main highway alongside the Orange River which marks the border between Namibia and South Africa, passing a large shanty town and the continent’s largest vineyard along the way. This road alternates between smooth but very dusty dirt, and a new section described as a ‘dust palliative scheme’ –or plain old tarmac as we would call it. We arrived at our idyllic overnight stop on the banks of the Orange River just as night was falling.


We had some superb food, plenty to drink and everyone said what a great couple of days we’d had.

Jan du Toit (left) and Charley B chatting with Johan, our knowledgeable guide (right)

Rare weather, beautiful flora


Namibia is a beautiful, largely deserted country, but we were extremely fortunate to see it in very rare circumstances, with unheard of autumn rainfall which had made the desert bloom in amazing colours. As one of the local organisers said: “You guys have been through a river which many people here have never seen running for more than a day. Yet it’s been running now for at least a month”. It was my kind of winter weather too – 29C in the Canyon and still 24C at dusk on the road! It must be blisteringly hot in summer!)


Charley B talks to the TV camera by the side of the Orange river. A year later he’d be back in Namibia on another R1200GSA accompaniend by Ewan McGregor on The Long Way Down from John O’Groats to Cape Town


The following morning, after a great breakfast and some filming by the side of the Orange river, it was a straightforward cruise back to Springbok, which was just as well considering how much of a hangover I was nursing. We paused for some carved wooden souvenirs just before the SA border crossing.



The highlight of the ride was the 3kms of fast sweeping turns that take you up onto the windy plateau south of Vioolsdrif. After lunch, alongside an incongruous Cornish-style beam pump, and a brief interview with the film crew, it was time to get in the plane back to Johannesburg. As I said on camera, both the bike and the trip had surpassed my high expectations. My only regret was that it hadn’t lasted longer!


Blez talks to the camera for SA TV, including a few words in Afrikaans


A few facts about BMWs in South Africa.

The R1200GS and F650 & 1200GS are the top selling bikes above everything. The R1200GSs are all sold with spokes as standard because the ally wheels dent rather too readily on African roads.


Touring bikes from South Africa seen at the Fish River Canyon viewing point

When Brad Pitt was in Namibia with Angelina Jolie in April 2006, BMW SA loaned him the very first R1200GS Adventure in Africa. He used it the whole time they were here.

BMW SA’s Events manager is a striking 30-something blonde lady by the name Cora Forssman. She had never ridden a bike until four years ago, but has now got her own R1200GS and has also done the BMW off road course with Jan Du Toit, and with some success, by all accounts.

Cora Forssman and BMW Bike division boss Herbert Diess relax by the Fish River

BMW SA host a huge off-road annual competition for GS owners called, appropriately enough ‘The GS Challenge’ with different routes available for different skill levels.

Since I went to Namibia with BMW, a British company, Gravel Travel, have linked up with an experienced team of German bike tour operators to offer two week tours of Namibia using XT600 and XTZ660 Yamahas. The tours cover much of the country, including the Fish River Canyon, and cost about £2,500 per person, including the return flights from Europe, accommodation, back-up vehicle, mechanic etc. I haven’t been on any of their tours (yet!) but they look as if they know what they are doing! See: 01488 71140 Email:



© Paul Blezard