I’ve spent much of my life on motorcycles and often wondered where I would end up if I took a dirt road leading over the horizon. Ten years ago, my friend Peter and I splurged on a couple of BMW adventure bikes with luggage panniers.
Like me, he wanted to explore parts of South Africa that would remain closed to him if he was constrained to riding “road” bikes.
I must admit that, in addition to improving my riding skills, I’ve become much better at packing for road trips.
Our first trip was something of a disaster. We set off down the R62 as guests of the SA Brandy Foundation, visiting distilleries that line the road from Robertson to Oudtshoorn.
At Klipdrift, our first stop, we realised that doing tastings at each distillery would be extremely foolish. Our hosts understood and sent us on with at least one bottle each.
The problem came at Calitzdorp when Peter and I had to part ways: he was on his way to Knysna to pick up motorcycle parts and I was going home.
We transferred all the bottles to my bike, most of them going into the (what I’d previously thought was cavernous) “topbox”. I slipped each bottle into a sock to prevent rattling and laid them gently one atop another.
To cut a long story short, when I got back to Cape Town my topbox was awash. Happily, careful use of a syphon left me with a 5l can of shard-free brandy with only a faint aftertaste of sweaty hosiery.
Other mishaps have taken place – including one side pannier coming loose while descending the Prince Alfred Pass and bouncing 200m along the road beside me – but none have been as catastrophic.
The key to loading a bike with luggage holders is that heavy and fragile things go on top. If you don’t have panniers, everything goes on the saddle and you need sufficient bungee cords to ensure the load doesn’t shift.
It might be inelegant but what the hell – we’re bikers and if it works, it works. Apart from impact, your biggest enemy is moisture.
In my case, priority gets given to my cameras and lenses. These are carefully packed into my topbox inside dry-bags. Different bikes come with different luggage configurations.
The panniers on a Harley-Davidson open from the top while those on my BMW flip downwards and sideways. They also telescope outwards to provide more room when necessary.
The boxes are, however, quite awkwardly shaped and it is difficult to fit packed rucksacks inside.
What I do instead is fit individually packed and numbered repurposed cat-food bags – the kind with zip-locks “to seal in the freshness” – along the bottom of the panniers. I roll these up tightly to conserve space and keep them in shape with reusable cable-ties (as useful as bungee cords on a biking roadtrip.
Each numbered bag contains a day’s clothing. I tend to ride in a T-shirt under my leathers and swop it out when I get to my first stop-over. Also in that bag is a fresh pair of socks, a tracksuit bottom and warm top. I ride in boots but take along a pair of sneakers which provide great cushioned containers for bottles of whatever you fancy when the riding’s done (or toiletries). Take an empty day-sack, fill it with whatever you need for the evening and next day when you reach your sleep-over.
Pack extra socks and thermal “long johns”. If you’re not keeping polite company, the latter can take the place of tracksuit bottoms.
The last word goes to Peter and it’s on “what not to wear” while riding in the Klein Karoo. “Your girlfriend’s warm pantyhose to a mid-winter bike rally… “I crashed and woke up in intensive care to a burly and judgemental matron asking me why I was wearing woman’s clothes under my jeans which they had cut off in the operating theatre.
“It was the ’70s, so I was offered no sympathy in puritanical Oudtshoorn.”