How to be an adventure biker

Becoming an adventure biker isn’t hard at all. Unless you take it too seriously, writes Stefan Boshoff.

A BMW boxer adventure bike on a lonesome road in southern Africa
Long journeys give the rider much time for pondering life’s questions. Behan Boshoff’s bike on the road between Luengue and Rundu, in Angola. Picture: Behan Boshoff

A few weeks ago, I get a call from the editor. I was hoping he had brought another Subaru with a wing to Bloem and he was going to invite me for a spin. I was wrong. He wanted my take on the topic of how an adventure biker can be defined. What is it that makes someone an adventure biker? What is adventure and what is a biker? What is it about the so-called adventure bike segment that makes it the only biking discipline that is growing? So many questions.

Layers of ‘lifestyle’

We live in a commercialised world. The lifestyle surrounding everything outdoor/adventure is neatly packaged by every industry, all aiming to create or satisfy a new desire in the unsuspecting soul, skilfully ambushed into their environment.

Consequently, the potential customer finds himself lost in the maze shaped by multiple players and layers of “lifestyle” that camouflages the core of commercial gain, in this highly competitive environment. Here it’s made easy to spend money you don’t have, to buy things you don’t need, to impress people you don’t know.

A young, attractive couple on a BMW F 900 XR
It’s hard to resist marketing efforts when the image portrayed looks this good. Picture: BMW Motorrad

In this context, we are talking adventure bikes. Those bikes that are presented by the beloved industry as machines that are street legal and they can go “off-road” too. They are parked on large rocks or in an artificial sand pit in the showroom and they are surrounded by pictures and videos of super-stars making the impossible look like a joyride.

Fostering separation anxiety

Friends fuel the fire – they have already taken these unbelievable machines to places Kingsley Holgate can only dream of, because a Land Rover just does not do what an adventure bike does. Before you know, you are in the showroom door facing outwards, astride the machine of your dreams. You’re ready to stretch the boundaries of the world as you knew it up to this life-changing junction that will nullify your mid-life crisis. Does that qualify you to be called an adventure biker?

A rider in BMW rider gear, riding up a hill on a BMW F 850 GS
This guy obviously took a detour en route to his 9-to-5 office job in Pretoria. Picture: BMW Motorrad

The next revelation is that adventure riding is a buddy sport. You need to belong. Riding groups are structured in various grades of formality, anything from two guys riding together on some weekends to Constituted Clubs with Subs and Road Captains and Meetings and Committees who work tirelessly at entertaining their WhatsApp-grouped members.

With this sense of belonging comes peer pressure, and more of the spending and indoctrination, while accessorizing and modifying the bike help the new guy to find his personal adventure niche. Separation anxiety is a common disease in larger groups, and your tolerance for dust is developed, often to the detriment of the joy that lived high on the newbie’s list of expectations.

If you buy this, your life will be better

As you continue to settle in, you are told about ATGATT (All The Gear All The Time) and luggage. Some more unbudgeted expenses hit your piggy bank. And just as you think that you’ve got this, you are told that the tyres the bike came with are life threatening as soon as you leave the blacktop. More new buzz-words find their way into your rapidly expanding vocabulary. Too soon you form your own opinion about all these pressing issues, enabling you to share all the wisdom in the company of those who follow in your steps – whether they ask for it or not. Are you an adventure rider yet?

So, you now have the right bike, it is kitted with all the bling you could justify to your wife, the tyres look cool and you are dressed-for-the-slide-not-the-ride. And you have a team. Now you have to go somewhere. Somewhere you can take pictures to post on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that make your trip look long and rough.

The universal bucket list

Your aspirations start with Sani Pass, Baviaanskloof and Die Hel aka Gamkaskloof. Your group plans the trip in detail, each one responsible for part of the long list of things to remember. Routes (You buy a GPS), accommodation, food, spares, tools, tyre repair, medical, recovery, support – the list goes on. You learn that a dropped bike is photographed in detail before any help is offered. And the photo is on social media before you manage to start the bike again.

A rider splashes through water at the 2020 International GS Trophy in New Zealand
Your mate’s bucket list doesn’t have to be your bucket list. Picture: BMW Motorrad

The “experienced” tell you where to stand up and where to look up and where to open up. And you survive the ordeal! With a few scars. “It was a whole lot of fun!” you announce to your wife while she rubs the pain out of your brittle skeleton. And you invite her along on the next one. If you’re lucky, she agrees. If not, she might want to come along on her own bike, and the process starts all over again!

Any bike can be an adventure bike

So, is adventure biking really about what you ride, who you ride with and where you ride? In some instances that definition works for some people.

Through my travels and interactions with the world of adventure biking, I have developed a few of my own perceptions about this game that we all love so much.

A BMW boxer GS and the carcass of a Russian attack chopper
An aircraft-derived German motorcycle with an expired Russian attack helicopter in the background. Picture: Behan Boshoff

In Africa, there are a lot more 150 cc Chinese bikes than 1250 GS BMWs. In India, a Royal Enfield is the weapon of choice. Cambodia offers Urals with side-cars for an adventure of a lifetime. The type or brand of bike does not matter. Any bike can be an adventure bike. Even a 1250 GS! Do not base your adventure supremacy on the bike you can afford!

Adventure is about smashing limits and comfort zones and coping with uncertainty. We all have different levels of tolerance for Adventure. And there is a fine line between adventure and madness. Therefore, the only one who knows your adventure is you. Keep pushing your limits and live beyond your comfort zone – psychologically, physically and geographically. Push your body to come along. See people and places. Even if others say it cannot be done.

The more planning, the less adventure

Have an idea. Cover the important stuff. Then go. You don’t have to know where you’ll be spending tonight. And definitely not tomorrow night. There’s a lot of life to be found in freedom.

In racing, the first to cross the line is important. Adventure riding is not a race. Here, the last one to arrive is important. The team can only relax once the last one is in! Be nice to ride with and be with.

Three riders at the origin of the Lomba River in Angola, with an expired Russian attack helicopter.
Stefan, Behan and John at the origin of the Lomba River in Angola, with a Russian attack helicopter downed in September 1985 by an SA Air Force Impala aircraft. 

Equip yourself with skill. Skill equals knowledge plus experience. Do proper rider training, and practice what you have seen, heard and learnt. And when you share an opinion, make sure it is your opinion which you formed out there doing stuff. If you heard it in the pub, it’s not worth sharing.

The bike will tip over at some point. Get used to it. Practice. There are only two kinds of riders: Those who recently have, and those who are about to fall. If it stops happening, you are not trying hard enough.

Have we defined the adventure biker?

If you are out there, pushing a boundary or two and in doing so discover beautiful people and places, with wind in your face and an engine between your knees, you may claim the title. Claim your own freedom to be an adventure rider. No matter what you ride, where you go and who you go with.

See you there!

By the way, I’m still looking forward to that spin in a blinged-up WRX STI. I think it will be an adventure.

Stefan Boshoff is an adventure biker who lives in Bloemfontein. You can train with him at Country Trax Free State. If you’re lucky, you might accompany him on an adventure some day.

Stefan and Behan Boshoff with Dirk Strydom and John Harris in Rundu's KFC.
In Rundu’s KFC immediately after crossing the Angola/Namibia border, following an adventure in 2019. Eat first, then shower, Stefan says. That’s him and his son Behan in front, with Dirk Strydom and John Harris behind them.