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Big bikes on big rides – what’s not to like about the BMW Safari?

We were last. Deadset last. But that’s a good place to be on the 2019 BMW Motorrad GS Safari – from here, you can see all the behind-the-scenes action that goes into shepherding over 250 paying customers off road for five days through the New England area of New South Wales. Besides, it’s not a race. And that’s what I was struggling with.

I’ve done Safaris before, but the full-noise, competitive Australasian Safaris – not the well-honed BMW version. This year marks the 25th anniversary of BMW backing its product and customers enough to lead them on a supported off-road chop through the terrain that makes Australia such a perfect adventure riding destination, so you’d expect the event to be a refined machine of an event. And you’d be right. The format is a winner, even if I took a while to just bloody relax.

Essentially, you are patted on the butt each morning with a route sheet, GPS directions if you’d like, and a set of bright orange arrows to follow – you honestly just need the arrows if it all goes well. You are surrounded by fellow paying customers, also GS mounted, and in amongst you are BMW staff, medics and all of you are backed by a pair of sweep riders, dutifully remaining utterly last and removing the arrows as they go.

Luggage? Pfffftt – that’s all in the support truck, ready and waiting for you when you arrive at the night’s destination. There is some self regulation required – you need to remember to fill up with fuel, and you’re on your own for food during the day – but most everything else is sorted.

So there I was, gargling coffee with riding mate, TV legend Kate Peck, when the sweep riders turned up. I felt like I did for much of my school life – in trouble. But I wasn’t. As long as I got to the destination that night in reasonable time, the day was mine to use as I pleased. Yep, I could have set off not long after the lead riders, trying to chase them down as they laid out the day’s ride with the orange arrows from dawn, and been at my destination nice and early.

Instead, I got up, dropped my gear bag at the well-attended truck parked in our Port Macquarie accommodation and sauntered to my GSA to check levers and mirrors. That done, we motored towards the ferry, getting used to the orange arrows and finding them spot on. Over the next two days, there wasn’t one in the wrong spot – save for some ‘modified’ arrows a disgruntled land owner had adjusted to regain his peace
and quiet…

That matter was swiftly handled, thanks in part to the new TFT dash on the 2019 GSs the BMW crew were riding.

“The communication the TFT dash allows us has made a huge difference, honestly,” says BMW’s marketing guy, Nigel Harvey. “We are in communication all the time, no matter where you are in the pack, at the destination or taking the alternate route with the luggage truck. As long as we have phone service, we can co-ordinate support easily and quickly.”

I saw this swift response myself a few times. One of the BMW officials was riding with us end packers at one point, before his hand moved to his helmet comms to answer a call. I saw him nod, then open the taps to get to a puncture well ahead. We passed him some time later, the repair almost already done. Clever.

This kind of action also meant we weren’t ever last for long – we were constantly moving forward and back through the pack – because… ‘no rush’.

If you spot a rose you want to sniff en route, go for it. If you feel like passing as many people as you possibly can in a section, go for it, too – with respect, wide passing space and zero rock chucking from the rear hoop (nothing throws a gibber like a GS). The rider briefing each night was clear on that – ride well together. People mostly did in my experience, the odd vague moment and occasional rider not really getting they were sharing a road with others, but overall everyone was excellent to ride with. And, ahem, party with.

Each nightfall was met with excitement, because there were all the people you just rode with, the hard-working, but fun-loving BMW crew and the residual adrenalin from the ride. It’s a great mix, tempered by the thought you need to ride the next day. Our first night was in Armidale, and didn’t the town put on a spread! I didn’t bank on ending up in a stunt show though…

Peering through the fence at BMW stunt rider Lukey Luke as he nose-wheelied his R 1250 GS, I was in awe. The poor bugger had made a mistake that day on the trail, and knackered a set of ribs and sternum in the aftermath, but, being the bloke he is and high on determination to deliver on the promised stunt show in the purpose-built arena, he persevered. You could hear the small grunts of pain each time he landed a stoppie.

My nose was just a little too close to the fence, though, and when he called on some participants to join him in front of 300 viewers, secretly hoping someone would get a little bit run over, Kate and I found ourselves spotted and dragged out there. I may have still had a beer in my hand…

I’ve ridden with Lukey plenty and trust him – most of the time. This time, knowing as few did, that he was injured and there was zero grip on that cold parking-lot bitumen, just made it all the more ‘fun’. I survived and so did Lukey.    

But as fun as afterhours antics are, the riding is the best bit. The routes are fully recced months before, with relevant food establishments pre-warned of big numbers and approximate time of arrival, so lunch stops weren’t met with ambushed eateries. Except the one lady that did feel the pressure, literally throwing a muffin at a rider in an attempt to feed everyone… She was quickly placated.

But the eateries, while important, aren’t as crucial as a solid ride program and it is here the Safari shines. The two days I enjoyed saw a mix of easy but flowing dirt, joined with excellent twisty bitumen. I didn’t endure a single transport leg; it was all either scenic, twisty, fun and mostly all three.

The rainforest lined run down to Coffs on narrow-ish dirt, the one red-arrowed single track section, the unfenced sections through farmland all stand out. None were I’m-gunna-die technical, but if you pushed hard, were challenging.

The bitumen was similarly fun, cornering a GS on knobby tyres is always good like that, but the best bit on the bitumen is riding in a group. At one point, Urky, Benno, Kate and I exited a small bridge onto a long, straight uphill section. Kate orchestrated a triple wheelie – the sight of three of those things standing seemingly taller than a block of flats up the hill, is not one you forget easily. And fun-as.

Hilarously, given an editorial I wrote recently on sharing a road with cyclists, we faced a logistical challenge that day – it seemed 250 motorcyclists and around 500 cyclists were to converge on the same hilly road… Instead, some clever collaborating between each set of organisers meant all us riders were through the road by the time the puffy ones attempted the ascent – this kind of drama has the potential to ruin an event and can lead to riders getting home well after dark – it didn’t happen.      

The next day, my attention was again drawn to the dramas this many people riding motorcycles together creates – in a mostly good way. Kate wandered past – she had lost her bike key. Hmmm. I had a chuckle, handed out a smarmy comment, before my face changed as I realised I had just dropped my bag off and didn’t know where my own key was…

Kate had long found hers by the time I had dived deep into the luggage truck to retrieve mine from the pocket of my jacket. Funny, but not if you don’t find it, because a spare can be a looong way away. And that was just two of us in five minutes one morning. The organisers put up with a lot more than that every moment.

Event co–ordinators, Anthea and Lizzy, run two phones non stop: someone has broken a boot buckle; dinged a rim; developed a food allergy; needed to leave early – can the bike get shipped? On and on and on. They handle it all brilliantly, as do the fellas on the bikes as they repair tyres, levers and, sometimes, bodies. It’s a motorcycle event, so yeah, there are some injuries.

BMW does recommend pre-Safari off-road training and you would be crazy not to take them up on that. But in the end it’s up to you – make the right decisions, most of the time, and then dirt riding is so much fun. There’s few police, barely any traffic and the sights and roads are like nothing you get on road. The towns you visit and how you get to them – it’s all made better by being off road.

Does BMW make a fortune from the Safaris? No. Can it stand to lose reputation by taking its products deep into the kind of riding they are designed to nail? Absolutely. But the worth of this event is obvious on the final night. Lots of happy faces, a BMW crew handing out badges to every participant and lots of handshakes, smiles and backslaps. BMW is accessible, helpful, fun and encouraging throughout the event – not always easy to do when personalities and pressure mix.

For many riders, just finishing a BMW Safari is a huge achievement – their background may be made up of many things other than riding a motorcycle off road a lot, and the whoops as riders rode under the huge BMW archway and parked up on the final day were infectious. For some of them, there was a long ride home left – some hard-core Safari goers were riding back to Melbourne the following day, direct from Coffs Harbour… Tough.

That night, as a rider won a new 850 GS just for turning up, the room heaved with accomplishment, new friends met and a damn good week of riding. My first GS Safari was a cracker and, of course, I now want to do another, and definitely the GS Enduro version. And there’s some Trophy version overseas, isn’t there..? It’s easy to see why the Safari is generally made up 50/50 of second timers and new riders – it’s absolutely addictive.       

If riding a BMW off road, with all the hard bits taken care of (route, friends, plan, stunt show and tyre repairs) appeals, then the BMW Safari is for you. If you want something more hard-core, there is a GS Safari Enduro coming up in August. I’m available, BMW…