BMW Sertao is a G650 in hiking bootsComment on this story
It was definitely the road less travelled; we'd been exploring the (mostly gravel) back roads of the Cullinan area, around the famous mine where the world's biggest diamond was found in 1905, all day, and we'd seen a grand total of about a dozen vehicles while riding through some superb scenery.
And when we turned on to what was frankly a jeep track, winding its way through overhanging acacia trees (I found thorns embedded in the shoulder pad of my jacket that night) up to the tented Hayward Hotel, with wildebeest and zebra accelerating away across the open patches as the bikes disturbed them, I thought, “My fancy-pants cousin in Sandton is never going to see this - he'd never bring his million-rand SUV up here because it would get scratched to pieces!”
But that's the point - we weren't in an air-conditioned SUV, we were on the South African launch of the BMW G650 GS Sertao, the more off-road orientated version of the G650 GS we road-tested recently.
Sertao is a Portuguese term meaning “back country”, specifically the arid, inhospitable north-eastern plains of Brazil - just the sort of country BMW GS riders seem to delight in.
And, with longer-travel suspension (210mm at each end compared to 170mm front and 165mm rear on the “street” version) and spoked wheels (21” in front and 17” rear) it's comfortable and sure-footed in the dirt although, at 193kg wet, a bit of a handful in soft sand.
Nevertheless, it will take you just about anywhere a Jeep will go - two up, if you're not in a hurry - and, with tough all-plastic bodywork, it's practically scratchproof.
Mechanically the Sertao is identical to the street version, using the 2002 version of the proven Rotax 652cc single to deliver 35kW at 6500rpm and 60Nm (although it feels like more) at 5000 revs via a light, rather remote clutch and crisp, five-speed gearbox.
And five is all you need; thanks to one of the smoothest fuel-injection set-ups on the market, I was able to go from plonking along at 2000rpm on a badly rutted gravel road (I'm no dirt demon!) to cruising at 120km/h on tar without even changing gear.
THE TALE OF THE HANGING MUDGUARD
The Sertao also has a taller screen (very welcome), handguards (likewise, especially in acacia country!), removable rubbers on cleated footpegs and a substantial aluminium bashplate under the engine.
It's finished in classic BMW off-road livery in blue and white with bold Sertao graphics on the dummy fuel tank - the real 14-litre tank is under the seat to keep the centre of gravity low and the ergonomics narrow.
It also has an extended front mudguard - and thereby hangs (literally) a tale. The extension consists of a black plastic “beak” screwed on to the standard, white GS front mudguard. The extra weight caused the mudguards of two of the nine Sertaos on the launch ride to break off on very badly rutted gravel roads, during the first day.
Overnight, the BMW staffers simply unscrewed all the remaining extensions and we had no further problems, but it underlined the parlous state of most South African roads, BMW SA's proactive attitude and the fact that we were pushing these bikes harder than BMW had intended.
Rest assured, there will be a tougher replacement Sertao front mudguard very shortly; BMW have learned that when their South African subsidiary talks, it behoves them to listen.
That aside, the launch bikes stood up to two days of very rough roads, and even game trails, in intense heat, without missing a beat (better than at least one of the riders, in fact!), proof of the soundness of the original package, and the way BMW has brought it forward into the 21st century with simplified ergonomics and instrumentation, and crisp, up-to-date styling.
PLACES YOU NEVER THOUGHT YOU'D SEE
This is not an enduro bike; it's not going to win any off-road races but, if you're a relative newby or you've only ever ridden on tar, its forgiving handling and perfectly modulated power delivery will take you to places you never thought you'd see.
To that end BMW offers a range of extras, starting with heated grips and antilock braking, and including a top box (the G650 frame has a built-in aluminium carrier), hard panniers, a taller seat and a 12-volt charging socket for your GPS.
The Sertao is also a capable road bike, which means you don't have to trailer it to where the fun starts, as you do with quads and 'crossers, and during the week you can save on fuel and frustration by commuting on it.
As it always is on motorcycle launches, we were late getting back, and the final leg to the BMW headquarters in Midrand turned into a high-speed dash to meet airport shuttle deadlines - but no matter, the Sertao settled into a smooth, vibration-free cruise at an indicated 120km/h, with five blocks showing on the hard-to-read bar-graph rev-counter and the upright sitting position providing all the visibility needed to slice through the weekday traffic.
But that's not what it's about; tar roads are really just a quick and easy way of getting to where the real Sertao - the back country - begins.
Weekends will never be the same again.
Engine: 652cc liquid-cooled four-stroke single.
Bore x stroke: 100 x 83mm.
Compression ratio: 11.5:1.
Valvegear: DOHC with four overhead valves per cylinder.
Power: 35kW at 6500rpm.
Torque: 60Nm at 5000rpm.
Induction: BMS-C II electronic fuel-injection with 43mm throttle body.
Ignition: Electronic with dual spark plugs.
Clutch: Cable-operated multiplate wet clutch.
Transmission: Five-speed constant-mesh gearbox with final drive by chain.
Front Suspension: 41mm conventional cartridge forks.
Rear Suspension: Monoshock with central rocker, remotely adjustable for preload.
Front brakes: 300mm disc with Brembo twin-piston floating calliper (and ABS).
Rear brake: 240mm disc with Brembo single-piston floating calliper (and ABS).
Front tyre: 90/90 - 21 tube type.
Rear tyre: 130/80 - 17 tube type.
Seat height: 860mm.
Kerb weight: 193kg.
Fuel tank: 14 litres.
Top speed (claimed): 170km/h.
Fuel consumption (claimed): 4.3 litres per 100km at 120km/h.
Price: R80 950 (R89 221.71 with ABS and heated grips).