It's a name to conjure with - the Ténéré desert is one of the world's most inhospitable places, a vast plain of North African sand covering 400 000 square kilometres from north-eastern Niger into western Chad.

The Ténéré was the scene of some of the most epic battles of the early Paris-Dakar rallies in the 1980's - battles which were won nine times by riders on Yamahas derived from the XT500, Japan's first big four-stroke dirt bike - and it gave its name to Yamaha's first go-anywhere tourer, the XT600Z of 1983.

That became the XT660 in 1991, which was discontinued in 1999 - but now Yamaha is back in the game with a new Ténéré, finally launched in South Africa last week, more than a year after the world launch in Morocco, because Yamaha SA simply couldn't get any.

The factory in Italy makes only 6000 a year and we were at the back of a long queue.

These days such long-distance bikes are known as adventure tourers and Yamaha laid on quite an adventure for the launch ride, way up in the Drakensberg, reaching nearly 2000m above sea level atop the Middledale pass.

This was also the only tarred section of the route, an extravagantly pot-holed roller-coaster of a road that dropped 500m in seven kilometres, illustrating the Ténéré's quick steering and impressive ground clearance - and the remarkable tarmac grip of its dual-purpose Michelin Sirac tyres.

For the most part, however, the 140km route was on gravel, ranging from hard-packed clay - badly rutted in places after it had dried out from recent rains - to a couple of seriously rocky climbs in the Quaggashoek area.

I looked at the worst of these and thought... "This is way beyond my off-road capabilities". I could have asked one of the Yamaha staff to ride the bike out but at that altitude I didn't think I could have walked it.

So I dumped the clutch, give it some welly in first and bounced from rock to rock, relying on the bike's inherent stability to keep it (reasonably) upright as rocks the size of grapefruit rolled out from under its front wheel, knowing that to close the throttle was a recipe for disaster.

Make no mistake, I was just a passenger. It's to the Yamaha's credit that it made it to the top.

We stopped for a breather at the Kerkenberg, a peak shaped like a Gothic building where Piet Retief's daughter Deborah wrote her father's name and the date - 12 November, 1837 - on the stone in green paint. It's still there.

Later that day Yamaha's PR, ex-motocrosser Adrian Bac, took the group down Retief's Pass, the trek leader's original route down the escarpment to kwaZulu-Natal and his ill-fated meeting with Dingaan.

Even by ox-wagon standards it was rough and a number of the XT's went down but it says a lot for the bike's durability - and the efficacy of the (standard) engine guards that none suffered more than minor scratches and everybody made it back.

SOFT SUSPENSION

On less insane terrain the bike was reassuringly stable. After an hour getting used to its quick steering I found I was riding considerably faster on decent gravel than I could on a GS Challenge).

Yes, the 21" front wheel would jump sideways on ruts and the whole bike got a bit out of shape on sand (all bikes do!) but it recovered very quickly and always wound up going more or less where I pointed it. Part of this was due to the bike's soft suspension - 43mm Piaolis in front with 210mm of travel and a Sachs monoshock on a Monocross rising-rate linkage giving 200mm of travel at the rear.

The front was quite firm by off-road standards but soaked up everything Bac and the Drakensberg could throw at it without "walking" while the rear was very soft for the first 50mm or so of travel and then rapidly firmed up. I'm 107kg and I never got it to bottom out, even on minimum preload - which, by the way, is the only adjustment on offer.

Braking is entrusted to twin-piston floating callipers by Brembo - this is, after all, and Italian bike - and, despite their 1970's technology, they're almost too good. The rear brake, in particular, is capable of breaking the 130/80 rear tyre loose at the slightest touch even on tar - which is fine for a motard, less so on a tourer.

The bike shares its 659cc Minarelli-built engine with its XT660X motard siblings but has a completely different frame with a longer wheelbase (1505 vs 1485mm), a massive, forged rear engine mount/swing-arm pivot and a well braced tubular-steel rear sub-frame.

FIVE HOURS IN THE SADDLE

The last is a very good idea, given that a rear carrier with mountings for a top box is standard, as are fittings for aluminium panniers (from Yamaha dealers as extra-cost options) and the saddle is designed to carry two adults all day.

The Ténéré is superbly comfortable, its broad, deeply padded seat in seemingly ideal juxtaposition to the low, wide handlebars and steel off-road foot-pegs. I was in the saddle pretty well continuously for more than five hours on the (very bumpy) launch ride without a twinge of complaint.

It's still a vertiginous 895mm off the ground, however, (that's the downside of long-travel suspension) and there's a big step up to the equally comfortable pillion which slopes further up to the rear carrier, and generous cast-alloy grab handles.

That meant I could only touch the ground with my toes (I'm 1.78m), which made me feel more than a little insecure trying to paddle around when parking on rough ground, and that the highest point of the tailpiece is more than a metre high and I wasn't the only one who had difficulty throwing a leg over it when getting on or off.

The engine's air box and intake are right up behind the steering head, as high as they can be, for outstanding fording ability (no Cyril, we didn't try it), and a large proportion of the 23-litre fuel tank is under the seat, which lowers the bike's centre of gravity and makes the section between the rider's knees comfortably narrow.

KTM-ISH FAIRING

The instruments are securely podded and mounted on a chunky tubular-steel bracket with a protective bash bar around the top - you're unlikely to damage them even if you manage to flip the bike.

There's an analogue rev-counter, redlined at 7500rpm, although power peak is quoted at 6000, and a big LCD display on the right with readouts for speedometer, clock, odometer and two trip meters and a bar-graph fuel gauge.

The display is, however, hard to read in sunlight, especially if either it or your visor is dusty.

The upright little fairing looks very KTM-ish - for the same reason: it works, creating a little pocket of still air around the rider's body at cruising speeds while leaving the head exposed to cooling airflow. More importantly, it doesn't get in the way when the going gets tough and body English is all that's keeping you upright.

The Ténéré's engine has a bigger air box - with a much bigger air-filter element - than that of its siblings (for easier maintenance out in the bundu, says Yamaha) and slightly different mapping. Yamaha says that's for a wider spread of power but it still power-thuds ferociously below 2500rpm.

BECAUSE IT CAN

From 2600-3000rpm, however, it runs at its sweetest (that's about 60km/h in third, which was my cruising speed on dirt). Some primary vibration is apparent around 5000, becoming intrusive above 6000.

The most I could screw out of it was a brief burst to 140km/h at about 6200rpm on a short straight at the top of the Middledale Pass - but that was at almost 500m higher than Johannesburg and it should do much better in less rarefied circumstances.

It will probably top out at about 160km/h (I got 162 out of the XT660X) but that's way beyond its power peak and it should cruise at around 130km/h. That, however, we will only find out when we get one on review since the one thing we didn't do on the launch was open-road cruising, at which an adventure tourer is supposed to be good.

What we did learn was that this adventure tourer is comfortable and very competent on roads less travelled. It'll encourage you to go to places you'd never normally dream of visiting just because it can.

Price: R89 500

SPECIFICATIONS

ENGINE

Cylinders:One

Capacity: 660cc.

Bore x stroke: 100 x 84mm.

Compression ratio:10.0:1.

Valvegear: SOHC with four overhead valves per cylinder.

Power: 35kW at 6000rpm.

Torque: 58Nm at 5500.

Induction: Electronic fuel injection with Mikuni 44mm throttle body.

Ignition: TCI electronic.

Starting: Electric.

TRANSMISSION

Clutch: Cable-operated multiplate wet clutch.

Transmission: Five-speed constant-mesh gearbox with final drive by chain.

SUSPENSION

Front: 43mm Paioli conventional cartridge forks

Rear: Sachs monocross shock adjustable for preload

BRAKES

Front: Dual 298mm discs with Brembo dual-piston floating callipers.

Rear: 245mm disc with Brembo twin-piston floating calliper.

TYRES

Front: 90/90 - 21 tube type.

Rear: 130/80 - 17 tube type.

DIMENSIONS/WEIGHT

Wheelbase: 1505mm.

Seat height: 895mm.

Dry weight: 183kg.

FUEL TANK

23 litres.

MANUFACTURER SUPPORT

Two years unlimited distance warranty.

SERVICE INTERVALS

10 000m.

PRICE

R89 500.

RIVALS

Kawasaki KLR650 - R54 995

KTM 690 Enduro - R90 000

BMW F800 GS - R105 500