The Kawasaki KLR 650 dual purpose motorcycle was one of a list of options we (The Nitty Gritty Nomads) considered before undertaking our journey through Africa, other serious contenders where the Suzuki DR 650 and Honda XR650L. Both of these options are attractive to the young or budget conscious traveller. However, they did not tick all the boxes needed for a year-long motorcycle journey through Africa.
Criteria for bike selection were simple.
- Reliable – tough, tried and tested.
- Cheap – not a wallet-crippling price for young adventurers living it rough.
- Simple – a simple bike that can be fixed by us, without two PhDs in electrical and mechanical engineering.
- Capable- Good on road and off road capabilities as well as decent ground clearance.
- Strong – Able to carry a heavy load on a light chassis and still be able to lift the bike if…rather, when it falls.
- Range – Capable of doing long distance stretches between fuel stations trough Africa.
The Kawasaki KLR was introduced in 1987 and remained unchanged for 20 years until it’s facelift in 2008. The KLR has been the go-to choice for long distance intercontinental trips, as well as a full circumnavigation of the globe eg. Dr Gregory Frazer between 2002 and 2003. When one considers the purchase price, service options, simplicity and global network that the KLR produces, it is a hard bike to beat. There is no better value for the buck in the adventure riding world when you consider every factor. A BMW 1200 GS which seems to be the “go to” adventure bike at the moment in southern Africa, is three times the price of a new KLR.
The KLR is a single-cylinder (thumper), water-cooled, four-stroke simple engine with a tried and tested design, that any back yard mechanic in Africa will (should) have an idea of how to work on. This is because most of the mechanics you encounter will have worked on single-cylinder smaller bikes and will not have to deal with computers, complex wiring and digital troubleshooting which seems to be the path of modern motorcycles. The bike is so simple that we have learned to do all the maintenance as well as the majority of other small fixes ourselves. With Pratley Putty, cable ties, gasket maker, duck tape and a few spare bolts you can fix about 85% of the problems that could arise (literally).
The thumper engine has great power at low RPM so you can tackle those steep inclines at a steady rate. We tested three KLR’s up to the famous Sani Pass in Lesotho and they performed phenomenally, easily making it up daunting inclines at very low RPM. Impressively Kawasaki managed to deliver a strong low range motorcycle with acceptable highway speeds (110 km/h cruising speed). When travelling in Africa, speed is not necessarily your friend… goats, cows, children, potholes and a variety of other obstacles will be slung into your path, thus, we have selected between 80 and 90 km/ph as optimal cruising speed. The KLR also has substantial ground clearance which has performed well while fully loaded, over some tricky and rocky terrain already covered on our 12 000 km journey through southern Africa so far.
The frame is light, strong, can handle heavy loads and is still balanced enough to be manoeuvrable on and off road. Another benefit of the KLR is that even though our entire lives are packed on the motorcycle one can still lift the bike without assistance if it so happens to fall over (admittedly with effort). This is a useful feature when splitting from the group for some shopping or gathering. One of the final and most important selling points of the KLR is that it comes stock standard with a 23 litre (6.1 US gallons) fuel tank, we have been able to get over 450 km off a tank, which comes in handy with the long stretches between petrol through some portions of Africa.
Like any machine there are pro’s and cons, here are two things to know about making and keeping this machine truly bulletproof
The KLR uses oil, more than the average. A well maintained KLR will use less, this is easily combated by a small backup 500 ml of motor oil. This issue does, however, require a periodic eye on the oil levels making certain the oil levels never run low. An inspection every three to five days during long distance travel and the odd top up is all you need to ensure your continued adventures on this mechanical beast.
The Doohicky or the “Balancer Train Adjuster Lever” is known to give issues in the older KLR model’s more specifically (1987-2007). The spring loses tension and causes the metal Doohicky to eventually break apart. It is recommended that an upgraded version be installed (even in the newer models of KLR). They are easily found online, consult The Oracle. There are some other small additions needed to get this motorcycle slightly more jacked for African trips, but even stock standard can do a great job.
Maybe the KLR 650 is not the number one bike to tour Africa with but for a young enthusiastic biker with a tight budget, there is no better option. They have served us well and I am confident that with the correct maintenance should easily take us another 30 000 km through rural Africa on our year long journey. See The Nitty Gritty Nomads!!
Trent Seiler &
The Nitty Gritty Nomads