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In Praise Of ADV and Australia’s Great Ocean Road

With 24 hours of free time, and Australia’s Great Ocean Road ahead, a once committed sport rider discovers that saddlebags, upright seating, windscreens and traction control aren’t necessarily bad things.

Coming from pure sportbikes, I never understood the appeal of Adventure tourers. They seemed too compromised to be fun machines: heavy, less power, skinny, knobby tires, awkward stances and questionable aesthetics compared to the sleek, full fairing repli-racers I grew up riding. Having toured on an RC-51, I always thought Adventure bikes with their tall windscreens, heated grips, conservative footpeg placement and ABS were for softer riders. I come from the last generation to experience analogue motorcycles, and to be honest, I’m a bit of a Luddite when it comes to motorcycle technology. Are we messing with good, simple things just to compensate for our lack of control or attention? Doesn’t this defeat the purpose of the motorcycle? Little did I know my perspective would soon change.          

I found myself in Melbourne, Australia with 24 hours to explore. As luck would have it, the only available bike on short notice was a BMW F800GS Adventure from the rental company Off Track Motorcycles. The location was quite close to the international airport and, Dennis the owner, let me store my luggage at his facility and even drove me to the airport when I returned the bike. Prices were very reasonable and the bike was a new model year in great condition.  

My plan was to make for the coast and the Great Ocean Road with the final destination being the 12 Apostles just past Port Campbell. After realizing I left my passport at the hotel, I decided to make a slight detour to Ballarat (and stop for some of the best coffee on the planet—seriously!). I set a route to take me through the towns of Forrest and Beech Forest. 

After Dennis explained some of the bike’s features such as electronic suspension adjustment and traction control I hit the road a little bit past 6:30 am. Return time: 23.5 hrs.

The first couple hours were spent on Australian superslab trying to get to the riding spots. I used the time to get acquainted with the GS. Initially, it seemed to me a comfortable ride, albeit a bit low on power for serious highway overtaking but the German twin has a very pleasant mid-range. The morning was about 10C so the bike’s two-stage hand warmers were welcome. Maybe there is something to this touring thing after all, I thought to myself.

En route I spotted an inconspicuous sign to a waterfall down what looked to be a forest service road. I took a detour to test the “Adventure” part of the BMW. The GS does allow for stand-up riding, which increases visibility and extra control for navigating obstacles. I discovered it’s comfortable with off-highway challenges, with the traction control keeping the rear end in check when I was too hard on the throttle over loose stuff. I began to understand the value of electronic aids. 

The road to the waterfall wound up a mountain where the corners are blind and quite tight and I spent most of my time there in first and second gear.  Around a particularly tight left-hand off-camber downhill corner, an SUV came flying around on the opposite side of the single-lane road. Wait! I momentarily forgot that Australia drives on the left and pulled off to the right shoulder when I should have gone to the left. I hammered the brakes to avoid going over the cliff edge, while the SUV swerved, narrowly missing me. After a brief exchange of not-so pleasantries, I was back en route with my head firmly in check on the rules of the (opposite side) road.

I took a backroad between Forrest and Beech Forest and found one of the most beautiful, treacherous pieces of pavement I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. The Beech Forest-Mount Sabine Road is a 1.5-lane twisting windy road under a treed canopy that reminds me of a jungle version of Deals Gap in North Carolina. 

The BMW made an admirable job of impersonating a supermoto as the wide bars provided lots of leverage and the tires, although somewhat knobby, do allow the bike to lean far enough over to be entertaining while maintaining control. The 45-minute route was physically and mentally exhausting.

After Beech Forest, I jumped to another off-road track through the Great Otway National Park and made my way to Apollo Bay for some fish and chips on the beach and a lunchtime snooze.  Apollo Bay is a beach town that feels straight out of the 1980s, with arcades and neon lights and beachfront ice cream stands. Eighteen hours until return time.

I stretched out on the beach and noticed I was significantly less sore than I thought I would be after having already spent five to six hours in the saddle—another point in favour of Adventure touring.

Following the Great Ocean Road I headed from Apollo Bay through Lorne and Torquay, which are both modern costal resort towns. The Great Ocean Road is very similar to the Pacific Coast Highway in California: steep cliffs with shear drop-offs and tight corners overlooking a stunning blue ocean. The traffic is also similar so the pace is well within posted limits. Given its touristy and scenic nature I stayed ready for evasive maneuvers in case some inattentive driver made an unexpected lane change in front of me to make a lookout point entrance. 

Normally the traffic on these beautifully paved roads would cause me some impatience and frustration. However, a combination of eight hours in the saddle already, plus the supermoto-esque sets from Beech forest and the relative comfort of the BMW allowed me to enjoy the scenery and proceed at less than qualifying lap speeds. I realized this is in sharp contrast to a supersport where it can be hard to enjoy anything at less than full attack mode.

I made a stop at the famous Bells Beach (the location for the final scene of the Keanu Reeves film Point Break), found the beach was practically deserted, so I took the time to stretch and snap some photos. It had now been 10 hours in the saddle and I was beginning to feel like I needed a beer and a place to stay. With the sun setting at my back I was off again down the Great Ocean Road to find a hotel in Geelong so I could ride to Melbourne early in the morning. 

After numerous stops at a number of hotels around the city (including the seedy looking Sphinx Hotel) I learned the entire city and surrounding communities had zero vacancy due to spring break and some conventions in town. I could then add frustration and discontent to increasing fatigue, as I was then 14 hours into my ride. After some grub and a coffee I decide I might as well push for one or two more hours back to Melbourne. 

I droned along the highway at night and was once again thankful for the heated grips and wind protection. I felt rejuvenated upon being greeted by the lights and pulse of Melbourne. The stoplights and wide city streets also provided an opportunity to test the wheelie capacity of the BMW. Who knew it could wheelie so well? What can’t this bike do, I thought to myself. 

After a couple photos in front of the famous downtown Ferris wheel, I found a budget hotel on the edge of town to grab a quick four hours of shuteye before the bike was due back. 

Twenty hours and more than 1,000 kilometres in the saddle, some off-road adventures and only one close call later I was back at Off Track for one final photo of my knackered self and the sure footed BMW that is ready to do it again (at least one of us is). The bike performed flawlessly on the Great Ocean Road and remained composed in every situation I threw it into. I suppose it’s fair to say I have a newfound respect for the sport of adventure touring and Adventure touring bikes—maybe they’re the best of all worlds, with comfort included.

By Peter Latta Canadian Biker Issue #313


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