The arrival of a new Africa Twin, which made its American debut in the summer and is now becoming more widely available, is well timed to a surge of interest in bikes suited to long-distance treks, pavement optional.
Part mountain goat and part gazelle, the Africa Twin — “twin” refers to the two cylinders — fosters the image of pounding across the Serengeti and then ascending the lower reaches of Mount Kilimanjaro.
If only I’d had one of these on my own African motorcycle trip — a father-daughter crisscrossing of Uganda three years ago.
For that trip, I rented an old Honda XLR 250, a single-cylinder off-road bike. My daughter Julia, who works for a health care foundation in East Africa, was on her own usual form of transportation, a Yamaha TTR, which is a similar dual-purpose road-and-trail bike.
As delivered by Ali of the rental shop, my Honda was missing its compression release and choke control, which made kick-starting the engine a trying experience. The poor thing had suffered much neglect in its lifetime, and I had to trust that it would carry me across the savanna and into the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains, skirting the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, then south toward Rwanda and back to Kampala, the Ugandan capital.
The lithe XLR proved adept at dodging the swarms of two-wheel taxis in Kampala, a chaotic city where even the sidewalks have speed bumps to discourage their use as detours around traffic. Pushing into the countryside, we stopped several times at settlements with roadside repair shops to lube the chains — baptism by used engine oil — and I managed to shore up a floppy clutch handle with a few washers from a local scrap dealer.
Still, the prospect of a breakdown loomed. Although the cellphone coverage was flawless in even the most remote areas, there would be no cheerful roadside assistance service to rescue me. I told myself over and over: “It’s a Honda. It’ll get me there.”
Beyond the developed areas, travel in Uganda means coping with long unpaved stretches, usually called gravel roads though they are typically hard-packed dirt. In these conditions, the Africa Twin would excel, with its long-legged suspension capable of gliding over potholes.
The reality of Uganda and other parts of Africa is that in reaching many of the more interesting sights — inside national parks or on the way to the picturesque lodges where we overnighted on the eight-day trip, there may barely be any road at all.
The deep ruts and rocky paths at Lake Mburo sent Julia and me into low-speed spills. Happily, the bikes and riders were largely undamaged, and at least in this one instance I was happy to lift upright a slim single-cylinder, 250-cc machine rather than a two-cylinder, 530-pound, 1000-cc brute like the Africa Twin.
I was recalling all this while taking a reviewer’s ride of the new Africa Twin recently in Cairo. (Admittedly, it was Cairo in upstate New York, but forgive an old biker’s reveries.)
Among the features of the modern Africa Twin that might have been appreciated on the Uganda ride is the optional 6-speed, dual-clutch transmission — essentially an automated manual gearbox. The feature adds $700 to the $12,999 base price, before a destination charge of $350.
Typically, automatic shifting has been the answer to a question that few motorcycle riders ask. I’m perfectly satisfied to shift myself; in fact, there can be a state of Zen in achieving perfectly rev-matched shifts.
But I can imagine the Africa Twin’s dual-clutch transmission being useful off-road, by letting the rider pay more attention to surfaces and obstacles.
Gear changes can be fully automatic — there’s no clutch to pull on the handlebar, nor is there a foot lever for shifting — or they can be manually actuated by using levers at the left handgrip. A “D” mode can be selected for relaxed riding. And there is an “S” choice for sportier situations, with three levels of responsiveness offered.
I found this transmission to be nearly seamless in operation on the road. (It did take a few miles before I quit searching for the shift lever when approaching a stoplight.)
The “D” setting proved to be the least intrusive, as the sportier choices seemed to hold the gears unnaturally long, unwilling to upshift. But Honda says this is the way the software was designed to work.
Where the automatic transmission didn’t work for me was at parking-lot speeds. Its engagement seemed tentative, robbed of the operator control afforded by a practiced hand on the clutch lever and throttle.
Like other large adventure-class bikes, the Africa Twin asks riders to make a long reach to put both feet flat on the ground, a consequence of its standard 34-inch seat height. But the seat can be installed on a secondary set of latches that lower it almost an inch, and an even thinner seat can be ordered from Honda.
I’m not a large man. So, combined with the narrow “waist” section behind the gas tank, the low seat made riding this decidedly tall machine far less daunting for me.
But back to Uganda.
That ratty rental bike did make the full trip. And after my constant fiddling, if I say so myself, it was returned running far better than when we embarked on our journey.
Making that trek on an Africa Twin would have required less of the man-machine rapport explored by Robert M. Pirsig in his 1974 book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values.”
Mr. Pirsig’s book chronicled the author’s meandering journey — philosophical and physical — from Minnesota to California, accompanied by his young son, on a much smaller Honda.
I suppose my road trip with Julia could be called “Swahili and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Doing it astride a Honda Africa Twin would have made it easier. But maybe my African rental Honda made it more memorable.