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Thunderbike, Fury & the Volkswagen Battery

There we were, in the quaint town Gerderath in Germany (Population 4562) over Christmas 2016.  I was looking forward to the joy of a Traditional White Christmas at the cozy " Haus" of my fellow Bikers Volker & Petra.

Sitting around the dining room table, we shared all our wild Biking Tales.  Like our 8-day Angolan safari via the Serra Da Leba pass (a story for another day) and the the legendary Vechta's Chicken Run through Lower Saxony in Germany with me riding a 1993 Anniversary FAT BOY in a North German forest presided over by a huge totem pole.  But I digress.

Anyway, over this magical Christmas Eve dinner, Volker made the momentous decision to buy a Harley-Davidson® motorcycle to liven up his regular visits to South Africa; and that our first adventure with his new treasure would end at Lambert’s Bay for the West Coast Rally, October 2017!

First find a bike...

First was the need to actually procure the bike, which involved an internet search from Germany, and my search through the Dealerships and Junk Mail adds.  Eventually Volker found a baby blue DYNA 2003 Anniversary model.  The problem was, the machine was 1600km away, so it was a leap of faith that once the deal was struck, the bike would arrive as advertised... in running order.  Well apart from a few things to be done, the newly Christened " Thunderbike"  arrived.  Minus baffles, silencers or any such noise reducing irritants.  Hence the name.  There was a battery included in the deal, the notorious battery that led to the entire Volkswagen battery saga.

Anyhow, that’s all still ahead.  

The road South

Our West Coast adventure began with the arrival by Swiss Air of Volker and Petra, on the departure day of the ride.  No time for sleep!  Our route would take us to Kimberley, via the West Rand, in a muggy hot Highveld summer heat wave.  The only relief from the intense heat was riding through a thunder shower; where for once getting wet on a motorcycle was a relief.  The first evening saw Thunderbike and Fury share a shade cloth parking while riders sought relief from the heat with the amber liquid.

DAY TWO saw our group of four, myself on Fury and Volker on Thunderbike, and the girls Elke and Petra, in an air-conditioned car (yep unbelievably solo run 1500km down to the sea), head for our first visit ever, to Carnarvon (population 6612 in 2011, plus us now).  The bikes went beautifully, the few stop-go roadwork sites gave chance to chat while reflecting on the Karoo expanse, and we arrived in time enough to have a drink at Blikkies Bar, and view our quarters: a onetime Anglo-Boer war Officers’ Mess  kept in beautiful period style.

On DAY THREE we awoke to a freezing wind and a 30 degree temperature drop.  Our summer riding jackets and cut-off gloves made this weather change very noticeable.  Fury and Thunderbike took us through the great openness of the African Karoo, via Williston (population unknown and originally founded as Amandelboom in 1768), and the amazing Vanrhyn’s Pass.  As we entered Vanrhynsdorp, Volker disappeared from my mirrors, a quick U-turn in the main street, and there was Volker with only his right leg keeping the air cleaner and carb housing attached to the engine.  With associated unhappiness from the fuel craving pistons.

As it happened we had rolled to a stop just a block from the Co-op, so with just 170km to go of our 1500km trek, we were able to get emperial and metric tools (yep a mix of aftermarket parts and original American makes these things happen in a metric country with an emperial bike).  I learned a lesson in motorcycle maintenance.   No one could help me with Zen at that time, especially not the pomp-joggies (petrol attendants) looking on with interest at the local garage.  (I am sure you get the inference here to that great literature piece?  If not go find the book and have a read…..).

ONWARDS!  Riding the last stretch on the N7 we passed the drought-stricken Clanwilliam Dam, hooked a right and after a few kilos we reached the small hamlet of Lambert’s Bay (population 6210 as at 2011, vastly increased by the Rally influx).

We found our way to the harbor, and Rally tent.  After getting the rally packs, doing a recce on where to eat and find the amber stuff, we found our stables for the bikes at our seaside home for the weekend.

No, I haven’t forgotten about the Volkswagen battery!

So the Rally played out, with sea food and outrides and music with Guppy and Rocket-Man lookalike Mr Steyn, plenty dancing in a big tent, and burgers over the seagull filled harbor.

And then the Road home

Due to flight booking misalignment we had our travel days a day out of sync with most rally goers (this is what happens when plans are made across the Christmas Eve table with 10 000 miles between inception and execution).   

Anyhow, it meant we had Sunday in Lambert’s Bay alone, as we and the locals returned to a normal, quieter routine.  We breakfasted in Elandsbay, and on our return visited the local Spar for traditional South African " braai"  stuff.

Thunderbike by now had his road legs again, but the battery that came with the bike had had enough.  It must have also been exposed to the lack of riding that had kept the kilos low, and allowed the front forks to get that pitting that sea salt does when allowed to do its mischief.  The battery felt it had done its bit, and stopped.

Well the bike stopped.  System dead.  This led to a rolling start down the harbor ramp and a short ride to the house.  There were a flurry of phone calls to the Rally technical support line - now closed.  More calls to the after hours number of the local auto-electrician, and the roadside assist centre.  As you can imagine, Toyota bakkie batteries are in endless supply on the West Coast, but Harley-Davidson® Dyna® 2003 ones – not so much.

Our last grasp was an SOS call to Pepe and Angelique in Boksburg 1350kms away (newly-minted battery dealership owners, fellow riders and Chapter comrades).  They found us a battery in Vredenburg.  Hmm...  140km away and only available on Monday.  Desperation left us to obtain jumper leads at the local garage, abandon repairs and rather braai and watch whales off the shore from our deck.   And drown our sorrows in the amber stuff and watch the GP and MotoGP re-runs. 

As I had work looming, and Petra and Volker had planned an extended ride back through the Garden Route and Karoo (this stretch Petra to Pillion), I packed Fury for my solo ride back through the Karoo via Upington (I found Zen-like reflection on that ride, through our beautiful vastness of semi-desert beauty, quiver tree forest and discovering Putsonderwater was a real place, but that’s not this story – this is about the Volkswagen battery).

Early Monday morning, Fury and I headed East North East, 1300 songs on the iPod and full tank, Volker jumped started Thunderbike for the 140km to Vredenburg, and then down to Harley-Davidson Tygervalley for a check up and service before the Garden Route tour.

As I was heading towards home, on the edge of the allowable speed limit (fast and furious) I didn’t know until my pit stop call, that Volker had jumpstarted Thunderbike and managed the 4km from Lamberts Bay to Muisboskerm, site of the Saturday night Rally joll, and that 4km trip left the battery now really expired.  This left Volker with the option of a R4000 towage bill (yep the cost of a roadside assist rescue), or asking Jupp, Elke’s dad who has retired to Saldanha with his Carmen Ghia, for emergency assistance.  As Jupp doesn't have a trailer, the rally chase car being two days back home already, and bikes not seeming the choice of transport in the surroundings, all that was available to help was another source of power.  Contained in a Volkswagen battery.

The Volkswagen Battery

So, after a 2 hour wait at the sea side, Jupp arrived with the Volkswagen battery.  As it happened, Volker, being an experienced traveler, had a luggage rack, tie-downs, and our Lambert’s Bay Sunday purchase of jump leads.  What a perfect fit:  Battery on the DYNA luggage rack, jumper cables down under the seat, Thunderbike had power.  Almost as if it was designed as such.  And so Volker got to Vredenburg, picked up Angelique’s battery, and headed further South to the dealership.

And thus in to our riding legacy of stories we are gathering together, came the Volkswagen battery.  To be remembered as much as the Williston Mall, the sea food at Muisboskerm, the whales blowing off the shore at Lamberts, the piddle stops in the middle of the vast quiet Karoo, the sound of the HARLEY engine and custom pipes, over hundreds of kilometres of riding together.

And so, we are planning the next adventure, I have however taken Pepe’s advice and bought a jump starter pack for the Top Box for our future trips, already seeking the sea at Africa Bike Week 2018.

Fury is clean after the long trip, Thunderbike under the bike cover, looking to comradeship and riding with mates.

A reflection on biking tours in general – manage what the adventure brings, ride safe and have fun.

  • Article Submission:  Dr Terence Milne (Riding as General Lee)
  • Photographer         :  Elke Milne
  • H.O.G. Editor         :  Angelique Dermit