Review: BMW R1250GS Adventure in the Drakensberg

The GSA is a big deal, so they made a big deal out of it.


Story: Donovan Fourie
Pics: Rob Till
BMW hosted the South African launch of their R1250GS. We already know that the R1250GS is good because Mat went to the World Launch in Portugal where, despite being the worst off-road rider in the world, he came back with all his limbs suitably intact and even had a rare smile across his face. However, BMW also graced us with their more revered Adventure version, the big daddy of motorcycle adventuring. So let’s have a go on that then.

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The sun had just popped its waking head over the horizon, casting some of its magical rays onto the face of the mountain wall. A student of poetry might produce the more profound: “It bathed the mountains in a warm glow”, but we are motorcyclists. We don’t do warm glows. Nor, quite often, bathing.

The mountains we are speaking of are the mighty Drakensberg, where the Highveld plains make a very severe and possibly fatal escarpment down to the KZN coast. We said it’s a wall and it most certainly is that. This specific section was the majestic Champagne Castle, the second highest peak in South Africa, where the top starts at 3.4 km above sea-level and then plunges downwards to where we were, as it happens, on the lawn of the famous Drakensberg Boys Choir.

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The towering peaks were magnificent and therefore made an apt backdrop to the motorcycle we were shooting that day – the BMW R1250GS Adventure. In this pose, still lurking in the shadows of the dewey morning with the illuminated natural monoliths behind, it just looked right. It’s a big beast, no doubt, weighing a less than subtle 268kg wet, with bulging scaffolding rutting out of the side its bulging torso. It was as though the mountains were cowering behind it.

The die-hard adventurers, the ones that genuinely don’t bathe, will be lamenting this size, calling it nothing but a long distance tourer and not capable of any true adventuring. Well, let’s see.

The cosmetics of the 1250 range of GS has changed, although you would know this only if you were intimate with the looks of the previous GS. Otherwise, it just looks like a GS with a five replacing one of the zeros. One of Mat’s significant criticisms, when he returned from the world launch, was that when you buy a new motorcycle, you want everyone to know about it. As it is, your neighbour is likely to comment, “oh, you got a bike with a new colour?”

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The rest of the bike hasn’t changed much either. The frame is mostly the same, electronics are similar, and everything has the same sort of look as the previous GS Adventure. Is this the way to launch a new model? 

Mind you, this is German, through and through – subtle and reserved, not overstated in any way. They get on with things quietly until it’s time to unleash and then the world will feel their wrath. And with that, we climb aboard, head down the tarred Drakensberg roads and feel some wrath.

Much like the looks, it feels like the previous GS Adventure. There is functional piping prodding every piece, an adjustable screen that is screwed up and down, the black TFT dash that I’ll admit looks properly cool and all the same gadgetry. The handling is stable and compliant, the raised suspension feels plush, and the brakes are remarkable.

Exactly like on the last GS Adventure.

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With hope draining out of our souls, we attempt one last effort – click the riding mode into Dynamic, turn the traction control off, slip it into first gear and open the throttle–

Before we get to that, it is worth noting that the engine’s spec sheet doesn’t seem that inspiring. It’s still a boxer twin, obviously, with their new liquid cooling. The drawback to this layout is that they cannot make it rev too high. The reason for this is that they cannot run a centre bearing on the crank, because then the two opposing cylinders will be too far off-set, with one cylinder a noticeable amount closer to your beloved shin than the other. Therefore the crank cannot take too much pressure from revs.

They get around this through ingenuity. Firstly, there’s no replacement for displacement, so BMW have slapped on another 84cc bringing the total up to 1,254. Also, they’ve included their new ShiftCam variable valve timing that adjusts the valve lift depending on revs, gear and throttle opening.

Here’s a video that explains it better:


All this effort has increased the power output from 125 to 137hp. This may seem commendable, but it does still put it a few ticks behind the Triumph Tiger 1200, the Ducati Multistrada and, of course, the KTM 1290 Super Adventure.

Still, let us continue. Where were we?

…slip it into first gear and open the throttle–

Holy Moly!

It doesn’t so much accelerate as lunge. Your arm sockets are tugged to the point of snapping, and the front wheel springs skyward in a bid for orbit. The quick shifter slips the ‘box seamlessly into second, and the ride continues, and it carries on through gears until, in no time at all, you are doing 200 km/h.

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This seems much more than what a simple 136hp should achieve, but there is some trickery here. You see, most motorcycles have a horsepower curve that is just that – a curve, sloping gradually upwards before dropping off to create a peak as it hits the rev limiter. On the GS, we are pretty sure that the horsepower graph isn’t so much a curve as a straight line, making 136 hp throughout the rev range. Actually, it’s probably a reverse curve, making 136hp in the bottom revs before tapering off as the revs climb. The last 1,000rpm are entirely superfluous. 

Add to this the fact that it pushes a massive 143 Nm of torque, and you have a bullet. 

Here’s there thing – I suspect that a good rider, drag racing the GS from a low gear on a KTM 1290 that can use all the high revs, will still win. But if the GS rider suggests a high gear, low rpm roll-on, rather decline.

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After the sun had had its morning coffee and got on with the job of igniting the day, we headed out of the shadow of the Drakensberg and sought some delight off the tarred path. Luckily, the KZN Midlands is littered with beautiful winding gravel roads that we could go mental on. These varied from wide gravel freeways to double-tracked railway service roads, and all were a genuine delight. 

It is a big machine, and you might find yourself in trouble if the going gets ridiculously rough. However, on roads like this, the 1250 Adventure is in its element. The boxer motor has the mass-centralisation of the planet Saturn, but the weight is slung low meaning the turn-in is smooth and predictable. Then there’s that motor again…

Yes, in first gear on a tar road it can terrify, but here on, on the dirt, it becomes a humble butler wanting to meet your every need. You very rarely need to go lower than third gear, even on some of the more ominous climbs, as the bottom end torque happily devours all that comes before it. If you do happen to find yourself suddenly in need of some extra grunt, simply bang down on the lever, let the auto-blip sort out the clutching and blipping and voila, you are suddenly in the gear you want to be.

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The electronic suspension has auto settings, meaning less complication for the rider and more merely getting on with it. It was always planted, always smooth and always compliant. 

Then we have the brakes. The ABS is switchable, and there is an Enduro Pro option that turns off the rear ABS for people who want to go goon in the dirt. Apparently, our demo bikes had this option, and all we had to do was plug in a little dongle under the seat to activate it. This knowledge was imparted during the riders briefing at the beginning of the day while I was getting my fifth cappuccino, and so I didn’t know this, however, my mate Gavin did.

This sounds like a missed opportunity for me, but it turned out to be a blessing. We were riding side-by-side on one of the gravel stretches, churning up the miles at a happy 160km/h, when we crested a rise and found, to our terror, a sharp, left-hand hairpin on the other side.

We both hit the clampers, hands grasping the front brake tight and feet stomping on the rear. My bike immediately engaged both ABSs and the bike managed to ground down to a tense halt a few metres from certain doom. Gavin, on the other hand, engaged the front ABS and locked the rear wheel, skidding delightfully to the edge of the road, and came to a halt a good few metres further than me. 

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Gavin, a veteran off-road racer and rally rider, is most certainly a better rider than I am, so I am going to put this near death victory down to hugely intelligent electronics. Please don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t need them.

The day was 360 km long, with a beautiful array of dirt and tar. The tar, despite the massive Metzeler Karoo3 knobbly tyres, was an easy blast, but the dirt was most certainly the highlight. A KTM 1290 will most probably be more adept to the wiles of the off-road kingdom, but only in the right hands. It requires a rider with advanced off-road prowess to get the best out of it, whereas the GS can be ridden well by anyone. The motor has power at any revs and at no stage feels as though it is trying to get the better of you. It massages your ego, making you feel like a riding king.

The competent off-road rider may even find this a little too easy, and this makes it perfect for everyone else. As I told my co-hosts, Mat and Harry, right before they mocked me for being a soppy little git  – on a bike like the KTM and the Ducati, you feel like you’re riding a tiger. On the 1250GS, you are the tiger.

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BMW R1250GS Pricing:

Full spec – R263,000
Exclusive – R265,700
HP – R275,000

BMW R1250GS Adventure pricing:

Full spec – R288,900
Exclusive – R297,400
HP – R299,500

BMW R1250GS Adventure gallery – click to enlarge: