Riding to Clarens in the depths of winter aboard the new KTM 390 Adventure in the quest for the allusive snow.

Pics: Meghan McCabe
People from the coastal areas, farms, small towns, other cities, other countries and possibly every other place in the entire universe might thoroughly disagree, but Jo’Burg is a truly lekker place. We have no sea, no newsworthy scenery, no long-standing history and our architecture is mediocre at best, but it is a great place to live.

The people are some of the friendliest on earth, there is a plethora of good places to wine and dine, anything you need – even at 2am on Christmas Day – is available and it has a feel-good vibe. People might not believe me but when you’ve lived here your entire life then everywhere else, even with towering heights of magnificence, seas of aquamarine delight and buildings aged in splendour, feels somehow lacking. 

Don’t recommend it to friends from abroad as a place to visit on their holidays – Cape Town takes that honour – but as a place to live and work, there is no where finer. 

With that said, it has one massive drawback – snow. Or the lack thereof. There was a particular lack of the powdery, white gold while I was growing up. I would lie atop my bunk bed in my room staring lustfully at my Calvin and Hobbes comic (I was a nerd) and their adventures aboard their toboggan, and then looking hopelessly outside at the sunny, winter landscape and the heartbreakingly mild temperatures. This has left a psychological hole in my existence, one I intended to fill.

The news broke on a Thursday morning, as shivering blue hands held aloft a crackling newspaper. The headlines were unmistakeable: “Heavy Snow Warning This Weekend!”

I checked my calendar and found it to be full of important things that needed doing, so I buried the calendar in the yard and phoned KTM.

KTM 390 Adventure Snow Quest Clarens Test detail

Team Orange has joined the ranks of small adventure providers with its 390 Adventure, a bike that triggers the question: what took you so bloody long? The 390 Duke has become a legend in its own right, and the adventure equivalent can only be good. Despite this, the 390 Adventure has also joined the ranks of other small-capacity adventure machines receiving criticism and ridicule from “real” adventure riders who see them as some sort of gimmicks built out of recycled toilet paper in Indian sweat shops. Weirdly, to these people, the 390 Duke is excellent and the 390 Adventure somehow isn’t.

Flying in the face of social media idiocy, the 390 Adventure flew down the R57 with the smog of Sasolburg shrinking ever smaller on the horizon behind it, and the vastness of the Free State growing mightier ahead. The bike was cruising merrily at between 130km/h and 140km/h, a fact that was doubtful when I first picked the bike up. Through Joburg traffic, it felt plucky but it seemed to get revvy as it approached 120. 

Would it have to be revved stukkend in order to just cruise at the speed limit? The bike answered itself as I pulled onto the freeway, revving through the gears and spending more time concentrating on the freeway traffic than the fact that the speedo had just surpassed 150km/h.

Oops.

It pushes 43hp – a not insignificant amount – through a motor with a 373cc single-cylinder leading to one more concern – vibrations. These thumpers can be buzzy, a trait made more worrying through the streets of Joburg as revs bounced through the gearbox sending shakes through the bars. Three and a half hours of this might be painful.

KTM 390 Adventure Snow Quest Clarens Test on board

Thankful, at a cruising altitude of 120 to 140km/h, the buzz through the bars eases off leaving only a little through the footpegs. I’m the sort of fellow that ignores that sort of thing but if you have feet like a record player, it could get annoying.

Not long ago, only the proper, top-shelf motorcycles had a full-colour TFT dashes, but thankfully, the 390 designers were able to sift through the skip out the back of the factory and came across some old dashes from the 1190 Super Adventure. On a 1290, this dash would be outdated. On a 390, it is the sort of thing you brag about to your friends.

Three hours later, my butt, neck and shoulders still felt good as new, and felt even better as the flat Free State eventually succumbed to the odd hill that soon also made way for bit of mountain, until the Drakensberg exploded before us. It was at its foothills that we arrived triumphantly in the town of Fouriesburg. Given my birthright, I announced my sovereignty to all and sundry (two sheep and a chicken) before making my royal way towards the fabled town of Clarens. 

KTM 390 Adventure Snow Quest Clarens Test Fouriesburg
Declaring my rightful sovereignty. Bow down, peasants!

This hub of artistry is famous for dinosaur bones, galleries, cafés and being surrounded my mountains. Quaint bed and breakfasts look up at towering peaks, and patrons of restaurants breakfast under their mighty shadows. The town is so rustic that fast food takeaways are banned and they very grudgingly allowed a Protea Hotel to be set up provided it wasn’t too franchise-y. 

We weren’t interested in such intricacies because this would be our base for our true purpose – the quest for snow.

Being a monarch, I slept in a castle and then . . . dawned happened.

A frozen dawn, at that. By 7am, the temperature gauge was reading -9ºC and fingers were turning cadaver blue. 

But the grass was clear, the sky was blue and there was no sign of snow.

I threw a royal tantrum and prepared to declare war for this outrage, until the hostess at my bastille lodgings (it’s called Camelot in Clarens – seriously, go stay there) told me that Clarens very rarely gets snow while the peaks in the area are most likely covered in it. 

For her services to the crown, I appointed her a Dame and again mounted the 390. After five minutes, I went back inside, held my fingers under hot water until they thawed and then waited for global warming.

KTM 390 Adventure Snow Quest Clarens Test castle
Camelot, a guesthouse fit for a king.

Luckily, Greta’s predictions struck at around 11am and the 390 left Clarens with its occupant thankfully unfrozen.

Using man-logic, I decided that the best way to reach one of the peaks is via a dirt road. So I found one of those and ascended to glory… well, ascended until the road ended at a lodge somewhere some distance from the closest peak. 

With that, I made a U-turn.

Normally, a sentence such as the above would be satisfactory, however, for me it is more of an achievement than Zoolander turning left. On TV, I look like a towering hulk. In real life, I’m a little more than a gnome. I’m 5ft 9, already a short-arse in the world of butch manly-men, but this figure is even more diminishing with my strange boy proportions – my actual body is unusually long, and my legs are like little tree stumps. This means I have a great time during long-haul air travel but struggle like hell to touch the floor on any motorcycle.

Usually, when filming an adventure bike, I need assistance at least three times to pick the bloody thing up after an inevitable capsize.

And yet, on a narrow dirt road somewhere outside of Clarens, I managed a U-turn. Successfully. By myself.

I fist-punched the air in celebration but most of the accolades for this glorious achievement must go to the 390. Where most adventure motorcycles tower awkwardly above their tippy-toed riders, the 390 is somewhat “normal” height, making life far easier for its occupant.

KTM 390 Adventure Snow Quest Clarens Test dirt
Some off-roading – note the way we are not horizontal.

In fact, the entire off-road excursion was somewhat pleasant. The 390 has only a 19-inch front wheel, not class-leading brakes and suspension that might be called “simple” in some circles. But all that means toss because it is small enough for even the daintiest of riders to overcome. This little feature holds more significance than even the top-class WP suspension and most aggressive 21-inch front wheel. The 158kg dry weight helps hugely too.

The road was slippery, loose gravel, and grew narrower and tighter as it wound its way up the range, offering spectacular views of Clarens nestling below. The 390 has traction control but it was never needed as the light-throttled 373cc revved its way through the low bottom gears. Also, even over the bigger bumps, there was very little of the dreaded “klunk” associated with suspension out of its depth.

After some haphazard and fruitless dirt exploration, I decided to scrap the man-logic and asked a local for directions, who happily told me there was a tar road that rose to the peaks. Feeling slightly annoyed that my quest could probably have been achieved using a family hatchback, I followed his instructions into the Golden Gate Reserve and then delved ever deeper into the Drakensberg.

The road through Golden Gate is smooth, luxurious and twistier than a piece of dropped thread. Naturally, the light nature of the 390 again came into its own again as it ducked and dived through the passes as the eroded sandstone cliffs loomed ominously above, shadowing the freezing road. What did become a problem was the altitude – Johannesburg sits a pretty 1,600m above sea-level, a full mile in empirical terms. The thinner air causes a 17% drop in power compared to motors running at the coast. As we entered the Golden Gate, the altitude climbed above 2,000m and ascended further skywards.

KTM 390 Adventure Snow Quest Clarens Test corner
Climbing to the peaks. Still not horizontal, against all odds.

The 390 starts with 43hp at the coast and dips to 36hp in Joburg. As we climbed ever further towards the taunting clouds, the horsepower seemed to drop to somewhere around that of a kiddies scooter, a problem when the road seemed to be competing with adjoining cliffs for steepness. The hairpin bends were either taken in first gear with the motor screaming for blood, or in second with mild fears of stalling.

Regardless, the 390 soldiered on, and to be fair, the mind was on concerns of a more deadly nature – the temperature had dipped into the dreaded minus figures, and water still stood in some of the hairpins as a remnant of the morning showers that flooded the area. Or was that water? Why had it evaporated everywhere else but not here? Would we be able to tell the difference between shiny water and solid ice?

Every touch of the brake lever seemed like a life or death manoeuvre, with plans for emergency exits made at every turn should the slightest hint of ABS be felt. These included jumping the Armco barrier and then quickly learning to fly.

And then the wind picked up. Well, I say picked up – it nearly picked both the bike and I up and carried us into the stratosphere. As we broke the shelter of the mountains by nearing the peaks, the wind hit hard, funnelled by the narrowing topography. It felt like the front tyre was flat and the bike wobbled awkwardly along the narrow road.

KTM 390 Adventure Snow Quest Clarens Test peaks
Note the snow on the distant peaks. Unfortunately, those mountains are in Lesotho and the border was still closed to us filthy, plague-ridden South Africans,

The motor was on its last legs, the damp road threatened betrayal and the wind was showing off its gym time. The wild grass lay nearly flat as the arctic wind battered it, and yet there was no sign of snow. Even looking upwards towards the ever-nearing peaks, all looked barren and dry. All hope was lost and the quest was a failure. The people of The Kingdom of Fouriesburg would host a coup and I, their graceful monarch, would be locked in the stocks and probably beheaded for the shame I brought upon them. 

It was then, as the road ceased its rivalry with the cliff faces and began its descent, our videographer pointed at a tuft of grass that seems to have something strange – like a sort of cauliflower – at its base. I dismounted the 390 and waded through the gale to inspect.

There, shielded meagrely from the storm, was a clump of icy goodness.

Snow! Actual snow!

A tiny amount, but snow!

KTM 390 Adventure Snow Quest Clarens Test slight
Look at that magnificent snow (don’t laugh).

We celebrated. The honour of Fouriesburg has been defended and I shall make a triumphant return to my applauding subjects. I built a snow man (or, as it turns out, a snow ant), threw a snowball (that the wind scattered into my face), made a snow angel (read: grass angel) and climbed shakily aboard the 390 for the trip home.

What a fantastic little machine; this is not the most poetic sentence ever compiled and it shan’t win any awards for its eloquence, but it sums the 390 up succinctly.

It isn’t perfect – it isn’t the most comfortable bike in the world, it isn’t all that sophisticated, it is missing the kit many of the big bikes are blessed with and, yes, it spawned from a factory in the sub-continent of India and not from a facility at the foot of the Austrian Alps, and quite frankly I couldn’t give a toss about any of that.

It ate up miles through the vastness of the Free State, it braved the cold of Clarens, navigated the slippery gravel with a clueless gnome at the helm and climbed the gale-force peaks of the Drakensburg, completing a glorious quest and saving an entire nation.

KTM 390 Adventure Snow Quest Clarens Test drakensberg
The KTM 390 Adventure basking in glory on top of the Drakensberg.

Sure, there are other bikes that could complete these hallowed tasks and probably conclude them with more effortless grace, but none of them can do it and cost just R93,000. You can buy secondhand bikes for that much but they may cost you more in the long run and good luck getting finance for an older motorcycle.

The 390 is an adventure bike, and probably more of an adventure bike to more people than any other.