Bikes and Gear


The two Honda TransAlps were purchased second-hand in Tokyo. Tokyo is a fantastic place to go shopping for second-hand bikes. They pack them in to the ceilings, all over the walls often 3 or 4 levels of bikes in the one room. Surprisingly cheap too! I guess most folks in Japan have so much cash that a second-hand bike is a bit of an insult. That pushes down the price of second hand wheels considerably.

Kazakhstan desert silhouette Both the TransAlps are 400cc models (XL400V), available only in Japan. Due to their licensing laws, anything over 400cc is as rare as hens teeth and requires decades of riding experience just to get a licence. James' bike was the first one we found. It had 12,000 kms on the clock and was 20 months old. We picked it up for ¥350,000 (at the time US$3,500) when they were around ¥900,000 new. Walter's machine was 4 months newer, had done a mere 4,000 kms and still had the original oil. It cost ¥400,000 and ran out of fuel within 2km of the shop! (Great start to the trip).

The Honda TransAlp has been in production since 1987 and has proved to be a remarkably reliable, but somewhat unfashionable adventure machine. Its not a bike for pure off-roading, but is a classic dual purpose bike built for world travel. When you ride around the world 90% of your miles are on sealed roads, so you need a bike that is comfortable on sealed road, and capable enough to get you across the dirt roads, while sturdy enough to carry sufficient luggage. With the Transalp, the frame is solid and the engine is quite simply beyond peer for reliability. Its not as light (nor as flimsy) as the likes of the Dominator, nor is it as bulky and heavy as the larger adventure bikes, such as the Africa Twin, Super Tenere, Triumph Tiger or the BMW R1100, 1150 bikes. Unfortunately since the death of Mr Honda in 1991, Honda have been less than adventurous in terms of their engineering. In the late 1980s, under his stewardship the TransAlp and its larger brother the Africa Twin were introduced. By 2000, the Africa Twin was on the way out, and Honda changed the styling of the TransAlp to more of a street bike and closed the manufacturing line in Japan. The bike has since been manufactured in Spain, and as you would expect, the quality is not as good. Despite rumours, there seems to be no genuine replacement for the Transalp and Africa Twin of the early 1990s in sight. Its ironic that the popularity of dual purpose motorcycles has taken off just as all four large Japanese motorcycle manufacturers have pulled out. In the early 1990s, quality equipment was available from Suzuki, Kawasaki, Honda, Yamaha, Cagiva and of course BMW. Now, with the Africa Twin out of production, the current TransAlp more of a street bike, Yamaha's Tenere and Super Tenere out of production, the Kawasaki Tengai out of production, and Suzuki's current bike, the V-Strom, not even offering spoked wheels, BMW quite literally own the market, as the only major adventure touring bike manufacturer.

The bikes we took were really fantastic. Only complaints we have for Honda is about the weak fairing mounts and the back brake pads needed to be larger. The engines were outstanding: 10 out of 10. They started straight away every time, even in -10 degrees, even after 3 weeks locked in a Siberian Policeman's shed in sub-zero temperatures. Didn't use a drop of oil for the entire journey in either bike! Nor did we have to change any chains or sprockets until we got to Helsinki, 75% of the way through the trip. If low maintenance is your priority, a pre 2000 TransAlp is impossible to beat.

For storage, we each had a Gearsack rack on the back, a Gearsack rear bag, two Gearsack small saddle bags, a Gearsack tank bag and a Mountain Designs rucksack. The weight was higher than optimal, but in the long run the convenience of being able to remove the whole lot in 2 minutes was great. Like most things for a trip like this, durability is the key. Take quality stuff that will be there doing the job after thousands of kms on bumpy dirt or semi-bitumen roads.

We did the whole 25,000 kms on two sets of Dunlop Trailmax tyres each. The first set took us all the way to Helsinki (and only the rear tyre was changed there - the front one just kept on going all the way to London). They proved to be an ideal dual purpose tyre and obviously have good wear characteristics. In all the tyres were tubes. That made it easy to repair the one flat we had during the whole trip by just using a push-bike vulcanising puncture repair kit. Unfortunately Dunlop no longer make these gems - maybe this new D908 is a substitute.

You just can't go past Nikon. Yes, I know they sponsored us, but to tell you the truth, we were rapt that they did. We had a couple of F-801's and folks, if you haven't got one, get one. They were incredibly reliable. One Nikon even had one of the bikes ride over it. That incident cracked some of the filters but the Nikons were 100%. In the digital age a Nikon D80 would be the equivalent camera.

Nikon F-801 We had 4 lenses covering 28mm - 200mm and just the essential polarising and warming filters. We had one flash between the two of us and would have used it maybe 10 times out of 12,000 shots. A bit of a waste of space....but then again, you never know what might've come up. For film we used Agfa's RS 50 Professional slide film, supplemented by some RS 100 Professionaland CT 200 stock. Also in amongst all that luggage were 2 tripods that saw a lot of use.

One little photography tip here ... many people spend years planning their motorcycle adventure of a lifetime and then come back with crappy pictures. You probably will never get the chance to see those scenes again. Do yourself a favour and take a photography course before you go. You will look back on your rocking chair aged 70 and be grateful you decided to learn to take nice pics. What's the point making that journey you always dreamed of and then not record it photographically in a way that does it justice.


Our good friends at Mountain Designs provided us with the outdoor gear we needed. This included tents, sleeping bags, insulating mattresses a water filter pump and cooking gear. It was all top quality stuff and is all still working well today 12 years later. The sleeping bags were their own "Standhart" down bags, rated to -10 degrees Celsius. We needed every bit of that insulation as we often woke up in sub zero temperatures, with nothing other than a insulation mattress and the sleeping bags separating us from a slab of ice. We used a 2 man tent which only just fitted us and our hand luggage in each night, but it was a lightweight, a great design, easy to put up and kept the wind at bay. McLeod Accessories (also in Brisbane) chipped in with Sidi riding boots, Dririder wet/cold weather riding gear and Shoei helmets. Stagg Leather donated a couple of great custom made leather riding jackets. The only other gear with had with us was the spare parts. These included cables, a chain each, spare levers and assorted fluids and oils.

Unfortunately back in 1994 there were no mobile phones, satellite phones or portable GPS units. Anyone making a trip now would be advised to carry a mobile phone and GPS unit - particularly through deserted places like Mongolia. We were pretty much at the mercy of the people and places we went though. Even maps were scarce in Russia then. We carried with us an extensive supply of maps. Most places now have good motoring maps but it doesn't hurt to stock up before you go for unmapped or poorly mapped places. The whole world is mapped out by the US Department of Defence and you can buy maps called TPCs from them (about 0.75 x 1.00 metres each) from about $5 a map. This Tactical Pilotage Chart series maps the world at a 1:500,000 scale but they can be a pain in the butt to track down unless you go direct to the source. They are also at least 3 times the price if you try to buy them from anywhere else. Email them at or call +1 301 436 8301.

All text and images copyright © 1994 - 2010; Walter Colebatch and James Mudie