Story by Damien Ashenhurst
Photos by Danny Wilkinson/Rob Kerber
KTM Australia’s marketing manager, Rosie Lalonde, had a plan (Rosie always has a plan). How would I feel, she asked, about picking up a 2023 890 Adventure R and riding it to the upcoming KTM Adventure Rallye?
I pondered the plan for 0.006 seconds before I said yes.
I picked up the 2023 890 Adventure R from KTM HQ (400km round trip), rode it home to pack it for the Rallye and then rode it a further 700 kilometres to the start point at Lake Hume.
By this point, I had a very good view of how the bike felt on freeway stretches and it was clear that the new front-end styling had gifted the rider slightly better wind protection and that the seat is comfortable enough for those long stretches.
After hours of 36 degrees and nothing but glorious sunshine, I rode through a severe storm that formed quickly and hit like a hammer with wind gusts of 105kph, lightning strikes all around and the kind of rainfall that indicates that the time is now to gather two of every animal.
It mercifully passed and that burning sun reappeared, confirming that Australian weather is bipolar and in need of professional help.
After a total of some eight hours of riding, I passed under an inflatable KTM archway and parked amongst the approximately 150 other Katos assembled for the start of the sixth annual KTM Adventure Rallye.
This transit ride of mine paled in comparison to one bloke who rode 7000 kilometres to be there from Mount Isa. He even included the previous year’s KTM Rallye in his route! You, sir, are a legend.
The KTM Rallye is now a worldwide event, but it actually began here in Australia. In fact, the very first Rallye was held in the Victorian High Country, the very same area we were to spend the next week in.
It’s heaven for adventure riding and even though it’s full of Victorians, they seem harmless when they aren’t overstimulated by AFL and it’s impossible to deny the natural beauty of the landscape, which New South Wales would have first sold to a state politician and then had it logged to keep us safe from koalas.
HELL HILL, NUMBER ONE
I hadn’t made a single change to the 890 before we set off, besides strapping my favourite Giant Loop Fandango tank bag on. The levers, seat height and bar position were as delivered.
I recognised that the bars might be a little more comfortable for me in the forward position, but I was too excited and keen to start riding to fumble about on the tools. If you want a reminder on the full list of updates to the 2023 890 Adventure R you can find it here.
We set off in blisteringly hot weather with all available vents open on my Fly Racing Terra Trek riding gear and Arai XD-4 helmet and any squeak of airflow was appreciated on the windless day.
The Rallye was rescheduled in late 2022 due to widespread flooding, but La Niña had finally run out of puff. The wet conditions of the previous three years had given way to what is predicted to be a dry and hot period for Australia.
This happens to be the driest inhabited continent on the planet, so thanks to the weather bureau Nostradamus for making that informed prediction. The heat was definitely here and it would become one of the many obstacles to overcome during the week.
We hit the dirt and entered an ever-present dust cloud on what would be a challenging first day.
I utilized Rally mode on the 890 from the start, with the slip set to 5 and able to be adjusted on the fly as conditions dictated. I prefer the throttle sensitivity to be set on ‘Street’ as it’s easier to control than ‘Rally’, which I find difficult to manage without it feeling jerky.
My bike had the Rally pack installed as well as a set of Rally footpegs which are a lot longer than the standards and worth the investment.
Every 890 Adventure R will be delivered with the Rally Pack installed for a period of three months, at which point you can opt to pay for it to be reinstated in part or in its entirety.
I don’t like this approach, but wait till electric bikes become the norm and shit will turn on and off unless you feed a coin into it like Pacman.
The weeks’ ride followed a single main route that offered optional breakouts of more technical riding. High Country riding is inherently tricky given the volume and size of the rocks that litter so many of the trails – some fist-sized and some the size of Burt Newton’s head. And he had a huge head.
You have to stay alert, particularly if you don’t ride rocky trails much, and let yourself ease into a groove. I remember thinking this on day two before Chris Birch went by me at an unfathomable pace. His groove was clearly early Red Hot Chili Peppers while mine was more a stoned John Mayer.
And I swear someone passes through regularly to make sure the rocks are big enough and are sitting at an angle ideally suited for sucking the living soul out of the rider from the 15-minute mark onward.
At the first breakout, a line-up of riders had formed at the bottom of a hill that twisted out of sight as it ascended. As often happens when you stare at a hill long enough, your imagination fills in the blanks and visions of an impossible gradient, rock shelves shaped by Satan himself and the presence of an angry bear tearing riders to pieces seem all but certain.
It was a slippery bugger with a loose rocky surface made all the more troublesome by a turn right and then a sharper turn left and then another right and a fresh incline just when you thought you might be at the end.
It’s here you realise the engine in the 890 doesn’t get the kudos it deserves. Probably because it sounds like a wombat blowing raspberries with the stock pipe on it, but it is supremely usable right through the rev range.
The day before I arrived at this hill, I was sitting at 110kph for hours with a generous burst of speed at my disposal. Now, I was climbing a complex uphill, forced to drop revs as I passed between two stranded riders then [pick up again to take on the final climb.
Not once did the 890 cough, complain or threaten to break traction as I clambered up in my steady and unspectacular fashion.
With the first breakout done, we continued with a variety of undulating tracks presenting an ever-changing measure of loose rocks concealed in by a shroud of dust that was never shifted because the wind refused to lend a hand.
Towards the end of the day, we reached the Kelly Tree at Stringybark Creek. This is where Australia’s most notorious bushranger, Ned Kelly, ambushed, shot and killed three police officers in 1878. He was eventually arrested after a shootout in which he was dressed in a suit of armour and was hanged in 1880.
He was by most accounts a massive dickhead, yet today some hold him up as something of a hero and place Ned Kelly stickers on their Hiluxs in tribute.
The next best-known bushranger is perhaps Captain Thunderbolt, a seasoned criminal but with a name that suggests he was working towards leaving his life of crime and becoming a member of a drag show. What could have been…
After a quick stop at the magnificent Tolmie Pub for a refreshing medicinal ale, we ended the 371-kilometre day with tired bodies but eager spirits.
The second day of the Rallye was shorter and mercifully not as hot in the morning thanks to cloud cover. There were still lots of rocks to be weary of on this route but, while they were well-trained at bringing down a bike, they only attacked sporadically.
I had made a foolish promise that I wouldn’t drop the bike once through the entire week – I was even sober when I said it. If I got through day two, I only had three more to go.
The day was all about the incredible views, which the High Country possesses an embarrassing richness of. And few places demonstrate this as well as Craig’s Hut. The hut stands in a clearing atop Mount Sterling with panoramic views of the ranges that stretch some 400 kilometres.
The hut itself was built as a film set for the 1982 movie, The Man from Snowy River and it gets its name from the main character, Jim Craig. Therefore, nobody called Craig actually lived there which is understandable because there is no furniture and no air conditioning.
The hut that stands now is a replica of the fake movie hut which burnt down in a real fire in 2006.
As we took a moment to appreciate the bucolic charm, I turned in admiration to the 890 Adventure R. I had ridden the High Country a week before this Rallye. I was on my Africa Twin and mercifully went nowhere near the technical terrain we had ridden thus far.
There is no way I would want to tackle the rock sections on the big Honda. To be honest I don’t think I’d be happier on an 690 Enduro. The 890 is so stable and well balanced in slower speed tricky sections that it defies belief that you’re riding a 900cc motorcycle.
The ergos are perfectly shaped to allow you to grab the bike with your legs which is invaluable when things get wild and that’s one of the updates that I’ll mark down as an important improvement.
The new plastics have also eliminated the insectoid look of the previous model. I admit that it grew on me somewhat, but I do much prefer the front and side profile of the 2023.
After leaving fake Craig’s fake hut, we headed down to the manmade Lake Cobbler (is anything real anymore?), on a track that was solidly rough with a few reminders to not get overconfident, but a lot of fun all the same.
As we enjoyed a moment of contemplation by the lake, I ate a salad roll that had been sitting in my tank bag all day. It was quite hot by this point and I sadly failed to notice that the roll was heavy with mayonnaise, a sauce that is best kept cold.
No sooner had it entered my stomach than I got a message back that it was not being received well. Trouble was brewing. I managed to negotiate a truce between the mayo and my gastrointestinal system but was issued with a stern warning that should I betray the delicate balance down below any further there will be a price to pay.
A kind of culinary Switzerland was needed for the next day and so dry pikelets were introduced as the only menu item. It was a reminder to always try to eat sensibly on long rides. Too much, too little or eating mayo that went off hours ago is not smart. You need your body to stay powered, or you lose focus and energy and end up horizontal and sad.
WHERE THE F#%K IS DARGO?
On most rides, there is a day that absolutely slaps (my daughter tells me this means it’s REALLY good).
Day three slapped.
While we’d already had so much from incredible views to techy trails, a big hill, a big hut and mega rock sections, we hadn’t seen trails that truly flowed.
Right from the start the third day had fewer rocks and more genuine soil covering as well as outstanding flowy tracks that seemed to never end. With a decent pace, you could pick your way through bushland that looked and felt different to the previous days on tracks a constant four-wheel-drive width and a dust-to-breathable air ratio that was more compliant with life.
The first breakout had us riding yet more flowing trails that had closed in somewhat. We dropped into the Wandiligong Valley (was everyone high when they conceived Australian place names?), and climbed back out onto the Demon Ridge by which time I was full of love for motorcycling and the High Country and life and the universe and everything.
The 890 ate up the tracks that would normally be most welcoming to a 500 EXC-F. Because the suspension is so well matched to the intent of the bike, in stock trim it doesn’t present a barrier to going hard with confidence. And it truly does ride like a dirtbike, not a lumbering adventure bike fighting to deny its road heritage.
A great road section took us up to the ski town of Mount Hotham where we could contemplate the splendour of the High Country from a truly elevated position.
Back onto the dirt we eventually turned onto an iconic track called the Blue Rag Range. The track features steep ascents as well as descents that burn the thighs hotter than a solid Zumba workout. It’s often slippery and gave me a great chance to try the improved ABS on the 890.
I’m usually a double braker – with a few exceptions I use both front and back brakes together pretty much all the time. On these descents, I leaned right back and put my full trust in the front brake which handled the gravity-affected loose surface with barely a hint of a pulse and outstanding power and control.
For reference, the front tyre was a Pirelli Scorpion Rally which is damn good and the rear on my bike was a Dunlop 606.
It goes against my flawed but long-held technique, but from there on I troubled the rear brake about 50% less which freed up my body movement considerably.
Blue Rag is a gem of a track. There is certainly some effort involved to traverse it but the views from the start to the end make it more than worthwhile. The route eventually terminated on the track, and we turned back the way we came, getting a double dose of the majesty.
That afternoon we arrived at Dargo where I quickly found my way to the river and stepped in without my jacket but otherwise fully clothed. The cool water brought my core temperature down while yabbies massaged my back. Now, that’s living.
One rider arrived at day’s end having been forced to replace his footpeg with a stick along the way. That’s doing it tough, but he was all smiles. Everyone was pumped on a brilliant and unforgettable day.
My boots were still wet in the morning. Regrets.
I was pretty amped to start the run from Dargo to one of my favourite stops in this region, Dinner Plain. There’s not much there but it’s the vibe of Dinner Plain that I dig. And the pub.
About halfway through the route, we hit a steep downhill into a tiny water-filled gully that then immediately climbed sharply and thus began a hill climb that broke many spirits, quite a few bikes and one leg.
It was a serious incline, littered with all sizes of rock, loose soil and a sprinkling of ruts to make it extra sketchy. Traction was needed but little was on offer, particularly in the areas you’d want to power down to maintain momentum.
Once again, the supreme usability of the 890 R’s engine got me to the top without a fuss, but behind me, chaos reigned. It was like the final scene from the movie Platoon.
There were bikes at all stages of the hill and at all angles. The smell of burning clutches and rubber filled the air accompanied by a soundtrack of over-revving and heavy swearing.
Some riders who had made it to the top clambered back down to help others get up. And this is where the sweep riders really earn their pay, riding one bike after another to the top for guys that would rather be experiencing a rectal examination than be on that hill and in that heat.
I walked back down to lend a hand and shoot some video (chaos is the best entertainment) to find another journo, Wayne Vickers, in a pretty bad way. He’d made it about halfway when he lost balance and in correcting jammed his leg down with enough force to break the top of his tibia.
Wayne toughed it out and walked up the rest of the hill, then rode out to the waiting medics and straight to the hospital. He would rejoin us later that night, but his ride was over.
After leaving, I missed the next breakout through a navigational error. I was using the Gaia GPS app on my phone which I do a lot and has always been great, but I’d noticed in the last two weeks had been lagging and behaving weirdly. I missed the breakout because Gaia reversed the colours I use to distinguish the breakouts from the main route.
I don’t know what’s going on at Gaia HQ, but I hope they fix the app soon because the lagging alone is making it unusable on a ride. On that note, the 2023 890 Adventure R has two easy-to-reach power outlets in a 12-volt as well as a USB-A to keep your devices charged. Nice touch.
The ride into Dinner Plain was rough and fairly physical. It’s a great trail but it can take it out of you, particularly if you’re already energy depleted from a big day. One of our group had a crack at a muddy water crossing with a very soft base and found himself needing a few of us to pull him out using straps.
Aside from the monumental amount of shit he copped from me about it (I may or may not have encouraged him to do it in the first place), he had to wake up the next morning and put wet boots on.
RETURN TO THE LAKE
On the fifth and final day, we left Dinner Plain and headed back to our start point at Lake Hume, some 350 kilometres away.
It was a good final day with nothing too challenging and a lot of open dirt roads that the 890 eats up with just as much ease as it does the technical stuff.
The breakout for the day wasn’t for riders with weary legs as we hit erosion mounds one after another. I have to admit, I was too munted to go hard and my thoughts were on bringing the 890 home without a scratch on it. I hadn’t dropped the bike once all week and there was no way was going to do it on the last day.
So often when you’ve hit somewhere pretty basic and your mind clocks off just a little, that’s when things go wrong. Having become used to smashing the 890’s quickshifter pretty hard all week, I came into a typical right-hander on a dirt road with a light dusting of gravel.
Shifting down two gears to have some fun on the exit, I lost the rear which came right around and almost led the bike into the corner. Thankfully the front tyre held and the traction control in Offroad mode was forgiving enough to let me avoid a highside.
For what little was left of the ride, I rode like I was delivering soup in an open container.
It was great to reach the endpoint and ride back under the KTM banner after 5 days of what was at times pretty damn tricky riding. In total, I spent 8 consecutive and big days on the 890 R before I returned it.
There is so much to take away from the event, starting with the views, to the classic trails, incredible destinations and of course the regular challenge of the KTM Adventure Rallye course itself.
And then there are the people. The social aspect of a Rallye is undeniably part of its attraction and everyone you meet is there to have a great time on a motorcycle and share stories and laughs about the life. And there are plenty of riders with incredible tales of rides ridden and experiences far from home.
KTM do this stuff exceptionally well. And the model line-up it has offers something for just about anyone looking to ride dirt from the sedate to the gnarly.
I loved that Kato allowed me to ride the 890 Adventure R to the Rallye and then of course I rode it 500 kilometres back to Sydney to park it back in their HQ. That’s a show of faith in the product and it solidified my admiration for the 890R.
I rode the 790 when it was first launched in Morocco and came away thinking that it was the first true evolutionary step I’d seen in years of dirtbike/adventure journalism.
Honda may have heralded a new era in 2016 with the relaunch of the Africa Twin, but KTM took such a giant leap with this platform and while it’s been refined since then, it’s hard to point at anything that drastically needs to change.
As I jumped back on my Africa Twin Adventure Sports to ride home from KTM, I assured Murray that he was the only bike I wanted, but I rode away checking my mirrors for one more glimpse of the bike that blows my mind every time I ride it. The 890 Adventure R is pretty special.
We do live in an extraordinary time to be adventure riding. Don’t waste it.