Up ahead is a long, steep and narrow stretch of rocky trail. The left side looks better, so standing tall on the pegs, I throttle over there, away from the long, uncomfortable drop-off to my right. A wrong turn here and it's 2,300 metres of bouncing down the side of an arid mountain dotted with pointed outcroppings.
I am, though, riding a bike well-suited for this sort of adventure touring. The BMW F800GS is something of a throwback to a time when mid-range bikes such as the Honda Africa Twin were derived from the Paris-Dakar race. That was back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the adventure tourer market had its birth.
BMW, naturally, had the boxer-twin GS (GS stands for Gelande Strasse in German, translated into English as Off-Road/On-Road). A favourite of that era was the R100GS Paris-Dakar. It put out 60 horsepower, had a five-speed gearbox, did 0-100 km in 5.6 seconds and weighed 250 kg. Here we are 20 years later, and the F800GS puts out 85 hp, does 0-100 km in about four seconds flat and tips the scales at a very manageable 185 kg.
The 800 is a sister bike to the mammoth R1200GS. The latter is a lot of bike for this sort of trail riding. The lighter, more agile GS is an easy ride for modestly skilled types such as yours truly.
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In fact, it's perfectly suited for unpaved roads leading onto steep mountain trails filled with challenging terrain. When the going gets difficult, the knobby tires on my tester worked hard to gobble up holes and bumps, leaving me relatively unjarred standing on my pegs. For the most part, the F800GS does not jump around unpredictably, and it's light enough to lift easily if you go down.
Interestingly, the standard seat height seems quite tall at 880 mm for this sort of riding, but after a day of bouncing over rocks, through sand and across river beds, I was glad my bike had not come with a lowering kit (850 mm). The temptation to put a foot down, what with the ground a bit nearer, might have been too much and that's how you break an ankle. Stand tall in the pegs, work the throttle and trust the bike to climb the terrain - that's the way to do this sort of riding, I learned the hard way.
On pavement, I found it easy enough to plant both feet on the ground, but just barely. The seat is narrow at the front and the chassis is streamlined, so only when the ground is uneven does it get tricky to plant the soles of your boots. Those of you shorter than six feet, consider the 850-mm seat option.
Most important for this sort of riding are the foot pegs. They are low enough for comfort and placed correctly for stand-up riding. The gear lever and foot brake on this 800 are ergonomically correct for off-road boots, too.
You appreciate those things when riding 250 km a day on mixed terrain, much of it unpaved or worse. I also came to appreciate the wide aluminum handlebar; it minimizes vibrations, which on some bikes can leave your hands numbed. Only a few low-frequency vibrations come through.
Overall, the handlebar provides excellent control. The turning radius is tight, which is good for slow-speed manoeuvres, tight gravelly corners and nasty, steep hairpins - all of which I encountered during the ride.
As for power, the 798-cc parallel twin engine comes from the F800S. Smooth, linear torque really is important at low and moderate speeds and that is mostly what you get here. The fuel-injected, twin-cylinder engine produces a maximum 85 hp at 7,500 rpm and 61.2 lb-ft of torque at 5,750 rpm.
Occasionally, I was challenged to find the right gear ratio to get the power I needed for tricky terrain - especially oddball stuff, the really steep, rutted and off-camber stretches. But 85 horses are more than enough, given the relatively light weight. Still, the F800GS has a chain final drive, so if you're clever or ambitious, some sprocket modifications can help you change some of the performance characteristics.
That brings us to engine cooling. Riding kilometre after kilometre in first and second gear, sometimes third, can really cause a bike engine to heat up. To keep temperatures down, BMW's engineers have installed a wide radiator and placed the cylinders in a way to improve lubrication.
The long suspension travel (230 mm up front, 215 mm at the rear) is just the ticket for dual-purpose riding - not too much, not too little. As for paved road handling, the F800GS is very stable.
Stopping power is one area where this bike shines. The F800GS has a 300-mm floating disc up front, and a 265-mm disc at the rear. Antilock braking is optional and not really wanted in off-road conditions, anyway. Point is, the brakes are very strong and wonderfully easy to modulate.
My tester had ABS, so I turned it off by pushing the ABS button while the bike is in neutral and until the ABS warning light stopped blinking. Unfortunately, you need to do the same thing again and again each time the ignition is turned off. However, on slippery and unfamiliar roads, ABS can keep you from sliding and that's a good thing.
All in all, the F800GS is a very good long-range touring bike. The fairing doesn't offer much protection from the wind, but it does minimize headshake and buffeting when you're wearing a big helmet. I am told a taller touring screen is available, but it's not what you want if you're really into dual-purpose riding.
I suppose this bike could have a bit more power or at least the three lower gears could be lower still for more punch. But the most glaring downside: the seat. It's well proportioned, but hard. Hours in the saddle can get downright painful.
As a whole, I like this package. It's light and pretty agile and given that over a span of four days I dropped or crashed my tester seven times in the off-roading, it seems pretty darn durable, too.
Despite everything, it never failed to start and keep going.
All aboard the Marrakesh express
2010 BMW F800GS
Type: Dual purpose motorcycle
Engine: 798-cc, two-cylinder, four-stroke
Horsepower/torque: 85 hp/61.2 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Alternatives: Honda Varadero, BMW F650GS, Suzuki V-Strom 650.
Like: Agile trail-rider that works on paved roads very nicely; well-placed gear lever and foot brake; robust construction
Don't like: Hard seat; at times the bike seems to be searching for the right gear ratio to match the demands of the terrain and engine output