South African adventurer Riaan Manser has cycled round Africa, paddled round Iceland and Madgascar, and rowed to New York. I chatted with him via Skype for Grand Adventures.
Alastair: You’ve just finished rowing the Atlantic with your wife. How did you find the pros and cons between than versus doing a trip with a friend versus doing it solo?
Riaan: I have been doing adventures for 14 years. The bicycle trips, they were long journeys – two years on a bicycle around the continent of Africa was torture in a way because I didn’t have anybody around me. I didn’t have support crew, friends, family, or money. When I look at the rowing now, I just think that [going solo] would be a step too far for me. On the topic of taking a friend with me: I think I romanticise the idea. I love the idea of taking a buddy, but that buddy would have to be a really good friend because I know what you have to go through.
I’m actually glad that I took my wife, Vasti, because we did something special together. If I was to choose again without a doubt I’d take my partner of 15 years.
Alastair: What I loved about your rowing from Africa to New York was when we rowed the Atlantic I found it really weird that it’s the an acceptable thing to just go from the Canary Isles to the Caribbean, and miss out hundreds and hundreds of miles of Atlantic. That slightly annoys me about what I did, and I think what you did is really great, doing it properly.
Riaan: It takes humility to say that. You know that to cross an ocean it should be from the biggest piece of land to the next big piece of land. That is what I was hoping to achieve, to have no regrets. But still going from the Canary Islands to one of the Windward Islands, flip it, that is incredible.
Alastair: Rowing oceans is usually just a one-off experience: you get on a boat and you row till you get to the other side. But what I like about what you did was the rowing as travel. It was a journey. You stopped somewhere along the way, experienced stuff there, you got back in the boat carried on somewhere else, just as you do on a bicycle, I like it. Do you see what I mean about the difference between a “travel” versus just “expedition” experience?
Riaan: You hit the nail on the head. I have been fortunate to have gone to some exotic places on the planet. If I look back now, I realise that that was draws me, like a moths to the flame, is the travel aspect of it. People just love the fact that we stopped at the Canaries, then the Bahamas, where Christopher Columbus landed in 1492. I loved the swimming pigs at Staniel Cay.
Alastair: Then to finish in a massive city and such an iconic one [New York], that’s pretty sweet.
Riaan: It’s a monstrous place just the harbour alone. That was scary. It was an adventure on its own!
Alastair: I want to ask you now about your big bike trip, your first big adventure, cycling around Africa. One of the things that bothers people about certain parts of the world is the hassles of bureaucracy and corruption and all those sort of things. I cycled the length of Africa and I never paid a bribe, I saw that was that same for you. Tell me a little bit about your encounters with bureaucracy in Africa?
Riaan: If you come to Africa on a bicycle and are not expecting any administration issues, you’re living in a dreamland. First thing is to understand that you’re going to have some administration issues and not be surprised by them. Secondly, there is nothing, nothing, nothing better in an awkward and difficult administration moment with border staff than to keep smiling. So, you just keep smiling. Act ignorant and keep smiling. If you’re going to let little stuff like that get you down, it’s going to get you down day in day out.
Alastair: I think “act ignorant and keep smiling” is a very good philosophy for getting by on a journey.
You’ve cycled around Africa, then you kayaked around Madagascar and paddled round Iceland. Why do you like these journeys that follow a coastline?
Riaan: There is a finality about returning to the exact spot where I started long, long ago to a different reception. Knowing what I’d achieved in that long journey. I just like that idea, I feel this complete achievement.
Alastair: That’s a really nice description because I always think that I love journeys that are source to sea or which end at an ocean because of the completeness. But I’d never thought that doing a full circle is really complete. Seeing the place you started through very different eyes.
Riaan: So much so. If you look back now to when I began my ride – gel on my hair and all the stuff that I didn’t need and clothing I didn’t need… Then coming back, you can see in my face it is a different human being that finished the journey two years later so.
Alastair: Why haven’t you chosen not to specialise and instead have chosen to do different kinds of adventures?
Riaan: What I always felt is that I wanted to put pressure on myself, I wanted to do things no human beings had ever done before. That is quite a lot of pressure. To do credible adventures in the 21st century: shucks, we think everything has been done! Also I didn’t want to get stuck in a rut of always kayaking or always cycling because people will label you with that. A lot of thought went into the modes of how I would travel, but it always came down to, “is there real adventure?” I never ever, ever entertained the idea of support group. People who could pluck me out of the water. I need to be in a position where I can die nearly every day and that has been the reality on on all four of my journeys.
Alastair: This might be an impossible question, but did you prefer the journey around Africa which was full of human interaction or rowing an ocean which was essentially empty?
Riaan: People says, “Hey, well done. Well done on rowing across this massive piece of water, it must have been fun?” I answer and say, “Yeah I guess it was.” But 99.9% of the time it was mental torture just rowing and rowing, and rowing and rowing. The rowing bit wasn’t fun for me. It was fun getting to the finish and now having a story to tell, but the Africa journey… goodness gracious! The people that I met, what I learned about the African continent – it changed the person that I am. Yes, that interaction with human beings is what I yearn for.
Alastair: By the sounds of it you don’t fancy rowing another ocean. Some people, like Sarah Outen and Roz Savage like crossing lots of oceans by rowing boats, but for me once is enough!
Riaan: Good luck to them! They are incredible, incredible human beings. But, no – I’ll leave it to them, man!
Alastair: One of the things that interests me as a British adventurer is why there are so many British adventurers. I wonder why you think fewer people from South Africa do big expeditions like you are? I know there are obvious answers like money, but is there anything more than that?
Riaan: If you take the example of rugby, it’s unbelievable how many father-son Springbok pairs there are… It’s a mentality that you’re born with. In South Africa I think we’ve got the will and determination, but people still have the issue of finance. I think the insincerity of people taking on adventures because they want to be famous is a bit of a stumbling block.
Alastair: What do you mean by that?
Riaan: I deal with numerous emails where people ask me how they can get into adventure. How can they do stuff that I do? They don’t ask about determination or what mental approach they need to have or what they are willing to sacrifice. They want to know about sponsors, number one. I don’t see that as a positive if somebody is thinking just about the sponsorship aspect of it, and then secondly people want to know how can they go and get media coverage. I’ve got a lot of media coverage and in South Africa people know me as a guy that they have seen a lot of media platforms. The guys want to know how they can get into magazines and into the TV shows and talk shows. And I just feel that is the wrong focus if you are trying to get into this game of adventure.
Alastair: What’s the right focus then?
Riaan: Alastair, I don’t have the right answer. Before I began my ride, I was ridiculed. People said I knew nothing about Africa, that it was impossible. I didn’t have the sponsors in place, I didn’t have the correct bicycle, I didn’t have any visas, I didn’t have things in place. But I was more determined than people can ever believe. I know how I felt. That’s worth a lot.
People just have to ask themselves honestly, “why am I doing this?” If a person’s answer is that they are just doing it for themselves, if they need to go and run the length of the UK and don’t want any glory or fame, then there is no excuse for them not to put their running shoes on, and start running. Then they’ll be showing that they actually mean what they say.
Alastair: If I was a young person and sent you an email saying I really, really want to go on a massive adventure, I don’t mention sponsorship, I don’t mention charity or anything else, but I just don’t know how to start. What would you answer to that?
Riaan: I would ask them what are their goals, first of all. It’s important that they have a goal. Because when your life gets put on the line you can’t have a grey area about what you do. The bottom line is are they willing to risk their lives or do they want to do something organised where you can be helped. Like the North Pole and South Pole trips where it’s a race, people support you, and you can get plucked out of there by a helicopter if something goes wrong. In a nutshell, I always tell people the most difficult day of any adventure is the day you actually get going.
Alastair: I think it is quite easy to decide I want to cycle to China, or I want to run across Zimbabwe, or I want to canoe down a river in Venezuela. What is much more difficult is how people persuade themselves to commit. To go from daydreaming about this adventure to actually making it happen.
Riaan: There’s an ocean between saying and doing. Many people stand around the fires with a beer in hand and they talk big war stories about what they’re going to do, and they never get round to doing it. Make the date, tell everybody around you. Your plane ticket is booked, set that day that you’re going to leave and get going.
Alastair: I have interviewed so many people this year and this is the answer that absolutely everyone gives, I love it.
Riaan: Shucks! I’ve just become part of the flock?
Alastair: No, you are affirming the truth of people who’ve actually done stuff. When it boils down to it, it’s not about being some sort of superman or a millionaire, it’s just about buying the plane ticket and going.
It’s very easy though for you or I who have both done a few different trips to say this things, but I wonder if you can remember how you felt mentally the day before you set off on your bike trip, versus the day before you set off on your ocean row. What I’m interested in is not bicycles or oceans, it’s the mentality of your first adventure and how that differs later on once you have done lots of them.
Riaan: It’s a bit tricky because I felt as naive about the rowing as I had felt getting on that bicycle! Before the bike ride I knew that I had made a decision for my life. I was sacrificing a comfortable life, I was probably putting my relationship on the line, I was putting my life on the line. I think I had the sincerity of just saying, “Hey listen, this is it. I’m rolling the dice.”
Alastair: If I was to give you £1000 for an adventure what would you go and do?
Riaan: I’d love to walk into [a poor township] like Guguletu and then I would give one of the kids an opportunity to change their lives on an adventure. I know it is a cop out, but it will be an adventure for me to give somebody else an opportunity to do something. That would be a big adventure for me. The adventure would be going to Guguletu, spending time with the people and finding the right kid that I believe has got the right attitude and the determination to complete something and we’d go do a journey with that £1000. If they got on a bicycle and cycled around South Africa, imagine them meeting all the people of our country…
Alastair: A great answer! Thank you.
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