Going Solo – Riaan Manser

Riaan Manser Madagascar

Source: Sea Rescue Autumn 2010

Wendy Maritz finds out what made Riaan Manser give up the life he knew in exchange for solo adventures into unknown territory, first on bike then a kayak.

On 8 July 2009, Riaan Manser paddled into Tamatave harbour, 11 months after setting out from the same spot on an epic journey to circumnavigate Madagascar alone and unaided on his kayak. Riaan made history that day, achieving the second of two world firsts, and completing another major personal challenge. (The first was cycling around Africa.)

It takes a great deal of tenacity to give up the life you know and embark on an expedition that will take you into a completely unfamiliar world. But, as Riaan will readily admit, it was a life he wasn’t particularly satisfied with – long-time girlfriend Vast and beloved pet aside, of course.

“It was a bad case of the ‘Sunday blues’ that did it,” Riaan laughs. “Vasti and I were walking the dogs one Sunday afternoon, and I was suddenly overcome with nausea. I realized that I couldn’t continue dreading Mondays. I promised myself then that I would either do something about it or never again allow myself to complain about work.”

A few days later this 20-second epiphany found Riaan pouring over a map of the world as he asked himself, “Well, what am I going to do?” The answer came to him as his focus landed on the centre of the map: cycle around the perimeter of Africa.

Riaan soon learned the pros and cons of preparing such a trip. He estimated his savings would last him for about half the journey, which he planned to complete in 365 days. He began creating publicity, exploring the possibility of sponsorships and doing extensive research on the countries and visa requirements. “Sometimes it’s better to not know too much about where you’re going,” he says, “because what I read about African countries was giving me all the reasons why I shouldn’t go.”

Many of the embassies where he applied for visas regarded him with suspicion and sponsorship request were turned down or ignored. Riaan had more reasons to give than continue, but it was a mixture of naivety and a dogged belief in himself and his mission that led him to eventually cycle out of the V&A Waterfront on 9 September 2003 to fulfil the promise he made to himself nearly a year earlier tat his life needed to change drastically. Riaan accomplished what he set out to do, but it took more than double the time – 37.000km, 808 days and 34 countries later, he cycled back to the V&A Waterfront.

Riaan’s African odyssey produced a multitude of adventures that included being held captive by Liberian child soldiers high on drugs. “I was convinced I was going to die that day,” he explains.

His journey also saw him humbled by the atrocities of poverty and the legacy of landmines that has crippled Angola both figuratively and literally. “I realised I had so much to be grateful for, and nothing to complain about,” he smiles. There were highs and lows, aptly symbolized by Riaan’s visit to Eritrea, Africa’s lowest point at 153m below sea level, and then a couple of months later by his summiting Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru peak. There were lonely times, joyful times spent with kind strangers, times of immense frustration and loss of faith in people, and there was also danger. But there was never time when Riaan thought of giving up. “I told myself every day just to get on with it. I wsnt going to give up; the only way I was going home was on my bicycle!”
As Riaan puts it, this was not a whim of fanciful wish; it was now his career: “I am a solo adventurer. It’s my job!”

Riaan enjoyed a much-needed – and deserved – break and wrote a book covering his African adventures. Shortly after the wanderlust bug bit again, and he pondered on his next move. The world map proved inspiring once more and, as he saw the large island of Madagascar, it dawned on him. “This island is part of Africa. So no African trip is complete without including Madagascar as well,” he laughs.

“I told myself the only way I was going home was on my bicycle”
Riaan grew up in Richards Bay, joined the Lifesaving Nippers and then became a lifeguard, so he’s no stranger to the ocean. But, unlike South Africa that has a well-run, coordinated rescue service that includes the NSRI, Madagascar had no sea-rescue to speak of. The fourth largest island in the world houses one of its poorest nations.

‘I had to prepare for every eventuality. I had to go out and paddle in all kinds of conditions. I also spent a lot of time purposely falling out of my kayak and getting back in, falling out and getting back in,’ he says. He knew he’d have to rely on himself, his wits and his GPRS, because there’d be no help if he ran into any trouble.

In mid-July 2008, Riaan paddled out of Tamatave Harbour heading north in an anti-clockwise direction on a custom made Paddleyak he called the ‘Green Banana’. This time, the craft had been sponsored by Paddleyak, his clothing by First Ascent, his GPRS by Garmin, and his camera, video gear and waterproof housings by Sony. Windhoek Lager once again lent full support as his major sponsor. He also carried with him a cell phone, a satellite phone, a fishing rod and 8L of water.

Riaan soon discovered that Madagascar was no less perilous than the rest of Africa. Cyclone season came early, and while he hoped to round the northernmost tip of the island in time to enjoy the relative safety of the western coast, he found himself battling 2-8 foot swells and sheets of rain. ‘It was like Armageddon,’ he says.

Coming ashore each day to set up camp sometimes proved quite dangerous, as he found he had to negotiate coral reefs, and the huge waves crashing down on them. Blisters, sunburn and a painful ischium were further challenges. ‘When cycling, I had a chance to think about things, my life and my childhood,’ Riaan explains. ‘While I was on my kayak, all I could about was how much pain I was in’.

He was also robbed several times during his journey. Riaan remembers how he befriended a local in Mahajanga, who late made off with his video camera. For Riaan this was incomprehensible. ‘I think people assumed I had money. While I was kayaking, I was approached by the World Wildlife Fund boat with pirates on board. They wanted to know what I was up to and started demanding that I hand over my things. I ended up hitting the pirates with my paddle, then I got away as fast as possible. I beached, dragged my canoe and all my things, and hid behind the large shoreline rocks,’ he recalls. ‘It was in a remote part of the northwestern tip of the island, in desperation, I called my agent and friend, Seamus, on the satellite phone while I was hiding. I knew he couldn’t do anything, but I just needed to hear a familiar voice.’

Add to the being rammed by a 250g bull shark, and its clear Riaan had his fair share of trials during the journey – but he also experienced what few others do; seeing 40-ton whales breaching a few feet away, being out on the open water with a school of dolphins, the taste of fish it took two-and-half hours to catch, and coming face to face with the richest collection of endemic fauna and flora in the world.

Riaan set out on what many people would have regarded as an impossible – maybe even dangerous and foolhardy – enterprise. But he returned triumphant, and with a pocketful of stories to one day tell his children and grandchildren. In doing so, he joined a handful of people who have heeded the words of the American poet Theodore Roethke, who once said, ‘What we need is more people who specialise in the impossible.’

Source: Sea Rescue Autumn 2010

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