Listening to Riaan Manser speak about his remarkable life, “self-reliance” is the word that springs to mind, but which he never mentions himself.
It all started 15 years ago, when Riaan was sitting in the Newlands Forest with his dog one Sunday afternoon, contemplating the work week ahead.
“I was relatively happy,” he says to the fascinated audience at the Lord Charles Ladies Club Luncheon, last Wednesday at The Lord Charles Hotel in Somerset West.
“I was fit and healthy, had a great job, a lovely dog, and I also had the most wonderful girlfriend in the world.
“Sitting there contemplating going back to the nine to five grind from Monday to Friday, I suddenly decided to turn my life around.
I committed there and then to climbing on a bike and cycling through every coastal country on the African continent.”
Then, 18 months later, Riaan set off from the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town.
“There were five people and a dog to see me off that day, and one of those people was a security guard and another a cleaner.”
Two weeks before Riaan departed, Vasti Geldenhuys, the love of his life, said to him with tears in her eyes: “If you want to break up with me, there are easier ways of doing it.”
“I told Vasti it would take me a year to cycle around Africa,” says Riaan, but 36 500km, 34 countries (“More African countries than were visited by our last three presidents,” he quips), many hair-raising and often life-threatening experiences, and two-and-a-half years later, he arrived back at the V&A Waterfront to a tumultuous welcome from thousands of people.
“I was completely blown away,” he says. He had managed to do what no other living human being had done before.
Interviews and stories followed, but it was a Carte Branch insert, which attracted Nelson Mandela’s attention, and Riaan got to meet the great man.
“Don’t rest on your laurels,” Nelson Mandela advised him, and he decided that after writing a book about his experiences cycling around Africa, he would tackle the next big thing – a kayak circumnavigation of Madagascar.
And so the day came, August 16 2008, when he set off on his second epic adventure.
“I was standing on this beach in Madagascar and the surf was between six and eight foot high,” he says. “‘You’ve bitten off more than you can chew’ I told myself, ‘and you’re the only person in the world who knows this’. ”
Riaan had never undertaken any major kayaking expedition, but he entered the water at Tamatave Harbour with his 80kg kayak – and through sheer dogged determination, completed the circumnavigation of Madagascar in 11 months.
The trip was not without its scarier moments.
Riaan explains that in Madagascar, South African men are seen to be the enemy, so whenever he made landfall at a seaside village, he was taken to the local police and ended up in jail five times.
“After being released from jail the first time, I went straight to the water, climbed back into my kayak and paddled off. That’s when I realised it’s never over until it’s over,” he said.
He recounts his experience of splitting a molar while rowing, and having to extract it without anesthetic using a Leatherman tool.
On one occasion he caught a large kingfish, and ended up with a lure hook firmly embedded in his finger, which of course he had to extract unaided.
“It was a 9kg kingfish, and it tasted awesome,” he says with a grin.
He completed the circumnavigation on July 11, when he set foot on shore again at Tamatave Harbour, and in that time, of course, Madagascar had undergone massive political upheaval.
“After that trip, I realised that I could make a career of being an adventurer, but I had to stick to doing what no other person has ever done before,” he says.
A circumnavigation of Iceland followed, but this time he was accompanied by Dan Skinstad, and the difference?
“Previously, I only to look after myself, but this time I had somebody else’s life in my hands,” he says.
The pair had incidentally chosen a time when Iceland experienced its worst winter weather in 63 years, but despite the immense challenges, they managed the circumnavigation in 147 days. Riaan had another world first under his belt.
The next major expedition was prompted by Vasti, who one day said to Riaan: “I’d like to go to New York.”
“‘New York it is,’ I said, ‘but there’s one catch: we must go in a rowing boat’.”
And thus started an 11 000km expedition, during which the couple rowed a one ton boat from the African mainland, departing Agadir, Morocco, on December 30 2013, to the North American continent, making landfall on San Salvador 1km from where Christopher Columbus landed for the first time in 1492 – and finally arriving in New York on June 20 2014, another world first, with Vasti becoming the first African woman to row across any ocean.
They endured harsh and challenging conditions for 172 days, rowing 12 hours each day, the boat capsizing in a storm, and Riaan almost being separated from the boat while swimming one day.
“That trip really put our relationship to the test,” says Riaan, “but we managed, and the biggest thing we learnt was: don’t sweat the small stuff.”
The couple married after the Trans-Atlantic expedition, and set off on the longest honeymoon ever, the way Riaan describes it.
“After all, I am the most romantic husband in the world,” he says, with a chuckle.
Their boat, “Spirit of Nelson Mandela” in honor of the great man, was renamed “#onhoneymoon” for this expedition, and the couple set out from the Californian coast for the tiny speck of Hawaii, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Just 39 days later they made landfall, beating the record held previously, as Riaan describes it, “by four burly men” by just four hours.
“This trip was even more dangerous than the Atlantic trip,” says Riaan. “The weather was more extreme and the seas rougher.”
But despite the tough conditions, including being capsized on the second night out, they still managed to set a new world record for the crossing.
Did the relationship suffer? “It was better this time than the Atlantic crossing, and besides it was much tougher and more dangerous, so we didn’t have time to argue,” says Riaan with an impish smile.
Despite the audience being completely enraptured, Riaan must draw his story to a close, and he concludes with some of the lessons he’s learned over the years.
There is an ocean between doing and saying, so never lack the courage to ensure that your plans actually get on the road.
We live in a world of instant gratification but all of the things that are truly meaningful take time to achieve and that requires perseverance.
We can choose between having the right attitude and having the wrong attitude.
Successful people choose the right attitude, and believe implicitly that no matter how difficult things become, they can always get better, and that they personally are capable of making it so.
And much like the unsaid message of self-reliance, his humility underpins his enthralling tale of life on the edge.