06. Riaan Manser: First person to circumnavigate Africa by bicycle

Riaan manser image

Riaan Manser is an adventurer who has spent over 20 years undertaking some of the worlds most gruelling adventures. He was the first person to circumnavigate Africa by bicycle, and has also circumnavigated Madagascar and Iceland by kayak. In this podcast he talks to Sue Stockdale about his life of adventure and what he has learned about adventure, life and himself during that time. Find out more about Riaan here www.riaanmanser.com 



Riaan Manser transcription

Sue : [00:00:00] hi, I’m Sue Stockdale from access to inspiration. In this podcast series, we aim to give you a little inspiration as you hear about the lives and work of people who perhaps are quite different to you. I hope their stories and insights enable you to transcend your day to day challenges and reflect on what you could be capable of achieving.

This podcast was recorded on the impressive Cunard liner, the Queen Elizabeth, and so the sound quality may not be perfect as we were sailing across the Bay of Biscay at the time. I’m talking to a man who has earned the title adventurer of the year in 2006 when he successfully became the first person to cycle unaided around the perimeter of Africa, a distance of 36,500 kilometers.

It took him over two years to complete the journey, which fueled his desire for a number of other [00:01:00] amazing adventures. So welcome. Riaan Manser. I know you also set another record in 2009 as the first person to circumnavigate Madagascar by kayak, and then two years later, a circumnavigation of Iceland by kayak. You’ve also rowed across the Atlantic from Africa to North America and from San Francisco to Hawaii, amongst other things.

Riaan: [00:01:22] For my honeymoon!.

Sue : [00:01:24] So we’ve got lots to talk about. The first question I have for you is that most of your travels seem to have involved water. Either travelling through the water yourself or having the perimeter close to water. I’m wondering what the appeal is of water in your adventures?

Riaan: [00:01:39] You know, when you were busy mentioning now just listing some of the journeys I’ve done. I just realized when you mentioned Madagascar and Iceland is there was a different type of enthusiasm in me to tackle those tasks. Cause I love the ocean. You know, I was a lifeguard as well and I believed when I was still. 19, 20 years old that I could have a career as a lifeguard, [00:02:00] and I was quickly learned that it wasn’t going to work. And I think it’s my love for water and the ocean is a little bit stronger than the cycling. I would love to be able to fit in another before I retire another cycling journey I think it’s a challenge in itself, but every journey that I’ve gone on. It may seem as a theme related to water or to land, but the theme is actually way bigger. So all my journeys would always have some underlying theme. The Africa one was life changing. Spending time on my continent, on the African continent, and I want to tell that African story like nobody else ever has.

And then Madagascar was just, I heard about this incredible place, us living so close to Madagascar, we see the cartoons about it. It was just this mysterious place. And I had heard about a guy who had tried it, a British guy who tried to also paddle around Madagascar and wasn’t able, and I think it was something to me, this competitive streak said, I know why they aren’t able to finish it. That my skill is finishing things. I can start something and finish it, [00:03:00] and obviously I was speaking, just a lot of hot air then.  Then I’ve never paddled around the massive island like that. And then the same was for Iceland. I just felt that people hadn’t been able to do that, and especially taking a handicap partner with them was going to be the underlying story. It makes the picture a bit more colorful,

Sue : [00:03:17] so you’ve got this passion for the water and there’s always a bigger sense of what you can gain from the adventures. I just don’t picture you say cycling round Mongolia or something like that where there’s not much water.

Riaan: [00:03:30] Of course not!

Sue : [00:03:31] What is it you enjoy most about adventuring? Because most people don’t spend a large proportion of their lives doing something adventurous in the way that you have. What is it that gives you?

Riaan: [00:03:39] I think Sue just my career has been by accident. I tell people there was no pegs that I set out, you know, in 2001 or 2002 saying that this is where I’m going to be or thats what I hope to achieve but remember there wasn’t Facebook, there wasn’t Twitter. I had no intentions of any followers. I remember cycling the last day and I did 130 or [00:04:00] 140 kilometers coming into Cape town of their two year bicycle journey. And you know what my predominant thoughts were? I was wondering how I’m going to pay rent next month. I had no idea. And then things fell in place. My personality, the enthusiasm I have towards things, and my willingness to risk because I realize now that’s probably one of my character traits. The willingness to risk lends itself to doing adventure, and I was able to then do the other avenues, writing books, speaking, sharing my story with the world. But again, if I have to answer you honestly, I’ll tell you I’m here by accident.

Sue : [00:04:38] Well, that’s a good place to land, isn’t it? Where it’s accidental. So in that journey, traveling around Africa and visiting all of those countries, what have you learned about the similarities or differences of a) the countries and b), the people in those countries?

Riaan: [00:04:54] The biggest thing, it’s glaringly obvious that colonization [00:05:00] and the differences between the Francophone Anglophone countries because of colonization. And then. You know, I had a lot more in depth look into people’s psyche. So first of all, let’s just say that the continent countries on the East, West, North, South of Africa, are super different and to the core, so much the influence from the historical colonizations definitely are prominent. But one thing I felt, and it probably bothered me a heck of a lot, was I felt so many of these countries didn’t have the true own identity, and that shocked me to some degree. I mean, you’d be proud as an English person to say, I mean English and we’ve done this. Then it’s to your core. Yet where you would speak to a person in Ghana and you would go out of their capital city. There’s super educated people in in Ghana, and you’d go a hundred kilometers West of the Capitol and you would land up at the slave trade area with the castles and you’d be perplexed because this is their identity. Slave trade. And that shocked me. I mean, I thought, wow, [00:06:00] I thought, I knew about this, I learned about this at school. And then you see the slavery. And then religion was the other aspect of the African content that surprised me. I’d come out of a time like everybody else in the world about Al-Qaida and 9-11 and Daniel Pearl and all these scary things.

And I. Then had to look Al-Qaida  in the eyes many times literally look them in the eye and I realized that Islam is not to blame. Islam is an incredible region. The probably the kindest people I met on the African continent were Islamic and Muslim people. And before I left South Africa, I only saw Islam as a danger and there’s something scary I learned that. And then lastly is that language definitely is something that bonds but also separated. You go across the border speaking English and then you would get across the border and. They’re going to say one word. They only speak French, and you’ve got to suddenly be, have your French ready and Portuguese, Swahili. [00:07:00] Also, just an incredible language on the East of Africa that people don’t realize that the most spoken on the continent. listen, I can labor it, but as you can see, a two year journey, sure delivered for me as a human being and changed me as a human being.

Sue : [00:07:14] Wow. I can get a real sense of the diversity that you experienced from what you see there. I know from my own expedition experiences, Riaan that preparation is really key to success. Not only preparation of physical things, but also mental preparation. So I’m wondering what role preparation played in your journey. It’s not just the African one, but all of the journeys you’ve done.

Riaan: [00:07:35] I think I learned the art of preparation as I would spend more time with people like yourself and post my Africa trip and then yeah. I don’t think I was always the best prepared. Say if were in  a club, it would probably be Sue that would win the gold medal for preparation and somebody else, and I would not be in medal contention. My wife would sometimes say to me, why do you leave things to the last minute? And it’s not that I left some, they’re [00:08:00] all physical things that sometimes would leave for last minute,but it look as such. But one thing that I realized now, looking back at this two decades of the journeys that I’ve done. It is mentally I absolutely had no gray area, not a fraction of a percent in me was unsure about what I was willing to sacrifice and what I needed to achieve, to achieve. I wasn’t going to go half way and come back a year.

And if people had floored me in a newspaper or tell me, don’t worry, you try your best. I was only coming back with success. Whether that meant death or not, I was willing to sacrifice that. So for me. I always make the excuse that I may not be the most physically prepared and say, getting the right equipment always to every point. Of course, I try, but nobody matches me when it comes to my mental preparation.

Sue : [00:08:47] So you’d be winning the gold medal in those stakes?

Riaan: [00:08:49] I hope so. Obviously as with age I’m not willing to risk as much now, definitely compared to what I was 20 years ago, I’m not willing to risk as much. But you [00:09:00] know, when we talk like this now, I just realize how people like yourself, especially the people that are articulate when it comes to that physical preparation of your gear and your equipment and understanding of them, how vital it is. It is super vital. I’ve been blessed with luck sometimes when I haven’t learned how to use my GPS navigation tools. Luck, and a little bit of common sense has helped me. So I’m grateful that I have a little bit of a mental fortitude, but you need to teach me how to prepare physically a little bit better!

Sue : [00:09:28] The other thing that you’ve mentioned to me in our conversations Riaan is, you know, got a young son and you know, you also mentioned there that you jokingly describe yourself as a sissy. So I think with experience, we take a different view of the world. I’m wondering what your hopes and desires are. For your young son as he grows up looking to you and knowing what you’ve achieved.

Riaan: [00:09:49] I have no ideas for my son.  One thing, and I know it’s a little bit too philosophical, is that I’m going to bring up a good man. That is it. I’m going to bring up a good man. Travel has [00:10:00] humiliated me to such an extent. Where it’s shown me how naive I am to what’s actually happening in the world. You can read a newspaper and you read other people’s opinions. Go out there and travel and get the real opinion from the horse’s mouth. So travel has really given that to me. If I’m going to give my son something, I’m hoping that he’s going to be. Just a good human being, but that he also travels.

Sue : [00:10:22] So thinking about bigger picture and the new insight, perhaps in new eyes that you look at the world’s challenges and issues today, if you could lead a one project that you think would make a difference to the world today, what would that be?

Riaan: [00:10:37] Recent one that we did, we ran a competition called the Odyssey. And for me it was to give someone the opportunity to row across an ocean. And in my country specifically, we were hoping to give that seat to someone who never would have had the chance. And it landed up being  a very special guy from a landlocked province in South Africa who then rowed an ocean with me this January, February 2019. And the [00:11:00] thing that shocked me about the Odyssey was when we had 15,000 applications. I lived with this bit of guilt. A lot of the communication was digitally, so it would be through the Facebook arenas and through applications. The guilt that I couldn’t give the other 14,999 stayed with me. That guilt stayed with me, and then I started getting messages from people saying to me. You let me dream while I was one of the top 50 or the top hundred you let me dream for a month that I was going to be rowing across an ocean. All my dinner conversations, my conversations with my children, with my partner,  we’re all about this right now, and I think that’s what I’d love to be able to do in my journeys is allow other people the opportunity to dream seems a little bit philosophical, but you’ll look into a child’s eyes. The difference between the child who’s willing to dream and a child who’s never been taught to dream. I think traveling and adventure, who allows a person to dream and dream big,

Sue : [00:11:55] but you’re speaking to somebody who does that as well. So I really identify with what you’re saying. [00:12:00] One of the other things in understanding the adventures that you’ve had Riaan is that some of them have been on your own and some of them have been with others. And I’m wondering therefore how you adapted when you have to kind of share your adventure and often in close proximity, from what I understand with other people.

Riaan: [00:12:17] I think I’m probably better on my own because I’m a difficult character. I think I’m stubborn. I like doing things my way, but always when I say that and I make it sound as if that is a negative, I think most people have to do things their way. Who doesn’t? You know? So I’m traveling with a partner I think the Iceland circumnavigation with Dan we bumped heads and it was difficult, and I think I was immature in managing relationship then. It wasn’t a close friend at the time. We were acquaintances would have a few beers together. And that relationship also grew, maybe not to the ideal romantic brother ending that I was hoping for, but we achieved something incredible.

So doing that journey taught me so [00:13:00] much and showed me the lapses in concentration when it comes to looking after somebody else emotionally. And I would just presume somebody to suck it up and get on with it. And that’s not the way you should. You need to get into somebody’s psyche to understand what are they triggers, and then going with my girlfriend or 14 years rowing in six months in a boat to New York city from Africa. That was nearly the end of us as a relationship. It really, it was the darkest moments, and I always joke and say, we never argued. Up till halfway it was horrendous and then we made peace. We said to each other, number one, I realized my girlfriend of 14 years was harboring a lot of communication that she hadn’t shared with me. And I can understand  -she wanted to be married and wanted to have a family and we’d never really got into that conversation. That’s what it took her rowing trip across the ocean to start talking honestly with each other. And then I think just over time I’ve matured. It’s something we, when you’re a youngster, you presume that age can’t give you these [00:14:00] gifts and this wisdom and I’m by no stretch of the imagination, wise, but I’m a heck of a lot wiser than the 27 year old that started the bicycle trip. So me going with other people was definitely allowing me a space to grow as a person. I think my single journeys were a little bit selfish to some degree, if I may use that language.

Sue : [00:14:20] Yeah. Sounds like these things have had a profound impact on you and you’re learning about yourself and who you are and how you conduct yourself in the world.

Riaan: [00:14:28] Sue, without a doubt, I came from a space where I was brought up in foster homes and I lived in the shame. I wouldn’t even tell people it would be the scariest thing. I think I went through primary school I blocked it out of my mind that everybody at the school knew that I was this foster child. Never, ever, ever. Was the talk of that from me. Not one conversation, but everyone knew, you know, but I lived this pride that probably was a bit false. And I think that toughened me. In the areas that needed toughening where you could look back at them and say, well, shame, poor guy. It [00:15:00] wasn’t, it wasn’t a shame. It was my gift. My life gifts to me, driving as an individual in this space of adventure, I think from yourself, you know that when you’ve started a journey for your trip to the North pole would definitely be a different Sue that began and a different Sue that ended. We know that in that space, and you cant put your finger on it. Exactly. But you tell people, I see the world differently.

Sue : [00:15:22] Yeah. It’s a huge learning opportunity, isn’t it? Those adventures. And some might say that you look quite unconventional life, not like the normal nine to five person that’s working for somebody else. So I’m wondering, are there any aspects of your life that are conventional or is everything completely unconventional?

Riaan: [00:15:38] No, I think I am probably a quite a boring guy, actually. If I think about it. I wish I was considered. I’m adventurous in other aspects of my life. It may actually just, if I just think about it quickly, I always see myself as slightly boring, risk averse. I think what has happened is that I keep structure in how I would [00:16:00] earn a living, so when it comes down to them, I think I’m super impatient.

That’s my problem. Probably my biggest problem is I can’t keep my concentration on something long enough. It’s a skill for some people. I’d get bored if I was in a nine to five job, so if somebody was interviewing me and saying to me, Riaan, would you be committed to this business forever? Do you see a future for yourself? I’d have to be honest with him or her and tell him, no, I don’t see myself getting ready to use time and then I wouldn’t get hired. So this will be a fruitless exercise to go through a nine to five job.

Sue : [00:16:30] It’s interesting that you say that you can’t concentrate on something for any length of time. One might argue that cycling  a continent for two years was quite a great deal of concentration.

Riaan: [00:16:40] I wake up every morning and I made as if I was just starting the journey all over again.

Sue : [00:16:45] So I’d say groundhog day again.  So with that kind of idea of not concentrating or focus on anything for too long and filling your life with adventure and interesting things, if you and I were sitting here 20 years ahead and we [00:17:00] fast forwarded our lives, your son would now be grownup. And you know, the world will have changed. What would you like to have accomplished by that time if you were twenty years on from now?

Riaan: [00:17:09] We have the privilege of being on the Queen Elizabeth, and when we get this chance at see, it’s an elderly crowd. I think that come on these type of cruises. It’s super fancy, and people that have done things in their lives.  To answer your question, 20 years time, we rubbing shoulders with those people that you’re progressing us to this time in though. when I chat to them, I just realize many of them have got a little bit of a vacuum of happiness I field sometimes it’s not the pure happiness. It’s I’ve achieved, I’ve achieved, I’m hoping that I can still go with my gut feel. I don’t know why. And I’m a new parent, so you have to forgive me. But I, I feel everything always comes back down to my son. And I’m saying, if I have brought up a good kid, I can really sit down. With a chest full of pride and say, look at what my son’s done. I mean, this is a new parent speaking. Of course, you know, so, but I [00:18:00] feel if I did do something, I would like to see this Odyssey idea of mine where we offering this prize that money cant buy in the space of adventure and change people’s lives.

There is a guy that comes from a landlocked province in South Africa and his life has changed, not just his life, his wife’s life, his little twins, his broader family and his community. I imagine you walk through life and everywhere you went to live positive ripples where people’s lives changed. You going to die. Rich, poor, clever, dumb, all those things that would happen on your death bed. But the ripples that you made would be continuing and imagine. I can actually say that I had those positive ripples that I sent out into the world.

Sue : [00:18:47] Yeah. That’s quite a thought to have the impact that one leaves as one goes through your life.

Riaan: [00:18:52] Yeah.

Sue : [00:18:52] To others in a positive sense.

Riaan: [00:18:54] Imagine somebody in the last few years of their life, they’re probably are looking back and saying where did I make an [00:19:00] impact? It’s good that you asked me this question because you reinvent that enthusiasm for what I need to do now to be able to be 20 years down the line knowing I’ve lived in impact.

Sue : [00:19:09] Fantastic. So my final question to you, Riaan, is that Oddysey idea, the sparking, the imagination, the feeling, the excitement in others perhaps I’ve heard you talk about making things happen. You say you’re a doer, you like to finish things. That’s not everybody’s strength. So what would your message be to those listeners that perhaps are thinking, well, I’d love to do something, but I can’t possibly do it? What would it be that one message that could perhaps nudge them towards change in some ways?

Riaan: [00:19:38] I disagree with you in that, that people are different with getting the job done. I think my mental approach is not afraid of journeys that could take years which to some people just couldn’t even fathom. And I’m saying that first, make the choice that you do want to get a job done cause I don’t think anybody sits in and says, I don’t like to get the job ever done. We’d like to get the job done. [00:20:00] Make shorter goals. The difference between human beings and in achievement is your ability to be able to aim for something.

So some people can aim a month ahead. Some people cannot aim one hour ahead but find where you fit in and then aim for that .One hour eight or the six hours or the week ahead. And then you will see how those goals just to accumulate everybody’s system. And wow, look what you’ve done in 20 years of my journeys. And the truth about it too is that I didn’t do 20 years of journeys. I did one kilometer at a time, one pedal stroke, one paddle stroke, one oar stroke, and then it’s given me 20 years suddenly. So now aim for your hour, and you’ll see how your one year, five year goals just become a reality.

Sue : [00:20:47] What’s the best way for people to find you in the internet or social media? If you want to find out more about Riaan Manser,

I just realized

Riaan: [00:20:54] you’re in the library of content that’s on the net. You know, just related to the journeys I’ve done – [00:21:00] just Google my name Riaan Manser, or just if you hear about that guy that circumnavigated Africa on a bicycle, Google it, and you’ll find me still the only guy who’s ever done that. Once somebody has found me and they’ve listened to your podcast, communicate, send a little message and say, we it impacted you, or tell me how you didn’t like the way. I think I also learned from that as well.

Sue : [00:21:24] It’s been a real pleasure to talk to you.

Riaan: [00:21:25] Thank you so much.