Interview: Cyclist and explorer Riaan Manser

First man to circumnavigate the continent of Africa by bicycle

In 2005 Riaan Manser became the first person to circumnavigate the continent of Africa by bicycle, covering 37,000km and taking in every coastal country. Since then he's also kayaked solo around Madagascar. Lara Dunn caught up with him ahead of his appearance at The London Bike Show in January.

BikeRadar: What prompted your solo trip around Africa, which involved over two years of travelling?

I had a 9 to 5 like anyone else, I had a beautiful girlfriend... things were good for me. I was sitting there one Sunday and I kept having this gut feeling that something wasn't perfect. I was basically working from Monday to Friday just to make a living. The bottom line was that that if I was going to be on this earth for 78 years, then I was going to have to make something extraordinary of that time. I didn’t know what it was going to be, but that Sunday I changed the way I looked at what I was going to do with my life.

On Tuesday morning, getting ready to go to work again, I was having coffee and looking at a map of the world, trying to find somewhere where I could let that energy, and the extraordinary direction I wanted my life to go in, find a home. My mind came back to Africa [Riaan lives in Cape Town, South Africa Ed]. I looked again at the continent and saw where I come from, where my ancestors had come from, and I thought, 'I’m going to do something extraordinary here'. I wanted to do some good. I hoped that through my story, by sharing it, I could tell a little bit more about the countries of the continent, and their people.

Do you come from an adventurous family?

The whole South African heritage is from explorers and that adventurous spirit is in all of us. As a kid I always chose the difficult way to go to school. I didn’t take the bus, I took my bicycle; I cycled around lakes and through the bush on the way.

What was the high point of the round Africa trip, and the most rewarding memory?

The high point was the people I met. Things went wrong but I learnt so many things about myself and the different people who are in this world. I also climbed Kilimanjaro. Standing on top of the African continent was amazing. Just looking over towards where I'd been for the year-and-a-half before that, and the places I’d seen. I also visited the lowest point on the continent in Djibouti, which is called Lake Assal. The sea was 7km away from me and 153m above my head! And, again, I cycled there. It was amazing.

Was there a country you wished you could have spent more time in?

I had three favourite countries. The most beautiful was Angola; I’d definitely like to spend some time there, especially on those awesome rivers. The only country on the entire continent that I was disappointed to be leaving was Algeria. Al Quaeda guys got me twice in the northern parts of Algeria, so sometimes people don’t understand why I say this was my favourite country, but it was. But if you asked, ‘Riaan, where should I spend my money out of all those countries you went to?’, I’d have to say Egypt. 4,500-year-old pyramids, the temple at Abu Simbel, the Red Sea and Sharm el Sheikh – such a diverse country with a tangible culture. An amazing place.

You got into some dangerous situations when you were travelling, like the time you were imprisoned by Liberian youth rebels...

When I left the Cape Town waterfront with just five people there to see me off, no-one understood how determined I was. Our foreign affairs department said they'd withdraw all diplomatic support if I were to enter Liberian territory. I had to tell myself, ‘Riaan, you're making the right decision because you're sticking to what you said you'd do'. I got into Liberia and I could just sense things were wrong. I walked through a village that had just been burnt out. There were children’s toys and suitcases torn open; people’s houses and lives destroyed.

The next day I was pulled off my bicycle in the jungle by guys so high on drugs they were falling around. Then they beat me – 13-year-olds were literally beating me up, and I’m not a small guy. Four or five hours later, when they had me in a holding cell, about five or six of them, high on drugs, were saying to each other, ‘let’s gut him, let's kill him, we’re wasting time'. Now, I'm a brave guy but my knees were shaking. I realised that that day, 26 February 2004, was the day I was going to die.

Luckily, I had a magazine with me with our former president Thabo Mbeki’s picture in it. One guy recognised the photo and said it was his friend. Seeing a possible way out, I told him that Mr Mbeki probably had been there and he started laughing. I started laughing with him and 20 minutes later he just said to me out of the blue, ‘Now go before we kill you’. I climbed on my bicycle and got out of there. Here, my determination to do what I'd set out to do was bordering on madness. I thought, ‘Am I really ready to give up my life for this?’.

You weren’t a particularly experienced cycle tourist before this expedition. How did you find both the physical and mental sides of the journey?

I’m fortunate – I’ve always been sporty. There were times when things were going badly for me – I was missing home, I had no money, I was cycling 100-150 miles a day, day after day after day, through very difficult territory – but not once on that entire journey did I think about going home. So I learnt that mentally I’m strong too. I say to people that if they aren’t serious cyclists, the only difference is that maybe they’ll do fewer kilometres per day. They’ll still be able to do the journey.

After the around Africa expedition, you met Nelson Mandela. How did it feel to meet such an iconic figure?

A week after I got back, a documentary programme about me showed in South Africa on Sunday evening and Mr Mandela phoned, asking if I could come and visit him on the Thursday. Obviously I didn’t tell him I was busy! I had to beg and borrow money to fly to Jo’burg, and then I was standing with him, in his house, having tea with him.

He was flabbergasted that I'd met some of the people I did, like Mr Gaddafi. He’s good friends with Mr Gaddafi and actually asked me if I was willing to go back and cement relations with him, as they both feel strongly about the concept of the nation of Africa. One thing he said to me when he left was that when guys like me do things like that, we inspire the youth of the continent. They still have time to be saved, and to make the world a better place.

Since your African cycling odyssey, you’ve also circumnavigated Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, by kayak on your own. What’s next?

Everywhere I go people ask me what's going to be next – they just expect there’s going to be something amazing around the corner. [Earlier this year] Quark Expeditions invited me to go and visit Iceland with them. When I plan a trip, I want to absolutely believe in my heart that this is where I want to go, and that’s what happened with Iceland. It's a stunning place. This time it’s not just a story about Riaan Manser, about me beating my chest. I’m going in March with a friend of mine who's semi-handicapped and affected by cerebral palsy. Mentally he’s determined, he’s got the heart of a lion, but physically he hasn’t got what I’ve been blessed with. It’s going to be a story about inspiration.

You've adopted the slogan ‘No Food For Lazy Man’, which you stumbled across in Nigeria, as your own. What does that phrase mean to you?

What I like about it is that it makes people smile. I’ve got T-shirts now with it on. They're for my sports trust in South Africa that raises money for schools to buy new sports equipment. It’s important to make your opportunities your responsibility. If you want to drive a Ferrari, then it’s going to take a lot of hard work. So, 'No food for Lazy Man’ just supports that idea.

You'll be over in the UK in January, to speak at both The Outdoors Show and The London Bike Show...

I’m looking forward to it. I feel very privileged to be there with Sir Ranulph Fiennes – he’s a man who's just seen so much. I'll be sharing stories of both Africa and Madagascar.

What would be your advice for any aspiring adventurer?

You can’t take on an adventure because you want to be famous and want glory. It sounds so clichéd to say you’ve got to have a pure heart but if you want to go on a journey there must be a real reason why you want to go on it. Once you’ve decided that you’re in love with the idea, then no-one can ever bring that idea down and there’s 100 percent more chance of that being possible. Also, people have the knack of looking at reasons why they shouldn't do something rather than the reasons why they should.

What would be your ultimate fantasy adventure if time and money were no object?

I’d like to walk around on Mars. When I come over to The Outdoors Show I hope that I can meet Richard Branson, and I’m just going to ask how we can make that possible. I don’t think it’s actually so crazy. If we can put the first little blocks in place, to get to Mars, then I’m one step closer.

Riaan Manser has written two books about his expeditions – 'Around Africa on My Bicycle' and 'Around Madagascar on My Kayak', both available from good bookshops and Amazon. You can find out more about his travels at www.africa365.co.za.

Riaan will be speaking at The London Bike Show and The Outdoors Show at ExCeL in London from 13-16 January 2011. For tickets and more information, visit www.thelondonbikeshow.co.uk or click on the button below.

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