I just finished Riaan Manser’s Around Madagascar on my Kayak and I have mixed feelings about it. It sort of pains me to write this review, but if you have limited reading time for adventure stories, then I want to make sure you know what you’re getting into before you read this book. The short version is, skip this book and read something by Jon Turk instead.
First, the good stuff: Manser’s writing style is frank and open. He’s not guarded in what he writes, which allows the reader to at points get into his head. The beginning part about gaining sponsorship and putting together the trip is interesting. There are a few harrowing sequences that are fun to read (but become repetitive).
Second, the basic bad stuff: The narrative becomes highly compressed towards the end of the book. Whereas in the first two thirds of the book, we hear about almost every day and night on his trip. In the last quarter of the book, he glosses over almost 2/3rds of the trip. Much of the “adventure” he has on the trip is repetitive and goes like this: the water gets rough, he gets tossed from his kayak, his gets back on his kayak and gets tossed again. He thinks he is going to die. Somehow he gets through 6-foot surf over coral reefs. He “lands” on the beach. His kayak fills with water and breaks. Then he eats spaghetti bolognaise and watches rugby at some hotel or restaurant in a village. Seriously, this happens more than once! You see how privileged this guy is as he constantly looks down his nose at the locals and other travelers and solves his problems by pulling strings or throwing money around.
The Ugly: Sexism and Racism
There’s subtle racism and sexism in the book. I’ll cite three examples without diving into the matter too much, because I think it’s pretty apparent from these examples.
On page 46 to 47, Manser writes about an encounter at a hotel with three women. A “butchy-looking” woman pushes past him in line in an attempt to get the last remaining room before Manser books it. Instead of just calling her rude, he dives into a diatribe about how South African men are forced to “elevate women to a higher plane” and that the encounter was “a sad example of women’s lib at its worst.” I don’t think I really need to explain the sexism expressed here; if you think I do, please, explain to me why this isn’t sexism in the comments.
In multiple places, he encounters a old white European dudes with a Malagasy girl or young woman. He never once gives the girl a name, but the old white guy often gets a name in his descriptions of conversations with them. This could either be racism or sexism or both.
From pages 86 to 92, Manser writes about how he wants to meet the mayor of the town that he’s in, but the mayor ends up getting too busy and can’t make the meeting. When Manser sees the mayor on the street, he interrupts the mayor, and when the mayor asks to see his passport, he overreacts, gets tough and assumes that the mayor is going on a power trip. Manser ends up getting arrested, and we find out that he was breaking the law because he was traveling with an expired visa. After he calls a few people and pulls some strings, he gets his get out of jail free card and moves on, but on page 92 we learn from him that:
With colonialism and its oppressive history as convenient excuses to employ these irrational power trips, we (meaning white people) cannot be surprised at the irrational behavior of a short, uneducated, spluttering, scooter-driving, populist [black] mayor’s interpretation of our disrespectful actions toward him.
<sarcasm>Yes, the old reverse racism argument is exactly why this happened.</sarcasm> It doesn’t at all have to do with the fact that Manser is just some dime-a-dozen tourist that for some reason thinks that town dignitaries should meet him. And that his interruption should be respected even when he’s illegally in Madagascar. Seriously, the editor of the book let him keep this segment in. If you’re an adventurer and have a following and a book, big deal. Why does that make you better than any other traveler that you should automatically get respect even when you’re rude?
These three examples are only a few of the many in the book, and are a good enough reason to skip reading it. Now, obviously, I’m an American and not a South African, so someone could make an argument that I’m projecting my cultural morality on their’s, and that may be the case, but I do believe that both sexism and racism have no place in this world and those that practice it are simply wrong.
The Savant Syndrome is when a person with mental disabilities, such as autism, shows above normal capacity in some specific area, such as music or math. Could Manser be an Adventurer Savant?
Adventurer Savant: Someone who completes an expedition despite a serious ineptitude in both the physical and mental skills required to succeed at the sport and an inability to properly judge risk thus putting him or herself into serious danger.
Here’s an adventurer with persistence and good sponsorship deals who almost dies by his own words many times because a) he’s not skilled enough, b) he makes bad choices and c) his kayak isn’t well-designed for the journey.
Some of the questions that you should ask yourself when judging risk are:
- Do I/we have the skills for the conditions?
- Have I/we or several people in our group paddled in these conditions before?
- Do we have the right equipment for these conditions?
If you find yourself answering any of these questions “no” then you should seriously consider sitting on shore until the conditions improve, especially in remote areas where getting to shore safely after a swim would be difficult or impossible. After reading this book, I doubt that Manser would be able to answer any of the questions “yes” in many of the situations that he found himself in. Worse still, I doubt that he even knew that there were questions he should ask himself. Seriously, if I capsized as much as this guy does, I’d quit kayaking and take up something like biking.
Obviously biking takes skills, too, and there are dangers in biking, but when you compare the two from a risk standpoint, I think that long distance kayaking is inherently more risky because if you fall in and survive, you’re still in a potentially life risking situation, whereas in biking, you’re usually safe once you stop rolling. Manser was leapfrogging his kayaking trip on the fame he gained from biking around South Africa, but I think that he underestimated the risks and didn’t bother getting the proper training that would even allow him to evaluate those risks. He’s lucky to be alive.
His book is a classic demonstration of Dunning-Kruger in action. Dunning-Kruger effect via Wikipedia:
- Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
- Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
- Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
- If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill.
There are sections in the book that demonstrate each of these situations. We learn that he meets criteria one and two early in the book when he goes out to sea in a storm that has caused problems for highly-skilled surf ski racers. A search and rescue was launched and the winds were blowing like crazy. Instead of sitting it out, Manser believes that he’s skilled enough for the conditions and then goes out, gets lucky (perhaps the wind was offshore, but we don’t know because he doesn’t let us know the conditions) and comes to believe that he is highly-skilled because he survived the day when the racer got in trouble. We see him meet criteria three over and over in the many situations that he finds himself in when he capsizes, by his own words almost dies and then he does it all over again expecting a different result. He never experiences criteria number four in the book, perhaps, because he didn’t take a lesson.
At any rate, I could be reading this book wrong. Maybe he’s just writing about these situations in a way that makes them seem more risky and dangerous than they really were, because he does go on to circumnavigate Iceland in which his website says:
Only once they’d begun their circumnavigation did they realise just how challenging the weather would be. They knew that the inclement winter weather would cause delays but they could never have predicted how often and how long these delays would be.
Landings were another of the pair’s biggest challenges. Approaching rocky shores that are being pounded by wind and surf is a hazardous business. Between timings and luck, you’re a second away from disaster at any moment. Their landings were made even more difficult because of their “sea-legs” which they’d develop after a long day’s paddle of 8 – 10 hours. Often, even the softest landings would result in Riaan and Dan spluttering and crawling for a few moments on the black sand on all fours after tumbling out of the boat during the landing.
Anyway, with that quote from the Iceland trip, I rest my case, and I recommend skipping this book.
If you’ve read this book, I’d be curious about your thoughts.
Buy it at Amazon.com: Around Madagascar on my Kayak