MARK ETHERIDGE: Neels Terblanche gets ready for Solo Across Seven Seas
The 59-year-old plans to circumnavigate Africa in a pedalo-style boat
Neels Terblanche hits the age of 60 two days before Christmas 2024 — now, many people of the same age would be content to put their feet up, but not this Oudtshoorn “oldie”.
Instead, Terblanche plans to be putting to set to sea on an epic continental cruising crusade known as Sea-Battical (Solo Across Seven Seas).
The 59-year-old plans to circumnavigate the African continent and all under his own steam, leaving the old lucrative but routine corporate life in his wake, for a globally unique attempt.
That steam being talked about is purely the own power generated by his own body in a rather unique craft that’s sole purpose of power is from a pedalo-style, human-powered drive.
It’s called Vaquita II after being originally named Vaquita by previous owner Davey du Plessis. Terblanche finally bought the craft in Knysna three years ago.
The name comes from a critically endangered Vaquita porpoise, with only about 10 left on Earth, in the Gulf of California, off Mexico, and Terblanche wants to raise awareness of their existence and plight.
Where did the wanderlust start? “I grew up in Oudtshoorn ... my dad was very conservative and we spent every Sunday afternoon pretty much locked up in our rooms. We had a huge map on the wall, made up of a new section every week in the Rapport newspaper,” he recalls.
“I’d sit there throwing random darts and then investigating the spots where they landed. I got to know the capital of every country. Of course most darts landed in the ocean, so that’s where my love for the sea grew.”
After he matriculated and did national service he worked in Gqeberha, the former Transkei and the Eastern Cape (all the time exploring new terrain) and then to Gauteng for 10 years.
“One year I said ‘enough’, bought a 28-foot yacht, got my skipper’s licence in Durban and just sailed as much as I could.
“I loved the ocean so much I used to regularly fly down from Gauteng to Cape Town on a Wednesday to do the weekly round-the-island races and then fly back the next day.”
Another dip into the corporate ocean, this time for an Aussie company, saw him spreading his adventure-wings further into Africa and the Middle East.
“It was at that time that I remember reading Riaan Manser’s book about exploring Africa on a bicycle and I know that Kingsley Holgate had travelled Africa in a Land Rover and that was when my explorer mind came in.”
Of course, he’d done some crazy things before, such as swimming naked across the crocodile- and hippo-infested Zambezi River — “The angels must really have been with me that day”, and was even held at gunpoint and locked up in a Mozambique jail before that.
Then came the real bolt of inspiration that ignited his African Dream (to borrow the title of Vicky Sampson’s legendary song). “I was watching a programme called Dangerous Waters about four guys on jet skis who went around the globe ... that sparked something.”
To get some sort of idea of the challenge that Terblanche is taking on, Vaquita II is just 7m long and 1.5m wide and weighs about 350kg (though her loaded, or wet weight, is about 1.5 tonnes). It’s just one of three similar pedal boats in existence and was designed by Dudley Dix.
“It has no keel, I was contemplating installing one but the problem with night sailing is that you could get hooked up on one of those longline fishing cables and if the mother ship suddenly decides to reel the line in (and they stretch for many, many kilometres) it’s not the kind of night-ride you want!”
To date no-one has paddled around the African continent and the seven seas that lap its shores.
“Many have sailed it though and I’ve done my research for years.”
Talking of years and he expects it to take about two years at least to complete the journey.
And it’s not nature that is his biggest fear. “I have huge respect for the ocean and it’s inhabitants and know about storms, it’s all about how you cope with the elements — it’s when you have to put to shore that problems arise.”
His biggest fear is the human nature. “Africa is a hostile place. Apart from that Mozambique incident I was nearly abducted in Mauritania one night as well.
“With the current situation in the Red Sea, that area is a big concern ... even though it’s going to be more than two years before I get there. I already have authorisation to navigate the Suez Canal.
“The other hurdle is the prevailing winds. These boats are slow and you can’t fight a 40-knot wind if your maximum paddle speed is five knots.”
Support is another huge issue. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child and it’s going to take a country to take Terblanche around the continent. To this effect he is busy fundraising and next week takes delivery of a lithium battery worth R60,000 which will power all the electrics on the craft, courtesy of Cape company Balancell.
He’ll also need land-based support to replenish with freeze-dried food, so is looking for help from continental courier companies who could help in this regard.
Other perils lying in wait are fellow seagoing craft, the bulk of which are much bigger than his. “The shipping lanes in the Mediterranean Ocean are hectic and the AIS [Automatic Identification System] will be going off every five nautical miles or so to warn of ships.
“Once [if] I get through the Red Sea and start coming back down the East Coast, I’m going to have to make a huge detour out to sea to avoid pirates in that area, but there are strong currents there that I will just need to line up properly in my favour.”
Then there’s the weather experts who will help warn him. “Richard Kohler and a mate will help me in this regard and then I’ll need a virtual doctor on call 24/7 for advice in case I cut myself or capsize and hit my head or break a limb — it’s not like I can just run to the emergency centre.”
To get fit, he’s being doing loads of mountain cycling and plans to cycle a total of close to 20,000km. In late 2023 he cycled a 340km round-trip from Mossel Bay to Hermanus. He does most of his training in the wee hours of the night on the gravel roads of the Klein Karoo and has seen wildlife such as aardwolves and leopards during his nocturnal missions.
By now, many will be saying: why put yourself through all of this?
“You know, at the end of the day, I’m just an ordinary guy... I’m no Bear Grylls or Mike Horn [famous adventure explorers]. I just want to do extraordinary things. It’s going to be tough cramped up in such a small space and I’ll have seriously high and low moments.
“But if I can inspire people to live their lives to the fullest I’ll be happy. And the fact that I can go around a continent for two years without leaving a carbon footprint means a lot to me!
“I want to help people I’ll meet along the way and share my life experience with them and show them that things are not impossible.”
He may be going solo for SA but that doesn’t mean his fellow South Africans, Africans, and indeed, the entire global village can’t get behind him to help him (not to mention the poor porpoises) in some small way.
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