Two hours into his first desk job, Christo Coetzer knew it wasn’t for him. It took a unicycle, a copy of Riaan Manser’s book and a piece of extraordinary luck to launch him on an entirely different course. Alison Westwood spoke to the young South African whose story is an inspiration to anyone looking for the courage to pursue a dream.
What were your original career plans?
In 2009 I was doing my honours degree at the University of Pretoria in Human Resources Management. I went into the corporate world as an HR Manager while I was still studying, but after the first two hours, it didn’t appeal to me any more. I realised that sitting in an office was exactly what I didn’t want to do.
How did you figure out what you did want to do?
I started reading books – lots of travel books. I read Johan Bakkes, Che Guevara, all those people travelling around all over the place – and I started thinking, ‘Why isn’t it me writing these books, telling these stories?’ But I didn’t know how to bring the whole thing together. Then one day I walked into a bookshop and saw Riaan Manser’s book, Around Africa on my bicycle.
I’d wanted to do similar trips before, but people kept telling me it was impossible. That book really changed my mindset, in terms of what is and isn’t possible. I said to myself, I have to meet this guy. I went to one of Manse’s golf events and told him I had ideas for expeditions of my own. He advised me, just start small and build yourself up. That way, in 10 years’ time, you can look back and say, ‘At least I took the first step’.
What was your first step?
One day I couldn’t go in to work because I had an exam. The woman at work told me they were going to find someone else, but instead of feeling bad about it, I felt terrific. I realised I was free to make my own way.
The next day, my dad and I were sitting at a coffee shop and we came up with an idea: why not unicycle around Mauritius? I had started unicycling at the beginning of last year and I was intending to go to Mauritius in December 2009 with my dad. So we put the two together and started planning that as my first adventure.
How did the planning go?
Not so good. By the time I’d finished my studies, it was two weeks before the trip. I had a unicycle sponsor, from Oddwheel unicycles, but that was about it. I started by sending e-mails out to different places and I got one or two small responses. Then I started phoning, but that didn’t go much better. A week before I left, I decided to drive to places to try to sell them my idea. At one place, the man swore at me and chased me out of his shop, telling me how bad he thought my idea was.
Did you get discouraged?
Well, I had to go through those sort of things. I had to keep on believing. But in the meantime, my dad took a proposal I’d put together to the Mauritius tourism authority. It turned out they had just started a cycling tourism campaign. They had a budget and everything ready for a big idea, so when my dad came along with my proposal, they said yes. From there, they took over all the sponsorships and logistics for the trip. Two days later, I was sitting in Mauritius in the middle of a press conference.
Was it how you’d imagined it would be?
I had visualised it as just me with a backpack and a tent, really roughing it. It turned out to be exactly the opposite. I had two vans driving in front and behind me, as well as the presidential guard on their motorbikes to escort me. While I was riding, I was on the news every night and my itinerary was in the newspapers. They also got Miss Mauritius of 2008 to accompany me on a bicycle. How lucky can you get?
What was the ride like?
I started out on 19 December and went anti-clockwise from Port Louis. I did it in nine riding days – an average of 35 kilometres a day. I’d finish riding each day at around 10h00, which left me plenty of time to meet people and explore the island.
I visited a hotel each day for lunch, did Mauritian activities and each evening I had a homestay in a different village. The weather was perfect for the first eight days and on the last day there was a cyclone with torrential rain, but I decided I had to ride anyway.
When I finished the round-trip, I went to ride in all the municipalities inland. As well as cycling to the lowest point, I rode up the highest peak of the Chamarel mountains – one of the steepest hills I’ve ever encountered in my life. I was the first person to ascend it on a unicycle and I’ve set up the official Chamarel challenge, a time trial for cyclists and unicyclists.
So what’s next?
I got a lot of stories from my experiences in Mauritius and I’m in the process of writing and publishing a book. I’m also planning my next one-wheeled adventure and I already have a few sponsors in place. This trip opened doors for me. It was a real blessing that it all came together at exactly the right time. The road is set for me now and I can go and do what I want with my life, but I had to go out and put myself on the line.
Follow Christo’s adventures on his website: christocoetzer.withtank.com