South African adventurer Braam Malherbe is a man with a mission. He has accomplished some incredible things, all in the service of a higher cause. But his life could have turned out very differently, as GG van Rooyen heard.
I developed a love for nature at an early age. In many ways, nature has been my biggest teacher. In 1974, at the age of 16, I attended a wilderness leadership course. That experience profoundly changed my life. When the course ended, we were asked: what we were going to do when we got back to school to be an asset to the planet? Well, shortly afterwards, I discovered that there were plans to build a solid jetty in a lagoon system near Saldanha Bay. This was a huge issue, since it would have changed the currents in the lagoon system, which would have driven certain species to extinction. To prevent this, R15 000 was needed for an environmental impact study. I didn’t have that kind of money, but I decided to raise funds by running from Plett to Cape Town. It was a success, and we managed to change the nature of the project. A jetty was built, but it wasn’t a solid structure, as it allowed for unobstructed current flow to move through the fragile ecosystem.
As I grew older, I became obsessed with one thing: making money. My life was all about ego. My one focus was to be a successful businessman. For a while, I did well and life was great, but in 1984, I lost everything. I was bankrupt. Moreover, I had to watch my father die, and because I didn’t have a home, I had to put him in a frail care facility. Two weeks after entering the facility, he died. Two weeks later, my fiancée left me. Following this, I went to the Cederberg mountains with one intention: to kill myself. But as I lay under the stars, I started to weep – something I hadn’t done in a very long time – and I decided to try and find the courage to live. Killing myself would have been the easy way out. So I went home to live. I started giving back – to be significant and to leave a legacy – to think about the difference I can make in the world.
In 2006, my running partner at the time, David Grier, and I decided to run the entire length of the Great Wall of China, a distance of 4 218km. To complete it in the timeframe we had in mind, we would need to average a marathon a day for about 100 days. And we would be travelling across mountains and deserts. Our coach, Professor Tim Noakes, openly and honestly told us – and the media – that what we were trying was impossible. He believed we would fail. But what he didn’t know initially, was that we were doing this for a higher purpose: we were raising funds for Operation Smile SA. And it was this purpose that kept us going. Even though it was a brutal task, we succeeded. Afterwards, Noakes said: “If the mind can be convinced of the value of the task, nothing is impossible.”
Nelson Mandela famously said: “It seems impossible until it is done.” I truly believe this. However, it’s all about your reason for doing something. Your purpose has to be more than ego. If you find real purpose, you can accomplish anything. In January next year, I’ll be undertaking an adventure with my friend Peter van Kets. We will be rowing from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro during the Cape to Rio Yacht Race. The boat is 6.8m long, and we’ll be taking shifts of two hours each. It’ll probably take us around three months. It’ll also be entirely unassisted, which means we’ll be carrying all our own supplies. It’s going to be a monumental challenge, but again it’ll be for a higher cause.
In addition to being an adventurer, Braam is also a dedicated conservationist.
We’ve launched a Do One Thing (DOT) campaign that’s aimed at generating environmental awareness and getting people to be part of the solution. Pete and I do not succeed in our mission by simply reaching Rio safely; we succeed if we all ‘pull together.’ Our goal is to have someone ‘Doing One Thing’ for the Earth for every stroke we pull… that’s around 2.3 million DOTs and that can be the tipping-point. We launched an app in November, and were hoping to get one billion people onto it. That’s how you create real change. Preparation for an extreme adventure consists of three things: training, diet and rest. Training and diet seem obvious, but many people underestimate the importance of rest. You can’t improve if you don’t rest enough. They also underestimate the importance of training your mind. As mentioned, the body is a slave to the mind.
I’m working with hypnosis expert Dr Jeffrey Rink to train my mind so that it enters what is called ‘the zone’. While wide awake, your body essentially goes into a sleep state, dropping adrenalin levels and increasing serotonin. For me, it’s not about people helping people, but people helping our planet. When you help the planet, you inevitably end up helping people as well. The environmental issues we have can be divided into four things: conservation, energy, water and waste. If we can address these issues successfully, we can greatly improve the lives of millions of people.
One of the greatest side-effects my expeditions provide me with is solitude. The value of solitude isn’t recognised enough these days. Look at the stories of Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha. So often they centre on solitude and contemplation. Finding yourself all alone in a vast wilderness is an incredibly humbling experience. My greatest accomplishment has been my ability to inspire others. For me, it’s all about empowering others and showing them what can be done when a task is undertaken for the right reasons. Be significant; leave a legacy.