14.05.2021 / Blog / Thomas Hoch
Long-standing juwi employee Zirk Botha is someone who cannot live without adventure. He has just crossed the South Atlantic in a rowing boat.
“The moment when I reached the little bay of Buzios to the north of Rio de Janeiro and hundreds of people on boats, jetskis and the beach were cheering me on was indescribable,” Zirk Botha reports. At that point, he had already spent more than two months at sea. Two months of extreme physical strain, two months with nothing but water, wind and waves, two months of loneliness. Suddenly, the 59-year-old South African was being cheered on by so many people he had never seen before. They were shouting his name: Zirk!
We can just about imagine what goosebumps this moment must have created. “It was very emotional for me, I just cried,” says Zirk. A few days before his landing in Brazil, he was rather anxious about the future. “As I was coming nearer to my destination and found out that no one from my team and none of my family or friends would be able to be there because of the Covid pandemic, I wondered whether I would arrive in Rio without anyone noticing it.”
His fears were unfounded. In Brazil, the public had long heard about the South African adventurer who was the first to face up to this challenge alone, without any safety craft: 4,000 nautical miles or about 7,200 km from Cape Town across the South Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro in a rowing boat. It is almost of secondary importance that he completed his journey in 70 days, ahead of his own time schedule and significantly faster than all previous South Atlantic crossings.
For Zirk, there is a message that is even more important: “I wanted to prove to myself and my children that you can achieve any goal that you have set yourself.” Everything is possible? At the beginning of December, things looked rather different. Zirk had been working on his oceangoing boat for several months. He had trained hard and prepared for his Atlantic crossing as thoroughly as possible. But, after his first attempt on December 5, the wind and waves had driven him right back to Cape Town after only one night at sea. That was a moment that definitely made him pause for thought.
Zirk overcame the setback. He used the time he spent waiting for better weather conditions to improve his equipment. On December 19, he said goodbye to his children, his friends and his team in Cape Town for the second time – and this was to be farewell for a longer period of time.
He was at sea for 70 days. When he arrived on Brazilian soil with shaky legs on February 27, it was in the middle of the night. Even so, many people were there to celebrate him. One of the first people to welcome him on land was a photographer who pressed a fresh burger into his hands. Like thousands of other people, he had followed Zirk’s adventure on his Facebook page and read about what the Atlantic adventurer was looking forward to most. Following 10 weeks of freeze-dried expedition food, he simply wanted to bite into a fresh meal. “That burger was really good,” says Zirk with a smile.
Over the following days in Brazil, he received many invitations. He had to recount his experiences many times. He reported on the rough sea that was almost never calm. Sometimes, the waves were 4 to 5 meters high. The only thing he could do was to strap himself to his berth, hope that his boat would not capsize and wait for things to get better. At times like that, Zirk talked to his boat and encouraged it. It helped. His boat stood up to all the weather conditions it faced.
Shortly after the beginning of his journey, he developed a virus infection. He had to take care but he soon recovered. Zirk maintained contact with his closest associates via a satellite link, which is how scenes of him in the water beside his boat reached the world. Once a week, he had to clean the outside of the boat to remove algae and other deposits. “The first time, I had to overcome some anxiety about jumping into the water, which is 4,000 meters deep. After that, it was a pleasure.” When he was in the water, he was always secured to the boat by a rope, which was his life insurance.
Once on his long trip across the Atlantic, he was accompanied by a pod of dolphins. This was a special moment, one of the situations of which he had wished more. As they swam away, he shouted after them and asked them to stay a little longer. “I was shocked by the small amount of marine life I saw during my time at sea. We cannot take all the fish from the sea and simply exploit nature. We must be more responsible with nature,” he says.
Like many adventurers, he has a special connection with nature. People who go to wild places have a much closer and more direct experience of nature. Even if Zirk Botha is not a classical environmental activist, he feels that it is important to keep on talking about sustainability. “As human beings, we need to learn how to live sustainably and protect our planet.” He made statements to this effect in many of the countless interviews he gave in Brazil and later in South Africa.
A week after his arrival on the coast of Brazil, Zirk flew back to Cape Town. The first people to welcome him at the airport were his three daughters. A few days later, he also saw his colleagues from the juwi office in Cape Town. He reported on his adventure in detail in a video conference.
Many black people have already worked with Zirk for some time. He has been working for juwi in Cape Town since 2012. At the beginning, he mainly acquired sites for solar and wind farms but he soon discovered for juwi and himself what was then a new area of activity but was soon to become very important – the social aspect of the projects. In order to boost development especially in the rural regions of the country and to improve opportunities for the black population, wind and solar projects in South Africa are subject to special conditions. In tendering rounds, it is not only the lowest tariff that counts. 30 percent of success in tendering depends on a sort of social rating system. This considers the added value of the project in the form of jobs for black people, funds for communities, infrastructure and the support of South African businesses.
Zirk Botha has coordinated this topic for every project tendered for by juwi. It is therefore also thanks to his efforts that the South African office has been so successful over the past few years. Now somebody else must follow in his footsteps. At the end of March, he left the employment of juwi to devote himself to his life of adventure and to pass on this experience in lectures and coaching sessions. However, he will still be available to juwi, albeit only as a consultant. One thing is clear: for Zirk, his Atlantic crossing was a return to a life he has followed from the cradle – a life of adventure.
If you ask Zirk Botha about the reasons for his spirit of adventure, he soon begins to talk about his childhood. He grew up on a farm in the midst of the South African bush. As a small boy, he already wandered through the wilderness and there was only one rule: you must be home before it gets dark. The wilds of Africa are especially dangerous in the dark – although they are certainly not without their dangers in the daytime.
His early experiences were a major influence on the life of this farmer’s son. As a young man, he joined the Navy, crossed the Atlantic several times and finally became a combat diver. At 36, he left the Navy and built up a new existence as an organizer of extreme adventure events: several hundreds of kilometers across mountains, rivers and the wilderness – things like that. He entered many of these events himself until he almost lost his life as a result of a serious accident in 2002.
It took six years for him to fight his way back so that he could work again. This was a life-changing experience. “I had to learn once again to set goals and to prove to myself that I could reach them,” says Zirk. He then demonstrated what he could achieve through repeated adventures. He hiked through the Himalayas for several weeks. He rode through the African desert to the border with Namibia on a motorbike. He explored the Okavango delta in Botswana and took a look at its wildlife with an SUP board and a tent. “Those were my moments of happiness,” says Zirk Botha, if you are asking what these adventures meant for him.