For all the planning that went into walking across Africa, Mario Rigby realized the enormity of his task at 30,000 feet in the air, en route from Toronto to Cape Town via Amsterdam. The Turks and Caicos-born personal trainer and amateur explorer was about to embark on a two-year journey from South Africa to Egypt, travelling 12,000 kilometres by foot.
“I was thinking, ‘what the hell am I doing?’” Rigby laughs. “It became real.”
Inspired by the great explorers of history and aiming to follow the human migrational trail through Africa, Rigby — a former track and field athlete — had packed up his life in Toronto with a plan to travel solo through eight countries, accomplishing a feat last completed in the 19th Century.
“I wanted to experience everything that there is to experience about humanity,” says Rigby.
Having spent his adolescent years in Turks and Caicos and Germany before moving to Canada, Rigby recalls the stories his stepfather would tell from his travels in the military, leaving him and his brother wide-eyed with wonder.
“He would always show me and my brother pictures of him going on these crazy adventures where’s holding down a crocodile or skiing down the sand dunes. You can imagine how cool that must have been for a son looking up to his dad,” he says. “So it was always kind of in my blood to experience that.”
Before setting off to walk across Africa, however, Rigby first had to learn how to pitch a tent and walk for hours on end. At 29, he had never camped in his life.
“I actually started by pitching my tent at [Toronto’s High Park]. You’re not allowed to camp in the park, but I decided what the heck, I’m just going to go there,” he laughs. The rain was moving sideways, and I still decided to go with it, because I figured there were going to be worse conditions [on the expedition].”
“I quickly learned that being fit isn’t the strongest requirement for this sort of [expedition]; it’s more about willpower, survival skills, and people skills.” – Mario Rigby
Rigby planned a walk from Toronto to Hamilton as preparation. Through blistered feet and long days in the sun, he built on his endurance.
“I decided to go at it in one shot. I was wearing completely the wrong kind of shoes; I had the wrong backpack… everything was wrong,” says Rigby. “It took me about 15 hours.”
Still, he was undeterred. He followed his Hamilton trek with a journey from Toronto to Montreal by foot, and by November of 2015, he was ready. Rigby would walk from Cape Town to Cairo, testing his stamina and meeting hundreds of Africans along the way, hearing their stories. On November 24th, he began — striking out from Cape of Good Hope and following the coast of South Africa towards Mozambique, a stretch of the journey that would take a year in itself.
In hindsight, the 6’3” Rigby looks back on the early days of the trek and laughs at his unpreparedness — or rather, his overpreparedness.
“I had a machete and a whole bunch of weird survival stuff with me — unnecessary things. Like, who carries a machete with them? I think I had two pocket knives and a big knife,” he says. “I kept fantasizing what position I would put myself in if a lion attacked me.”
Rigby learned to feed himself off the snails and prawns that would cross his path, snaring crayfish with traps made from onion sacks. The self-described extrovert would often spend hours alone before encountering others on his path.
“I think people get kindness. They understand that ‘okay, this guy is a little bit crazy, but he doesn’t mean harm.’ I think people can read that really well, no matter what culture or tribe you’re from.” – Mario Rigby
“I really learned how to become my best friend, in a sense,” he says.
Rigby’s trek wasn’t without its share of danger. In Mozambique, he found himself in the middle of gunfire between soldiers and rebels while crossing the Save River. He had been picked up by the soldiers to cross the bridge in their truck, told it was too risky to make the crossing by foot.
“You could see cars on either side of you burning, buses burning, trucks burning, villages burning. It was so surreal,” says Rigby. “All of a sudden, we hear three gunshots: boom, boom, boom. The truck stops. You’re like, ‘this can’t be happening.’ Bullets are flying around, and I’m just in the back of the truck, cursing and swearing.”
In Malawi, he decided to cross the country by kayak, traveling the length of Lake Malawi — the world’s ninth largest lake, and one which makes up the country’s eastern border. After repeatedly being declined by the rental shops in Monkey Bay, he managed to convince two South Africans to lend him their kayak after a day of drinking.
“All of a sudden, we hear three gunshots: boom, boom, boom. The truck stops. You’re like, ‘this can’t be happening.’ Bullets are flying around, and I’m just in the back of the truck, cursing and swearing.” – Mario Rigby
“Everyone laughed at me, because I had never kayaked before,” says Rigby. “I remember, I docked my kayak on this island one time […] I put my foot in the water, and when I [looked at it], it was covered completely in leeches. Tiny, little leeches. I actually yelled out loud — as loud as I could.”
In Malawi, he was also handcuffed and thrown in jail, accused of being an illegal immigrant or a foreign spy. Altogether, he would be arrested seven times in three countries — an experience that still couldn’t sully Rigby’s appreciation for the kindness of people he met along the way.
“I think people get kindness,” he says. “They understand that ‘okay, this guy is a little bit crazy, but he doesn’t mean harm.’ I think people can read that really well, no matter what culture or tribe you’re from.”
Rigby finally arrived at his final destination at the pyramids of Giza in January of 2018, 26 months after taking his first step. He plans to write a book about his travels, and the next few months of his calendar are filled with speaking engagements around the world.
“You realize that anything is really possible,” he says. “Anything you touch or think of, you can make it reality.”
His love and appreciation for humanity has broadened, too:
“You realize how similar we all are. We all come from the same fundamental background.”