Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
In January 2018, Mario Rigby returned home from a walk. But while most walks don’t warrant international media attention, Mario’s walk saw him navigate the length of the African continent, over the course of two years.
“I was an adventurous child,” says Mario Rigby over the phone from his home in Toronto, Canada. “My parents had to get me into sports or I would get in trouble.” So that’s what his parents did. And Mario, not one to do things by halves, went on to compete in track and field at a national level.
Now, Mario—who was born in Turks and Caicos and grew up in Germany before moving to Toronto—is one of the city’s leading fitness instructors, and coaches top-tier athletes across a range of sports. And when he’s not doing that, he likes nothing more than to head out for a stroll.
But we’re not talking a couple of laps around the block with the dog. Mario’s first proper walk was from Toronto to Montreal—500 kilometers (310 miles) on foot. He was averaging about 50-60 kilometers (31-37 miles) a day, he says. And that was just the warm-up.
In November 2015, Mario set off on his second proper walk, which was to be a casual stroll across the entire African continent, an expedition he named Crossing Africa. That’s 12,000 kilometers (7,456 miles) that would take him through South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.
He returned home in January 2018—two years, three months, and presumably several hundred blisters later—successful, inspired and empowered by his feat (and feet). So we gave him a call. Because we like people who do this kind of thing.
Adventure.com: When most of us think about ‘exploring the world’, we’re talking about going on holiday for a couple of weeks. To say to your friends, “I’m just gonna go and walk across Africa for a couple of years,”—there must have been some good reactions.
Mario: Most people thought it was impossible or I was going to die. People were ready to write my obituary, which was pretty funny. But I wasn’t going out there to die, I was going out there to meet and overcome some challenges. Anything is possible with a little research.
Where did the idea for the Crossing Africa expedition come from?
I kind of stumbled upon it. It’s a combination of my interests—culture, travel, athletics, and pushing my body and mind to the limit. It took me about a year to figure out what I really wanted to do, and it’s not like anyone has written a manual on how to walk across Africa.
I originally wanted to do the walk in Europe, but I thought Europe would be too simple—it’s very much set up for tourists and backpackers, that kind of thing. I wanted to do something that would be more challenging, I wanted to figure out how to overcome things that people think are impossible. That type of thing is attractive to me.
There’s an argument that technology—iPhones, Google Maps, translation apps and so on—makes it harder for us to get out of our comfort zones because we’re constantly connected. But technology can take us further too, right?
That was exactly one of the questions I was trying to answer—how we can utilize technology to actually take us forwards, and not backwards. A lot of people complain about technology and they say, “Oh, it’s making us sedentary, it’s making us lazy.”
All I really wanted to do was to experience what it’s like to live in Africa. And not just a country in Africa, but throughout the whole continent. That was my main purpose.
But technology is a tool that can take us to more places. We can go for longer and we can go deeper. Elon Musk is taking people to Mars! It’s all about catapulting us to the future.
I think people who complain about technology and how it’s making them lazy reveal a lot about themselves—they’re addressing their own issues, not technology’s issues. My phone, for example, is my GPS tracker, my timepiece, my compass, my research tool—it was the most powerful thing I had.
What does walking offer that other modes of transport don’t?
It makes it hard to miss an experience. Whatever’s happening in an area, you’re only walking distance away from it. You’re forced to be wherever you are. If you’re in a place where there’s no food, you also have no food. You can’t just hop on your bike, or in the car, and get to the next town quickly.
Aside from the physical feat and the personal accomplishment, was there anything else you were hoping the trip would achieve?
Honestly, I went into the trip just to experience Africa for myself. I didn’t even plan on putting it on social media, it all just transformed organically. All I really wanted to do was to experience what it’s like to live in Africa. And not just a country in Africa, but throughout the whole continent. That was my main purpose.
Did you have any moments where you thought you might be a bit out of your depth?
Absolutely, a lot. Funnily enough, most of those situations happened when I was along the coast, on the beach. When you’re in that kind of environment, it’s easy to slip into ‘take it easy’ mode—but if something went wrong, I’d often only have ocean on one side and bush or mountains on the other. Sometimes the options would be to walk forward 150 kilometers or backwards 70 kilometers. I learned a lot of lessons from walking along the coast!
Climbing Mount Kenya, and the altitude sickness that came with that, was hard. I was basically screaming the entire night. It was such an excruciating pain and I felt so claustrophobic because I couldn’t just climb down the mountain. I got through it in the end, but I wouldn’t want to experience that again.
They were happy people. It made me realize that in Africa they know how to really live life, whereas in the West we just know how to make wealth.
Where did you sleep?
It depended where I was. In Mozambique, I was mainly camping and staying in people’s homes. Luckily, my expedition was featured on a news program out there, which made me quite famous locally. People would stop for me every five minutes—some even tried to give me money! They treated me like a bit of a celebrity. It made it easy to live and find places to stay, because they already knew who I was. Everybody was trying to be the person to host me—it was really beautiful, actually.
I read on your website you stayed with a guy in South Africa who literally used to shoot black people during apartheid?
Yeah, it wasn’t too crazy in a sense. He was kind to me, very hospitable. And by the time I met him, I could kind of tell who might have been part of apartheid, and I could tell he probably was, so I was waiting for him to say something. He and his wife took me in, and I don’t know if it was out of guilt or whatever it was, but they did a good job of making sure I was as comfortable as humanly possible.
That experience brought home to me just how much we are programmed by the system and a product of the environment in which we live. The best people, the nicest people you ever meet, could be capable of the worst things given the right—or wrong—circumstances.
It’s a clichéd question, but what do you think your biggest learning from this trip has been?
I met an English teacher in Mozambique whom I had a great conversation with. I was talking about business in Mozambique and he sat me down and schooled me. He said: “Listen, do you know the story about the monkey and the fish? The monkey had a beautiful life climbing trees and enjoying the abundance of the jungle. But one day the monkey went to the lake and saw a fish for the first time. “Wow, this fish is living in a prison!” the monkey thought.
So the monkey decided to take the fish out of the water, and take it back to the jungle. Of course, the fish died. So the monkey tried again, with more fish, until there were no fish left. Only then did the monkey realize that the fish were also living an abundant life, but they were living it in a completely different way. Neither one was right or wrong—they were just different.
That story changed my whole perspective about the Western influence in Africa. This man lived in a large, really remote village in Mozambique, and he was literally the only person in the village who spoke any English. He was just saying, while they might not have futuristic technology or a lot of things the Western world has, they’re still happy. They were happy people. It made me realize that in Africa they know how to really live life, whereas in the West we just know how to make wealth.
It’s funny because I went to Africa thinking, “Maybe I could share some of my knowledge, I could talk in some schools and maybe try and help out where I can.” And I did do some of that. But at the same time, it was completely the opposite. Africa taught me everything.