Two years ago, Mario Rigby, a Canadian fitness instructor, dropped everything to head to South Africa for the start of an epic solo 12,000 km walk through 12 countries, ending up in Cairo. We caught up with him last month as he came to the end of his walk in Egypt.
What inspired you to do this journey?
I started with the idea of seeing if it was possible to accomplish. Only a few have actually done it from the Cape to Cairo, and they have been Westerners. I wanted to take on a modern challenge and show Africa in a way that’s unique by walking side by side with them [Africans], staying where they stay. It grounds you.
You must have had some surprising encounters along the way.
So many people have taken me into their homes. In South Africa, the white / black is still a huge issue, but both have taken me in. I stayed with one guy, who was like, “I was at war [with you], I used to shoot the blacks, now I’m sitting with you and happy to get that past me.” Obviously, he felt horrible about it.
Did you have some hairy moments?
In Mozambique, I got shot at. [The military] told me I wasn’t allowed to walk for a 100 km [stretch], and they picked me up in a military truck, where I sat with eight soldiers. All of a sudden, we heard three gunshots. The truck stopped, and everyone got out, and started shooting. It lasted about 10 minutes. Later, I met some other travellers in Maputo and they said it was totally safe to cross Mozambique. And I thought: “No, they’ve gotta know this.”
Egypt was quite intense. The further north [in Africa] you go, the more and more military there is. If you go into the desert [in Egypt], you’ll be shot. Over time, I became a lot braver, but also a lot more cautious. I took the main roads, with no detours.
Did you walk all the way?
I kayaked along Lake Malawi. It was pretty epic as I had never kayaked before in my life. It was 550 km and probably one of the most difficult things I have ever done. The waves would reach up to four or five metres high, it was a proper sea out there. The more difficult part though was going in villages and making the traditional introductions with the chief to stay there.
Which didn’t always go well…
In one village, they held me. The chief didn’t believe me when I said who I was, and what I was doing. He thought perhaps I was in hiding, a border hopper. The police also believed that and locked me up for two days. I was handcuffed all the time, and the other prisoners were afraid of me because I was handcuffed. I had one corner of the room to myself, the rest were hugging the other corners.
How did you get out of the situation?
I had an Italian friend, Francesco, who walked the entire length of Lake Malawi while I kayaked. We wondered who would finish first. He went to the jail, and told the police that I was who I said I was. I had no access [to the outside world], I didn’t even have a phone. They finally released me but I still had to get my kayak back [from the chief]. We went to the village, where they all surrounded me, and the police argued with the chief. Finally, the chief agreed to let me retrieve it and came out to shake my hand. It is probably the rudest thing I’ve ever done, but I never shook his hand.
We last talked when you were in Kenya. That was eight months ago. How was the next leg, in Ethiopia?
Ethiopia was probably the most difficult in terms of bureaucracy. It is one of the beautiful countries in the world, with rolling hills, but I had so many problems with the government and the military. I had soldiers point guns at me continuously. My daily routine was like this: I’d wake up with police officers surrounding me, or I’d start walking, and I’d be stopped by police [shortly afterwards]. It drained a lot of the energy that I had for the expedition.
Why do you think Ethiopia was so tricky?
In Ethiopia, the people are proud to be Ethiopian, they’re different from the rest of Africa. So, when they see me, seemingly African, their first impression is probably that I’m a refugee from South Sudan. The people are sceptical, but also so kind. You could be part of a terrorist organisation, but if you go into one of these villages, they’ll still offer you a cup of tea. I fell in love with Ethiopia, but I hated it at the same time.
Was there a time when you just couldn’t handle it?
From Ethiopia, I wanted to cross the border into Sudan. I was a day late [and overstayed my visa], and the official ended up denying me exit out of the country. She confiscated my passport and told me to go back to Addis Ababa, a two-day drive. I lost it then, it was totally unlike my character. Psychologically, I think I was pushing the limit. I was beyond taking a deep breath. I had been thinking about my finish date, and had had that mindset for two years, and then I couldn’t make it happen.
Was it difficult to keep going?
My motivation was like a wave. The majority of the wave was excitement, wanting to push forward. Then I’d come to a small hump, and be like, “Crap, why am I doing this?”
Did things get better?
Sudan was very different. They slow you down there because they’re trying to invite you for tea, coffee. The police were quite suspicious, but as soon as they heard my [Canadian] accent, they were very friendly. At the edge of the White Desert, the police picked me up, and told me I wasn’t allowed to walk across. They took me to a police station, where the police officer recognised me from [an earlier interview I gave to Sudanese] TV, so dropped me off at the point they thought I would have reached.
From Aswan [in Egypt], I took the middle [of three routes] along the East bank of the Nile. It’s probably the easiest route I had walked since southern Kenya. There were guest houses every 10 km. It took about two months from the Sudanese border [to Cairo]. … In Egypt, I became a little too complacent, there was no challenge anymore. When you lose the challenge, you lose the drive. It’s not because it’s hard, but because it’s not hard anymore.
What were your favourite parts of the entire journey?
It was most enjoyable to be in the wilds and camping in nature. I’d laugh out loud for no reason. I thought it would be much more like that. But it [Africa] is becoming modern, and technology is everywhere. In Ethiopia, I went to the [remote] Omo Valley, and a guy from the Hama tribe told me: “Last year, just one person had a cell phone, and this year, almost everybody has one.” We are merging as a human species and as a result of that, we’re going to lose some cultures.
Now that you’re at the end of your journey, how do you feel?
I’m exhausted. It’s bittersweet, like, “Thank Goodness it’s over now.”