Few people in the world can call themselves a modern-day adventurer. Mario Rigby is one of them.
As an energetic kid born in Turks and Caicos and raised in a small town outside Stuttgart, Germany, Rigby took inspiration from the groundbreaking travelogues of 19th-century explorers. As an adult living in Toronto, he became obsessed with the idea of seeing what he calls “the reality of the world.” He zeroed in on Africa, in particular, which he’d never visited but believed was routinely mischaracterized in the media.
That’s when the former track-and-field athlete got a big idea: He would travel from Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo, Egypt, by foot, with occasional assist from a kayak. When he shared his grand plan with his brother and mother, both adventurous souls themselves, they were encouraging. “My mom even told me, ‘If you break your leg, make sure you’re the first person in a wheelchair to cross Africa,” Rigby recalls with a laugh. “So yeah, no pressure!”
Feeling emboldened, Rigby dubbed his human-powered expedition Crossing Africa; set up a website and accounts on YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter; and raised more than $14,000 in a GoFundMe campaign. His solo trek began on November 24, 2015, his birthday. “The gift of freedom was the best gift I’ve ever given myself,” he says.
Two years, three months, and 7,456 miles later, Rigby had traversed eight countries, including South Africa, Egypt, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Although he had set a budget of $3 to $5 a day (and picked up a sponsorship from Western Union toward the end), he was often taken in by kind and curious strangers, who supplied him with food, water, shelter, and friendship.
“You are the Mario! You are the man!” the stranger shouted, insisting that Rigby follow him home to meet his wife and kids. “I ended up sleeping there for two days,” laughs Rigby.
Rigby paid it forward where he could, remembering a time in Mozambique where a man got super excited after recognizing him from a TV news report. “You are the Mario! You are the man!” the stranger shouted, insisting that Rigby follow him home to meet his wife and kids. “I ended up sleeping there for two days, because he wouldn’t let me leave,” laughs Rigby. “There was a little bit of rain and he was like, ‘It’s too dangerous!’ Mind you, I’d been walking through Mozambique in monsoon season the entire time.”
When the new friend set about preparing a huge feast for Rigby, cooking every bit of food he had, he was devastated to learn that his stove was broken. “It was the saddest thing I’d ever seen,” says Rigby, who decided on the spot to buy the man a new stove. “I mean, the pride this dude had when he brought that new stove back to his family . . . that, to me, was pure human love.”
Rigby has many stories like this. But one of the most refreshing things about his Crossing Africa expedition was his refusal to sugarcoat the negative experiences. When he contracted malaria on the road, his followers heard about it. When he was caught in rebel cross fire in Mozambique, with bullets literally whizzing past his head, the tweets got real. When he was locked in a jail in Malawi for three days, for no other reason than the cops didn’t believe he was who he said he was, it was story he knew he had to share. “I’m not afraid of the truth,” says Rigby. “This trip is reality, it’s what I experienced.”
While being shot at was both surreal and traumatizing, Rigby’s closest brush with death was mostly preventable. He was walking the coast of Mozambique, joined for a leg by his Italian friend Francesco. Without realizing it, Francesco finished all of his own drinking water, which meant Rigby had to share his. The pair consulted a map to look for the closest river; only after walking half a day in the exhausting heat did they realize the map was wrong. “The river did not exist,” sighs Rigby. “It was like seeing your life flash in front of your face and realizing, ‘Oh shit, we are going to die.’ Many hours and miles later, the men found their freshwater salvation, but the gravitas of the situation didn’t go unnoticed. “That was one of those ‘oops’ where ‘oops’ can mean life or death. I didn’t make the same mistake again.”
Rigby is already planning his next expedition. “If I stay still for too long, I start shaking,” he says. “You cannot contain a lion.”
Rigby wrapped up his trip in February 2018 and already he is planning his next expedition: a circumnavigation of Africa via an electric car equipped with foldable solar panels. “If I stay still for too long, I start shaking,” says Rigby. “You cannot contain a lion.” The goal of the Electric Vehicle Africa project, which kicks off in November, is to promote the use of renewable and sustainable energy throughout the continent.
We caught up with Rigby in between quests to ask what he learned from crossing Africa and what rules he’ll carry forward to his next adventure.
A little planning goes a long way.
“There was no blueprint on how to ‘cross Africa.’ I looked at past expeditions that were similar and multiplied them by, like, five—and then just took a huge leap of faith. Still, it took me nine months to prepare: doing the research, getting my gear together, understanding the terrain, figuring out the route, and learning basic survival skills. I trained by walking 12 to 15 hours a day for 15 days from the CN Tower in Toronto to the top of Mount Royal in Montreal. I didn’t dress warmly enough and almost froze to death! In some ways, that was even harder than crossing Africa because you’d walk 70 kilometers without meeting a single person.”
Whatever you’ve packed, it’s too much.
“When I first started out, I had a 70-liter pack. It weighed 40 pounds or something ridiculous. I had overpacked big time; I even brought a machete with me! I was thinking I might need it for self-defense against animals or to cut through jungle. I was so naive. I quickly lost the machete and shed other things as well. Now my list of packing essentials includes four things: Duct tape is number one. Second is a tent or a tarp—a tarp is even more versatile, because it can be fashioned into a makeshift tent. Third is a three-inch blade or knife, which is good for cutting rope or foraging fruit. And finally, a camouflage military scarf. You can soak it in water and cover your face. You can turn it into a turban. You can use it to carry fruit or filter water. The possibilities are endless.”
Sometimes the best expectations are no expectations.
“There was very little information out there about some of the countries I was visiting, like Malawi and Mozambique. All I knew going in was that they were some of the poorest countries in Africa. Mozambique has this bright red soil and palm trees lining the roads and rolling fog in the distance. It’s beautiful. Egypt was on my radar because of its pyramids, but it turns out there are more pyramids in Sudan than Egypt; I had no idea. Meanwhile, I went to this mall in Cairo that had a ski resort in it. Like, I was skiing in Cairo. That’s crazy.”
If you want to travel long-term, adopt a goal.
“If you have a purpose for traveling, people will jump on board to help you reach your goal. Africans, in particular, are the most hospitable human beings I’ve ever met. People greet you on the road and offer to carry your pack. If you get a scratch on your foot in the bush, they will come running and be like, ‘Please, I need to help you.’ They’re just so proud of you and your cause and they want to be a part of helping you achieve it.”
Embrace the extremes.
“Traveling in Africa as a black man, you experience both extremes. In places like Sudan and Mozambique, where I was featured on TV, I was seen as a hero. Every car that passed, every five minutes, someone wanted to stop and take a selfie with me. In Egypt, they were claiming me as their own, saying ‘Oh, you look just like my brother!’ I’m like, ‘You do know you guys look Middle Eastern, right?’ [Laughs] People were just so proud to see me and so proud of what I’d accomplished.
“But sometimes being a black man in a black country on a black continent worked against me. You’re a stranger and people are afraid. There are a lot of conflicts in East Africa; I could be a refugee, I could be a terrorist, I could be a thief. They’re just not sure. So my number one rule when approaching a rural village was to always ask for the chief first. He’s the alpha male, the patriarch, the elder. If there is no chief, I talk to the police. If there are no police, I look for someone who speaks a little English—usually a schoolteacher—and hope that they’re not the drunk of the town. [Laughs] Because that’s happened a few times, too.”
You are your own best friend when you travel solo.
“I’ve always had a good relationship with myself and quite enjoy being with my thoughts—sometimes more than being around people. You strategize, you analyze, you have conversations with yourself, like ‘Oh, wow—look at that tree over there, that’s so cool.’ Honestly, I feel more lonely being in a city than by myself in the desert. Because at least in the desert, you can have a relationship with the sand, with the wind. You’re on a mission and your mission is not to die. Your mind is occupied. But when you’re in a city, going through your daily routine, you’re surrounded by sad people. No one is smiling, no one looks you in the eye, no one has a conversation. People are more afraid.”
Not everyone will care about your trip—and that’s OK.
“Some of my oldest and closest friends haven’t asked a single question about the trip—as if I didn’t even go anywhere. I think it’s difficult for them to comprehend what I’ve done: the scale, the distance, the time, the cultural differences. I mean, I’ve garnered enough experience to write a guidebook to East Africa; we could talk for five nights straight. But I’ve come to understand that they just want me the way I was before; that’s why they were my friends, right? If I talk about these new and different experiences, that might make them feel inadequate. I would never voluntarily say, ‘Well, in Africa . . .” because I don’t want to be that guy.”
“Look at people as inherently good. If that’s how you see the world, the world will see it back in you.”
You get back what you put out.
“When you do a trip like this, you have to trust in humanity. If you smile, if you’re fun, if you have a good time—you don’t have to speak the same language. People understand humor. Always be aware of the dangers, of course, but fundamentally look at people as inherently good. If that’s how you see the world, the world will see it back in you.”