Meet the adventurer: Mario Rigby on serendipity, sustainability and celebrating difference

Modern-day explorer and travel personality Mario Rigby spent more than two years walking across Africa. We talk to him about his expedition, as well as his keen advocacy for a more diverse, eco-conscious travel landscape.

By Charlotte Wigram-Evans
Published 17 Aug 2020, 17:00 BST
In 2018, celebrated Canadian-Turks and Caicos Islander explorer Mario Rigby completed a solo, two-year voyage of ...

In 2018, celebrated Canadian-Turks and Caicos Islander explorer Mario Rigby completed a solo, two-year voyage of the African continent, travelling from south to north entirely by foot and kayak. 

Photograph by Mario Rigby

What made you give up your career as a fitness instructor to become an adventurer?
I used to run professional track and field and I competed for my country, Turks and Caicos. I travelled around a lot for events, but it was this one competition in San Salvador that really blew me away. I’d never been to Central America, and it was the first time I saw people walking around with machine guns. It was kind of scary, but rather than putting me off I was intrigued. I felt this deep drive to explore, so at the end of the event I stayed out there. I met a cab driver who was also a surf instructor and who had this crazy car with racing stripes blasting out reggaeton music. He showed me the country, introducing me to his family and friends and they really embraced me. I’m there, just this young kid, wondering whether I’m going to get robbed, and instead the experience was absolutely beautiful. It made me think, 'Wow, there’s so much to the world'.

Tell us about the most poignant moment of your African odyssey.
On the human side, it was probably in Mozambique. They put me on TV out there, and because there are only a few news channels, everyone saw it. When I started walking, people kept on coming up to me and saying, "Hey, you’re Mario!" There was this one tough walk just coming out of the monsoon season, and a guy came up to me and invited me to stay at his home. It was one of those beautiful, traditional red earthen huts with cashew trees in the front garden, and he was so excited for me to meet his family. They wanted to cook me a meal, but their stove was broken, so as a thank you I bought them a new one. It was the least I could do, and you should’ve seen the happiness over such a simple purchase — but one that would really change their lives. I stayed for a couple of nights in the end, and they welcomed me like I was family. We spent long evenings outside looking at the stars, with the whole Milky Way lit up above us.

Mario Rigby says that the biggest challenge facing the planet is bridging the gap between different communities: “Both individuals and societies need to learn about other cultures and not only accept them but celebrate their differences.”

Photograph by Mario Rigby

And how about the most challenging?
I got attacked by wild dogs, spent a night in jail, and got shot at by rebel soldiers, but the most challenging part was actually loneliness. There were long stretches — along the coast in West Africa and in the Sudanese desert — where I was completely by myself, with no humans for miles around. Not only that, but these were areas of vast nothingness, where everything looked the same; that’s where you really have to learn to become your own best friend. It’s just you and the environment, and particularly in the desert, with heat stroke, often the easier option is to just sit down and die rather than keep going. You really need to understand yourself and have perseverance to survive.

Were these the most extreme conditions you encountered?
I’d say Ethiopia was the most extreme, both culturally and geologically. I met so many tribal groups, from the Marsabit to the Dukana to the Hamar people, and the differences between them were enormous. And then there’s the land; I climbed 2,000 metres above sea level in the Simian Mountains, which run along the Great Rift Valley — one of the most spectacular places on Earth — before dipping down to one of the lowest and hottest places on the planet a bit further north. Yes, Ethiopia had every single challenge imaginable. 

What’s the biggest change we need to make as a planet?
Bridging the gap. Both individuals and societies need to learn about other cultures and not only accept them but celebrate their differences. The more we share these things, the more we become empathetic to each other and the more we realise we’re all living on the same rock. For me, it doesn’t matter what we get done; if we can’t get along with each other, no matter what we do, we’re heading for disaster.

What was the most beautiful place you visited?
The sunsets on Lake Malawi are breathtaking. The African sun is such a vivid bright orange, and because the water is so still, often you can’t tell where the sky ends and the water begins. When the sun sets its looks like its melting — slowly dripping into the lake.

What was your favourite meal?
Ethiopian food, oh my goodness. The injera (fermented flatbread), the tibs (dips), it’s all incredible, but also the way they share food in their culture is really beautiful. I was in a restaurant once and met a former rebel activist who started feeding me with his hands — I learnt later that it’s a sign of endearment.

Mario Rigby on his two-year voyage of the African continent, from Cairo to Cape Town. For Mario's next adventure, he'll be kayaking 220 miles across Canada's Lake Ontario for charity, and to raise awareness for sustainable travel. 

Photograph by Mario Rigby

Whom do you hope to inspire?
I’m working with a lot of young black communities, encouraging and inspiring them to get out there. The narrative has always been that the explorer looks a certain way, and that’s never like me, but I want to change that. I hope people will see me and think, ‘Yes, I can do it too’.

Where to next?
I’m kayaking across Lake Ontario; it’s one of Canada’s great lakes and is 220 miles across. The aim is to promote local and sustainable travel, showing to people how they can have a crazy, cool adventure but at the same time keep it in their own backyard. We’re raising money for My Stand, a charity for at-risk youth who don’t have access to the great outdoors.

Mario works with a number of charities that are close to his heart, including The Rainmaker Enterprisewhich works to transform lives in South Sudan by installing solar-powered water systems. 

Follow @MarioRigby on social media, or visit his website

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