Mario Rigby stands still, letting the sun’s first light demist the hazy fog that has settled overnight on the salt flats of the Frenchman’s Creek Nature Reserve. Enveloping silence of the kind made possible by miles of separation from human civilization begins to crack with the first cries of Green Herons in the bush.
At nearly 6’4, Rigby punctuates the Mars-like terrain of soft, muddy earth and yellow sky like a landmark. In solitude, he begins to walk.
With just three miles to his final destination of the remote south-western tip of Providenciales, Rigby sets out unburdened by his usual kit of life saving gear. Still, this leisurely hike into the last remaining true wilderness of Provo induces a sense of palpable nostalgia in the man. It’s his first time setting out at dawn in the middle of nowhere since he completed the last leg of his epic Crossing Africa journey, a grueling two-year expedition from Cape Town to Cairo traversing eight countries and 12,000 kilometers by foot.
Though conventional wisdom tells us that he started in South Africa and ended in Egypt, Rigby’s road to Crossing Africa began in Turks and Caicos on the island of Grand Turk in the year 1985 when he was born. It is also here that the road leads onward.
To understand why this man, who led a seemingly happy life as a model and personal trainer in Toronto, suddenly decided in 2015 to walk across the planet’s second largest continent, we have to go back to the beginning. At two years old, Rigby’s family relocated to Stuttgart, Germany where his post-military stepfather ingrained in him a passion for adventure through sharing old photos wrestling alligators and skiing down sand dunes in Egypt.
Upon returning to Turks & Caicos, fluent only in German at an age when elementary students can be less than welcoming of others’ differences, Mario and his brother Travis found solace in nature.
“At that time, Long Bay was way out from civilization. We would go into the bush and do long walks catching lizards, building shelters, and foraging for passion fruit, sapodillas and wild berries,” he says. “In hurricane season, we would hide out in the caves and I got this peaceful feeling that nature would always provide.”
It’s a feeling that stayed with him throughout his childhood attending Provo Primary and later the British West Indies Collegiate where he excelled so much in track and field that he went abroad to pursue it in Canada at age 16. Following his completion of university, the desire to walk long distances began to transfix him. First he trekked from Toronto to Montreal; then Rigby set his sights on Crossing Africa.
As Rigby negotiates the crevices between shrub covered boulders that lead to the sea sprayed cliffs of Split Rock at Provo’s south-westernmost end, he notices deep engravings from the year 1842 on one of the rocks made by sailors on a ship called the St. Louis. Considering the possibilities of what their cargo might have been nearly two centuries ago in a place where Sea Island Cotton transplanted from the Carolinas still grows wild, Rigby opens up about why he decided to cross Africa.
“I wanted to go back to my roots. Turks & Caicos was part of a slave colony populated by people taken from West Africa and spread throughout the Americas. I wanted to go to Africa because I felt compelled to rediscover where we’re from.”
In that rediscovery of his ancestral homeland, Rigby found himself in East Africa, hiking in the Simien Mountains of the Ethiopian Highlands with solitude, gelada monkeys, and incomprehensible beauty as his companions. Experiences such as those which are too innumerable to list have filled the explorer with a deep hunger to keep going, to keep connecting the dots, to continue digging in search of roots that connect people from Turks and Caicos to Tanzania.
Climbing up the wooden ladder and out of the cave that leads to the hidden beach known as Pirate’s Cove, Rigby ascends into sunshine momentarily shadowed by an osprey flying overhead. Soaking in 360 degree views of rolling hills and iron shore coastline, Rigby hikes to the pinnacle of the cliff where he sits in contemplation of the next stage of his journey. With his much celebrated homecoming, lovingly planned by his mother Zemar Stingl now drawing to a close, the explorer faces forward and reveals, “I’m going back to Africa, but this time to the West.”
“The plan is to circumnavigate the continent in a 100% pure electric vehicle starting from Morocco going down West Africa to South Africa up through eastern Africa and back to Morocco. I’m not an engineer or race car driver, but I’m doing it to help promote renewable energy and show the world that problems can be solved with creative thinking and the drive to do it.”
With passion and a bit of caution, Rigby hints at another future endeavor currently code named ‘Project Roots’.
For now, as he sits across from Split Rock where an osprey majestically lands on the nest she built overlooking the ocean, Rigby is not an ambitious global voyager drawing new cultural and technological maps to the glow of international headlines and celebration back home.
He’s just a local guy going for a walk in one of the National Parks, confident in the peace he has knowing that nature will always provide.
Story & Photographs: Dominique Rolle/Caya Hico Media