TCI native eco-explorer Mario Rigby has completed a number of expeditions across Africa and Canada. However, this month saw Mario completing his first expedition right here in the TCI. Aptly named the Caicos Challenge, Mario used only human-powered activities to get himself from Salt Cay all the way to West Caicos. An expedition that was slated to take a week, took only 5 days to complete and with Mario completing a challenge that has never been done in our islands before, we at WAVES Magazine definitely wanted to know more about the experience.
We had an in-depth conversation with Mario and learned not only the logistics behind completing an undertaking such as this, but dug even deeper to gain insight into the mental and physical factors he experienced during the Caicos Challenge.
Q: As we know, this is the first time that anyone has ever done anything like this. So, how did the idea of the Caicos Challenge come about?
Well, the Caicos Challenge is something that as a kid I think a lot of us have always kind of dreamt of, but no one has really executed. You know, “what would it be like to go across the Turks and Caicos Islands?”. Last year I looked at if it’s possible to do that. I looked at the map, I looked at the logistics and I thought, “yes, this is actually absolutely possible. There are going to be some parts where it’s difficult, especially to do it in such a short timeline,” because my plan was to do it in six days, but I managed to bring it down to five days. But in order to do it in five days, there were a lot of logistical challenges that we [Mario and his logistics team], needed to overcome.
I also realised that by going to every single island from Salt Cay all the way to West Caicos, the main islands, I’m able to show and express the flora and the fauna of the Turks and Caicos Islands in a unique way that people haven’t really seen before. I decided to make this expedition even bigger because of that and I thought to myself, “let’s get a production company behind this. Let’s make this thing global. Let’s get as many people interested in seeing the Turks and Caicos Islands that even local people haven’t seen”. East Caicos, as an example, with the wild donkeys running around, I thought that was incredibly beautiful.
The other reason I wanted to do it, was to do this before anyone else who is foreign did this. You know, people would come in from all over the world and if they even thought about doing this and they realised that no one else has done it before, they would jump on that! And so, I thought that I was in a perfect position to be the first person to do it from all the way in Salt Cay to West Caicos nonstop using human-powered activities. So, I said, “yeah, I’m an Explorer already, this is what I do, and so why not just make it happen?” Then I got all the partners together, my partners in Canada, my global partners, they loved it and were right on bank. It took some convincing of the Turks and Caicos Government, but they eventually came on board once they saw the amount of work that I’m putting behind this and they pulled through. We also had our hotel partners, so I was able to get the team from place to place to support the expedition.
This isn’t something that I think anyone – if you did this on the fly – would be able to do right away. Not just because you have to be tough and all that kind of stuff and resilient and you have to be able to do like – East Caicos for instance, I ran, hiked and swam it for 13 hours. The last person to have done it, the record was two days and he had to camp overnight. But what I realised is that in order to do it in a single day, I had to run half of it. That’s how brutal it is. So, in order for anyone else to do that, they would have to have that mental fortitude and also, they need to have the entire logistic team and support system around them.
It’s probably going to be a while until someone else does this unless we turn it into an annual event every year where we provide that support and then we give people the opportunity to beat my record.
Q: The name of the expedition itself tells that you can expect some hardships when completing something like this. So what was the biggest challenge you faced during the Caicos Challenge?
I would say the biggest challenge was definitely finding support – like local support. There was a lot of hesitancy, I guess because no one has ever done that before. You know, I reached out to dozens of boating companies and we got declined by every single one of them except for one that was crazy enough to support us, and that was Big Blue Collective. That was before the expedition started, so they came on board and from the beginning. They were like, “yeah man, we’ll support that.”
So, their job was really to bring the kayak from Provo to Grand Turk and then from Grand Turk to Salt Cay. I would say out of the logistics, that was probably one of the harder parts, and getting the bike from Provo to North Caicos and then from North Caicos to Middle Caicos, because none of us were there. We had to rely on the local people there to carry our bikes and make sure that it’s there at the right time, because this was timed by the minute and by the second, like everything had to be on point. You know, we here [in the TCI], we could run kind of slow sometimes – time is relative, but for this, time could no longer be relative because my life is at stake at this point. If anyone were to show up late or not do the right thing then we would be in big trouble or we would lose an entire day. We can’t start too late in the day because you don’t want to get too hot, and you don’t want to arrive late at night for certain legs of the expedition either.
Q: Like you said, the biggest challenges you faced during the expedition were logistical ones. However, I’m sure that with any expedition, there must be much preparation beforehand to try and minimise the challenges you may face during the expedition. So, what was the physical preparation like for the Caicos Challenge?
I did a lot of physical strength training in Canada. Then when I came to Turks and Caicos a couple weeks before the expedition, I worked mostly on endurance training and climatising myself to the heat. So, my trainer, who’s also my logistics coordinator here in Turks and Caicos, made sure that I was essentially, for two weeks, training marathons each day, early in the morning from 5:00 to 6:30 – sometimes until 7:00. Essentially, my training was like doing a triathlon early in the morning, every single day, which is like what most people would do maybe once a year as a challenge if they were to do a triathlon.
Q: With all the effort you put into preparing your body for this expedition, how would you rate your performance in the Caicos Challenge?[laughs] That’s a very good question, I like that. I would say that I didn’t train as much as I should’ve, I wish I had trained more. The thing is that I knew I was capable of doing it regardless of my fitness level. However, relative to my fitness level, it depends on how I would feel after the event. If I was in better shape, I would’ve enjoyed the expedition a lot more. But because I was in pretty bad shape, I would’ve enjoyed it more in the shape I usually am.
You know, during the pandemic I gained 30 pounds. I didn’t exercise as much, so I had a bit of a beer belly situation going on. Going into the expedition I was too heavy. I was 20 pounds overweight and that’s not my athletic weight. So, when I did the challenge, I was faced with a lot of physical challenges. I had a lot of cramps, muscles spasms throughout the entire kayaking portions from Salt Cay to South Caicos. So, I had a lot of spasms that didn’t do me right. But if I was in better shape, I would say I would’ve enjoyed it a little more – physically speaking – and I would’ve probably done it a lot faster. I would say I would rank it at a 3, on a 1 to 10 scale – 10 being the best I could perform and 1 being the worst I could perform.
Q: Wow, well I definitely would love to see you complete this challenge at a 10, or even a 7! Other than not being at your physical best prior to the challenge, is there anything that you wish you would’ve done differently, whether it was before or after the Caicos Challenge?
I would’ve definitely liked to have marketed the expedition a lot better. We only had 6 months to plan it and usually when people do these kinds of projects, it takes them a few years sometimes to make it happen, whereas we knocked it out in 6 months and that’s because of my previous experience with other expeditions. A lot of the logistics that go into my projects like kayaking across the Great Lakes in Africa and Ontario, Canada. Like when I kayaked in Africa, I kayaked the length of a country so there’s a lot of logistical experience I got from that.
Kayaking Lake Ontario, cycling across Canada and walking across Africa, gave me a lot of experience with knocking out projects quickly and what you do with that is sacrifice certain things and what I sacrificed was not having the kind of media coverage that I feel we should’ve had. We obviously could’ve had more funding and more support to have more people on the team, like a social media strategist and so on.
Q: I know that you are from the TCI, but not everyone here gets to visit all of the islands. With the challenge taking you straight across our larger islands, is there anything you learnt about the TCI through this expedition?
I learned how closely connected all the islands are actually. I mean, just the fact that I was able to kayak from Grand Turk to South Caicos in 8 and a half hours, to me, that’s not too far. To me, that would be a typical day I would kayak when I did Lake Malawi or Lake Ontario. I would cover around 30 to 45 kilometres in a single day. So, the fact that I was able to do Grand Turk to South Caicos kind of gave me the perception of how closely we all are linked in the Turks and Caicos archipelago. We’re very closely knit and that gave me the sense of wanting to see the Turks and Caicos even more closely linked. Like having ferries go back and forth on a regular between Grand Turk and South Caicos.
Another thing too is how pristine and beautiful the beaches are in remote places that most people haven’t even seen yet. East Caicos is this tremendous piece of land with beaches that are as beautiful, if not more than, the beaches on Grace Bay. There are so many other places, like seeing wild donkeys – I’ve never seen wild donkeys before in my life until I went to East Caicos and I saw that in my own country. They’ll chase you down too [laughs]. They will come after you, they come in packs, but it’s a beautiful thing to see. I was able to witness the wildlife, the pelicans, the flamingoes living in places where there is no human intervention – there’s just them and then there’s me. It was such a beautiful experience.
I don’t think many people get to experience that who are from the Turks and Caicos Islands. I really try to encourage people, especially with the film that we’re making out of the expedition. I want to encourage local people to explore all the different islands. Like South Caicos with the beautiful cliffs – the thing is I’ve been to all these islands before. It’s not like I’ve never been to these islands. I’ve been to every single one of those islands except for East Caicos. So, for me, it was a revisit and a revisit in a way that I’ve never been able to do before. But I always dreamt of doing it this way, which is to traverse it by human-powered activity.
Q: Beyond learning new things about the country during the expedition, as a Turks and Caicos Islander, has the Caicos Challenge changed your perspective of our people?
Yeah, I think that once people see that you’re doing something that they’re incredibly proud of, the support is tremendous. Every single island that I started off or landed in, I had such incredible support. From Salt Cay, there was a party waiting for me there which was incredible, just before I started. And then I had a greeting by a bunch of people on the beach, clapping and cheering – who were complete strangers – in Grand Turk, when I made it from Salt Cay. In Middle Caicos, with my bicycle, a school took time out of their school day to come out on the road and cheer me on. When I finished in North Caicos there was a big fanfare there. It was such a beautiful experience to see Turks and Caicos people come together and support their own kind. That was special, really.
Q: I know you said that the challenge was pretty brutal on you, but did you have a favourite part?
Finishing it I guess. [laughs] You know what, by the time I got to the end, I became more fit. Usually, my expeditions aren’t this quick. This was probably one of my fastest ones and it usually takes me months to traverse countries, continents and whatnot. So this time I did it so quickly that when I made it to the end, that’s when I started to get used to the groove of moving and traversing across the islands. So, it was really the ending that I started to feel more confident, more fit and in shape compared to how I felt at the beginning. I felt like I had gotten hit by a truck, essentially.
Q: You mentioned earlier that there was recording being done of the expedition for a film you’re producing. Is there a potential date or time when we can expect to see this film out?
I’m hoping that the film can be put together in about 5 or 6 months. So, we’re looking at by the end of the year, the film should be released. It’s gonna be exciting, there are a number of drama pieces in it where – you’ll see. I’m not really talking about it now, but the film definitely captures a lot of it.
Li Welch, our own videographer here in the Turks and Caicos, is an incredibly talented individual. He was with me for the most part following either by boat or by car and recording me suffer, which was quite interesting. Of course, there were some mishaps and things that have happened that were all captured in the film. You also see the community support from people who came in and helped make it happen.
Q: Finally, you have explored continents and countries, however, you have now completed the Caicos Challenge. So, how does it feel to have completed an expedition in your own country?
I feel like I was supposed to do this. There’s no other way to describe the feeling other than, “I’m supposed to be here, I’m supposed to do this”. I feel like there’s nothing else that I would want to do other than this. I feel completely at home. I feel completely at peace just knowing I’ve accomplished this. I feel like I’ve contributed somehow to the history – even if it’s a little bit – of the Turks and Caicos Islands.