Six million steps with Grant Christie

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Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Grant Christie, a mild-mannered explorer from Dullstroom, recently completed an epic hiking trail called “The Coast of South Africa.” An outline of the route can be found on any map of South Africa. Simply find the western border between South Africa and Namibia and follow the squiggly line between the land and the sea until you reach the eastern border with Mozambique. In all, his journey saw him cover 3 514 km over a period of 250 days (just over 8 months).

We first bumped into Grant in St Lucia during our Ultimate South African Road Trip and heard all about his amazing adventures, so we thought we’d catch up with him again to do a proper interview.

Here’s what Grant had to say about his incredible adventure.

Hanging out with Grant in St Lucia.
Hanging out with Grant in St Lucia.
Not too many people have the time or inclination to walk around the coastline of South Africa. What made you decide to do so?

Most people have the inclination to do something; yet most people believe they do not have the time, ability or resources. These self-limiting beliefs prevent most people from acting on their inclinations.

What got me to the point of actually giving in to the inclination was more of a negative motivation. I was so frustrated and bored and fed-up with working a corporate office job governed by time sheets and budgets and a bottom line. So the drive to walk the coast was to escape that form of living. I didn’t want to wake up at 50 and wonder where the last 25 years had gone?

So I wanted to do something epic, and I think South Africa is an incredible country which I want to explore. Many people want to travel overseas, but I want to get to know my home.

The start of the journey at the Orange River Mouth.
The start of the journey at the Orange River Mouth.
What was the purpose of the walk?

The purpose was twofold.

The expedition was supported by the Wilderness Foundation. The aim was to raise awareness on coastal conversation issues, to tell the story of what I discovered as I went along. I promoted two of the Wilderness Foundation’s projects: the Forever Wild Great White Shark initiative; and the Pride Project, a youth-oriented experiential education programme for the underprivileged.

In addition a personal objective for me has been to encourage others (particularly the youth) to pursue their passions, to help them find the courage to follow their dreams.

When I could, I stopped at schools and gave talks about the walk, about conservation, and about dreams.

Grant with the pupils of Alexander Bay High School.
Grant with the pupils of Alexander Bay High School.
A journey of 250 days means having to find somewhere to sleep for 250 nights! Where did you stay along the way?

I carried a small one-man tent that I pitched on the beach or in the bushes along the way. But people I met along the way were so generous welcoming me into their homes, backpackers, lodges and even hotels… So I only had to use my tent about a quarter of the nights I was out there. I only paid for accommodation maybe 4 or 5 times.

The halfway mark near Gouritsmond.
The halfway mark near Gouritsmond.
The 3000 kilometre mark.
The 3000 kilometre mark.
We’re guessing a lot can happen on a journey of this magnitude. Were there any surprises along the way? Any strange, wild or wacky people or places you encountered?

Most days included some sort of surprise; I never knew what was waiting for me around the next bend. I did meet some weird and wonderful people though. People really were the highlight of the expedition for me.

There was André Cave Man (that’s what he called himself) who told me about his plans to build a space ship to go and mine materials on other planets so that he could use them to finish building his bakkie (pick-up truck). I thought why do you need a bakkie when you have a space ship?

There was the man who threatened to get me arrested for trespassing. Then when I explained what I was doing and that I had in fact not been trespassing he very gladly prompted me to ignore the NO ENTRY signs coming up as they were his signs.

There was the friendly Wild Coast local that walked 15km with me (crossing two rivers in the process) to show me the way to a backpackers I was looking for.

 

The South African coastline is incredibly varied, and you’ve seen it all. What was your favourite section of the coast, and why?

My favourite section was definitely the Wild Coast. The landscapes are magnificent: rolling green hills, impressive rivers and waterfalls that tumble into the ocean. The people are poor and live in rural villages but are so friendly and generous; they’re never short of a smile. And the cows there spend their days chilling on the beach. It’s a magical place.

wild coast coffee bay cliff
The majestic landscape of the Wild Coast.
Walking every day must have given you a lot of time for introspection. What did you think about while you were out there and were there any lessons you have taken away from your experience?

Food. I thought about food. And some other things…

A lot of the time I wasn’t even aware of what I was thinking about. The walking became a form of meditation. Sometimes hours would pass without any explicitly conscious thoughts.

Other times my mind would wander down rabbit holes, solving the world’s problems.

I learned so many lessons along the way, it would be impossible to list them all. But I definitely gained a broader perspective on life, this country and its people. I also learnt a lot about the human spirit and about the perceived limits we place upon ourselves.

Samuel the Seal at 16-mile beach on the West Coast.
Samuel the seal at 16-Mile Beach on the West Coast.
Making friends with Samuel the seal.
Making friends with Samuel the seal.
We’re pretty sure this walk wasn’t all roses… What was the hardest or most taxing section to complete and how did you summon up the will to get through?

Two sections stand out.

My first three days down the West Coast were incredibly difficult. Due to restricted mining areas I was forced to walk the first 90km along the tar road between Alexander Bay and Port Nolloth. With a pack weighing well over 30kg, shoes with zero cushioning, and an over-exuberant expectation to cover the distance in three days I did some major damage to myself. Blisters and a case of tendinitis meant I was off my feet for a full 4 days before I could continue. This taught me the importance of listening to and looking after my body.

The other section was tough due to the terrain. The Garden Route, renowned for its beauty, is rugged and unforgiving. Jagged cliffs and impenetrable forests make this region very difficult to navigate without the aid of roads or paths. I was often faced with the choice of traversing life-threatening rock faces, or drag myself through the undergrowth to the top of the headlands to get around said crags. It was along this section that I had a nasty fall when some rocks I was holding onto broke and I dropped about 3m to the rocks below. I sustained flesh wounds to my leg and damaged some of my toe ligaments. This put me out of action for 11 days.

The Garden Route - a treacherous beauty.
The Garden Route – a treacherous beauty.
Getting patched up at the George Mediclinic.
Getting patched up at the George Mediclinic.
Considering you had to carry everything you took with you, what did you pack for your trip?

Too much!

I learnt very quickly which of the “what if” items could really be done away with. In the beginning my pack was far too heavy (Especially considering that I had to carry up to 11l of water for certain sections).

The essentials (and some luxuries) included: tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, a couple of sets of clothes, gas cooking set, journal, ukulele & harmonica (which I ditched halfway through), tablet (for admin, blogging and social media updates), point-and-shoot camera, action camera, solar charging pack, cell phone, SUN CREAM, food and water. (I may have forgotten a few sundry items).

Crossing the Kleinrivier.
Crossing the Kleinrivier.
Were there any home comforts you really missed during your time on the walk?

The thing I missed most was space. This sounds very strange considering I had endless beaches around me. What I mean is my own space. A place to put my toothbrush where I could always find it; a place to put my bowl of food where it wouldn’t get full of sand; a place to put my map where it wouldn’t blow away; a place to sit comfortably – my tent was basically a nylon coffin, I could lie in it and that was it.

Also: fresh foods and mom’s lasagna.

 

On foot and with a mission to traverse every kilometre of the coastline, there must surely have been the risk of finding yourself in a dangerous or uncomfortable situation. Were there any that you would like to share with us?

Most people’s main concern was that of safety. I was frequently warned about dangerous areas, told where I cannot walk, or told to take some form of protection.

I certainly met a few characters that looked like the type one is meant to be afraid of (hobos, loners, young gangsters, poachers) but all were either very surprised to see me or friendly and eager to chat. A group of poachers even offered me some money to buy food (ironic considering the conservation purpose of the walk).

There were places that I felt uncomfortable: derelict buildings and ruins, isolated spots, and one or two notorious sections (In the dunes east of Muizenburg I saw a really strange scene that can only be described as a disturbing gang initiation ritual and so I quickly moved on without looking back). But I was fortunate to complete the journey without incident.

I did have some close encounters with stray dogs on the Wild Coast, and some painfully intimate meetings with rocks. But it would appear that the biggest danger I faced out there was myself.

 

And finally, reaching the end of your incredible walk! How did it feel to finally cross the finish line in Mozambique?

On the beach there is nothing to denote the border between South Africa and Mozambique. No fence, or monument, or sign; just more sand and sea, and an array of footprints heading south. The only reason I knew I had crossed the line was because of the coordinates on my GPS.

It was a major anti-climax.

Over three years since the conception of the idea, after dreaming and planning, after resigning and facing ridicule, after 8 months of highs and lows, thrills and hardships; it was over. Walking had become my way of life. I didn’t know what I would be doing the next day or the days after that. And it troubled me. I stared off towards the end of the bay, sad that I would now be turning my back on it.

It was never about the destination, it was always about the journey.

Crossing the finish line at the Mozambican border.
Crossing the finish line at the Mozambican border.
We would guess that a trip like this is something that you plan and prepare for as much as you can, but never know how it will go until you are on it? What were your expectations before you left for your walk, and now, looking back, were any of those expectations realistic or was the experience completely different to how you imagined it would be?

To be honest I had very few expectations. I didn’t know what to expect, but I also didn’t want to limit myself. And so I approached it with as open a mind as possible.

What few expectations I might have had were absolutely blown away. South Africa is a truly wonderful place. The landscapes are breathtaking, and the people I met were just amazing. I experienced such hospitality and kindness. The level of generosity I experienced was definitely something I couldn’t have expected.

Karbonkelberg, Cape Town
Karbonkelberg, Cape Town
Do you ever come across any other people who want to walk the coast too? What advice do you give them?

I know a handful of people who have walked the coast (and some who’ve walked a bit more). Periodically I get messages or emails from people wanting to do something similar. One girl has recently finished the journey and another man has just begun.

My advice for them and my advice to anyone with a big dream is the same: DO IT!

 

And now, where to next?

Reintegrating into “normal” life was a shock to the system, and it has been difficult to find my place since my return. I have recently rekindled my passion to share the story through talks and through written word (watch this space for the book). I am also dreaming up new adventures (any ideas for me?); hopefully it won’t be too long before I can get out and experience that freedom again.

 

All the best to you Grant, we’re looking forward to hearing more!
Arriving in Cape Town.
Arriving in Cape Town.
6 million steps around the coast of South Africa.
6 million steps around the coast of South Africa.

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