Crossing Madagascar on foot to raise funds

Crossing Madagascar on foot to raise funds

Source: Leila Samodien, Weekend Argus, 23rd of January 2010

You’re alone in the middle of a vast expanse of dark blue ocean. The sea is calm; the sky is clear, but you know that at any moment, a rogue wave could come up behind you, knocking you right out of your kayak.
From above, the 40°C heat is merciless, burning every inch of exposed skin. And it’s even worse below – there’s no knowing what lies in the depth of the water. Within minutes, things turn ugly. The skies fill with dark, bulging clouds: rain comes down in showers; the waves are walls ready to crash down on you and, suddenly, you find yourself in the midst of a tropical storm – slap bang in the middle of the Mozambique Channel, an area notorious for its pirates.
As the minutes pass, it becomes more daunting. Just 100 km from where you are desperately paddling, a tornado forms. It grows bigger and bigger until it reaches 200m up in the air.

Your adrenaline pumps and your arms move faster in an attempt not to get sucked in but to no avail. You’re thumped out of your kayak by a huge wave.
Luckily there’s a support boat about a kilometre away. They pick you up, and you’re safe – for now.

This is not the script for an adventure movie. For David Grier, a chef, motivational speaker and adventurer from Cape Town, it was just another day on the job.

Grier is on a four-and-a-half-month journey across Madagascar, from the south to north, using nothing but a kayak, some equipment and his legs.
The exotic voyage – which is not his first, and according to his wife Lizelle probably not his last – is Grier’s contribution to Operation Smile, a charity organization that aids children born with cleft lips and palates.
Grier is currently on the second leg of his adventure, trekking through the thick of Madagascar’s jungle.

His plan is to cover the 2500 km distance on foot, and most of the time he’ll be running.

However, before he could start running, he had to get to the island. And this was not as simple as a plane ride and an airport transfer.

Grier officially began his adventure on December 1 in Nacala on the Mozambican shore. From there, he pushed off in his kayak and paddled across the channel – a lengthy 500 km. This part of the journey took 11 days and was not without its moments of drama. Grier battled through at least one tropical storm and many smaller ones. And, when it wasn’t raining, the temperature soared to 40°C and higher.
“The ocean is so unpredictable,” Grier told Weekend Argus in a telephonic interview from Madagascar. “It will be dead calm; five minutes later, you’re in this huge storm.”

The sea journey was even more challenging for Grier in that, up until a few months ago,

“Here you have people who have nothing, but they’re willing to give you everything”

he had never kayaked before. He was knocked out of his kayak at least six times while crossing the Mozambican Channel. “The waves sometimes get so high, you just don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says.
“And when you do fall out, all you can think is: “God, this water is 3km deep; what lies beneath me right now?”.

When Grier finally reached the shore of the island, he began his journey on foot from the south side. And this was the beginning of a long, exhausting, months-long run.

Grier has been moving through the thick, leafy jungle for more than a month now, covering about 40km a day.

“It’s a scary place,” he says. “It’s so remote, there’s no one bit of cellphone signal (in some places). And the insects!”

But for the bold adventurer and his cameraman Nick Heygate, who sometimes runs with Grier to capture his travels on film, it’s the leeches that have been the most draining.

“I’ve probably been bitten a hundred times, no exaggeration,” he says. “What’s worse is that when you finally get them off, you have maggots settling in the wounds. There’s nowhere to hide from the insects.”
Their voyage would be easier if they had regular food and shelter. But, as is true in any great adventure, the pair are slumming its island style.
They’ve been taken in at villages and convents, communicated using only sign language and eaten nothing but rice for days at a time.

Grier, however, says this has only made the experience more memorable.
“It’s absolutely amazing. The people in the small villages are so friendly. Here you have people who have nothing, but they’re willing to give you everything, even though they don’t understand you. They give you a meal, a place to sleep – all without asking anything in return.”

Heygate has also had to deal with a serious case of fever. And this is only the beginning. Grier will be running for at least another two months. Then, once he reaches the island’s north shore, he’ll kayak and kite-surf back to Mozambique.

But, why on earth would anyone put themselves through all that? Besides being young at heart, Grier, who spent his 50th birthday in solitude somewhere in the Madagascar jungle this month, believes that Operation Smile is a worthy cause that deserves people’s attention.
“This is such a tangible way of helping children. We’re talking about a 45-minute operation that will change a child’s life forever,” he says.
“Yes, this trip is crazy, but most times, that’s the only way to get people to sit up and listen.”

Grier hopes to raise enough money to fund the operations of 210 children.
Madagascar is not Grier’s first adventure as a part of his Miles for Smiles campaign. In 2006, he ran the 4200 km stretch along the Great Wall of China and two years later ran 3300 km along the southern African coastline.
Lizelle says she supports his travels, and while he promised this would be the last, she had her doubts.

“Either way, I’m behind him,” she says. “This time, he’s missed out on a lot: Christmas, New Year’s, and our anniversary in March…so he has a lot of gifts to catch up on!”

Grier also uses his cellphone, to communicate with his family, and to regularly update his blog and Facebook and Twitter webpages, which people can use to follow his exploits.

To donate money to Grier’s cause, or to follow his adventures, visit

Source: Leila Samodien, Weekend Argus, 23rd of January 2010

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