Walking 400 miles in South Africa with Jay Simpson 09, a National Geographic Young Explorer. . .
He rises at dawn; knows something is wrong.
A mechanical noise is drowning out the trill of songbirds. A grey mist settles over the valley—pesticides from a sprayer blanket the air.
It is time to leave.
He packs up his sleeping bag, treks from the valley through the bush, walking higher and higher until “The noise of the pesticide tractors is lost in the wind and the ground underfoot is now free from manicured perfection. Up here we find the scent of the clouds and the untamed inside us.”
Jay Simpson ’09, who wrote those words, thrives on adventure and the untamed—in himself and the world around him. Here is a man who literally walks on the wild side.
“I had no idea what it would be like to be alone for two weeks in the mountains.” —Jay Simpson
As a 2012 National Geographic Young Explorer, he trekked through six mountain ranges in South Africa for 50 days along 400 miles on the Rim of Africa Passage.
The passage, cofounded by Ivan Groenhof and Galeo Saintz, is a conservation initiative that aims to preserve the mountains while collaborating with private landowners for access to the trails.
Alone—at times with other hikers—Simpson endured “storms, the sweltering African sun and limited access to water” to become the first person to walk the entire route. His journey often found him treading on terrain where no human had ever set foot before. (National Geographic cited him in the Best Explorer Moments of 2012).
But Simpson is not a thrill-seeker. He really wasn’t looking to be “the first” to forge a passage through the Western Cape of South Africa. Instead, his wanderlust is fueled by a passion for conservation and intricate stories—this one related to saving flora and fauna.
Story telling is in his nature. Even the voice message on his cell phone asks the caller to “tell me a story.”
He explains, “I’m drawn to complicated stories—the issues that cannot be summarized in 30 seconds.”
And Simpson’s tale of his South African walk is awash in complexities that defy simple sound bites. It involves the competing interests of the rural legacy of farming and the biodiversity of the land.
For example, the Cape Floristic Region is recognized as the “world’s hottest hot-spot” for diverse and rare plants. “It contains nearly 9,000 species of plants, 69 percent of which occur nowhere else in the world,” he says.
Yet this unique landscape is under siege. Humans, agriculture, freshwater industrialization, climate change and alien species continue to invade its beauty and solitude and biodiversity.
So it hardly seems possible that a single hiker can achieve any meaningful ecological change. But Simpson took small steps, photographing unusual flowers that he would encounter only once during his journey. He posted information on an endemic flycatcher bush and its singular role in the ecosystem.
He even transformed from a pacifist to a “sap-thirsty annihilator” killing alien trees he discovered and videotaping the destruction. It was justifiable herbicide. “The South African Work for Water Public Works Programme estimates ‘Invading alien plants are the single biggest threat to plant and animal biodiversity’,” Simpson notes on his blog.
These and countless other experiences—from campfires to mountain summits dwarfed by mega rocks to the habitats of mini foaming insects—became his Rim of Africa Multimedia Trail Journal.Simpson hopes this record of his trip will inform, instruct and rally the local population to action.
“It is an interactive resource for educators and nonprofits to teach about the environment and conservation,” he explains. “That way youth can learn about the significance of the region, and maybe even consider future studies or jobs related to conservation or tourism.”
By working with groups, including the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Center, Simpson hopes the next generation of South Africans can become the problem solvers for the ecological issues in their backyards. He also hopes the journal—photos, video and other media—will “increase the publicity of the project and income to local communities.”
It’s not the first time Simpson has used his multimedia expertise to champion a cause.
His resume includes producing fundraising videos for a school in Malawi, collaborating on a book (issuu.com/tbolkid/docs/j2e) that supported the rights of Hazara women in Afghanistan after the Taliban, and creating a fundraising blog for an AIDS/Lifecycle ride.
“After graduating from Towson, I’ve spent most of my time living and working in Southern and East Africa creating media for nonprofit causes,” Simpson explains. He studied abroad in South Africa in 2008, returned there in 2009 and eventually worked in Web and video production at GreatGuides.org. “My degrees in anthropology and filmmaking prepared me to apply what I learned in the classroom out where there were few others leading the way.”
Doing what comes naturally
While Simpson sharpened his media and reporting skills in school, he’s always been at home outdoors.
He grew up in Southern Maryland where, “my parents ordered my twin brother and me outside with the only rule—to return by dark,” he says.
He cannot remember when he didn’t own a tent and backpack, when he wasn’t testing himself outdoors with increasingly challenging trips. “Deep wilderness is a great place to find what you’re capable of,” he says.
In the South African bush, however, he nearly met his limit. At times there were trails to follow, but often he was hacking through the bush. Thirty-two days into the trek, Simpson faced the third successive day of foul weather—driving wind, pelting rain—that only got worse. What should have been a panoramic mountain vista was a slog through mud. “I kept falling down. I was furious, screaming,” he remembers.
Somehow he kept putting one foot in front of the other. “I had no idea what it would be like to be alone for two weeks in the mountains. There isn’t much you can do other than just doing it,” he says. “Somehow, I made it through.”
His mental toughness was matched by his ability to walk through thick bush for 18 hours a day with a 50-pound pack for 50 days. “You just do it and listen to your body,” he says.
While he downplays any physical preparations, his planning was meticulous—organizing daily safety check-ins and emergency contacts, securing permission from landowners to hike through their properties, packing and sorting provisions and equipment to carry, and making food.
“I prepared 72 meals in one afternoon,” he says. Stored in Ziploc bags were daily rations of quinoa, cashews and vegetables. He also carried canned tuna, one block of cheese for every five days, and one chocolate bar for every three days. It was never enough.
“I was fortunate that no serious events occurred — no snake bites, no hypothermia, no falls, breaks, sprains,” he says.
His feet never failed him—until after he finished the journey. Then they swelled up, forcing him to lay down for several days.
Now healed, Simpson depends on them for his next adventures.
In November he’ll return to South Africa, joining Ricardo Filander, a Cape Town native who had hiked with him for two weeks, in a month-long visit to schools along the Rim of Africa route.
“We hope our experiences will spark students to make positive changes in their environments,” Simpson says.
He also hopes donations will arrive via his website (tboltkid.com) so he can continue his environmental and activist nonprofit work.
Next year, he’ll be part of the OR-7 Expedition, a 1,200-mile walking and mountain biking project tracking a wolf that left its pack in northeast Oregon, traveling to western Oregon and into Northern California.
“It became the first wild wolf in those areas in nearly 90 years,” Simpson says, sparking a longstanding debate that pits the animal’s right to survive against farmers who want to hunt them to protect their livestock.
“We created this journey to find effective solutions—a middle-ground—in the polarized dialogue of humans vs. wildlife,” Simpson explains.
It’s another one of those complicated stories that Simpson can sink his feet into.
Ginny Cook is the editor of Towson.
With Our Ancestors
Pictures of the past
Why paint these markings on the cave walls? Will we ever really know what they mean?
The true magic of rock art is that the energy, transferred from the ancestor through the paint into forms on the wall, is still visible and therefore survives for us to experience. Their handprint becomes an undeniable bridge to the world of people before us. We were, and are, here. Together.
This ancient experience is one of the joys of walking on the Rim of Africa. For days when the mountains seem harsh and inhospitable, the weather challenging and taxing, and the journey lonely or too far from other human existence, you can look around, like I did when hiding from rain under the cover of a boulder, and find signs of someone from before saying “I was here too.”