Interview with Giscard Lailvaux, a barefoot hiker from South Africa

I had the pleasure to have interviewed Giscard Lailvaux. Lailvaux is an avid hiker and a South African, who is planning to hike the entire Drakensberg Traverse from start to finish barefoot. With such an attempt, Lailvaux hopes to bring awareness in preserving the beautiful area.

Tell me about yourself and where you are from.

Giscard2My name is Giscard Lailvaux. I am 38 years old, a proud father of one son and an extremely happily married individual to an incredible lady that loves the outdoors and wild, open spaces as much as I do. I am a qualified mechanical engineer, and have subsequently taken up a career in engineering consultancy for a medium sized business specializing in supporting industrial customers for their products and services needs on rotating equipment. I have a specific passion and skill with regards to asset reliability and the maintenance thereof, and always view the delivery of engineered solutions with this concept and interest in mind.

From a hobbies perspective, the family and I share one true love… namely that is the time spent camping and hiking in the mountains and along the coast within our favorite region in South Africa, namely Kwa-Zulu Natal. This province is the birth place of both my wife and I, and whilst we will always look to return to these home grounds, we currently reside in Johannesburg on the basis of my employment in this area.

Conserving and protecting natural spaces from the advancement of commercial development is, therefore, extremely close to my heart and soul. This drive to look after and maintain industrial equipment assets is proportionally cultivated in my yearning to see more natural spaces conserved for future generations, so that there is an ability of our youth to protect the very soil that forms the foundation for the provision of food we need and the air we inhale. Respect and preservation for these spaces has intensified over the last decade in my life, specifically since the frequency of my hiking barefoot has increased.

You mentioned you enjoy hiking barefoot. What kind of hiking have you done barefoot?

Giscard1The start of this barefoot journey began, in truth, roughly 15 years ago upon meeting my wife. I was, up until then, a city slicker that had a strong interest in conservation and had already concluded a number of less strenuous hikes in the Natal Drakensberg in my teenage years. I have, as a result of these hikes had a growing love for the mountains and forests therein and continually collect conservation, flora, fauna and hiking guide books specifically dedicated to this place.

The switch from hiking with boots to light shoes or barefooting began during my mid-twenties in a period that my in-laws owned and ran a guesthouse in the small rural town of Utrecht in Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal. Unlike me, my wife and her family have always resided in rural towns, where practicality prevails over appearance. Due to Utrecht’s remoteness, the need to gear up was unnecessary and all holidays spent there were done so barefoot from start to finish. This town is within the boundaries of a conservation area in which large game and prolific birdlife flourish. Furthermore, a number of day walks and trails are also available for the hiker and avid bird watcher. It was here that my barefoot hiking began, amidst the forests and mountain streams.

In the beginning, it was difficult to say the least. I was so totally out of my depth and had absolutely no idea of the strength that an individual needs to build up through their feet to begin enjoying walking, let alone hiking, barefoot. Vast changes in the terrain provided for the best possible education and increased awareness as to how one actually walks. This, combined with a backpack weighing down on the shoulders, certainly drove the impact energy through the soles of bare feet.

In time, however, the distances were marked off the chart and my capabilities increased to the point where I was self-assured. This encouragement allowed me to start hiking barefoot in the Drakensberg, where the environment changes from the soft, spongy forest floors to the barren and exposed higher ground where coarse sand and rocks are predominant in the sparse and exposed vegetation. Gaining this confidence was a critical step to increase my awareness of my surroundings and implanted the awe that now governs my hiking trips to this spectacular and beautiful mountain range today.

With this increased awareness in my hiking activities, I am now equipped categorize the approach that I take when completing different hikes. Generally speaking;

  • Short hikes or rambles (3 – 8 kilometers) that are based in the lower sections of the Drakensberg through forests and ravines are always hiked barefoot throughout the year
  • Medium hikes (8 – 15 kilometers) based in the Little Berg areas, where some exposure to the elements occurs, are hiked barefoot in spring, summer and autumn. In winter I wear sneakers for early mornings and frost covered ground.
  • Lengthy distances (15 – 25 kilometers) that traverse higher reaches and minor mountain passes require thermal protection against changing weather. In these cases, I hike barefoot in the spring, but find that the remainder of the year presents some extreme changes in climate.
  • Strenuous distances (25 – 40 + kilometers) in the summit areas of the Drakensberg are challenging and unpredictable. Tumultuous storms brew over these peaks in minutes and a warm sunny day can change into freezing, snow covered conditions with much the same rapidity. In these exposed zones I have not, as yet hiked barefoot.

Tell me more about the Drakensberg mountain range. It seems like a beautiful place.

The Drakensberg is an absolute treasure and was proclaimed a world heritage site some years ago. In order to describe it in its ultimate detail, I have extracted the information from the following website that provides the most descriptive version thereof.

Webpage: http://www.zulu.org.za/discover/destinations/drakensberg/

The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park is one of KwaZulu-Natal’s two World Heritage Sites. This World Heritage Site is part of a much longer mountain range that stretches some 1,600 kilometres from South Africa’s northernmost provinces to the Eastern Cape. Not only does the World Heritage Site protect a stunning natural mountain wilderness area, it also protects an amazing cultural legacy of ancient rock art in Africa painted by Southern Africa’s earliest inhabitants, the San or Bushmen.

The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site is also part of a larger collaborative conservation initiative between South Africa and the neighbouring Kingdom of Lesotho called The Maloti-Drakensberg Trans-frontier Conservation and Development Project.

The Zulu people named the 300-kilometre section of mountain range bordering KwaZulu-Natal and the mountain Kingdom of Lesotho ‘uKhahlamba’, meaning ‘’Barrier of Spears’’. The early Dutch settlers called them the Drakensberge or ‘Dragon Mountains’. Nowadays, this lovely natural wonderland is referred to by locals simply as the Berg. Generally, the Berg is divided into roughly five regions with many small towns in the foothills; Bergville and the Northern Drakensberg, Winterton and the Central Drakensberg, Himeville, Underberg and the Southern Drakensberg and then East Griqualand and uMzimkhulu.

One of the world’s most famous choir schools, The Drakensberg Boys Choir School, is based in the central Berg area and it is a delight to attend one of their regular concerts. Other activities including white water rafting, helicopter flips, visiting vulture restaurants and the Falcon Ridge Birds of Prey Centre in Champaign Valley are also popular. Stop at Thokozisa Mountain Café and Indigenous Nursery in the central Berg for lunch, and browse the art and craft shops showcasing local handiwork. In the park itself, hiking along the footpaths through the mountains, camping in caves or stopping to picnic and taking a dip into the rock pools with tumbling streams and cascading waterfalls are just some of the great pleasures of a visit to the beautiful uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park. Another is day trekking to explore caves and overhangs containing some of the more than 22,000 individually painted rock art images by the San people who once inhabited these shelters. The Main Caves at Giant’s Castle Reserve offer tours by accredited tourist guides who tell the tales of these ancient places and peoples.

This is definitely a place for photographers. The morning mists swirl around the dramatic mountain peaks and through the cool yellowwood forests. In summer, dramatic mountain storms crash around the mountain peaks and in winter, the snow-capped heights are a sight to enjoy from the cosy warmth of your mountain chalet fireside. It is wonderful just to sit and take in the views of herds of eland, and other smaller antelope making their way across the sandstone-flanked valleys. Baboons bark in the distance while black eagles and bearded vultures soar between the towering basalt cliffs. Abseiling, rock climbing and ice climbing in winter, are also popular, and safety is assured by the mountain rescue registers which need to be filled in at every entry point.

How do you plan on raising awareness of the area?

Giscard4I have, on a number of occasions, contacted local hiking clubs and individuals that have achieved some incredible successes within environmental organizations in the hope that there would be some buy-in for that which I wish to achieve.

As stipulated earlier on in my responses, I have yet to barefoot hike strenuous distances (25 – 40 + kilometers) in the summit areas of the Drakensberg, which are challenging and unpredictable. A published article last year revealed how a group of South Africans summited Kilimanjaro barefoot. This article reaffirmed my desire to achieve this goal and, as with the South Africans that attained the summit, also complete this effort with an environmental cause in mind.

In addition, it struck me whilst reading an early 1980’s field guide edition of work written on the Drakensberg area that it should always be free from commercial development at all costs. This is due to the intricate balance of the fauna and flora present there and the fact that the area is rich in historical artifacts. Moreover, the preservation of this space is critical for the facilitation of personal wellbeing through connectedness with Mother Nature. Recent development plans to build a cable car in the northern part of the Drakensberg is, therefore, most upsetting and throws all of these important components in its conservation into disarray.

Cable cars will attract many tourists and those that are not necessarily there for the Berg itself, but rather individuals that would wish to tick this attraction off their to-do list. With this increased influx of people, there will be more cars and busses drawn to the area, thus increasing vehicle emissions and waste. Plastic packets and discarded cans will soon litter this environment and present a very real habitat risk for all the creatures that have, until now, lived peacefully in their domain met only by intrepid hikers. South Africa is, generally speaking, already poorly managed from a waste disposal and management perspective, and I fear that such development in a sensitive area will merely spoil the splendid beauty that exists there.

It is a consequence of these current actions that I am compelled to bring about a reaction which requires a passive and yet connected approach to the Drakensberg’s conservation. Liaising with environmental groups and barefoot hiking groups to grow this support is, I believe, the best and most nondestructive way of raising awareness and curbing development in this fragile landscape.

 How can others get involved in preserving the Drakensberg mountain range?

I am hoping that, by completing interviews such as this one with you, and connecting with other groups of individuals passionate about protecting the environment on a global scale, that my initiative will be considered worthy of pursuit. Furthermore, I also trust that initiating more barefoot hiking expeditions, specifically difficult ones that have a singular goal in mind, may encourage others to kick off their shoes for causes with the benefit of the environment in mind.

Initiatives and ideas are only ever tangible when action is taken and growing support for a cause, whether it be the preservation of the environment or raising funds for charity, are visible on a global scale.

Thank you so much Giscard for doing this interview! Any last words or how people can contact you if they want to get involved?

I trust that the responses to these questions I have provided highlight the critical importance of the preservation of the Drakensberg; not only from an environmental perspective, but also from the standpoint of human wellbeing.

Such vast and untouched terrain is a privilege for all to enjoy and holds within it the fundamental principles of respect, balance and historical value. These principles, if superimposed on everyday life, should bring about stability and sanity to a world consumed by development. Encouraging young and old to see the wonder and awe that is Mother Nature in her pristine state, is to find within ourselves our ability to love the only place that we are able to call home.

I am really hoping that support for this concept and initiative will develop throughout this year so that this challenge and the desired outcome can be attained.

I can be reached as on my email address:

giscardemail

 

 

Aren’t your feet cold?

Now that the weather is colder here in New England and is official winter, I often get asked, “Aren’t your feet cold?”. Normally if I’m indoors, they aren’t. But yes, if I’m outside for a few minutes and the temperature reads 20F / -7C, my feet do get cold. The cold actually becomes unbearable and feel like they are about to fall off. I may be more adapted than most other people who habitually go shod, but I am human and posses no special talents.

Two components to cold weather adaptation

I believe there are two components to cold weather adaptation. Both of which take time and practice.

1. The first component I believe is psychological. Your feet only feel cold because that’s what your brain is telling you. It’s like entering a pool for the first time. At first, the water feels cold, but after some time, it no longer does. Your psychological base-line of what cold is, is lowered.
2. The second component is physical. This I believe takes takes more time to adapt, and genetics may play a role. Some studies show that women have colder extremities then men. Studies though do show that cold adaptation is possible. There have been reports of Sherpas surviving nights on Mt. Everest barefoot and unharmed.
Men vs Women colder hands heat map

Men vs Women colder hands heat map

What I do in colder weather

What I’ve personally being doing in colder weather is wearing Bedrock Sandals. They have huge advantages over flipflops, as they are more durable, have a heel strap, and are water proof. If I happen to be going through puddles or snow, the sandals are less likely to slip and the water will run off. If I happen to be outside for a long period of time, such as a hike or shoveling my driveway, I’ll wear boots.

Bedrock Sandals

Bedrock Sandals

There are some very talented barefooters (also called snowfooters) who do shovel their driveways barefoot. I am somewhat baffled by these people and applaud them. The important thing in cold weather is to be safe and be happy.

Survivalist Luke McLaughlin Discusses Going Barefoot

Luke McLaughlin is the founder of Holistic Survival School in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was a star on Discovery’s Naked and Afraid, a show in which a man and woman must survive naked in the wilderness for 21 days. Contestants must find and gather their own food and water.

As the contestants are naked, they are forced to go barefoot, and sometimes in harsh conditions. African landscapes are often littered with thorns and sharp rocks.

Luke describes why he goes barefoot for a couple different reasons:

The first reason he mentions is that it slows him down; “I get in this rhythm like a meditation”. Luke says he becomes more aware and may find wild editables or other items he could use as tools.

The second reason that is mentioned is that it’s better for the body and alignment. Humans were meant to be barefoot and did not evolve with rubber roles on their feet.

 

Barefoot Camping Adventures

I like weekends, and if I plan them right, I can go an entire 3 days without touching shoes. I already spend 23 hours a day barefoot, but the weekends offer a nice challenge to bump that time up to 24. I like to make the most of my weekends, and this past weekend I went camping at Tripoli Road Campground in the White Mountains.

The sites at Tripoli Road are first come first serve, and we found ourselves a great site. We had expected rain based on the weather forecast, so we got busy and collected down branches for firewood, enough to last the weekend. There was a leftover tarp at the site, which we used to keep the wood nice and dry.

Tripoli Road Campsite

Tripoli Road Campsite

We were in and out of the woods, and I had to be somewhat careful because there were old rusted car parts laying around. Though I didn’t step on anything sharp, I did end up stepping in feces (probably human, from prior campers). I’ll admit, it wasn’t the first time I’ve stepped in feces barefoot. But no biggie, it washes off.

After setting up my hammock, which I love sleeping in, we had some nice steak over some charcoal and I went to bed.

ENO Double Nest Hammock

My ENO Double Nest Hammock

Barefoot in the hammock

Barefoot in the hammock

In the morning, we had breakfast, took care of chores, and headed off to Mt. Osceola (4,315ft/1,315m). The terrain was rocky and it wasn’t that fun of a trail. While we had nearly reached the peak, we had felt a front come in. We knew that being on the mountain unprepared was dangerous. Do we turn around or press on? We took assessment of our gear, and decided to press on.

While we were were leaving the peak, it started to rain. I immediately put on my stasher rain jacket, which I soon discovered did not adequately keep water out. It was fun at first to hike in the rain, and it was pleasant on my feet. Soon after however, the joy died down as my body tried to keep warm while wet. After about an hour, the rain had stopped. We were quite lucky the rain wasn’t colder and didn’t stop.

Osceloa Summit Marker

Osceloa Summit Marker

That night after descending the mountain (6.4mi/10.3km round trip) we drove back to camp, started a fire, and had some good eating. It was nice to have gone barefoot in the rain, while others ended up with wet boots.

Barefoot by the fire

Barefoot by the fire

In the morning, I had realized I had a few minor cuts on the bottom of my foot, which is unusual for me. Having cuts and sore feet, I started to adopt a forefoot strike to help minimize pain. I had heard of other experienced barefooters adopting a similar foot strike, and it does make sense, thought it does require more strength.

My weekend adventures without shoes was enjoyable. The hike wasn’t too enjoyable with the sore feet and cold rain, but I had learned an important lesson of being prepared.

Climbing Mt Washington Barefoot

“Excuse me, why are you hiking Lion Head barefoot?” This was one of several questions I received yesterday while climbing Mt Washington. Mt Washington is a beautiful mountain that rises to 6,288 ft (1,917 m), and is the tallest in the Northeastern United States.

The night before, I had been experiencing a muscle spasm. Having missed out on climbing the mountain twice previously for the same issue, I did not want to miss out for a third time. After stretching for 2 hours, I decided to give it a shot.

My buddy Mike and I were to leave at 8:00 and hit the trail shortly after 10:00. After running late and wrongly estimating drive time, we finally hit the trail at 11:15. My Hiker’s Guide to New Hampshire estimates a total time of 8-9 hours. Not knowing what to exactly expect and being barefoot, I was a little concerned about having enough daylight. Though I am ambitious, I did come prepared with footgear and a headlamp.

Driving To Mt. Washington

Driving To Mt. Washington

The trail starts off quite rocky, and continues to be rocky. There is virtually no grass, dirt, or mud. Just rocks and rocks and rocks. Mike, who has some decent barefoot hikes like Monadnock under his belt, quickly put on his shoes. It actually turned out quite well. Daylight was a concern, and Mike was pushing me to keep a faster pace. I normally don’t recommend rushing while barefoot hiking, but I felt comfortable enough to keep pace.

Rocky Mt Washington Trail

Rocky Mt Washington Trail

We had started at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, taking the Tuckerman Ravine trail. About halfway, it splits to either stay on the Tuckerman Ravine trail, or take Lion Head. We had decided to take Lion Head, as it was steeper and shorter.

Lion Head Trail

Lion Head Trail

We powered up the mountain, taking no breaks. The top was quite rocky; rocks that were awkward sizes at awkward angles. Despite the terrain and being barefoot, we passed everyone that we encountered and arrived at the summit in 3 hours. The White Mountain Observatory gives a rough estimate for an experience hiker in good physical condition 4-5 hours. I say we did pretty good!

Mt Washington - Rocky Summit

Rocky Summit

Mt Washington - Approaching the Summit

Rocks of all shapes and sizes

Barefoot on Mt Washington

Barefoot on the trail

After waiting in line for a few minutes, we finally had our picture taken at the summit. I ran into 3 other barefoot hikers, one of which gave me a compliment of “nice shoes”. There’s not many of us “crazy” barefoot hikers, so it’s always nice to see someone else barefoot on the trails. Another hiker at the summit allowed me to grab a few of his Chips Ahoy! cookies. Hmm! So good when hiking.

Mt. Washington Barefoot

Mt. Washington Barefoot

Resting at the Summit

Resting at the Summit

On the descent, we took the Tuckerman Ravine trail all the way down. Having made good time climbing to the top, I was thankful we could take our sweet time going down, and we sure did. Mike ended having a knee issue, so he took off his shoes for the descent. This allowed me to keep up with him some, but his feet were fresh.

The Tuckerman Ravine trail crosses over a small and beautiful waterfall. The rocks become more like steps and it becomes easier on the feet. It was great to finally have a break. Two and a half miles from the trail head, there is a water pump. Inexperienced me decided not to fill my water bladder which ran out soon after. If my bare feet didn’t take a beating and slow me down the last half of the descent, my dehydration would have. It was exhausting to constantly balance and “rock hop” with little energy and sore feet. The last stretch had become all mental; a mental game of enduring pain. The decent had taken us 4 hours and 45 minutes, and I was quite happy to get off that mountain.