Treking into History

The first-ever, human-powered circumnavigation of the TCI chain.

Story & Photos By John Galleymore ~ Aerial Photos By Merinda Duff

It’s weird how an off-the-cuff comment can plant a seed in your brain that can alter your life dramatically. Back in 2015, I had just finished a solo walk through the Turks & Caicos Islands from South Caicos to Providenciales, a four-day journey that I thought was the pinnacle of my adventure trips—until a close friend said, “Why didn’t you go to West Caicos?”

That thought would stay with me right up until 2020. I was having coffee with Mandy Dakin, the TCI Governor’s wife, when she mentioned that she was relaunching the FOOTSTEPS 4 GOOD charity event. This was started by the former governor’s wife Jill Beckingham in 2014 and consisted of multiple charity walks on various Turks & Caicos Islands. What better idea than to link all these walks by undertaking the first-ever circumnavigation of the entire TCI chain?

So a plan that would eventually go down in history was born. We spent the next few months not only training for what would be an arduous physical challenge, but reaching out to various vendors, suppliers, supporters, and local charities to see not only who could assist, but who could benefit from this event.

Our first major decision was how to cross the Turks Island Passage, a 25-mile-wide stretch of rough, open ocean that separates the Caicos Islands from Grand Turk & Salt Cay. It is frequented by cruise ships and migrating whales. Kayaking was the obvious choice but we felt something more original was called for. We contacted a UK company that makes boats for Atlantic crossings and we managed to secure a two-man ocean row boat, delivered from the UK.

Over the summer of 2021, we spent time jumping between fund-raising, registering applicants, training (walking and rowing), planning, kit purchases etc. and it seemed our start date of December 2021 was looming ever closer. And it soon arrived . . .

Day one

We had agreed that in order to complete an entire island circuit, we should start and finish in the same place. As this was to be a community event, we chose the Bight Park. And so it was, at 5:30 AM on December 4, 2021, Mandy Dakin, her son Fraser, I, and dozens of volunteers, walkers, runners, and cyclists, set off on the first stage to Leeward, some six miles in total.

It was a party atmosphere as we arrived at Leeward Beach, where My Time Tours had arranged for the few of us who would kayak over to Little Water Cay. Once landfall was made, we bid farewell to those hardy souls who had accompanied us and the three of us set off once more.

John Galleymore, Mandy Dakin, and her son Fraser, circumnavigated the entire Turks & Caicos Islands chain using a variety of modes of transportation.

It was tough going along the beaches and cliff tops of Water Cay and onto Pine Cay, and after a short break, we set off on our first “swim” over to Fort George Cay. For this we used a small inflatable in which we stored our packs, while we swam alongside.

It was a repeat of land and water crossings as we made our way to Dellis Cay and onto our first night stop at Parrot Cay.

Day two

After enjoying the luxury of Parrot Cay, it was a sunrise paddle over to Bellefield Landing where we are joined by North Caicos walkers, members of the TCI Cycling Club and numerous Provo Road Runners, who would be joining us for the first FOOTSTEPS 4 GOOD Community walk. Our stop would be Mudjin Harbor in Middle Caicos and that was 24 miles away!

It was a tough trek to say the least! The roads—although paved and smooth—were hot and relentlessly long. We were all motivated by District Commissioner Cynclair Musgrove and various volunteers, who kept us supplied with water, snacks, and good humor! It was late afternoon as we were welcomed in a lovely cottage overlooking Mudjin Harbor, and we could finally rest our feet and dry our sweat-soaked clothes.

Day three

Today’s community walk drew another great turnout of walkers and volunteers. It would take us through the entire length of Middle Caicos and would only end once we reached tiny, uninhabited Dickish Cay.

Although this stage was “only” 18 miles, after the long day yesterday feet were getting sore and shoulders aching from our packs, but motivation and community spirit were high. We had previously decided to carry the TCI National Flag along with us and have someone from every island sign it. This was duly done by the district commissioners and other prominent members of the community as we travelled through.

Midway through Middle we were joined by our drone operator, Merinda Duff, whose skill would be essential in recording our adventures for the trip. She also brought with her snacks and gifts to help us on our way.

Mandy and John prepare to launch the UK-made, two-man ocean row boat that was used for longer crossings.

That night, after a short water crossing from Wild Cow Run Beach, we camped down on Dickish Cay. Sitting around a fire, cooking our food, we reminisced about a fun few days, but we were aware that tomorrow we’d be entering the “badlands” of East Caicos.

Day four

I’ve been to East Caicos dozens of times, and I always marvel in its beauty and ruggedness. However, it can be unforgiving to the unprepared. I wanted to ensure both Mandy and Fraser were prepared both mentally and physically for the huge undertaking ahead, as any slip, fall, injury, or accident would mean the end of the adventure and a US Coast Guard helicopter lift, for there is no other way off in an emergency. Luckily, months of training, often involving beach hikes from North West Point to Grace Bay, paid off. We made the water crossings to East Caicos via historic Joe Grant Cay without incident. Now we faced “only” another 15 miles of beach walking to reach camp before sunset.

A week prior to our start, we had flown to South Caicos and the wonderful East Bay Resort staff had taken us to our planned campsite where we had cached food and provisions for our arrival. This proved to be a Godsend, as we could carry light packs during the day yet still have a feast once we arrived.

The beaches of East Caicos seemed never-ending and with daylight falling and five miles to go, we kitted up with head torches and pushed on. Deep sand, rocky outcrops, wading through waist-deep surf in the dark, brought us closer to camp and we finally made it a few hours after sunset. The beach fire, warm food, and a comfortable tent made it feel more luxurious than Parrot Cay—at least our aching feet and bodies certainly thought so!

Day five

Awakening to hot coffee and the best sunrise ever, we were aware that we were only halfway along the coast of East Caicos, our next stop would be South Caicos, and getting there would involve 20 miles of hiking and another four water crossings.

Most folks believe East Caicos is next to South Caicos.However, in between are three cays (McCartney, Plandon and Middle Creek) and each one needed to be traversed. They are predominantly thick bush, trees, and deep sand beaches. Again, time and sunset would be our nemesis today.

Going was slow, as walking the ironshore of East Caicos was time-consuming as we constantly zig-zagged around large rocks and boulders. We had limited water supply with no refill until South Caicos. The hours ticked by but the miles kept falling and we eventually crossed all the cays despite nearly getting swept out to sea at one point.

Wading across the last water crossing at sunset was magical (albeit unplanned) and again Merinda captured the moment by drone. Once again East Bay Resort came through with transport back to the hotel where local dignitaries were waiting to discuss the next day’s community walk. Still on an adrenaline high, I packed my kit into the vehicle and made the eight-mile run to the resort alone.

That night we reveled in the hospitality of East Bay Resort and readied ourselves for the next day when we would hang up our boots and start our ocean adventure! 

Day six

The trekkers were met with support from the district commissioner and residents of Salt Cay, shown here in front of the iconic White House.

The 4:30 AM alarm never sounded so loud! But just 30 minutes later we were up and looking to prep our trusty rowboat for its maiden voyage. Joining us for this stage was the Morgan Luker, a watersports fanatic and founder of SURFside Academy, whose advice and past training expertise were instrumental in our planning.

While Morgan and I were prepping, Mandy and Fraser were finishing the community walk and we all met at the dock for a send-off. East Bay Resort would supply a support boat for our 25-mile crossing to Grand Turk. The weather was fine and the ocean calm, however our good fortune was not to last very long.

Pulling out of the dock, Mandy and I soon got into our stroke and were making good progress. Our months of training seemed to be paying off and the support boat kept a close watch as we headed out into the wide-open passage. The swells were about three to four feet but nothing we hadn’t dealt with in training! Something we noticed early on was that the tide was very strong, but a crosswind also added to the effort we were putting in.

Suddenly, without warning, a rogue waved crashed over us and in our eagerness to recover we overstretched —and the next moment we were underwater! We managed to release our feet from the stirrups and the rescue boat was soon on hand. Despite some wet egos and a little embarrassment, no harm done and we quickly recovered aboard the support boat, much to the amusement of all on board.

The rest of the day was uneventful and by late afternoon, we were sipping cold beers having made landfall (much to the enjoyment of the guests) on Pillory Beach at the Bohio Dive Resort on Grand Turk.

Day seven

Today started with another huge turn-out for the community walk, ending at the cruise port. It’s great that each community, regardless of size, has come through each day with such motivation and energy! We all meet at the port for refreshments and snacks before making our way to the beach, where our trusty boat is waiting. Blue Water Divers is supplying the support boat for the 11-mile row to Salt Cay. Despite some weird currents and tides and a close call with the reef, we make the uneventful crossing in just a few hours. Once again, we are met with applause and support from the district commissioner and residents of Salt Cay.

We meet at the dock and discuss the walk for the next day, then it’s time for a superb dinner at Oceanaire Bistro. Rarely has food tasted so good!

Day eight/nine

When tired enough, a beach fire, warm food, and a comfortable tent can feel more luxurious than an upscale room at Parrot Cay!

We awake at sunrise with the tranquility only disturbed by the occasional donkey saying hello. There is a large crowd at the dock and we liase with Richard from Salt Cay Divers who will be acting as support boat across to stunning Great Sand Cay. The crossing is about 11 miles and the water can be rough. We are hit with a rainstorm and have to bail out the boat continuously, but no capsize today.

We see the island getting ever-closer and although we are tired and aching, we push on, often swapping out of rowing so one of us can rest. The swells are low as we make landfall and explore the most stunning beach. We’ve made excellent time and have the rest of the day free, so we confer and decide to not camp on Sand Cay but head directly across to Ambergris Cay. Richard has to leave (as planned) so we call our trusty friends at East Bay Resort who send a boat to accompany us across the passage. 

Twenty-five miles to go. The swells are low and we make good time, marvelling at a swim-past by some dolphins who seem to be having an easier time than us! As we close-in to Ambergris, the resort sends out a boat to “handover” and we bid our East Bay Resort Captain Mateo farewell. Due to super-low tides and the narrow channel into the dock, we get towed in and find butlers waiting with cold towels and champagne. What a welcome! We are fortunate to be housed in a private home where we can relax, wash our clothes and enjoy our “extra” night here.

Day ten

We have been thinking about this day for a long time.  We are 40 miles away from our next stop (French Cay). Before the support boats were confirmed we had planned to do this alone and had purchased marine rescue equipment such as flares, satellite phone, and EPIRB in case of incident, but we are comforted by the support boat from Ambergris seeing us on our way.

We set off from the end of the airstrip and once we clear the shallows we are rowing past Little Ambergris Cay. Pretty soon, this too shrinks into the distance and we are surrounded, once again, by nothing but open water.

The support boat stays ahead, leading the way, as the swells pick up and the sun beats down. We get into our rhythm once again and swap out from rowing every few hours. Hands are blistered and legs and backs are feeling the strain. Each mile feels like five, but we resist the urge to ask the support boat how much farther we have to go. As the day wears on, we have some near-miss capsizes but avoid getting wet again. Eventually we spot a shipwreck that we know is in the shallows close to French Cay. We work our way around to the beach side of this tiny island and pull ashore.

We are surprised to see we are not alone; two local fishermen are collecting conch from the shallows. The Ambergris boat leaves us and we exchange hellos with the fishermen. We set up camp for the night. There are few bugs here so we dine under the stars without issue.

Sleep comes far too easy!

Day eleven

Breakfast on an uninhabited island is magical, and we are just finishing packing up when our next support boat arrives. Compared to yesterday, we have a relatively “short” day over to West Caicos. We will skirt the edge of the Caicos Banks, then cut in across the “shallows.”

The journey is quite uneventful with low swells and only flying fish for company. We can see the sand bottom some 30 feet down, so this is much more comfortable then the 7,000-foot deep Turks Passage.

We confer where to land. I recall there is an old boat slip on the eastern side of the island and as we get closer, we send the support boat ahead to check. Unfortunately, it’s no longer usable so we have to make our way around and in late afternoon we are met by Alex at the dock in West Caicos. Alex packs our kit and we camp for the night on the beach. He produces a bottle of red wine and we cook dinner and sleep to the sounds of the surf.

Day twelve

The end of the road: Mandy, Fraser and John are joined by
HE Governor Nigel Dakin and a handful of supporters at
The Bight Park where it all began!

Alex will be boat support captain today on our last leg back to Providenciales. It’s a few miles from the dock to the tip of West Caicos, so he tows our rowboat a little way—no point in rowing the same section twice!

The currents are against us for the 11-mile crossing but the swells are low. As we near Sapodilla Bay, we are met by Morgan Luker again, this time on a kayak. She tells us a crowd is awaiting our arrival.

Mandy and I dig in deep with the last of our energy, “Never again!,” we mutter to each other. But the pain is soothed away as we hear crowds cheering just before the bow digs into the soft sandy beach. We have done it!

The press, supporters, volunteers, and HE Governor Nigel Dakin greet us and are all in good spirits, as are we as Mandy, Fraser and I recount the stories of our adventure to everyone. After, Morgan loads our trusty rowboat onto her truck and the three of us, along with the governor and a handful of supporters, make the final walk back to the Bight Park where it all began. We are welcomed with a feast supplied by Adam Twigg of The Source, and it’s quite surreal having world-class food after ten days of camping fare.

As the party winds down and we say our farewells, I chat briefly to Mandy as we both hobble and limp over to our waiting cars. We look at each other, both sunburnt, exhausted, and near-broken. “Same time next year?” I say.

“Of course!” she replies.

If you would like to take part in the event this year, please email info2022fsfg@gmail.com. Special thanks goes out to:  TCI Red Cross, Provo Road Runners, The Hartling Group, The Agency, Sherlock Walkin, HAB Group, Amanyara, and all the supporters and volunteers. See you in October 2022!

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