Kaalvoet (barefoot) insights

Earlier this week I posted about Kaalvoet Jaco Swart, the guy who is walking around South Africa on bare feet; yip, no shoes. I am very interested in the condition of his feet – blistering, bruising, thickness of his soles, thorns, walking surfaces etc. I dropped him an email in the morning and was delighted to receive a reply from him last night. Jaco got married in early December so he is currently at home with his wife. Heading out again shortly after New Year.

This is what Jaco has to say about his feet…

Lisa: Pre-trip preparation?
Jaco: Because I am not a competitive athlete of any sort and the fact that the objective of Kaalvoetsolo is not a record attempt, but a personal pilgrimage, I did no formal preparation before the journey, apart from not wearing any shoes for two months.

Lisa: How did your feet adapt to daily walking? I assume you’re not getting any blisters between your toes and that your soles have thickened substantially? Any peeling skin because of your thickened soles?
Jaco: My feet are holding up extremely well, after almost 4000km, they feel quite strong. But, I have to add, I wake up every morning with sore feet. The terrain I walk on varies so much, my feet have to continuously adapt to anything from gravel, rocks, tar, sand and thorn-strewn footpaths. 

When I set off from Cape Town on 15 January 2009, my feet took extreme punishment for the first two weeks. As you would know, Cape Town has very few and short beaches towards Cape Point and Muizenberg, so the first six days meant that I walked 98km out of 106km on tar, with only 8km between Noordhoek and Scarborough, along the beach. 

As for peeling skin, I made a shocking discovery, three days BEFORE I set off, when both feet just started peeling without apparent reason. No blistering, pain, sensitivity or anything; the thick skin literally just started coming off like heavy dandruff. So I started the walk on virgin soles, which is probably why I had bad blisters by the end of day 1. These broke on the morning of day 2. Apart from resting up for a week or more, my only alternative was to bind my feet with plaster, the broad white Elastoplast one we used for 1500m on tartan when we were at school.

From Hermanus to Kosi Bay, most of my walking was on sandy beaches, forest footpaths and coastal rocks, which made it much easier and my feet recovered quickly. I have not had any blisters at all since then, but I often suffer from bruising of the soles, as well as abrasion, with the soles wearing so thin that they sometimes start bleeding. But this happens almost exclusively on tar. Gravel and other rocky terrain also ontribute to the bruising. My favourite surface is firm moist sand at low tide and my least favourite… well, no guesses, it is tar. If I never have to walk on tar, ever again, it would still be too soon.

As you surmised, I have had no blisters or chafing on any other other parts of my feet, such as between my toes.

Lisa: I saw a photo in your gallery of those devil thorns in your feet. Do your hardened soles protect against the thorns?
Jaco: I cannot say that thorns do not bother me, but those smaller devil thorns and “duwweltjies” are not much of a problem anymore. It is only the bigger stuff like acasia and spike thorns that I still have to watch out for. However, it is excruciating when I get a thorn in those softer parts [between my toes].

Lisa: Have you been treating your feet with anything to harden them?
Jaco: I sometimes treat my feet with meths [methylated spirits] to make the soles hard and Dubbin [commonly used to treat and waterproof leather hiking boots] to give them back their suppleness.

Lisa: The return to barefoot running is a current movement. Shoes seem to contribute more to injuries than not because they alter your natural foot strike pattern, causing more impact and biomechanical imbalances. Because of being barefoot, I’m assuming that you haven’t had much problem with joints, tendons, knees and ankles?
Jaco: I have always maintained that barefoot is healthier because it is more natural. As a child, we never had real running shoes and we never had any problems with the injuries that are now “typical” to running. It was only since I started running with shoes, in the army and after, that I developed shin splints, sore ankles and tendonitis. My knee has not given me any trouble so far, but I am prone to inflammation, and have had a few episodes of inflamed hip joints and same in my left ankle, all of which, in retrospect, I attribute to bouts of over exersion, my own fault.

Barefoot running seems like a great new trend to me, provided it takes place on natural surfaces. Just like we were not originally designed to wear shoes, we were also not meant to do our running on tar and concrete. My personal experience has convinced me of this.

Lisa: Are you walking and running, or just walking?
Jaco: On this journey, I have only been walking. Since my days in the army, it has been a firm resolve of mine, to never, ever run with a hiking pack on my back again!

Jaco contines his pilgrimage shortly after New Year. He’ll be dropped off in Mafikeng, where he was picked up pre-wedding, to continue his journey. He walk through the Kalahari and Richtersveld at the hottest time of the year. “I am a bit apprehensive about what to expect,” he says. I’ll be interested to know how his feet handle the heat – certainly the Khoi people manage. Once he sets off, he’ll have 2000-2500km to go before his journey’s end.

Jaco – you are an inspiration. But I’m not going to be trading in my trail shoes any time soon!

1 Comment

  1. I found this site because I wanted to find out about Duiweldorings – what an interesting mission to undertake – South Africa is such an amazing country and walking allows one to take in the minute details and gives one time to appreciate the changing skies.
    Where do you sleep at night?
    Enjoy the walking and the sense of achievement at the end of each kilometre. I’ll be thinking of you every time I go for a walk – even if it is with boots on!

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