Arthur Duncan is a 77-year-old adventure racing inspiration who has overcome depression and degenerative illness by challenging himself to lead a healthy lifestyle. He chatted to Justin Nurse in this week’s Pied Piper Project at his home on Dovehouse Organics Farm in Karkloof, Natal Midlands.
I had a real estate business in the Natal Midlands and farmed as well.
All of my businesses I started and built up myself. I then had a major setback in my 60s when I trusted a dear friend and another chap, and set them up in a business. I funded them entirely, but through dishonesty and mismanagement the business folded and I, having reached the age of retirement, was staring bankruptcy in the face.
It took me three years to sell off all my assets to repay the debt, and in that time I went into serious depression. I became totally anti-social, and tried to hide it from my family. One day while visiting my son-in-law I borrowed his bicycle and went for my first ride in over 45 years. I cycled right out of town, and just kept going for hours. I felt elevated out of my depression for the first time in years.
I kept cycling, and soon realised that I needed to challenge myself to my maximum potential – both physically and mentally. So I decided to ride from sea level in Durban to the highest peak in southern Africa, which is Thabana Ntlenyane (3 482m) in Lesotho. Even though I didn’t know how to prepare or train, I remained committed. The day I set off was the coldest day in Durban in 39 years, which set the tone for an arduous test of my character.
I had to challenge my negative thoughts, with one stroke of the pedal at a time. I struggled along well-worn bridal paths, traversed frozen rivers, and carried my bike along rocky outcrops. When I got to the top there was a stillness in the air that was quite surreal and amazing. I felt like I’d conquered the world, releasing all the emotional stuff I’d kept bottled up.
I started participating more and more in multi-stage adventure type races (such as Sani2c), and on February 15 this year, at the age of 77, I became the oldest person to ever finish the Dusi Canoe Marathon. I’m not saying that what I’ve done is exceptional – just that through the journey I’ve had, I have been able to turn my life around.
I realised that there’s more to one’s health than just being physically fit and mentally strong. And the third element has to do mainly with our diets. I then studied natural health and nutrition through Unisa, and I discovered that I was suffering from a number of degenerative illnesses, and that I’d neglected my body for most of my life.
That came as a huge shock to me. I hadn’t lived a sedentary lifestyle; it was just through ignorance that my health had deteriorated. And there’s no doctor, magic drug, or wonder supplement that can help you with that.
So my passion at the moment is helping people understand the importance of improving their health as they enter old age, as I’ve been able to overcome my illnesses without any medical intervention whatsoever. It’s just my lifestyle, the food that I eat, regular exercise, and having a positive attitude to life.
Much earlier in my life I bought a farm near Howick, where I developed a viable farming enterprise over the years – complete with a dairy business, cash crops and a beef stud. In August 1980, a fire swept through the property, destroying everything. My family and I escaped with nothing but our lives.
We were then given the opportunity to rent a property a year later, and I became one of the first South Africans who started growing kiwi fruit. I was eventually able to buy the property, and together with my son Paul started organic farming.
It took us many years to get recognition, and now most of the agricultural colleges and government departments work with us here at Dovehouse Organics. We also have an organic shop and restaurant here; the interest in organic food and the impact it is having on our community is increasing all the time.
Growing our food organically and understanding the benefits that these nutrients have on our body is of immense value. The food that we buy in the shops looks very attractive, but they don’t have much nutritional value.
The soil today is so denuded of humus and micro-organisms through the constant use of chemical fertilisers. Our bodies are desperate for these, and we’re just not getting them.
My mission now is to let people know that there’s a better life out there waiting for them.
Do you consider yourself a leader?
I can lead people to a better quality of life. Physiologically we start ageing at around 30, and we just take our health for granted.
Then we wake up one morning with something that has been a bit of a niggle for months or years, and decide to go and see the doctor. In some cases it’s not good news, and many people don’t recover.
The only way to overcome or avoid these problems is to start making personal lifestyle changes. We have to start living this way on a regular basis.
I’m sorry that nobody shared what I now know with me when I was younger. I was already in my mid-60s when I discovered the importance of managing our thoughts and our minds in a healthy, positive way. We should be learning this stuff from an early age.
Are you hopeful?
I believe there’s a tremendous amount of goodwill in SA.
It’s just sad when little instances happen that politicians take hold of and turn into big “race” issues for political gain, creating a bigger divide. And that’s not what it’s all about.
It’s not what Mandela wanted – he wanted us to rediscover ourselves. And when we do that we get very encouraged as to what wonderful people there are out there.
And now, as younger generations that have had integrated schooling start coming through, this is when real healing and real victory is starting to reveal itself. I’m very excited by that.
l Justine Nurse is a freelance journalist and founder of Laugh It Off