Adventurer Mike Horn

South African-born Mike Horn has scaled the highest mountains and swum the deepest seas, but by no means are the feats he has accomplished metaphorical. His transport? Everything from a hydrospeed (a human powered floating device), to a trimaran, a bicycle, a canoe, a ski kite and his own two feet. From the glaciers of Switzerland to the wild lushness of the Amazon jungle; from his circumnavigation at the equator along Latitude Zero, to a solo circumnavigation of the Arctic Circle, Horn has provided us with astonishing examples of human endurance. But more than that, he has opened our eyes to the environmental issues that plague our planet. He also helped the Indian Cricket squad prepare mentally for winning the World Cup.

So, why does he risk his life to explore these places and share what he learns with the rest of us? “Life is shaped by experiences, and memories are the only remains of those experiences,” says Horn philosophically. “With no memories there is no life!” For Horn, it seems, he cannot help but do what he does: “I do what I do to live and not to die.” His biggest fear is not losing, nor failing in the challenges he sets for himself, but rather when he stops being afraid of what he does. It is this fear that motivates him and drives him forward: “The day I lose the fear of life is the day I stop doing what I do. Fear keeps me alive.”

Whereas many of his extreme adventures have been conducted alone and without any form of motorised transport, his latest venture, the Pangaea Expedition, is very much a group effort. This four-year round the world initiative is the fulfillment of a dream for Horn as it combines his passion for nature with his commitment to educating young people, the custodians of our future. It is named “Pangaea” in honour of the hypothetical super-continent that existed before the Triassic period when the surface of the earth split into the land masses that we know today. For Horn, Pangaea is a symbolic reference to “the untouched world as it once was.” Horn believes the only way we can avert environmental disaster is by exposing young adults to the majesty and preciousness of the earth.

“Together we can tap the world’s most powerful energy source – the younger generation – to help them find solutions for their tomorrows,” he says. With the motto of explore, learn and act, Horn is making this a reality for a select group of 15- to 20-year-olds through the Young Explorers Programme (YEP). During the four y ears, YEP expects to complete 12 projects, each time with eight young adults from each continent.

In 2011 alone, projects include examining Arctic biodiversity in Khatanga, Siberia; travelling to the retracting ice cap at the North Pole; and discovering the Inuit culture and their dependence on nature in Nunavut, Canada, which just finished in September. What does it mean to be an explorer and do we all have the capacity in us? Says Horn, “We all have a spirit of adventure embedded in ourselves, though it may find expression in different forms of life through art, music, science, economics, politics or sport. Not all of us want to take the next step of satisfying that spirit of adventure and so we choose to live through the eyes and life of someone else.”

Speaking of sport, Horn’s exploits as an extreme adventurer have enabled him to become quite the motivational speaker. In fact, so much so that the Indian national cricket team hired him to do some psychological preparation earlier this year before the World Cup 2011, where they triumphed. Asked why the Indian cricket team didn’t choke, as compared to the poor showing by our home team, Horn is thoughtful: “A team is made up of individuals – weak and strong – and their personal goals,” he says. “If you can combine all of this into team goals then you create a hungry mass that feeds off itself. That is not built up in one day but comes only through hard work, dedication and self preparation.” So why did the South Africans choke (again)? “All players at the top of all sports have more or less the same skill and talent,” quips Horn. “There is very little difference in the top teams.

The biggest difference is the psychological cricket team. Asked whether he expects the stubborn-minded South Africans to respond equally well to his methods, he answers: “I’m a South African and I’m stubborn. That is why I can do what I do.

It takes only a small adjustment on the attitude. With Indians it is much harder. They are more emotional so the extremes poles are further apart and that is why they can either be great or, on the other side, very weak. We as South Africans are always happy to be average and that is what we can change.” Even more important than talent, hard work or mental strength is pure self commitment, a theme that runs throughout his expeditions and his life. Horn claims that even under the most extreme and most isolated of adventures, he has never felt lonely. “Being alone should not mean feeling lonely. Sitting in a bar with a lot of people you do not know, that is feeling lonely.

You can only feel lonely if you have people around you.” Horn has had his fair share of narrow escapes. He was running a waterfall blind in the upper reaches of the Amazon River when he broke his knee on a rock at the bottom.  He was pulled down into an undercut in a rapid; broke through the ice in the North Pole and fell into a crevice in the Himalayas. But instead of being deterred, he soldiers on.

“In life we have about 30,000 days to live. The ultimate adventure is to live each of those days to the fullest. Sometimes we say life is too short to do everything we want to do but that is not true. We tend to fill up our TO DO list with stuff we will never do and that’s why we say we have no time. Make your TO DO list shorter and do everything that is written on it, then you will have the feeling that you have time and you are satisfied with what you have done.”

by Ethan Grant
Published by Playboy South Africa October 2011