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Explorers are a rare breed, and among this small, intrepid band, Mike Horn is a character. As with all reputed larger-than-life personalities, you try to find out where myth ends and man begins. Anchored off the coast of Port Dickson, I discover a man who embodies myth; a story of life on Earth. He says to me: “If you live to 82, the average lifespan of a person, you have about 30,000 days. You sleep for half of that time. So you’re left with only 15,000 days. That’s not much time to do anything!”
While the urban world is resigned to the fatuous daily commute, Horn has circumnavigated the equator solo, without a motor, swum the length of the Amazon, scaled four 8,000 metre peaks in the Himalayas without oxygen supply, skied to the Arctic, wrestled the Reaper... He’s faced execution by firing squad, and lost dear friends who, like he, lived life with no rearview mirror.
His current itinerary is Pole2Pole: the scenic route around the planet via its toughest ’hoods, Antarctica and Arctic. In one selfie video, he mentions how his “lifestyle” is his way of living in order to make progress, restoring meaning to the word. As he speaks, you begin to understand what he does, and why. Horn is a motivational speaker with peerless credentials.
“If you spend your time behind a computer the whole day, what stories will you tell your children?” he asks me as a preamble.
“What will you give your children? Do you think it’s enough to just buy some toys and things for them? For me, I wanted to give my children … something that they can use every day, to live.”
Horn, 51, lost his wife Cathy to cancer in 2015. He was in Antarctica in 2008 when he had found out about her diagnosis, and had wanted to return home immediately. In a revealing interview with Hudson Lindenberger for Men’s Journal, Horn recalls what she had said to him:
“‘All you can do if you come home right now is hold my hand, and I don’t need that right now. This is my journey. When I need you to hold my hand, I will tell you’ ... For the next six years, life consisted of expeditions, doctors appointments, and raising our daughters. Towards the end, when she was dying, my daughters and I sat down with her and told her we would be fine. In fact, we would thrive; things would be okay. It was the greatest gift we could give her. Peace of mind. People who are dying are most worried about those they are leaving behind, not themselves. We were able to allay those fears for her.”
Their two daughters, Annika and Jessica, are now in their early-20s. As kids, they skied with their father to the Arctic, becoming the youngest to do so. They’ve sailed with him on the Amazon, and led the way for their father to the voracious mountain, K2, traversing modernity in Western Europe, the roadless hinterlands of Russia and the badlands of Eurasia.
“You put a pretty girl with a nice car like the Mercedes G500, let her drive it and you arrive at your destination a lot sooner!” says Horn. Once, the convoy was bogged down at a border checkpoint near the Stans (Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, etc). After living in the vehicle for three days with no bathroom breaks due to his refusal to allow financial incentives for the guards, the girls took matters into their own hands. They had a chat with the commanding officer, then gave him a test drive in the G500 – which started on his side of the border and ended up on the other side of the fortification.
Mercedes-Benz sponsors Horn its BluTec engines for his world-exploring and sometime-ice-breaking sailboat, Pangaea, and the G500 he uses for overland travel. When Mercedes-Benz Malaysia heard he was in our waters, they sent a flotilla after him, then hustled clients and media to their quarry in a G-Class convoy to Admiral Bay, before we boarded a rollicking tender to the Pangaea. The vessel was conceived by Horn and named for the 2008 Pangaea Project to raise awareness on climate change and nature conservation among young adults. That expedition had set sail from Punta Arenas in Chile to Antarctica, thence Australia, China, Russia, the North Pole, Greenland, North America, and back to Punta Arenas.
Some 22,000 hours went into enabling the Pangaea to navigate tropical rivers as well as break ice, without relying on brute industrial force. The two-mast, 35-meter vessel has 600 sq meters of sailcloth and 35 meters of mast. But as a sailboat borne on the wind alone, it cannot break through sea ice, hence it’s also equipped with relatively low-emission engines Mercedes-Benz calls BlueTec. The Pangaea’s on-board electricity supply is from hydrogen fuel-cell batteries and solar panels. Car boffins will be familiar with fuel-cell tech, where the electrolysis of hydrogen produces electricity and water. The energy required for the electrolysis process comes from solar cells.
I’m seasick, but it’s bracing to talk to someone on the cusp of breaking his mortal limitations. His hunger for adventure is an insatiable quest for meaning.
“It’s all in your head isn’t it? Why do you choose to stop? When I was walking across Antarctica, I didn’t turn back because I couldn’t! And I think sometimes we all need that: place ourselves in a position where going back isn’t an option.”
When you plan for something like Pole2Pole, you accept a sharp discount on your options, as Horn did. In 2016, he embarked from Europe to Africa, the Antarctic, Oceania, reaching Asia. He will, again, cross the Arctic on his way to North America, and back to Europe. The 270,000 km, Pole2Pole expedition has included a four-month, trek across the Antarctic on skis, no motors, pulling a 200 kg sled aided by a kite, when the wind was in his favour. It crashed. Let’s just say he’s done the South Pole, but not before the non-option of turning back presented itself, several times.
The Antarctica is only habitable outdoors during the summer months, and by the time the Pangaea had finally fought its way to Princess Astrid Coast on the continent’s north side to drop Horn off, there were barely two months left of summer for him to make it out alive. He needed to cover the remaining 5,100km in under 60 days, and hit the South Pole on the way.
“There were plenty of times on that expedition that I thought, ‘Well, that’s it.’ But you keep going on because you never know what might happen.”
Twice, all seemed irretrievably lost:
“One was when I couldn’t make camp because my anchor broke. You can only survive outside for so long in Antarctica.
“Also, it was so cold and I had to relieve myself and managed to open up my pants with my heavy gloves. And then I couldn’t find it!”
For most men, a thought more frightening than death! Horn made it to the southern pick-up point in 57 days.
“What kept me going was my family, my kids. They are such selfless girls and here I am, on this expedition, doing something so selfish.
“So how do you make that work? You come back alive.”
But, you might be thinking, we all have day jobs. How does Mike Horn do all of this? When did it all begin?
“I was a rich man. I worked for my uncle in his import and export business, selling produce, mainly cabbages.”
Horn had cornered the market, paying above market rates, anticipating a fallow period for the agricultural commodity. He was right, and could dictate terms to buyers.
“So I was well-off but I knew that it wasn’t the life for me.”
Cabbages and kings; there’s more to it, of course. He was born in Johannesburg, his parents were academicians; his father doubling up as a pro rugby player in South Africa. He trained with the South African Special Forces as a teenager, saw combat in Angola, and humanity’s depths. After his tour of duty, he studied Human Movement Science at Stellenbosch University before his life path swerved sharply, first towards Switzerland. His training proved useful:, he became an instructor for an outdoor company and, more than that, the man for their all-action marketing campaigns.
Such as? Taking the fastest way down the Mont Blanc glacier on hydrospeed (a water board for white-water swimming, not Abu Ghraib), ending up in the French Riviera. He topped that by swimming length of the Amazon River to the Pacific Ocean.
When he won the the 2001 Laureus World Alternative Sportsperson of the Year Award, it was for his solo journey around the equator, which he completed without motor transport. His citation on the Laureas website provides the details:
“He left Gabon on June 2, 1999 and crossed the Atlantic Ocean by trimaran. He travelled from Brazil to Ecuador by foot, bicycle and canoe, traversing the Amazon jungle and the Andes. Crossing the Pacific Ocean took him to Indonesia, via the Galapagos Islands. Journeying through the Borneo and Sumatra jungles by foot and sailboat, he then continued by trimaran across the Indian Ocean. The last leg took him across the African continent to Gabon, where he arrived at his starting point on October 28, 2000, 18 months later.”
He wasn’t done. “In October 2004, he completed a two-year, three-month solo circumnavigation of the Arctic Circle - by boat, kayak, ski kite and on foot. Starting and finishing at Nordkapp (North Cape) in Norway, he became the first man to travel the Arctic Circle without motorised transport, completing an unimaginable 20,000km journey through Greenland, Canada, Alaska, the Bering Strait and Russia's Siberia, pulling a kevlar sledge piled with 180kg of equipment and food. This Arctic adventure earned him nomination for the 2005 Laureus World Alternative Sportsperson of the Year Award.” We get the sense that Horn can do without motorised transport. Then he decided he would do without dogs, too.
“In 2006, Horn and Norwegian explorer Borge Ousland, became the first men to travel without dog or motorised transport to the North Pole during the permanent darkness of the Arctic months, reaching their goal on March 23, 2006 after 60 days and five hours. The men started from Cape Artichesky in Russia, using skis, pulling sleds and swimming frequently in the freezing Arctic Ocean.”
Was he done? Not quite.
He had sold it all in his twenties so he could see the world without excess baggage: the house, the car, the wine collection and the art. All of it. Now he barely hangs on to material possessions unless they hold significant emotional meaning.
“Why? What do you need to survive?”
Is that a rhetorical question? Let’s see. I need... Unlimited broadband? Because, selfies – the currency of the six-star resort, Michelin-starred restaurant and shopping in flagship designer boutiques and not just for free, but being paid per post.
“We keep buying and buying. And that’s what many people are now: the sum of their shopping! You are a human being and you are meant to go out and live your life. There are so many wonderful things in the world to see and do; not least, the most wonderful thing are other human beings,” says Horn about life with blinkers in a rat race.
It’s sound advice from someone who’s been around the world 13 times. But Horn tries not to fly, preferring to walk or drive. Or ride a camel.
“The nomads in the desert rarely see a car let alone the G500. So we traded for a while! They drove the car and we rode the camels. For me, the idea is that we have to have shared moments. That’s what makes us relate as human beings. We are from different parts of the world and with different backgrounds but we all breathe the same air, we see the same sun rise and set.”
Receiving wisdom while debilitated by seasickness is an experience I will take with me to my grave. Horn challenges your standards and your entire existence.
“You have a life; it is so precious. What are you doing with it?”
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