Staying Alive: Mike Horn's Latest Expedition Circumnavigates The Globe
A sleek grey racing yacht with bright blue masts has spent several months anchored in Deep Water Bay. Pangaea and her owner, South African-born adventurer Mike Horn, are enjoying some R&R after sailing three-quarters of the way around the world on an expedition destined for the record books.
Known as Pole2Pole and begun in May 2016, this adventure involves making the first circumnavigation of the globe via both poles. It is actually a series of distinct adventures. Last year, for example, the 52-year-old made a historic solo 57-day, 5,000-kilometre unsupported ski-born crossing of Antarctica as part of the expedition.
“As long as I’m alive, everything is going well,” says Horn, who was once a member of a group of 12 adventurers, 10 of whom have since lost their lives. “I’m very fortunate and very lucky to have been able to survive for so long, but that does not mean that I will survive the crossing of the North Pole.”
The next step is to sail from Hong Kong to the Kuril Islands north of Japan, on to the Aleutian Islands and across to Alaska. Over summer, he will sail through the Bering Strait and as deep into the Arctic Ocean as possible—before walking on the ice via the North Pole to Spitsbergen in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, potentially via Greenland, depending on the ice drift. Then he’ll sail back to Europe to complete the global circuit. But the North Pole could prove tricky. The ice could break up, sending Horn into the ocean, where there’s little chance of survival.
“Pole2Pole is an accumulation of my knowledge from 25 years of exploration,” says Horn. “It’s like growing up. You crawl and then you walk, then you run and then you sprint. You can only do these things if you have a little bit of knowledge and experience. Those things allow you to dream a little bigger and to grow your life as an explorer.”
Horn was born to explore. “I think you’ve got to have it in your DNA. To become a professional explorer means you commit your life to it. It’s not something that one day, just because you had a bad day at work, you decide, now I’m going to stop working and become an explorer. It sounds tacky, but sometimes I just have to go. And I think you can only listen to nature calling you if you have it in your soul.”
Growing up in South Africa, nature was calling from a young age. Horn was allowed to run free from the age of eight, as long as he was home by six every evening. He would explore the nearby rivers and lands before returning home each day to regale his father, a professional rugby player, with tales of where he’d been. His father would give him practical guidance before the young Horn ventured out again the next day.
“My life was built on being given freedom and being able to take responsibility,” says Horn. He went on to join the army’s special forces and fought in Angola. He had wanted to learn more about nature and survival, which he did, but he decided that a career in the military was not for him. Instead he chose to answer nature by dedicating his life to adventure.
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From the start he dreamt big. One of his first expeditions, in 1997, was a solo traverse of the Amazon from source to sea. In 1999 he achieved the first equatorial circumnavigation of the world unsupported, solo and without motorised transport. It won him the 2001 Laureus World Alternative Sportsperson of the Year Award. Then he completed a solo circumnavigation of the Arctic Circle. After that, with Norwegian explorer Børge Ousland, he made it to the North Pole in winter unsupported after walking for two months in total darkness, another world first.
Last year he was named GQ Explorer of the Decade. “I have always liked to challenge myself. I don’t often care if it’s been done before; it’s just if I have not done it. It’s always interesting to write history in the world of exploration because there’s nobody that can do it after you, although it’s not my biggest motivation.
“The world of exploration is a small, exclusive one of a couple of crazy people climbing mountains, crossing desserts, sailing oceans. There’s no real competition between explorers… It’s not a game we play. When we lose, we lose our lives. And I think that’s what we value the most. I don’t do what I do to die. There’s a possibility of dying, but I do what I do because that’s what makes me feel alive; that’s what my life is all about.”
Horn feels people today are plagued by a fear of losing what they have accumulated, which limits our lives and restricts us in what we do. “When you think of life as the only thing that you can lose that can stop you from living, then all the rest doesn’t really matter,” he says. He feels that discipline, too, is waning, and that we all have too many options that make it easy to give up. “You can search your whole life for shortcuts and other ways around a wall, but there comes a moment when you’ve got to climb over the wall. Today we always say it’s okay to fail; it’s okay to lose. But nobody competes to lose, especially if you compete and you lose your life.”
When you think of life as the only thing that you can lose that can stop you from living, then all the rest doesn’t really matter.
— Mike Horn
Horn encourages young people to get outside their comfort zone. His Pangaea expedition, which he launched in 2008, has seen him take young people, aged 15 to 20, into the unknown, teaching them perseverance, showing them their potential and allowing them to experience the beauty of nature first-hand so they might realise its importance and strive to preserve it.
So, what’s the future for this explorer? “I think the new world of exploration for me would be either underneath the ocean, which we know so little of, and maybe space.” But life is mostly about the present for Horn. “We always think about what we want to do in the future, but life is now. One life has 30,000 days to the average age of 82. You’ve got to start sooner rather than later; the days are ticking away. Go out there and live.”
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