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Mike Horn: 'If life is easy, your goals aren’t big enough'

Intrepid South African has just finished the Pangaea Expedition, a four-year exploration to some of the world’s most delicate ecosystems

Mike Horn
Image Credit: Supplied pictures
Mark's phiosophy on life: “To be able to do what you want, to do what you love, makes you a privileged man, not a rich man. To be privileged is what I want in life,” he says

Mike Horn doesn’t do easy. “If life is easy, your goals aren’t big enough,” he says. Looking at it from his perspective, he has a point.

Easy wouldn’t have seen him set out on a six-month odyssey traversing the length of the Amazon River alone, surviving by his wits and eating only what he managed to hunt, fish or forage.

And easy certainly wasn’t a consideration in the 46-year-old South African explorer’s next expedition, Latitude Zero. He spent two years circumnavigating the planet following the line of the Equator, with the self-imposed proviso of using no motorised power whatsoever. That meant walking, cycling, swimming or sailing through the geographical obstacles that came his way, whether they happened to be the colossal Andes, the jungles of Sumatra or the volatile regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gabon.

The extraordinary achievement won him the Laureus World Alternative Sportsperson of the Year award in 2001. He was nominated again in 2005 when he completed the Arktos expedition, a solo non-motorised 20,000-kilometre journey around the Arctic Circle. Then later, just for fun, he scaled two 8,000-metre mountains in Pakistan without supplementary oxygen.

When we catch up with him, it’s an uncharacteristically dull morning in Monaco, and Mike’s voice is reduced to a hoarse whisper following a bout of malaria.

This isn’t the tale of a man now taking it easy in the playground of the rich – far from it. Mike has just disembarked from the magnificent Pangaea, a 35-metre sailing vessel that he has finally returned to its home port after four years at sea. For once, this wasn’t a journey he undertook alone. Stepping proudly from the boat alongside him are 40 young people; a fraction of the 200 or so hand-picked young explorers who made the grade for his Pangaea Expedition, a pan-planetary journey to some of the world’s most delicate ecosystems.

It’s clear that Mike’s previous expeditions, allowing him to experience all of the planet’s diversity and fragility, led right to this very moment.

As a first-hand witness to the fine ecological balance that allows nature to thrive, his next step became clear: enthuse a new generation with the spirit not only to explore, but to become active in the preservation of endangered natural habitats.

The seed for the Pangaea Expedition was sown the moment its name was conceived: Pangaea is the ancient Greek name for the supercontinent that existed before the planet broke apart into its land mass configuration. Its literal meaning is ‘entire Earth’.

Mike’s young explorers adore him and it’s easy to appreciate why – his philosophy is simple. “To be able to do what you want, to do what you love, makes you a privileged man, not a rich man. To be privileged is what I want in life,” he says. It was an attitude he hoped to find in the applicants who responded to his global search for 200 15- to 20-year-olds to join the 12 separate expeditions aboard the Pangaea.

He found it in spades. “Adventure was the hook”, says Mike, “the whole world loves adventure.” But the ambitions of the project were far greater. Participants had to demonstrate a commitment to its central idea, “Explore/learn/act”. That meant formulating peer-group networks, communicating their experiences, pursuing their own environmental projects and sharing knowledge they gained on Pangaea.

Pangaea set sail in October 2008 on the initial leg of the 120,000 nautical miles it would cover over the next four years. Its first group of environmental adventurers went
on a journey of discovery to the epic landscapes of Antarctica. In 2009 it sailed
on to New Zealand and Malaysia, navigating a route through fjords and mangroves.

In 2010, it took in the vast expanse of Asia, depositing groups for expeditions to India, the Himalayas, the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and the Kamchatka region of Russia. After sailing the Arctic waterway the Northwest Passage in 2011, Pangaea took more explorers to the Inuit territories of Canada, before turning south on a new journey to witness the biodiversity of the Everglades in the US. Its final leg in 2012 took young people to Brazil’s Amazon Basin, then Nambia’s Skeleton Coast and South Africa.

But the journey wasn’t complete until Pangaea had looped its way back home. Taking only his key two-man crew, Mike decided, naturally, to take the most adventurous route possible.

Sailing up from East Africa, Pangaea navigated the notoriously dangerous
waters of the Gulf of Aden, with the sole purpose of calling in at Abu Dhabi and
Dubai ports. Both are well known to Mike after his visits to the UAE, when Emirates Palace hosted the Laureus Awards in 2010 and 2011. That safely done, he pushed on to Europe via the Suez Canal and Pangaea’s jubilant homecoming to Monaco harbour in December 2012.

If the articulate Mikayla is anything to go by, the expedition has achieved its goal. The 18-year-old explains how she collected data on salinity levels in the Arctic sea, relaying her findings back to the Pangaea’s affiliated research centre at the University of Munich.

“Melting freshwater glaciers have caused the sea’s salt levels to drop. As a result, seals have become much less buoyant, preventing indigenous people from hunting one of the few natural food sources in this harsh environment. The same phenomenon is causing carbon to be released into the water, forcing fundamental changes to the migratory abilities of animal life in the region.” All of this, she says, is occurring at an alarming rate.

“I’ve invested in the biggest untapped source of energy there is,” says Mike. “The young people of the world. There is no quick fix. I don’t want to put a plaster on something – that’s temporary. We’ve created a movement. By educating young people and the societies in these locations, we can empower them. By doing things for the right reasons, you will be successful. Do things for the wrong reasons, and success will elude you. Let’s keep doing things for the right reasons.”


Inspiring the Indian cricket team

Ahead of what was going to be the biggest match of their careers – the final of the ICC 2011 World Cup – the Indian cricket team was in need of a pep talk, something that would help them battle over the finish line. Their South African coach Gary Kirsten knew just the man for this job. Mike Horn dropped in for a two-day consultation during the team’s preparatory camp. He spoke to some of the players individually and shared stories of some of his incredible adventures. India went on to win the World Cup final in Mumbai with a comprehensive victory over rivals Sri Lanka. “What can I really do? I might be able to give them a small taste of my thought process in critical moments,” Mike said to the media.