When Rizal Khalif packed his bags in April 2018, he was not sure how challenging the trip ahead would be. This Perak native was ready to push his limits when he was selected for the Fjallraven Polar, a gruelling six-day expedition across the Arctic on a sleigh pulled by six huskies. One of 20 participants selected from 4,000 applicants worldwide (“ordinary” people, with ordinary jobs), he represented the Asia-Oceania region. Not only was he the first Malaysian to finish the 300km journey, he was the oldest participant too. This accomplishment earned him the nickname “Abang Polar” and showcased how his mental toughness is his biggest asset for adventure.

Even before his epic Arctic adventure, Rizal was no stranger to extreme travelling. He developed his love for exploration from a young age. His parents struggled to get by, and he learnt to be independent from a young age together with his sister and two younger brothers. “My father was a policeman who served long days in the jungle during the Communist insurgency and my mother travelled from town to town as a trader. I think they passed down some of their navigation and survival skills to me,” Rizal says.

The Malaysia Airlines Berhad (MAS) employee also shares that while he participated in several jungle-trekking activities in high school, it was only in his early 30s that he went all out as an adrenaline junkie. “When I was 4 years old, I nearly drowned and have had water phobia since. Since I’m an avid traveller, not being able to swim was something that always held me back. When I turned 30, I decided to face my biggest fear head on – I went white water rafting!”. Counter-intuitive and plain cray cray it seems, but Rizal’s relentlessness paved the way for him to become a white water rafting guide, now able to brave Class 5 rapids.

He mentored under the orang asli at Kuala Kubu Baru, earned their trust as a student and it boosted his networking in the local adventure scene. “It (white water rafting) changed my life because from then on, I wasn’t afraid to take risks and it brought out my leadership qualities. I started riding big bikes when I was 37, and have rode from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, Laos. I’ve trekked through Nepal, Mongolia and Indonesia too.” Rizal also chooses not to be paralysed by the fear of change. When he was 40 years old, he left his corporate life and drove for a ride-share service and sold hammocks. While those around him thought he was experiencing the onset of mid-life crisis, Rizal knew that he was too comfortable and needed to step out of his comfort zone. This culminated in the Arctic expedition.

“I’m not the type who overly prepares. I always rely on my mental strength more than the physical one. Mentally, I was ready for the expedition, and that was enough for me.” Not even going to the gym? “I tried going to the gym, but just couldn’t (do it),” Rizal laughs. The Arctic landscape was a litmus test to his mental toughness when he had a panic attack the night before the expedition. The lure of nature became a survival against the elements when he fell chest-deep into a snow hole. Dressed only in his base layer and unlaced boots in the punishing cold, Rizal knew he was in deep trouble. “I had to climb out of the hole before I got hypothermia. I think age helped me to focus and decide on what to do next in a key moment like that. I calmed down, managed to rescue myself and was up and early the next day!”.

His resilience and positive attitude were defining qualities throughout the 6-day expedition. Whether it was quickly learning how to handle his sled dogs or pushing through steep routes in -35° Celcius at 20-30 miles per hour, Rizal was never to shy away from the challenges. “Difficult situations will always become easier and I view obstacles as something enjoyable,” he remarks with a smile. So what’s his next extreme adventure? Rizal plans to do a trek and sleigh to the South Pole. He is currently looking for sponsors to fund the 21 day journey and hopes to do it solo or to team up with mountaineer Ravi Tharumalingam (who conquered Everest).

In the meantime, Rizal keeps busy with his job at MAS, stating that he brings this adventurous spirit to the stressful task of trying to turn around a national treasure. He tries to slot in a new destination every quarter and named Indonesia as one of his favourite places to explore. Moreover, he gives talks to schools and companies titled “Chasing Your Dreams” aimed at inspiring regular Malaysians to do extraordinary things. “I always remind others about my journey from a kampung boy to an Arctic adventurer. If you are willing to set a dream and chase it, anything is possible. I believe that embracing change is important and you can start small. Travel within your means, start with nearby ones but don’t go to ‘typical’ locations. Blend with the locals and immerse in their culture.”

Rizal did not hesitate to travel alone to Indonesia in 2018 and earlier this year when powerful earthquakes destroyed the villages in Palu and Senaru. He was a volunteer with the Team Bantuan Medical Indonesia and assisted earthquake victims, some of them whom he knew from previous trips there. “I think travelling should not only teach us to be adventurous, but also to be tolerant and humble human beings.”

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