A native of Johannesburg, South Africa, and currently residing in Château d’OEx, Switzerland, Mike Horn has travelled around the world along the equator three times without the help of a motorised vehicle, swum the entire length of the Amazon River with a broken knee, and even circumnavigated the planet via the Antarctic and Arctic poles.
He has gone to extreme corners of the world where compasses don’t work and digital LCD instruments simply freeze. At those times, it was his robust Panerai that have him the vital information he needed to survive. Now, in the milieu of a global pandemic, Horn is finding himself confined to less exotic locales, but he is still collecting data and planning new expeditions.
“It’s a different type of freedom,” Horn said. “You can choose to free your mind.” His expeditions have been canned but it appears Horn has discovered something else – the opportunity to explore his other passions.
As an adventurer, you face unknown factors all the time. How do you deal with or prepare for uncertainty?
We have to understand that we can live with doubt and uncertainty. What we cannot, must not, live with is fear. The moment you mix fear with doubt, you lose hope. You think you will not see the sun come up anymore. And that’s the end of you. To be able to live with the fear means you must respect nature, or you respect whatever is happening with you and the world. It’s normal to be afraid, but you must stop doubting your capabilities.
Doubt is insidious. The moment we let it inside our heads it can take over our thoughts. As a person, the way to better oneself is to plant flowers in your head instead of weeds. Get rid of doubt. Fear will still be there, but that is completely normal. And that is the way to deal with going into the unknown.
When I crossed the North Pole, last year, it was never done before. I went into a complete unknown. I was afraid because I respected nature’s hostility. But I didn’t doubt my capabilities because the equipment that I chose and the way that I physically and mentally prepared myself, allowed me to get rid of the doubt and uncertainty.
We know nature is basically out to get you. So what advice can you share with others who are finding the world a lot more hostile as the virus rages on?
The virus is honestly not a big problem. Our big problem is that our planet is changing as a result of the way that we consume the natural resources. That is the real pandemic. We have simply shifted attention to a virus that is now present, and we’ve hyped it up into something that installs needless doubt and fear in our minds.
Nature or the planet is the only source that we have to stay alive. If this source is no longer feeding us, we are going to die anyway. No matter how you hide, how you wear a mask, whatever you do. So we need to focus on taking care of our planet. That should be the priority for us. At the same time, confinement has allowed the planet to have a breather, where before we hunted whales, now, the boats are not allowed to go out because there’s more than 20 people on the whaling boats.
Nature has had a chance to breathe, and to recuperate and nature does that very quickly. Last year, I was able to go to places in Greenland and Svalbard with my boat, and record whales singing to one another because they were not being hunted. It shows that the animals are quickly finding this part again to establish this equilibrium.
Yes, if we stay at home, the world is a better place, but that’s not the solution. We need balance in life, we need to be able to change the way we live, to act responsibly and restore the balance in the natural world.
What events in your life shaped your spirit of resilience and your drive to overcome?
I think it is important to understand that we only have 30,000 days in an average lifetime of 82 years. So we should live those days to the fullest. We should strive to be the happiest that we can be. We should be able to inform and educate ourselves in order to be better every day. For me as an explorer, it is very important as a human being to have freedom.
Freedom is something that we naturally need, to be able to make choices and do things we want to do. When our freedom is taken away from us, and we are not allowed to go where we want to anymore, it essentially makes us the living dead.
Exploration is about going into the unknown. It forces us to step out of our comfort zone. And this is what makes us feel alive. And I am not talking about getting on a boat to go where no man has been. This is applicable to any field: journalism, science, medicine, art, whatever. Anyone can go out into the unknown today, and find their purpose in life.
So what does time mean to you in this period of limited movement and adventure?
Time keeps on ticking. It feels uncomfortable sometimes, but time will make us learn the virtue of patience. It has been said that if you learn to wait, and not to over-react, you will have become wise. It’s not profound. This is very practical wisdom. Let’s say somebody provokes you. You could react by punching him in the face. But if you take a moment of time to reflect, you can make a better decision about the best course of action. When you think about it that moment of reflection can decide on the outcome of the aggression. For me, time is something we can never get back. Time is a luxury and time to have freedom is ultimately what we all look for. To be happy is to have the time to do what makes us happy.
Now, when I climbed Mont Blanc, I didn’t realise how upset my wife would be with the decision. So looking back at your life of exploration before and after you were married. Do you see any changes in approach for adventure?
[laughs] Are you still married?
Yes, she didn’t talk to me for two weeks.
Is she still upset with you?
[laughs] She brings it up every now and again but I think pre‑ y much we’re okay now.
You know, the thing about time is that it heals wounds. You certainly came back with an amazing achievement and if she used that time to achieve something as well, that’s when you meet at the same level so time gives us that luxury of being able to do what we want to do while somebody else is doing what they want to do.
I have been married for 25 years. Unfortunately, my wife passed away five years ago from cancer. I honestly didn’t think I could live without her. She was the backbone ‒ she kept the office going, made sure the sponsorship contracts came in. She was the one who created the media with the team. When she was diagnosed with cancer, I thought my days as explorer had come to an end. I actually said to her: “Maybe I should die with you. Our daughters were old enough and studying, and they were taken care of… I just didn’t feel like I had any purpose in life anymore. And then she said something that interesting. She said, “Mike, don’t die for me. Live for me.” So, there are two ways of looking at it: either you die with that person, or you live for the person who is no longer there. If you truly love each other, you will be able to give the freedom to that person and that’s what makes that person happy. Yes, there is a price to pay for love.
You will feel uncertain when she is gone. You might not be able to sleep because you miss her so much. If you give freedom to somebody and they come back to you, they will always be there for you. It works both ways in a relationship. What you give, you must be able to take. And if somebody gives you the freedom, you must be able to give them something back that makes them feel exactly the same way that they make you feel. My wife whom I married 25 years ago made me the best person that I could be. In exchange, I had to be the father that supplies everything else, I had to give them the motions that bonded us as a family.
I had to be able to supply to what no other man in the world could give, and that’s why it worked. Exploration can be quite selfish, because when you take big risks, you could lose your life. But it’s going out there doing what you love, and that’s when you feel alive.
Being a married man, I guess you would approach risk differently?
You know, risk is something that we have to discuss. My wife will never let me go if she knew I was not well enough prepared, because she was the one getting the equipment, preparing the expeditions with us and that’s why I surround myself always with a team of people. Honestly Jonathan, I think sometimes my wife believed in me more than I believed in myself.
When we planned this expedition around the world crossing the South and the North Pole, it was something that no other man in the world had ever done. So, she was willing to plan it with me and help with the preparation. Sadly when the time came for me to set off , she was already gone.
She always said that we can do this, even when I myself had doubts. I felt I needed a little bit more experience, but she was the one pushing me, believing in me. After she passed away, I was lost for a time before I started pushing myself to learn to do those things that she used to do for me. I learnt to develop equipment, do research, and map the course of an expedition. When my daughters returned and found me at home instead of out exploring, they said “you have to go out for us, because that’s what makes us happy”.
You do things and go places where regular guys don’t try to go. Have you thought about what sets you apart from the average Joe?
As human beings, we naturally gravitate towards happiness. For me happiness is being free to make my choices. When other people make decisions for me, that is when I feel that I am being controlled. And I’ve never liked being controlled. I always want to have freedom. I am well aware that that doesn’t coincide with being a good businessman or anything else. But freedom gives me the luxury of making choices, and to be able to have that luxury, is more valuable than a billion dollars. To live experiences that I can carry inside my heart, that I can never lose, has a special value for me. That is what I would invest in ‒ not in the stock exchange, not in a better house, but better experiences. I can grow old with experiences. They never lose their shine.
Would you say this love for adventure is what gives you the courage to overcome fears that most men have?
To have courage you first need to expose yourself to situations that allow you to develop courage. In normal circumstances, you won’t find courage living a daily life where you do the same things in a routine day after day. Yet it would be a different story if you’re under house arrest or in a pandemic lockdown like now. Then it’s a matter of resilience to the monotony. Human beings need to develop a wide range of acuity: courage and resilience among them. Most times, I find that I learn the most when I venture out of my comfort zone.
People often ask: why do I want to cross the North Pole? It’s completely uncomfortable. It’s inhospitable. Heck, it’s downright dangerous and you might not come back home… Well, I do it because it extends this feeling of being alive. So maybe courage is subjective. I do what I do because I love it, not because I am courageous, even though it certainly takes courage to venture into the unknown. Resilience is this other stuff that makes you endure the things that you don’t like to do but must do if you want to stay alive.
Who do you consider to be your greatest mentor?
I always thought that my father was one of my greatest mentors. As a rugby player, my happiest recollections involve walking down the street with him and people would come up and say, “Well done. You played so well,” and I was proud of him. So, when I was growing up, he inspired me.
Every morning, he went for training runs at 6am. Although he was not professional at that stage, since it wasn’t a professional sport in South Africa, he was always working always hard to be good at it. And when he played his last match, the younger players came to him and said, “Wow, you’ve always been first at training and always last to leave. Always listening to our questions and being able to help us.
You’ve been an inspiration for us.” And when I heard what other people told my father, I said to my father, “I want to be like you.” And he said, “You know you can’t be like me.” And I was disappointed. And then a couple of seconds later he said, “You are who you are, and I can see that you will be much bigger.” And all I had to do as a kid is believe him, because he was my idol telling me I can be better and bigger than he, not for competition’s sake, but that I am a unique individual like we all are unique individuals, and we all have something of value inside each of us.
So the moment I believed him, it made me believe that I can have a big life. So, in the morning when he went running at 6am, if I was awake, I would rung with him. He never ran any slower for me to keep up. He was always running at the same speed; it was for me to run faster to keep up with him. And if I could no longer keep up with him. I drew a line on the pavement and said, “Tomorrow I will beat that line.”
Then he asked me, “Why do you think I go running every morning?” and I said you go running because you want to play better, You want to add value, you want to be able to make the difference. That’s why you train so hard. He said, “No, the only reason why I train is because I know that you want to go and beat that line, you inspire me.”
So, all of a sudden, I become an inspiration to my very idol. And that’s why to me, he played the biggest part in my life as an explorer in the way that I think and be able to go beyond what you think you are capable of doing.