Sometimes life provides us with the opportunity of coming face to face with the unrestrained possibilities, a realisation that limits can be pushed beyond conventions, and the boundaries that we create can be as immense as our imagination.
Mike Horn is largely considered to be the greatest modern explorer. He has completed journeys around the equator as well as the Arctic Circle – both without motorised transport. He has walked across Siberia for one and a half years – alone! And when he teamed up with Norwegian explorer Borge Ousland, they became the first men to travel without dogs or motor to the North Pole during the permanent darkness of Arctic winter.
These are just some of his feats. His greatest achievement is perhaps pushing beyond the boundaries of human ability and imagination, and managing to stay alive.
Horn was engaged as a motivational speaker for the Indian cricket team during their 2011 World Cup campaign. The interview appeared on Cricketcountry on 26th February, 2012. It was by far the mostfulfilling of assignments of my writing life.
It looked like a hardcore battle with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
During the last two decades, Horn has often retraced the paths of the most adventurous of our ancestors and journeyed to every breathtaking corner of the world using the most primitive modes of transport. As Mary Buckheit, a charming California-based writer who is also Horn’s Media Relations Director, puts it – “his beard has experienced more than a lesser man’s body”.
Yet, I found that when he is not exploring, he moves around faster than the speed of modern communication. While he shuttled between Switzerland, United States, Trinidad, Germany and back to the West Coast, I relentlessly tried to zero in on his blurry shape, but always managed to miss him by miles, sometimes several thousand of them. Finally, thanks to a lot of help from Mary, I managed to get this fascinating hour with him as he drove down the Pacific Coast from Los Angeles to San Diego.
Arunabha (Senantix) : You have travelled across Siberia on foot, alone. You have completed a solo journey around the Arctic Circle. You have traversed North Pole without dogs or motor, in complete darkness. Once leaving Gabon, you crossed the Atlantic Ocean by trimaran; travelled from Brazil to Ecuador by foot, bicycle and canoe, traversing the Amazon jungle and the Andes; crossed the Pacific Ocean to Indonesia, via the Galapagos Islands; journeyed through the Borneo and Sumatra jungles by foot and sailboat; and then continued by trimaran across the Indian Ocean, across the African continent back to Gabon, 18 months after you had started out. Summing it all up, you have done somewhat more than going out and getting on a bus. What exactly makes you do all this?
Mike Horn (MH): In life we are born with different characters and abilities. Some are destined to become doctors, some are born cricketers. For me it was a natural thing to become an explorer. Man has always gone ahead to discover the unknown without the help of technology and the modern modes of transport. It had always fascinated me to revisit all the elements in the purest forms, to experience the limits of the human physique and human mind.
Modern technology makes the unknown and untouched accessible. But nature retains its challenges. More and more people climb the Everest with oxygen, but to climb it without oxygen is still a challenge. In fact, more people go to the moon than to the North Pole at night. The Amazon, the Everest, the North Pole – in a word, nature – has a way of protecting the truly natural elements which beckon true explorers.
More and more people want to see nature, and the only way to discover it in its most pure form is through true exploration.
Senantix: Is this fascination for true exploration that made you name your expedition programme Pangaea? (Pangaea is the word for a “hypothetical super-continent that included all the landmasses of the earth before the Triassic Period”. Mike Horn chose the name Pangaea for his new expedition which allows young adult explorers the opportunity to join his global voyages.)
MH: Correct. Pangaea is about showing the younger generation the actual beauty of the planet, by showing them the way past explorers used to discover places. Today, if we use the kayak instead of motorised transport to explore rare places, it works in two ways. It makes it interesting and it builds the awareness of the original ways of travel. It is to explore the power of human endeavour and not technology that I want to establish, for the young to get involved with the adventure not just physically but also emotionally.
Senantix : You are from South Africa, what made you settle in Switzerland?
MH: When I was growing up, South Africa was boycotted by the rest of the world. They were not allowed to play international rugby, they could not participate in the Olympics and were banned from Test cricket. It seemed to me that I was paying for the politics of my older generation. I wanted to experience sports and life in the normal world, but the results of apartheid prevented me from doing so. I did not support apartheid, but, nonetheless, had to face the consequences.
After studying Human Movement Science (at Stellenbosch University), I decided to get away fromSouth Africa and experience the world. At that point in time, there were just three countries where South African citizens could freely travel – England, Israel and Switzerland. I got on the first available plane and it happened to be going to Switzerland.
Senantix: Most of the places you travel to – say the Amazon basin or Arctic or Siberia – hardly see any human beings. How is it that you associate yourself with a game like cricket, which is one of the most social of sports?
MH: I love cricket. When I was growing up, we used to play rugby in the winter and cricket in the summer. I follow the game very closely – South African, English, Indian, New Zealand cricket. I have had a lot of interaction with international sportsmen –both rugby and cricket players. All the players in the mainline sports have enormous talent and there is very little to choose between them in terms of ability. The main difference between the teams and players is always psychological. And it is here that I can always pitch in. I know what it takes to succeed. Because doing what I do, if I am not at my mental peak, I don’t lose my wicket, I lose my life. This attitude is lacking in most sportsmen of today and that is where I try to help them.
Senantix: As an explorer, you have pushed yourself beyond the normal limits of the human body. In stark contrast, many feel that cricket as a sport is one of the less taxing ones, where people can stand and amble their way in the field over several days. Is this a contradiction?
MH: Well, when a ball comes at you at 160 km per hour, it can get dangerous as well. Having said that, cricket is a very demanding mental game. You have to be very precise and continuously make decisions while hitting the ball and also after hitting the ball. To a great extent, golf is also based on similar precision, but in the case of golf the ball is stationery. In cricket, you are always trying to be precise while in motion – while, at the same time, the fielders and bowlers can be very intimidating. Being at the mental peak is very important. And to be mentally prepared, physical fitness is essential. Rigorous physical training of this sort is not carried out in most cases.
Senantix: How did the assignment with the Indian cricket team come about?
MH: Well, Gary Kirsten and Paddy Upton are friends of mine. They knew I had already done something similar for the South African Rugby team by speaking to them. So when Gary called me up and asked if I was interested in coming over and talking to the Indian players, I was very excited. It was a completely new challenge.
The Indian cricketers are very temperamental, emotional and there is a huge amount of pressure on them. There is an enormous ego factor as well. It is very difficult to make a team out of them. To me it was quite the same sort of challenge as in climbing the Everest or getting to the North Pole.
They are a bunch of strong individuals, but even very gifted individuals can have negative vibes between themselves.
My main goal was to convince them that they needed each other to succeed and to win the World Cup. That was the angle I took – to enable them to offload the pressure, to get rid of the additional baggage that they tended to carry.
Senantix: And how did the team react to your talks?
MH: You must remember that the Indian cricketers are superstars. That’s their status. This makes it very difficult to get listened to when you address the team. They generally don’t tend to listen. However, if you talk about your own achievements, and they realise them as near-impossible feats, you get their respect and trust. That was important for me. Sachin Tendulkar, the most amazing sportsperson I have come across, believed in me. Someone like MS Dhoni also believed in me. And as a result the team also started listening to what I said.
Senantix: Your Facebook page shows that one of your “Likes” is Sachin Tendulkar. Would you like to say something about him?
MH: The way Sachin approaches his life and cricket can only be an example – to every Indian cricketer. In spite of all his success, he is not a big headed person. He is still one who dreams. For him, the dream did not stop when he started playing for India. That is what tends to happen for most other cricketers, they just stop dreaming. On the contrary, the dream just began for Sachin when he started playing for the country and still goes on. That is the difference between him and others. The other important thing is that he does not limit his potential. He still trains the hardest, ball after ball. And no matter what people say, it is this hard work that has enabled him to reach his full potential.
Senantix: Paddy Upton recently said that you had been quite prophetic in warning the team that most accidents happen when coming down from the mountain.
MH: Exactly. When I gave my last talk before the Sri Lanka match (the World Cup final), I said that the end of the trip is not the summit of the mountain. You can only enjoy the feeling of planting the flag when you come down alive. The goal is to return without faltering. The focus needs to remain after the summit has been reached. For the Indian team, the focus has wavered. They mentally remained with the moment at the top. I believe they are still the best team. Kirsten, Upton and myself worked on a strategy which coincided with the goal to be the number one team in the world. After the coaching stuff changed, the strategy changed. The new system is different, and they need the time to adapt to it. It is like driving a new car, you cannot go full throttle from the start. But, they have to adapt fast because they get paid a whole lot of money for doing what they do.
Senantix: Would you like to share any advice with the team to help them with the recovery?
MH: I would very much like to meet them again and speak to them and try to understand the problems. However, I am very busy at the moment. For every up there is a corresponding down and sometime the down is not that bad. But India is a very emotional place. There are 1.2 billion people supporting the side and all of them get very disappointed if the team does badly, and the pressure on the team becomes enormous with the negative criticism. The media can help here by offloading some of the pressure; they can pull the team along through constructive criticism while keeping the faith of the fans on the team intact. I am happy to say that every time I have trained with a side, they have done well. Be it cricket, rugby or any other sport. After all, every sport ultimately requires mental attitude. What I say is that, if you are afraid to lose, you will never win. The will to win needs to be much more than the fear of losing. It is in this aspect that I am able to help sportsmen.
Senantix: Is there any other part for the world that still remains unexplored?
MH: The biggest part of the world is perhaps underwater, and it may well be my next destination. Man is not meant to survive underwater, and that adds to the challenge to go there and come back with the knowledge of survival in such an environment. With the world economy being what it is, and with NASA closing down on a lot of programmes, my dreams of space exploration is becoming difficult. But, otherwise one of my dreams was to be left behind on Mars and to come back with the knowledge of survival there. However, for that perhaps I have lived in the wrong time. I am also over 45 now, and if that actually becomes possible in another 10-15 years, I will be much too old.
Senantix: Finally, would you like to share any parting message for the readers?
MH: I would like to say that in life we always have a choice. We can either choose to live a broad life with risks or a narrow life without risks. A narrow life may last longer, and a broad one can be short – but the broad life carries with itself the freedom of choice and the opportunities to make life worth it. What we often forget is that life is today, now and not tomorrow and later. Otherwise we can soon be 60 and suddenly realise that there are a lot of things we have not done.