It is not exactly an average life skill to know that the distance between a cayman’s eyes can betray its size and, consequently, whether you are possibly on its menu, or if you may be able to hunt it for dinner.
This not-so-average talent belongs to a not-so-average man, the South African-born adventurer and explorer Mike Horn, who picked up this particular nugget of useful information as he river- boarded down the Amazon, starting at its source, to where it runs into the Atlantic ocean – a 6 700 km, 171 day adventure.
The movement-science graduate started this particular journey researching a pile of books on venomous animals and poisonous plants of the Amazon, only to decide he did not like the information overload.
“I got confused between what could eat me and what could not kill me, so I decided to rip out the pages on what would not stop my journey, and only study what would definitely kill me.”
Horn got lucky during his trip, he admits. He was bitten by a snake and “stumbled blind through the jungle for five days” before recovering sufficiently to continue his journey.
The professional adventurer’s latest foray into the world outside the concrete jungle has been the Mercedes-Benz-sponsored Pangaea expedition, which recently wrapped up in Cape Town. This environmental initiative was also supported by Johann Rupert, chairperson of the Richemont luxury goods group and founder of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, and his wife, Gaynor Rupert, who agreed to be the ‘godmother’ of the Pangaea yacht.
The four-year transnavigational trip by sea and land was named after the supercontinent that existed 250-million years ago. The global trek covered 260 000 km, reaching the North and South Poles, and crossing all continents and oceans.
Horn took several groups of young explorers, aged between 15 and 20, along on his travels on the shallow-draught aluminium Pangaea with its retractable keel.
“The aim of the Pangaea mission was, and still is, to [engender] respect for the environment and encourage the clean-up of the planet and the protection of its resources for the sake of future generations.”
His next adventure, says Horn, is to build a catamaran – a big catamaran. It will be so big that the 35-m-long Pangaea will fit on it sideways.
“I need a bigger boat. Next time I also want to create opportunities for older people to become explorers – to look after the planet.
“The project is out there and we have already received a lot of interest from sponsors.”
The 46-year-old Horn was born in Johannesburg. In 2001, he was crowned as Laureus World Alternative Sportsperson of the Year and, in 2007, became a member of the group of athletes and sportspersons who make up the Laureus World Sports Academy.
He is married to Cathy, a New Zealander, and has two daughters, Annika (19) and Jessica (18), who travelled with him to the North Pole at ages 12 and 13 respectively.
Cathy saw him 30 days out of the last four years, he says, but somehow it works. And, yes, she agrees, even though she says she sometimes feels more like his business partner than his wife.
Cathy runs Mike’s office in Switzerland, where the Horn family currently resides.
Over a more-than-20-year history in exploration, Horn has ascended three of the 8 000 m summits in the Himalayas without the use of oxygen. He has also circumnavigated the world around the equator on a solo, nonmotorised expedition, and ditto for the Arctic Circle.
Horn has also skied to the North Pole and trekked to the South Pole.
“I don’t want to die,” he says, explaining what drives him. “I do these things to feel alive. I don’t want to sit in front of the TV. I don’t want to talk to the same people each day.
“If you are not happy with what you are doing, change. Find something that makes you happy.”
The seeds for Horn’s career were planted in the first five minutes he started work as a sports psychologist, when he decided that this was not the job he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He moved on to selling fresh produce at the Johannesburg market, cornering a large part of the tomato and cabbage market.
Some of this inspiration also came from his school principal father who died of cancer at the age of 43, telling him to “really live his life”.
“He gave me two things: a good education and wings to fly.”
With the Johannesburg job no longer bringing him any satisfaction, Horn hosted a party, gave everything he owned away, and boarded a plane to Switzerland.
Here, a run-in with a youth hostel manager saw him get a job looking after the inn. Teaching himself to ski, at night, he eventually became a ski instructor, and then a river guide. Bored with going down the same river so many times, he added more rivers to his resumé, until an Italian watch company paid him to “cycle down a cliff” to support their tag line: “no limits”.
From there onwards, he never looked back – except perhaps for predators.
“I realised a human being can go much further than he thinks he can go. I also learned that we all more of less have a choice in this world. A lot of people don’t understand that they can make their own path. No-one owes me anything.”
Out on a Limb
Circumnavigating the Arctic Circle, a 20 000 km journey that took 808 days, cost Horn a fingertip because his shoelace came loose – once.
The journey saw him drinking olive oil to ensure he devoured the 20 000 calories needed a day not to freeze to death.
“It takes four hours a day to eat. And you can’t sleep more than five hours, because it burns too much fuel (calories),” says Horn.
“Extreme exploration is a science.”
The Arctic Ocean is salt, he adds. “Where do you get fresh water? And remember, what you carry in your thermos freezes.”
In preparing for his Arctic expedition, Horn says he spent quite a bit of time in the Mercedes-Benz wind tunnel, in Germany, used to determine vehicles’ drag coefficient, to learn how to pitch a tent in winds of 150 km/h.
“I knew that if I lost my tent, I would lose my life. In the end, I could pitch a tent with my teeth and feet. You lose feeling in your hands after walking for 20 hours.”
The Arctic expedition was followed by a walk to the North Pole in winter, which meant traversing a mix of water and ice in perpetual darkness for more than two months.
“You walk on water, not land,” emphasises Horn.
Horn tackled this 2006 expedition with Börge Ousland, the first time he travelled with another person, as was required by law.
They walked one month and covered only two kilometres of the more than 1 000 km required to complete the journey.
“As we slept, the ice moved and we kept on drifting back to where we came from,” notes Horn.
The problem was that the two men packed food for only two months when they set out, of which there were now only 35 days of rations left.
The conditions in which they walked were also life threatening.
Dragging sleds of supplies behind them, they had to jump into cold water, in the dark, in the hope of hitting ice again before freezing.
“I knew I could stay in the water for 20 minutes. So if I hit ten minutes in the water and I hadn’t hit ice yet, then I turned around. You can always go back one step. Why not?
“I kept the wind on my face at the same angle at all times. That is how I kept my direction in the dark.
“We once crawled over thin ice, scared it would crack, for eight hours.”
After 30 days of this, the duo had to rethink their strategy.
“I asked myself, who said a day had to have only 24 hours? So we changed the day to 30 hours, and one day’s food was now to last for a 30-hour period. So, for every four days, we gained one day.
“On the day we reached the pole, we ate our last day’s food,” says Horn.
Ousland and Horn were able to reach the North Pole by covering the last 1 012 km with some assistance from the ice drift, which now pulled them closer to the pole.
Horn saved Ousland’s life during this harrowing journey, when Ousland became trapped in the ice-cold water.
The deal the two made when they set off was that neither of the men would risk himelf to save the other, but Horn decided to throw Ousland a lifeline.
“He was pulling me in. It became this tug-of-war to live. It was about who was the strongest, who had the strongest will to live.”
Eventually, Horn managed to pull Ousland out of the water.
As with all things, Horn took something home with him that day.
“If you just hold on a little bit longer . . . It’s not over until it’s over. The same as life.”