Though he might settle down at some stage, Mike Horn has not yet done visiting some of the most extreme environments on the planet, and while the rest of us enjoy the comforts of society, the nomadic adventurer is happy to treat mountain peaks, glaciers and jungles as his temporary homes.
Born and raised in South Africa, Horn studied sports science at the University of Stellenbosch, but he struggled to accept the monotony of daily life. He knew he wanted to spread his wings, and though he didn’t know where he wanted to go, he didn’t really care.
At the age of 24, he threw a party to give away all his possessions and headed to the airport where he boarded the first available flight, which took him to Switzerland.
Arriving in Europe as a curious young man eager to get in touch with nature, he launched his career as an explorer, and he’s been based there ever since. Now, aged 50 and preparing for his next expedition – a circumnavigation of the globe – Horn is one of the most renowned adventure seekers on the planet.
“Being brought up in South Africa, I always wanted to play international sport,” Horn said this week at a breakfast hosted by Mercedes-Benz and the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation. “But my stadium became too small, so I decided to make the world my stadium.”
In 1997, he navigated the entire length of the Amazon River using a hydrospeed board, and two years later he set out to circumnavigate the equator with no motorised assistance. After achieving the feat, he received the Laureus Alternative Sportsperson of the Year award in 2001.
In 2002 he embarked on a solo circumnavigation of the Arctic Circle, eventually covering 20 000km, while pulling a kevlar sledge laden with 180kg of equipment and food. And in 2006, he joined Norwegian explorer Borge Ousland in becoming the first men to walk to the north pole during the dark Arctic months, in temperatures as low as -60o C.
A member of the Laureus World Sports Academy, Horn has also climbed two of the world’s 14 peaks higher than 8 000m in altitude. “Explorers tend to focus on one specific field, but it’s become a bit different for me because I’ve been involved with most adventure sports – from polar exploration, to mountaineering, to jungle exploration,” he says.
“To be able to have things change around you gives you a broader spectrum of knowledge, and at the end of the day, knowledge is power.”
It takes an extraordinary person to choose the path Horn has taken, and he now shares the lessons he has learned as a public speaker, sought after by some of the world’s top sports teams. He worked with the Indian cricket squad when they won the World Cup, the German football team when they won the World Cup, and the Proteas cricket side when they became the No 1 Test team in the world.
“I don’t really believe in motivation, as such, and that’s not what I try and teach professional athletes,” he says. “I teach them about discipline, which takes you much further than motivation.” While he considers himself South African, he also holds a Swiss passport, and Horn admits he doesn’t really have a home.
Even while he’s back in SA, he sleeps on his sailboat, Pangea, because that’s the closest thing he has to a house, and perhaps the closest thing to what most of us might deem a stable living environment. Horn’s mother still lives in Stellenbosch, along with most of his family, and though his wife, Cathy, died of cancer early last year, and daughters Annika and Jessica are unlikely to settle in SA, he admits he might end up back here when he’s seen enough of the world.
“I’m past 50 now and my sell-by date is approaching. “You’ve got to be realistic about life and understand that life doesn’t owe you anything. You make your own life and your own opportunities.” In truth, however, Horn will probably never feel comfortable with his feet firmly fixed to the ground, or even worse, sitting in a chair with a pen in his hand and a phone to his ear. And if he gets bored of this planet, he suggests with a mischievous glint in his eye, the universe holds no limits.
“I keep my life very simple. I’m just an ordinary guy, sometimes doing stuff that other people don’t want to do, and that makes living very easy.
“I don’t have to pretend to be someone I’m not, and that’s why I don’t see myself doing what I do much longer. “I’m doing this Pole2Pole expedition now, with two massive crossings of Antarctica and the north pole, so hopefully I can get that under the belt.
“And then I’ve got to think of, I don’t know, maybe going to the moon.”