Adventurer Mike Horn has been called up to help the Proteas prepare for the knockout stages of the World Cup. Find out more about what makes him tick in this 2012 feature, written by JON CARDINELLI for Business Day Sport Monthly.
‘Polar bears are a part of life,’ says Mike Horn, full-time explorer and occasional cricket muse. He’s detailing the perils of his ground-breaking winter expedition to the North Pole. He’s brushing aside claims that such journeys are unnatural and laughing off suggestions that to dice with a man-eater in its own terrain is to embrace a premature death. In 25 years of exploring, Horn has never allowed such dangers to prevent him from chasing dreams that the more scared and sensible among us may interpret as impossible. Starving carnivores, minus 60°C temperatures – Horn views these as challenges that the strong of mind can and will overcome.
He stares at me earnestly, a short man with an iron grip handshake that’s indicative of a mental steel that runs a thousand fathoms deep. We’re here to talk about Test cricket, about a Proteas team that stands on the brink of a mace-clinching series win. It’s the final session of the final day of the final Test at Lord’s, and we’re sitting in the only quiet corner of the Members’ Pavilion. Horn has played a small but telling part in the Proteas’ mental development, and has been invited by head coach Gary Kirsten to join the team for this decisive Test. He smiles and reassures me that his stories are relevant. His calm manner also suggests that he has absolute faith in the team.
The crowd roars as England plunder another boundary. The hosts are fighting their way towards what would be a series-saving win. Horn gives no sign that he’s heard the clamour, almost no sign that he’s interested, and proceeds to unpack the real-life metaphors. ‘Polar bears,’ he says, ‘have a lot of patience. They watch and wait for when you are at your weakest point, and that’s when they come for you. That’s when you’ve got to stand up and fight. You’ve got to be awake even when you’re asleep. That’s what we do as explorers, we live a 24-hour life. Sometimes one, two or even three days will go by without sleeping. But that’s what you need to do to survive.’
Prior to the England series, the Proteas spent four days with Horn at his training base in the Swiss Alps. Horn inspired them with tales such as these by night, and by day he pushed the players well beyond their physical and mental limits.
One gruelling day of activity began with a three-hour hike to the peak of a snow-capped summit, and ended with an arduous bike ride up and over an adjacent mountain. AB de Villiers later admitted to never having been so exhausted, while other players were forced to fight through cramp. Significantly, nobody gave up. Kirsten would later say that the decision to join Horn for those four days was the best he could have made in the context of steeling his charges for the challenge to come.
‘Whatever you do, whether it’s an adventure or a sport like cricket, it has to be a full commitment,’ says Horn. ‘When we were at that camp in Switzerland, I told the boys that when I go to the North Pole, I can’t afford to lose a wicket. There is no second innings, I will lose my life if I fail. So preparation is important, and the way I prepare for that challenge, they can do the same in the world of professional cricket.’
Kirsten and performance director Paddy Upton first made use of Horn’s services when they were working with India. Horn forced the India players to revise their understanding of pressure, and what it means to cope in difficult situations. The upshot? India went on to win the World Cup. Kirsten and Upton always felt that Horn would have a similar impact on the Proteas.
The interview is interrupted by another cheer. The English tail is wagging, and around the ground the doubters are starting to wonder if the Proteas will live up to their reputation as chokers. Horn views the situation differently. England have fought hard throughout the series, and so have South Africa. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the result is still in the balance. Horn argues that the Proteas are showing considerable mettle in a high pressure situation.
‘It’s been amazing to note the change. In the past, they wouldn’t trust in their ability in these situations. Now we’re seeing that these guys really trust in their talent. At the end of the day, the result shows exactly how much you believe. If you don’t get the result, you don’t really believe in yourself.’
There is not only a desire to be the No 1 Test side on the planet, but to remain at the pinnacle for as long as possible. Again, Horn’s own career has been held up as an example to follow.
‘I never dreamed of going to the North Pole, of climbing the highest mountain, of swimming the Amazon; I dreamed of a full life as an explorer,’ he says. ‘So reaching the top is only halfway. If your dream is to play for South Africa, you shouldn’t play for South Africa, because your dream ends the moment you make your debut. Your dream should actually start when you make your debut, because that’s when you start to write history. That’s when you really start dreaming. And it’s good to be afraid. If your dreams aren’t scary enough, they aren’t big enough. You’ve got to be afraid of what you dream, otherwise you’ll never go out there and achieve anything extraordinary.’
While the Proteas will want to retain their current combinations and formulas to ensure consistency, they will need to make do without Horn. He doesn’t see a long-term future for himself in consulting.
Horn still wants to test himself. In 1998, he swam 6 000km down the Amazon, a crazy yet incredible journey that took six months. In 1999, he embarked on a 40 000km circumnavigation of the equator, sans the use of motorised transport. After he’d had his fill of mosquitoes and snakes, he decided to move outside his ‘comfort zone’ and in 2004 embraced a gruelling solo journey around the circumference of the Arctic Circle. In 2006, Horn and Norwegian explorer Borge Ousland became the first people to reach the North Pole in winter, defying the soul chilling temperatures and absolute darkness, completing the momentous task without the aid of so much as a sled dog. And still he wants more.
‘That’s my profession, and I’m only here talking to you at Lord’s today because I’ve taken time out from that. What I do with the Proteas is out of loyalty to the team, to friends and basically to South Africa. I left South Africa 22 years ago [Horn now lives in Switzerland], but I still carry the flag; whatever the summit or destination, it’s the South African flag that I plant.’
Speak to the Proteas coaches and players and they will tell you about the life-altering impact Horn has had on this group. Horn admits that it has also served as a learning experience for himself, and reignited his own passion to dream and to achieve.
‘As you get a bit older you have to decide what you can do with the age you have,’ the 47-year-old says. ‘There are a couple of ice caps in Patagonia that haven’t been crossed. Maybe it would be good for me to go back into solo exploration, maybe I can write some history for myself. I’ve also got a couple of 8 000m peaks that I still want to climb, and obviously the bottom of the ocean is a domain I’d like to explore. And then there’s the expedition where I get to teach young people to respect the planet and resources and live in a sustainable way.’
Horn is talking about the Pangaea Expeditions, a project that selects young adults from all six continents
for a four-year journey around the world, the aim being to educate that group about conservation. ‘We have six million kids following our project. It’s about rebuilding the world,’ Horn explains. ‘The coral, the jungle, the oceans. We take them on an adventure to show them the natural beauty of the planet. If we can give hope to the younger people, they can understand why this world is worth saving.
‘It’s something that continues to grow. These young people are taking responsibility where governments should but don’t actually do so. What I like about the project is that it’s viral. Kids go out to their schools or social circles and they create a following for people who want to give back to nature. This has been my playground for the past 22 years where I can do my part for the future.’
In 2001, Horn won the Laureus World Alternative Sportsperson of the Year Award for his ‘Latitude Zero’ journey along the equator. He has since been made a member of the Laureus Sports Academy in acknowledgment of his many achievements. Perhaps some of South Africa’s other sporting teams could benefit from his message and methods, but Horn reiterates that he won’t be back in a consulting role any time soon. His priorities lie elsewhere.
‘I do it because it’s my passion and I think I can make a bit of a difference. I’m not the one who scores the runs or bowls the balls, I’m just the guy who can maybe make that little psychological difference in situations where it is hard.
‘When I sit inside my tent at the North Pole and I have to cut off my frostbitten finger, there’s a lot of pressure. For two years in trying conditions, every night I had to survive. You have to bring yourself to get out of the tent and walk. You keep going. That’s what I have to do as an explorer, so why can’t cricketers do just a third of that? Yes, the act of cutting off my finger is serious but the thought process is the same, the human thought process of how you overcome obstacles, it’s the same.’
One hour later, the Proteas have dismissed the last of the English batsmen and Horn can be seen celebrating with the team management on the balcony of the Members’ Pavilion. His words, his feats and his inspiring philosophy have played a part in yet another ground-breaking achievement.