On Expedition With Mike HornFrom The Field
Words: Shaya Laughlin // Photos: Dmitry Sharomov
It’s dark when I wake up for my anchor watch aboard sailboat Pangaea. I splash water on my face and notice we’re still floating near Robben Island, just off Cape Town in South Africa, where we have been tagging sevengill sharks for the past few days. On the back deck, half a dozen scientists in wet-weather gear have their eyes fixed on a drumline as they wait patiently for the next one to bite.
I climb the small set of stairs to the navigation room where I can see the captain, Mike Horn, who is already awake and sipping his morning coffee. My heart starts beating a little faster and my palms sweat nervously. The 50-year-old professional explorer has had this effect on me ever since I met him in 2012, just days before my 17th birthday.
‘Shaya, my baby, can you make me another coffee?’ he asks me, using a nickname that still suits my young age at 21.
I refuse to make coffee for anyone else but my answer is always yes to Mike. It’s not because he scares me. It’s because he changed my life as a teenager and I still feel I owe him.
My fascination with Mike started when I was in middle school. I came home from class one day and my mother handed me an article that she had cut out of a local newspaper. ‘I think you’ll like him,’ she said, adding that he seemed like a modern Jacques Cousteau.
At the time, we were living in Switzerland, where Mike is considered a national hero despite growing up in South Africa. The article told the riveting story of a man who studied exercise science at university but eventually got bored of his comfortable job. Mike then threw a big party to give away all his belongings and jumped on a plane to Switzerland. Once there, he embarked on a series of adventures that eventually led him to becoming a professional explorer.
His first big one was in 1997 when he climbed to the source of the Amazon, high in the Peruvian Andes, and descended the nearly 7,000km river on a hydrospeed. After six months, he knew he had reached the Atlantic Ocean because the water started tasting salty. He later became the first person to walk to the North Pole in winter’s darkness, and he also climbed several of the world’s highest peaks without supplementary oxygen.
Now 50, Mike is currently on his wildest expedition to date: Pole2Pole, a two-year circumnavigation of the globe via the two poles over land and sea. But he likes to stress to anyone who asks that he is not running away from anything. ‘I’m running towards the life that I want to live,’ he explains.
To add some greater purpose to what he does, Mike combines his expeditions with different environmental projects such as this latest shark expedition in South Africa. During his stopover in Cape Town, Mike invited a few young people to help researchers collect data on the sevengill sharks. And that’s why I’m here, although my association with Mike goes further back than this.
I vividly remember the first time I finally met Mike, in 2012 – he greeted me with a handshake so strong that it crushed my knuckles and made my eyes well up. It set the tone for the next 10 days, which I spent at his home in Chateau D’Oex.
After decades of exploring, Mike had decided he wanted to teach future generations what he had learnt in the wild. He offered 10 youngsters the opportunity to join him in the Amazon, free of charge, for nearly a month. To select his team, Mike invited 18 students from around the world – including me – to the Swiss Alps for a gruelling selection camp.
The following days were the hardest of my life.
Under the watchful eyes of a selection panel, we had to complete physical tests like carrying a tyre up snowy hills and climbing a glacier. Activities such as orienteering and first-aid training shone a penetrating light on our characters, illuminating qualities and flaws we didn’t even know ourselves. Mike wanted to make sure the people he would take to the Amazon were mentally and physically tough enough.
The final test was a two-day raid in sub-freezing temperatures which pushed us all to our limits. I’ve only fainted once in my life – and it was when I took off my boots on the last day, seeing the massive blisters under my wet socks. Mike’s brother, Martin, told me to toughen up as he lanced the blisters with needle and thread for faster recovery.
I’m not religious, but I prayed every night during selection camp. Somehow I made the final team.
‘There is no such thing as an old gung-ho explorer,’ Mike later scolded, in a debrief which has stayed with me ever since. ‘You need to know your environment… it took me a long time to learn about the jungle before my expedition in the Amazon.’
Three weeks later, we were in the Amazon aboard Mike’s sailboat Pangaea. My first diary entry from the expedition was: ‘I don’t know if I like Mike.’
I quickly learnt that what Mike says, you do, even if it means jumping into the Amazon River during the middle of the night to practise a man-overboard drill. This side of Mike stems from his military days when he was a lieutenant in South Africa. But behind the drills and the push-ups, I also discovered Mike’s sensitivity.
Despite my teenage know-it-all attitude, he took the time to patiently teach me about the jungle’s trees and animals. One day, I dropped my paddle in a swamp and it landed just centimetres from a tarantula. ‘Go on, get it,’ Mike told me. ‘Show some courage and take responsibility.’
The biggest lesson he taught me was on one of the last nights, when he asked our group whether we wanted to hike in the dense jungle as a team or alone. Stubborn, I was one of the few that chose to go solo despite the many known dangers.
‘There is no such thing as an old gung-ho explorer,’ he later scolded, in a debrief which has stayed with me ever since. ‘You need to know your environment… it took me a long time to learn about the jungle before my expedition in the Amazon.’
By the end of the expedition, Mike had changed my young mind forever by sharing his life experiences. Over the following years, his wise words echoed in my head and gave me the confidence to follow my dreams.
So here we are, four years later, on another expedition together – but some things have changed. I get Mike another cup of coffee from the kitchen and we start talking.
‘What’s on your mind?’ I ask him, noticing that he seems preoccupied.
Later this year, Mike will embark on one of his wildest traverses yet: Antarctica on skis, helped by a kite when the wind is in his favour. He will have to pull a 200kg sled of supplies for 5,800km to reach the South Pole. The journey will take him about four to five months. Henry Worsley, the last person who tried to cross Antarctica unassisted, died from organ failure on his attempt earlier this year.
I look at Mike who is standing just centimetres from me. His hair is greying, and small creases appear on his tanned forehead, but he still looks as strong as the day I met him. I’m surprised because he has been smoking and regularly eating sweets – something I hadn’t noticed in the Amazon.
‘But why do you smoke then?’ I ask as he rolls yet another cigarette, hoping he doesn’t take my question the wrong way.
‘It’s fun… but I won’t miss it on the ice,’ he replies without looking up. ‘My first month out there will be my training. If I start going too hard now, I might burn out.’
I take his word without thinking too much more about it. We veer onto another topic: his dear wife Cathy, who passed away last year from cancer. She used to take care of all his expedition logistics, but since her death, his two daughters have taken over.
‘We really lived life together, Cathy and I,’ Mike tells me. ‘That’s the most important thing, to live each day to the fullest.’
A yell diverts our focus from the conversation.
‘Shark, shark, we’ve got another one,’ one of the scientists alerts us, voice high with excitement.
Mike and I rush to the back deck where the team is reeling in a big sevengill shark, one of the most misunderstood species. It takes several people to hold the powerful animal down on the deck as the most experienced marine biologists hurry to get a fin clip and a blood sample. Through a small incision, they insert an acoustic tag which will last seven years. Another scientist is keeping the creature at ease by hosing salt water over its gills before it is released 15 minutes later.
In coming years, the team of marine biologists led by Dr Alison Kock will be able to monitor these tags and the data will be used to help the sharks’ conservation. As Mike watches on, he expects his team of young explorers – as he calls us – to be part of the action and help the scientists.
‘How do you expect to learn if you don’t try?’ he asks me. ‘You have to do something first before you’re able to tell others about your experiences.’
In four days, we end up tagging 15 sharks in areas where scientists previously had little luck.
Sailing back into Cape Town, Mike shares another pearl of wisdom with our crew. ‘If your dreams don’t scare you enough then they’re not big enough. I often wake up in the middle of the night being afraid of what I dream of.’ He continues: ‘On average, every life has about 35,000 days. You cannot waste any of those… any day might be your last.’
Mike is living an extraordinary life through exploration, and inspires me to make the most of each day on this planet. For that, I will forever be grateful.
Dmitry Sharomov is a freelance photographer based in Russia. He has followed Mike Horn on his expeditions around the globe since 2012.