From Eikestad to the Arctic

As a child and then a young man, world-renowned explorer, environmentalist and sailor Mike Horn honed his survival skills on everything from the Jukskei River to the Angolan border. Debbie Hathway talks to the ex-matie about his exploits.

I walked out of the Panerai booth where I’d interviewed world-famous explorer Mike Horn on a high. And it wasn’t because I’d almost got him to dance sokkie with me. He certainly demonstrated that he has the hold down pat, but this Stellenbosch University alumnus says he didn’t dance in his student days; he just used to sit in a corner of the dance venue and spot the talent. 

We were at the annual Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva in January for the launch of the Panerai Submersible Mike Horn Edition PAM00985, among others, and I felt that this was one of the best interviews of my career. Reading some of the other interviews published, clearly I wasn’t the only journalist affected by Mike’s enthusiasm, charisma and sheer joie de vivre. It’s enough to make you believe you, too, can climb any mountain and cross any sea if you put your mind to it. And that’s the point. For the would-be owners of these 19 special edition watches released this year, joining Mike on his next Arctic expedition is part of the deal.

He told monochrome-watches.com buyers will have the opportunity to participate in a “brutal and fun Arctic experience. For me, it all comes back to emotions. I felt that if you, the buyer, hadn’t been to the North Pole, for example, I could take you safely and surely with my experience. I would be giving you a shortcut. I promise you that watch will be more meaningful to you.”

Was he concerned about taking members of the public into the wild? “No. I’m just excited. I’m looking forward to pushing them and showing them they can go longer and harder than they ever thought they could. Of course, there will be times when adversity may get the better of them, there may be tears. But in the end, it will all be worth it.”

Born and raised in Johannesburg, Mike is the second eldest of four children whose parents were both school teachers. He studied at Stellenbosch University from 1987 to 1989 and during that time, lived in a student house in Plein Street with 12 other guys. On the sports front, he played rugby and cricket for Pieke and participated in long-distance marathon running and triathlons. He graduated with a degree in Human Movement Science.

He is a widower and the father of Annika and Jessica, who now fulfil the logistical support role previously held by their late mother, Cathy. “We work together to honour the legacy of my wife by educating the world.” 

How long did it take Mike to realise he wanted to be an explorer? “I think my father understood he had to give me a lot of freedom. When he gave me my first bicycle he gave me only one rule and that was to be at home at 6pm. I never had to tell him where I was going or what I was doing. I came back at 6 o’clock and I shared with him what I’d done that day.”

At the age of eight, Mike would take off on that bicycle and try to get as far as he could within the time limit. He says it made everything possible. “In a way (my father) understood I was a little bit different to my brothers and sisters. I needed to not be put into a cage. If I decided I was going to do something, there was very little that could stop me.”

The family home was near the Jukskei River, one of the largest rivers in Johannesburg, and Mike used to love nothing more than jumping into it when it was in flood. “I needed to get excitement out of life. School wasn’t enough. Rugby and cricket and athletics weren’t enough. I needed more. And my father just said ‘go out and play’.” He would be there waiting for Mike’s return, ready to listen to accounts of his daily antics and offer advice on how to handle challenges in nature. “He would say, ‘Next time put your feet to the front, lift your head a little bit, open your arms, watch where you can see there’s waves … that means there’s rocks.’ Sometimes he would come and join me. In that way I was taught to take responsibility and also to progress, not just to take risks but to do so in a more controlled manner.”

To date, Mike has notched up a list of accomplishments which puts him firmly on a pedestal as the world’s greatest modern-day explorer. It’s probably the one thing he would never voluntarily climb. He is one of the humblest men I’ve met, giving no sign of his prowess in extreme sports disciplines which have made it possible for him to swim the Amazon River solo and unsupported, complete a non-motorised circumnavigation of the globe at the equator, walk to the North Pole during the dark season and scale some of the world’s highest peaks. He was the first man to complete a 5 100-kilometre Antarctic crossing – along its longest length, solo and unsupported – and he did it in a record 57 days.

His hobby? “Preserving our planet.”

Pangaea was the name of Mike’s four-year 200 000-mile ‘dream expe­dition’ from 2008 to 2012 that he shared with young explorers eager to experience the natural world, learn about its challenges, find possible solutions to them and help change things for the better. Mike believes we are “losing respect for nature, forgetting her beauty and, most importantly, her overwhelming power. All must accept responsibility and work as one using ingenuity, drive and courage to find new inspiration, hope and ambition. Together we can tap the world’s most powerful energy source – the younger generation – to help them find solutions for their tomorrows.”

Did living in South Africa influence his ambition to become an explorer? Mike told one interviewer: “The beauty of South Africa is that we have access to natural beauty in its purest form. There’s an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for having been able to live in such a wonderful place.”

Mike attributes much of his success to discipline and it’s possibly why he has survived so many life-threatening situations during his adventures. It’s certainly something he learnt at a young age, given the responsibility with the freedom afforded to him by his father, but his two years with the special forces reaction unit during South Africa’s conflict with Angola was a major contributor, too. He told another interviewer it “was a pretty active, physical and mental engagement. It made me understand life is not a game. I knew I had to go into war with the aim of surviving, not killing people.”

One of his best-known quotes is: “If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” He says, “I think eventually we’re all afraid of making the vital mistake that we can control the length or destiny of our life. Everything I’ve dreamt of doing hasn’t been done before. Sometimes when you sit with a white page in front of you and you’ve got to write down how it is going to happen and how you can survive it, that’s when you get this feeling of fear. But fear is not doubting your capabilities. It’s just knowing you’re going to engage in something that – if everything goes pear-shaped – will probably prevent you from ever going back home. It’s not a fear of losing my life. I’m not afraid of losing. 

“If you’re afraid of losing, you can never do stuff which is out of the ordinary because you’re always thinking, ‘Shit, I shouldn’t lose.’ It takes away your human capabilities – the fear of losing. If you change this concept in your mind, and the will to win becomes bigger than the fear of losing, then everything becomes possible.” 

The ultimate sportsman

“At extremely low temperatures, everything on me was frozen and did not work anymore; the only thing that continued to work was my watch.” Mike Horn was talking about the Panerai Luminor Arktos PAM00092, which was specially prepared for his solo, non-motorised circumnavigation of the Arctic Circle and one of several limited editions created during his ambassadorship for Panerai for close to two decades. 

The brand has supported him through his last four expeditions: Arktos (2002–2004), the North Pole Winter Expedition (2006), Pangaea (2008–2012) and Pole­2Pole. Panerai describes Mike as the perfect incarnation of a sportsman: strong, courageous and determined, and one who shares its values.

How do Panerai watches add value to his expeditions? They’re survival instruments, quite literally. “The Pole2Pole expedition watch (the Panerai Luminor Submersible 1950 3 days GMT automatic titanio ‘Pole2Pole’ PAM00719) Panerai made for me helped me do the first-ever full crossing of Antarctica. I used it 100% in navigation [on the Pole2Pole expedition]. The watch becomes the tool because you can’t use the GPS when it’s -60 or -70 or -80 degrees outside. The screen freezes (it’s liquid). You can’t use a compass either. As soon as you go north of the magnetic north pole, the compass turns in circles and it doesn’t show direction anymore. You can use only mechanical instruments. The watch had to be a-magnetic, to deflect the magnetic fields of the Earth which influence how the watch works,” explains Mike. “For me, a Panerai watch has always been more of a tool than a timepiece.”

That’s the brand DNA, after all, as the watches have been crafted as high-precision instruments for the Royal Italian Navy since the early 20th century. It’s the only watch Mike has worn since Johan Rupert walked up to him at the Laureus World Sports Awards when he won Action Sportsperson of the Year in 2001 and fastened his personal Panerai on his arm. “I didn’t know him from a bar of soap. I knew more about his father and the Rupert family. I said, ‘Wow, this is the only watch I would want to wear or buy.’ That Pane­rai association came out of the blue, when I really needed it the most.”

This year’s Panerai Submersible Mike Horn Edition PAM00985 is a professional diver’s watch created with an innovative production process to safeguard the planet and it features a case, crown-protecting device, bezel and case back made of Eco-Titanium while the light, strong strap is made of recycled plastic. Mike’s signature is engraved on the case back, together with a depiction of ocean life, Panerai’s natural playground.

“It’s the idea that I wanted something which has meaning for me in the future. I have two beautiful daughters. I want them to live on a planet that’s intact. One life is 30 000 days in general if you live to the age of 82. I’ve lived the better part of my life in the short 53 years I’ve been alive. I’ve seen the Earth at its most beautiful and I can see the speed which it’s deteriorating. I can see it. I can feel it. I sail the oceans. I don’t see the birds, the fish anymore. I don’t see that glitter on the ocean full of microplastics. We’re not just jumping on the bandwagon. Ten, 15 years ago already, I said we’ve got to change a little bit the way we live. Say no to plastics.”