They acknowledge him as the world’s greatest explorer of our time. From swimming and river-boarding the entire length of the Amazon River to solo circumnavigating the world around the Equator and the Arctic; from footslogging to the North Pole in complete darkness to completing the first ever solo unsupported north-to-south crossing of Antarctica, Mike Horn has done it all. It would seem, the word ‘impossible’ doesn’t exist in his dictionary.
The South Africa-born Swiss professional adventurer is also a motivational speaker, and his list of clients include the 2011 Cricket World Cup-winning Indian team and Germany, the 2014 FIFA World Cup champions. In 2012, the 51-year-old also took the South African cricket team on an expedition to the Alps as a team-bonding exercise ahead of their England tour. The Graeme Smith-led side went on to win the three-Test series 2-0 and clinched the No. 1 spot. Horn has also worked with the South African rugby team, some European soccer teams, and the French sailing team.
Horn’s first association with the Indian Premier League came in 2012, when he was hired by Mumbai Indians ahead of the fifth season. He then had a few short stints with Kolkata Knight Riders, including one in the seventh season – which they won on the back of a nine-match winning streak.
In this free-wheeling chat with Wisden India, Horn, recently in Kolkata for a week leading into their first match of IPL 2018, opened up about his life as an explorer, ways to overcome fear, his experiences with the young crop of players, and much more. Excerpts:
You have been everywhere around the world, and your list of accomplishments as a solo explorer is unparalleled. Is this something you always wanted to do?
I have never asked myself why I am doing what I am doing. Doing all this makes me the happiest person in the world. Once you find the happiness that all human beings are looking for, then you find your purpose. Although I take risks and engage myself by doing these uncomfortable things, I still think becoming an explorer was the best decision I ever took in my life. I do expeditions to feel rich as a person. To be able to do these things that might make you the unique or only person in the world makes me feel happy.
When was the first time you felt the call of the wild?
I don’t think we can become an explorer, we are born to be one. As a young kid, I was given a lot of freedom by my parents. You can say, I did my education in a different way. They didn’t give me any rules or regulations to follow. From the young age of eight, to be alone in nature, to be free and making decisions on your own, was the way I was brought up. We have a very important role to play with how kids should be treated by the parents. You should take the responsibility, and try not forcing your dreams on them. Let them grow the way they want to and let them do things which they are good at. Don’t expect your kid to be what you want them to be, let them be what they want to be. Let them achieve goals on their own.
In 1997, you launched your first big expedition (the six-month solo traverse of the South American continent). Your level of nervousness or fear, was it similar to a sportsperson making his debut?
Fear is something that we do have, and ‘fear’ when you are young or ‘fear’ when you are coming up with something new, it’s much bigger because you don’t have that experience. You have a lack of knowledge, and that obviously on the other side makes the fear factor even bigger. But we don’t need to know everything before we go climb a mountain or cross the poles or swim in the Amazon or sail across the oceans. We need to know only half percentage of how we can stay alive, and if you can stay alive and survive, then the rest of the answers you will find – like why you are actually doing these expeditions? You got to allow yourself to get out of your comfort zone. You got to allow yourself to go a little bit in the sea of unknown. Then what’s most important is, you should never give up. You must have that determination and willpower to keep pushing forward because you know it’s going to be difficult, you know when you make a mistake you might die. We don’t do what we do to die, we do it to stay alive and that’s what makes us feel alive. This is what I often try to tell all these players who are still young and new to the big stage.
How does one handle fear?
Fear is something that’s very specific and I was trying to explain this same thing to the players. Fear might be about you not understanding the situation 100% that you find yourself in. I know what I am afraid of. If I am climbing the mountain, I do fear. The fear I am talking about doesn’t stop me from doing what I am trying to achieve. It could be a warning feeling that I have that maybe I have the fear of avalanche because there’s a lot of snow. The way to deal with that fear is to specifically know what you are afraid of, but if you don’t know that, then you can’t fix your fear, you can’t overcome it.
For example, when I climb a mountain, I know I might die but I am not afraid of dying. I must know what I am afraid of. Maybe I am afraid of not being trained too well, or prepared too well to pull this off? And if I know that, I will prepare myself in a better way and get more safety equipment. The moment I deal with that problem, the fear becomes less. That’s how we should try and train the players. They must know their weak points that they are afraid of, and it becomes easy to deal with.
From the wild to a city like Kolkata, how do you cope up with civilisation?
(Laughs) For me, I think that the passion of performances is what separates Kolkata. I don’t mind adding this to my resume as an explorer. Although exploration is nothing to do with cricket, the mindset required to perform and write history is quite similar. For me, to be able to share my lived experience, the way I think, the way I live, the way I prepare for my expeditions, especially with younger players, is really amazing. Outside the world of cricket, there’s another world. It’s also important to become a better person because there’s not much separation between how you live your life and what you do with your work as a cricketer or an explorer or a businessman or a banker. That passion for life that we all have to do well is something we share.
How do you associate yourself with team sports like cricket, football or rugby?
I often climb mountains with a small team. Although we might think that cricket is a team sport, it’s individual as well. When the bowler takes that ball and the batsman holds that bat, they kind of feel lonely and their performance is entirely based on the decisions they make. It’s pretty much the same for me as well in what I do. When I have to get out of the tent, I have to make a decision for navigation or the speed I will be travelling at and stuff like that. It’s important to know that all those decisions determine the outcome of the expeditions. For the cricketer, the moment they decide to take up a certain role, he knows that his performance can determine the outcome of the match. So you need individuals in a team sport, and if you have good individuals, you have the best team. A team is united by great individuals.
Moving on, you worked with the Indian team ahead of the 2011 World Cup, and have been involved with the IPL for a while now. Do you see any cultural differences? How difficult is to get players to open up about their insecurities?
I think the players trust me. I have been with Kolkata for a while and the young players that they have got this season are from the new generation. The way of communicating and seeing the way they progress, it has changed significantly since 2010-11 when I started with India. Today it’s amazing how the Indian cricketers have progressed in terms of sharing their emotions or concerns. They have opened up a lot in a personal way. To be able to speak to me, they need to trust me and that’s what you have to establish. You have to establish the trust with the players and then they can open up. I might not have all the answers to their questions, but discussing their personal or professional problems allows them to take the pressure off themselves. If you communicate well in a team, you have a good team. If you don’t communicate, then you have a big problem.
Do you see any comparisons between the challenges you face during your expeditions to the one these players face?
I think there’s a lot of comparisons that we can relate to. I mentioned earlier about the unknown factor, we don’t know what’s going to happen and that took a lot of pressure on me as an explorer and on them as players. To be able to make the right decisions in the unknown – that you don’t know what the results are going to be – creates a doubt. If you speak about doubts, that’s the factor which is overwhelming in all cricket players and in all explorers. Human beings like to live in the consoled environment, and to make that doubt your home, and to make that fear a place that you can operate, and to start loving the things that you hate doing, is the way you can perform in this unknown surrounding. That’s what more and more cricket players have to do. They must not be afraid of failing, and it’s only when the road to win becomes bigger than their fear to fail – they can achieve extraordinary things. It’s okay if you lose. I know that nobody likes losing but it’s a competition and there will always be a winner and a loser. Just make sure you don’t stop trying.
Can you tell us about any incidents from your expeditions from where you have taken some inputs and implemented in cricket, or any other sport?
This time, I picked the example of crossing Antarctica. Especially for these younger players who have never been in IPL before, I said I had never crossed Antarctica before. It was one of the biggest challenges of my life, so I told some of the younger players that this (the IPL) is one of the biggest challenges in their life. KKR have given them the chance to prove themselves at this stage and they should do something to grab this golden opportunity. I often face these kinds of situations and it’s parallel to sport in general. Then I was trying to draw similarities between them playing cricket and me being an explorer.
Sometimes you have to bowl just four overs in the Twenty20 format, and I have to actually perform for 20 hours to get my job done. I tell people how far the human being can really go before he thinks he’s tired. All the effort that we put can always be stretched to a limit which no one can imagine. A lot of times, many cricket players don’t go out of their comfort zone, they just stay there because it’s a known surrounding. I tell them to go out of their comfort zone and go into the unknown. That helps them grow the way they play cricket.
That’s what happens to me when every day I am on that ice. For me to cross Antarctica, every day I had to learn, every day I had to go further, every day I had to survive, but not only for four overs or 20 overs, I had to survive 24 hours a day. You know, these two were the concrete examples that I used. I wanted them to listen and think, alright, if Mike can do it, even I can do it. I want them to do a little bit more than what they have done in the past.
Lastly, all this discomfort, loneliness and danger, is it all worth it?
I have got a way of describing what I do; I am alone but I am never lonely. Sometimes I come to any new city, and I will sit around where I don’t know anybody, and if you don’t know anybody, you feel lonely. You want to be with people you know and people you love. I have often been alone, but trust me, I have never felt lonely while exploration. The best place to sort out your mind, the best place to find answers to all your questions, the best place to look into yourself is when you are alone.
Sometimes events like IPL don’t allow one to be as much alone. There’s a lot of support, but I often urge these cricketers to take that moment away from the hustle and bustle that surrounds them to find out why they are really here, and not move far away from the base of themselves. It’s important to not get carried away from the supporters, the matches, the music, the limelight, the money and everything that goes around IPL – just to stay who they are. The moment you do that, you will start playing the best cricket of your life.