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All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

- JRR Tolkien

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Feb 09, 2017

Racing Across Namibia with Mike Horn

For Mike Horn, adventure is not an activity or a single expedition.

WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

“It’s a lifestyle”, he told me when I spent a few days with him last year driving across ‘the land that God made in anger’.

On 7th February 2017, Mike Horn, the legendary explorer, reached the end of Antarctica, completing a solo, unsupported 57-day trek across the great white continent.

The Outdoor Journal Editor-in-Chief Apoorva Prasad recounts his time with the great adventurer, when he accompanied him during a part of his journey in Namibia earlier last year. This story appeared in The Outdoor Journal Autumn 2016 edition of the print magazine.

As I write this, Mike is either wandering around by himself somewhere in the wilds between Namibia or Botswana, or has gotten back on his custom-built boat Pangea and is sailing towards Antarctica, to walk across it, and then get picked up on the other side, sail to the North Pole, walk across that, and finally, eventually, get back to his starting point in Monaco. It’s called the Pole2Pole expedition, it’s over two years, and it’s meant to be Mike’s last hurrah, according to his daughters Annika and Jessica. Along the way, he’s trying a few other things – like being the first to walk across the Namib desert. And since that wasn’t enough alone time for him according to his blog, he decided to wander over into Botswana. For Mike Horn, adventure is not an activity or a single expedition. “It’s a lifestyle”, he told me when I spent a few days in Namibia with him earlier last year.

The group gathers around a map to figure out where we are today and where exactly we're headed. The drive was mostly an unplanned adventure, with Mike taking what appeared to be new and arbitrary decision about the route daily. Photo: Apoorva Prasad
The group gathers around a map to figure out where we are today and where exactly we’re headed. The drive was mostly an unplanned adventure, with Mike taking what appeared to be new and arbitrary decision about the route daily. Photo: Apoorva Prasad

We were driving fast, somewhere inside the canyon. I was trying to keep the Mercedes G-Wagen inside the rutted track left by the vehicle ahead. We had traction control off, otherwise the wheels would lose power spinning in the loose, unconsolidated sand of the valley floor, while trying to make sure we didn’t go off-track, or hit a sharp-edged rock, and lose yet another tyre. It was night, pitch black and the stars were out. We’d been on the move for perhaps ten or twelve hours, having lost the morning in endless negotiations with tribal villagers and forest guards. I was used to alpine starts on Himalayan road trips since my childhood, and sixteen hour drives on mountain switchbacks weren’t new to me. But a night drive in Namibia felt like a very new experience. We were ten journalists in five vehicles following Mike and his close-knit group of friends and family. So far, we’d destroyed one transmission, blown six tires and dented one radiator guard. A few hundred kilometers had gone past, but we still had many hundreds left to go to Ipuwo. I didn’t know it then, but already, earlier in the day, the constant banging of the suspension against hard rock had also destroyed the front shocks of two more vehicles.

"So where are we and where are we going?" The only fixed plan was to get from Walvis Bay to Opuwo, where we've got two chartered bush planes to take us out. Mike plans the route through the desert every day as we try to get ever closer to our 1000km objective. Photo: Apoorva Prasad
“So where are we and where are we going?” The only fixed plan was to get from Walvis Bay to Opuwo, where we’ve got two chartered bush planes to take us out. Mike plans the route through the desert every day as we try to get ever closer to our 1000km objective. Photo: Apoorva Prasad

All of a sudden, the red brake lights of the G-wagen in front came on. We’d just gone into yet another riverbed and climbed out. Then we saw it. A large, moving gray wall. A wild elephant. And another, descending a sandy bank literally meters in front of the first vehicle. That G-wagen contained Mike Horn and his two daughters, Annika and Jessica. Mike slowly began to back the vehicle away from the lead elephant. We stayed absolutely still, I got ours in reverse, ready to back away as well. She moved slowly towards the jeep. The other elephants were smaller, younger. She moved to the side, and with her trunk, began gently waving… telling us to carry on.

We'd barely left civilisation and were heading north on the Skeleton Coast, when the ocean down our track. Unable to maintain momentum while making the tight turn around, all the vehicles immediately got bogged down in deep sand. As the tide came in, the crew got down and dug out all the cars with their bare hands—then Mike directed us up a track through the hills back to dry land. Photo: Apoorva Prasad
We’d barely left civilisation and were heading north on the Skeleton Coast, when the ocean down our track. Unable to maintain momentum while making the tight turn around, all the vehicles immediately got bogged down in deep sand. As the tide came in, the crew got down and dug out all the cars with their bare hands—then Mike directed us up a track through the hills back to dry land. Photo: Apoorva Prasad

Slowly then, the drive continued on. We’d had wild antelopes jump across the hood of the car earlier in the day, seen zebras, giraffes and more deer and antelopes. But this was no game drive. We were driving over a thousand kilometers across Namibia with Mike Horn for a few days on the Namibia leg of his Pole2Pole expedition. Mike, for those who don’t know, is possibly the last great explorer-adventurer in the world. Jonty Rhodes, TOJ ambassador and a friend of Mike’s, told me last year about one of his first serious expeditions, when he traversed South America from the Pacific to the Atlantic, over six months. A notable part of it was by way of the source of the Amazon all the way to the sea… alone… swimming downriver on a hydroboard. Jonty described this journey to me as “boogie-boarding down the Amazon alone for months, until he reached the Atlantic”. He was unassisted and lived off the land the entire way. Jonty continued: “but according to Mike, the expedition wasn’t over until he hit saltwater… and the Amazon is so huge that the sea doesn’t turn salty until maybe a 100 kilometers out into the ocean. So he refused the chopper that came to pick him up, and swam back to land after he actually tasted saltwater.”

The route through the Namib desert is tough on the vehicles. One of the G-wagens hits a sudden dip in the track, denting the front bumper protecting the radiator. By this point we've already had more tire changes than we have spare tires and need to drive cautiously. Photo: Apoorva Prasad
The route through the Namib desert is tough on the vehicles. One of the G-wagens hits a sudden dip in the track, denting the front bumper protecting the radiator. By this point we’ve already had more tire changes than we have spare tires and need to drive cautiously. Photo: Apoorva Prasad

I’d been warned about Mike’s handshake from a lot of different people. Watch out for his grip, one guy told me. Be prepared for his handshake, someone else said. Even then, one is never really prepared. Mike dives in with his over-muscled forearm and grips your hand like you’re about to have an arm-wrestling match. You better tense up and adopt the same position or your hand will get crushed.

But that’s only to be expected. Think of something that’s unthinkable. Impossible. Mike’s famous response to that is, “the impossible exists only until we find a way to make it possible”. And he does. That included, in 1999, being the first man in the world to traverse the equator without any motorized transport (40,000 kilometres over 17 months). In 2002, he circumnavigated the Arctic circle, alone, without any dogs or motorized transport, in a period of over two years (that includes the Arctic winter), crossing. Could he outdo that? Yes, of course. By becoming the first man, along with Borge Ousland, to reach the North Pole, on foot, in winter. I asked Mike the difference between a challenge like climbing mountains (he’s done that, of course – summiting several Himalayan 8000ers without supplemental oxygen) and exploration. Arctic exploration was an entirely different level of challenge altogether. “It’s a lifestyle”, he said, when you’re spending “years” and not “months” on an expedition. He’s right, of course. It’s an entirely different way of looking at life.

The traverse of Antarctica, which he completed on 7th February, was part of Mike Horn's Pole2Pole journey to circumnavigate the globe from pole to pole, over land and sea, covering 24,000 miles and visiting six continents. He began his journey last May, sailing from Monaco to Namibia. Photo: Dmitry Sharomov
The traverse of Antarctica, which he completed on 7th February, was part of Mike Horn’s Pole2Pole journey to circumnavigate the globe from pole to pole, over land and sea, covering 24,000 miles and visiting six continents. He began his journey last May, sailing from Monaco to Namibia. Photo: Dmitry Sharomov

Despite this, he isn’t as well-known as certain other, more media-savvy “survival” heroes. When I tell other people about Mike, especially in the English-speaking world, I often have to refer to him as “the real Bear Grylls”.  I asked him who his own hero was. After thinking for a bit, he replied, Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who was the first to reach both poles. Mike pointed out that they were both born on the same day, 16th July. According to him, polar expeditions truly separated the real adventurers from all others.

Our own little adventure began quite quickly. The journey began in the former resort town of Swakopmund, where Mike’s boat, Pangea, was anchored. The next morning we started driving along the Skeleton Coast, the legendary “Gates of Hell”, which the Bushmen called “The Land God Made in Anger”. This was Namibia’s infamous, inhospitable Atlantic coastline, with its unending surf and a thousand shipwrecks, and uncountable bones of whales. We raced in a convoy on the sand along the crashing surf line. Suddenly, the lead car tried to turn – we were trapped in a cul-de-sac with the ocean on one side, a steep hill rising up on our right, and nowhere to go in front – and in an instant, all seven vehicles were bogged in loose sand. It was late afternoon and the tide was coming in. For Mike of course, this was pedestrian everyday stuff and his response was, “well, start digging!”. So we dug, mostly with our bare hands, and in about a half hour managed to free most of the vehicles.  

Six Mercedes Benz G-class SUVs find themselves trapped in deep sand, with the tide coming in on one side, and steep sand dunes on the other. We probably have less than 30 minutes to dig out all vehicles and get them turned around and up through a passage in the dunes. Photo: Dmitry Sharomov
Six Mercedes Benz G-class SUVs find themselves trapped in deep sand, with the tide coming in on one side, and steep sand dunes on the other. We probably have less than 30 minutes to dig out all vehicles and get them turned around and up through a passage in the dunes. Photo: Dmitry Sharomov

Many hours later, in fading evening light, we pulled into what was the only gas station in a 500 kilometer radius, woke up the attendant, and got him to start the generator to pump gas into the vehicles. Meanwhile Mike decided to burn off a little steam by going apeshit on the damaged tire. He lifted the full tire, rim and all, above his head, and slammed it on a truck tire on the ground repeatedly. Delighted by his efforts, the crew gathered around to watch him. Despite his age and many heinous experiences, he’s incredibly fit and casual about it all.

Stories of Mike’s adventures are so unbelievable that it’s hard to understand his thought process and motivation. That night, around the campfire, we understood it began at childhood. As a small child who had recently gotten his first bicycle, he decided he would cycle that evening after school to his uncle’s house…. 300 km away. “There I was, pedaling away…” he said, describing the incident. Motivation was never a problem for Mike; but the experience taught him one lesson—he must own up to his own actions. And in everything he went on to do—each a survival situation—the consequences of one’s own actions are immediately visible and obvious.

The legendary Mike Horn regales us with stories of his adventures around the world during the evening's barbecue. Photo: Apoorva Prasad
The legendary Mike Horn regales us with stories of his adventures around the world during the evening’s barbecue. Photo: Apoorva Prasad

“He was always like that”, said Earhardt, one of our trip companions and Mike’s childhood friend. “He’s a natural leader and as kids we would all just follow Mike and get up to all kinds of crazy things. “But I’m really not anything like him at all, he operates on another level,” he added diffidently. I noted to myself that Earhardt incidentally researches Special Forces soldiers and himself does Ironman triathlons.

Day after day, extending into night, we travel across magnificent landscapes. This is one of the least densely populated countries on Earth. We traverse valleys with green oases, then we climb out, past red mesas rising to the sky. The only movement is the dust of our vehicles drifting slowly, catching the glow of the setting sun. There hasn’t been too much of a plan to this trip, except traversing landscapes at very high speeds. There’s an air of casualness to it, which I simultaneously appreciate, yet bristle at having to play “follow the leader”, who’s racing ahead in a specially-equipped vehicle. With all the switchbacks, alternate routings and vehicular damage, we aren’t going to make it to the waterfalls. We have charter flights waiting for us in the bush, in Opuwo. Racing against time, we cut across the landing strip, Wild Geese style, where two bush planes awaited us. This trip was over, the experience far too short to truly take it all in. Our little Cessna 406 lined up for takeoff, its prop engines whirring up under the Namibian sun.

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Motivation was never a problem for Mike; but the experience taught him one lesson—he must own up to his own actions. And in everything he went on to do—each a survival situation—the consequences of one’s own actions are immediately visible and obvious. Photo: Dmitry Sharomov

Mike had dozed off in the back. I thought about his words from a night ago. “When I was with the Russians in Siberia, they said, stop for a minute. Hunker down. Close your eyes. And take a moment to think about what you’re about to do. And I said, this is exactly what I want to do.”

Feature Image by Apoorva Prasad

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Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

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The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

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These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

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Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

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Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

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The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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