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Adventure Travel

Feb 01, 2018

Taming the Munga-Thirri Desert with Mike Horn

Crossing Earth’s biggest parallel dune desert, in the middle of Australia, with the world's greatest explorer—Mike Horn. Riding in his trusty beast, a V8 Mercedes G500, I join his team for five days journeying into the Simpson Desert, and dig a little deeper into what makes him tick.

WRITTEN BY

Lorenzo Fornari

 

On February 7th 2017, Mike Horn, the legendary explorer, completed the longest ever solo, 5100 km, unsupported north-to-south traverse of Antarctica in a record-breaking 57-days. Mike Horn, and The Outdoor Journal’s Lorenzo Fornari cross the earth’s biggest parallel dune desert, in the middle of Australia. This story appeared in The Outdoor Journal Spring 2018 edition of the print magazine. Subscribe here to see this and other amazing stories in your own hands.

Dashing through the Simpson Desert desert. Photo: Alex Rae
Dashing through the Simpson Desert desert. Photo: Alex Rae

“We have to be a little bit of a criminal in our lives. Just think of robbing a bank. That excites me!”

When I found out I would be joining explorer Mike Horn on the Australian leg of his Pole2Pole expedition this August, I was both ecstatic and terrified. Horn’s fabled exploits are legendaryhis survival skills stem from his time in the South African special forces, and his sheer inhuman determination to explore has brought him to climb four of the ‘eight-thousanders’ without oxygen, circumnavigate the equator with no motorized assistance over an eighteen-month period, and follow the Amazon river from source to ocean with nothing more than a glorified boogie board. Earlier this year Horn crossed the South Pole unassisted in a record time of 56 days and 22 hours, a 5,000 km trek with nothing but skis, a kite and a lot of olive oil-saturated food to sustain his 12,000 – 16,000 calorie-a-day diet. Pole2Pole is Horn’s two-year retirement expedition that begins and ends in Monaco and will see him cross the North and South Poles. Now, faced with the opportunity to travel with the greatest explorer of our time in the heart of a country that has a reputation of everything trying to kill you, would it be a recipe for disaster? Nay, I loved every second.

Prepping

2 weeks of gear for the Simpson Desert Australian expedition. Photo: Lorenzo FornariI was sent the flight details, program, and a checklist of equipment, which we had to make sure could all fit into one carry-on sized piece of luggage. All said and done, 2 weeks worth of clothes (“pack for winter-like nights”), gear, camera & multiple lenses, action cameras and attachments, laptop, and 2 pairs of shoes managed to fit in a 32-liter F-Stop Lotus photograph bag. Years of practice packing for communist Chinese-inspired “one bag policy” airlines taught me well and I admit it felt a bit unsettling to pack so little for a place so far. The inverse correlation that the further we go, the more we need.

August 6, Sunday

Half a world, two flights, five meals, eight time zones and a whole other season away, I touched down in Brisbane, affectionately dubbed Brizzy or Brisvegas by locals. The airport hotel would be my first step of the expedition and is where I got to meet other members of the team who flew in from Germany, Japan, Switzerland, and other parts of Australia. The only person missing was Mike himself. Jerry Stamoulis, our overall expedition coordinator from Mercedes Australia & NZ, showed us Horn’s whereabouts on an interactive map on his mobile phone. “The storm off the coast has delayed him a bit, but should still be okay to meet us at 6:00 a.m.,” he said. Horn would arrive by boat, the Pangaea—a 35-meter ice-breaking, aluminum-hulled sailboat which he imagined in every detail whilst walking the Arctic Circle for two-and-a-half years. “He always finds a way,” Jessica, Horn’s youngest daughter, assured us as we looked at the dot on the Delorme satellite tracker marking him still far from Brisbane. It was late and the dinner had been bountiful so I called it a night and tried to get rested up for the big adventure ahead.

 

Monday, August 7

With wicked jet lag and a pre-dawn wake-up call, I partook in a traditional Australian vegemite-infused breakfast. Vegemite, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is a yeast-extract spread that looks like tar and tastes something like a cross between liquid burnt toast and sorrow—it’s a delicacy in these parts.

That’s when Mike Horn walked inand his presence could be immediately felt. He’s just one of those people who steps into a room and it goes silent as everyone turns towards him. There he stood with his devilish grin, in expedition attire fitted to his sturdy athletic figure, and all of it laced with boundless charisma and magnetism. He’d just arrived by sea, the sun a mere glint over the horizon, and here Horn made jokes, literally jumping around, greeting each person like he’d known them for a lifetime and we were all reunited for this amazing adventure which he couldn’t wait to begin. His jovial mood stalled when one of our resident German YouTubers wasn’t ready for departure. When Von der Laden finally appeared, Horn gave him a disconcerting, murderous stare while madly grinning at the same time and firmly proclaimed in his Afrikaans accent, “you need-to-understand- discipline”, all the while holding Felix’s hand in what can only be described as a death grip.

Mike Horn emanates irresistible enthusiasm from every fiber of his being from the moment you meet him. His aura is so strong you find yourself confused as to why you’re smiling, even after your hand has been crushed. “Is your death grip a good way to make a good first impression?” I asked.  “Hahaha, no, no,” he replied, “the death grip is something my father taught me. If you meet somebody, you’ve got nothing to hide. You look him in the eyes and you squeeze his hand. If that guy doesn’t look you in the eyes and return a squeeze, it doesn’t matter how hard, don’t hang around a long time.”

“We only have 30,000 days of life available to us. You need to think at length about how you’re going to use the time.”

51 years young, Horn is cited as “the greatest explorer of our time.” His wanderlust can be traced to age eight. He had told his father he was going to bike to his uncle’s house, failing to specify he meant the uncle who lived over 200 km away, not the one next door. After his time in the South African special forces and a successful debut in the fresh produce industry, he moved to Switzerland on a one-way flight without a dime in his pocket when he was 24 years old. Since then he’s been exploring every corner of the earth, breaking and setting unprecedented records along the way, and inspiring young and old and everyone in between. On principle, Horn hates wasting time and he firmly believes that we have to keep on exploring, be it places or ourselves and our own limits. He believes we must make the most of our time on this planet. #30000

“We only have 30,000 days of life available to us. You need to think at length about how you’re going to use the time,” he explains. Horn made up his mind a long time ago and has spent his life exploring the world. His thirst for exploration was passed down to his daughters, Jessica and Annika, who help run the family business Horn Media.

Mike Horn and Matt Raudonikis discussing the game plan for the next week. Matt is the only member of the expedition who’s been to the Simpson Desert before and can share invaluable information. Felix snoozing in back. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

Growing up as the child of an explorer, Jessica says, “It’s made me a very open-minded person.”

“My earliest memory of joining my dad was at the end of the Latitude Zero expedition in Kenya, I was five,” she shares. The Horn family’s first expedition together was to Bylot Island in Northern Canada to train for the North Pole. For Jessica Horn’s 12th birthday, she arrived at the North Pole with her sister, mom, and dad. “I check time to time and I still have the record as the youngest person to get there non-motorized. Other younger kids have been dropped off by helicopter and such, we actually skied hundreds of kilometers from Barneo, a Russian base.”

Freshly graduated from university, she heeds the advice of her father, “Follow your own way, and not the herds. And say ‘yes’ to everything,” she adds from her own young but formidable experience.”

Jessica’s mother, Cathy, passed away three years ago. “My mother was my biggest role model. She did everything with a smile and supported my father’s dreams and visions. ‘Go out and do it, I believe in you,’ she’d tell him,” Jessica says.

Jessica Horn’s unique vantage point of the world inspires her to motivate people to travel, to explore, and most importantly for her, to galvanize people to protect the environment. “With Horn Media,” she says, “we want to give a voice to everyone and all of the organizations that are trying to do something good for the planet.”

Jessica, her father’s reflection. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

The next five of our 30,000 days would be spent together crossing one of the most desolate places on Earth. First stop, the Brisbane Archerfield Aerodrome for a charter flight. A 12-person turboprop Beechcraft that would carry us to our first base camp.  Seated in the co-pilot’s chair, I refrained from flipping the captivating switches and buttons, although I really wanted to know what would happen if I hit the shiny Coffee switchHours of endless, arid desert passed by and started to become monotonous. Given my passion for all things airplanes, I managed to overwhelm our friendly pilot Clint with so many questions that, now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure he started talking to nonexistent control towers just to get me to shut up.

Jessica Horn staring out of the Beechcraft aircraft’s window on our way to Birdsville. The endless desert would be our home for the next 5 days. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

We landed 1,300 km away in Birdsville—a frontier town situated on the edge of the Simpson Desert, which is known as Munga-Thirri by the aborigines.

Preparing for a landing in the outback: Photo: Ryosei Suzuki

In the dry, but agreeable desert heat at the aptly named Birdsville Hotel, our fleet awaited: seven glorious Mercedes G-Wagens. Two were configured for logistics and support, three were the “back-to-basics” G350 model, and the two others: Mike Horn’s own black and white, trusty G500s. Readily distinguishable by German plates and left-hand drive, Horn’s vehicles include extended gas tanks, special suspensions, and oddly-enough, rear-seat entertainment screens which seemed very out of place in such an ‘extreme’ adventure vehicle. His beloved wheels have accompanied him on every continent through some of the least hospitable places in the world. The only emotion that could describe Horn’s affinity for his faithful Mercedes is genuine love.

“This is a BEAST,” Horn says of his beloved G-Wagen, “Why must you look for something better if you have the best?”

The adventure team was finally all together, cordial introductions took place but Mike Horn was interested in one thing: “Let’s eat on the road! I want to get out there and explore.” The Mercedes fleet was a tease, a seduction that could only be met with pedal to the metal.

The adventure commences in Birdsville, on the edge of the Simpson Desert. Our small fleet of G-Class 4×4 ready for the adventure. Photo: Alex Rae

And so, as ready as we could be with “Big Red” burgers in our bellies, a moniker earned from their proximity to the biggest dune of the of the desert, we finally set out. The adventure begins. First step, head to Big Red, a 40m high ridge. It would allow us to also get acquainted with the cars, the unique terrain and marked the beginning of the desert crossing. The Simpson Desert (Munga-Thirri) is the largest parallel sand dune desert in the world, made up of more than 1100 blood red and orange dunes, shaped by the westerly winds into long sandy waves, some of which can reach 200km in length.

Racing towards the Big Red. Photo: Alex Rae

The last time I had driven a 4×4 offroad was several years prior in a manual-gear Chevy Blazer on the Ruta 40 in Patagonia, so I was a bit startled when Mike told me to take the wheel of his car but I was stoked and eager to do well. He jumped in the back seat and his daughter assumed the role of co-pilot. I was getting the full Horn experience. A quick rundown on every button, lever, and pedal, and Horn declares, “Now that that’s all clear, drive!” No pressure whatsoever. I made sure the handbrake wasn’t pulled and pressed down hard on the accelerator, per my tutor’s instructions. I didn’t get yelled at for at least three minutes for my rudimentary-level driving abilities, so I’d say it was a success. Within sight of Big Red, we hit the brakes to wait for the team to catch up and prepare for the approach to range over the mighty dune. “You have to know your terrain. In the afternoon the sand will get hot and therefore will be softer. At night, cold and firm. Go fast, but not too fast,” Horn directed. We didn’t want to lose traction and energy and get stuck.

One, two, three, I hit the accelerator and the gas engine roared to life. “Go! Go! Go Go!” Mike bellowed, “Yes! Yes! Go! Don’t accelerate too much! Center diff-lock off! That’s it! Center diff-lock on! Look at the sand! Negotiate, read it!” We crested the mighty Big Red.

Mike Horn atop the Big Red dune spurring on a fellow comrade trying to get up the desert’s highest and steepest dune. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari See the documentary with more footage here

The entire convoy stopped atop Big Red, we looked out at a sea of orange, yellow, beige, and sand. Sand as far as the eye could see. Sizing up the hostile terrain that lay ahead, we partially deflated our tires—a necessary precaution while driving on sand, although it consumes up to 50 percent more fuel. “The most important thing about off-road driving is getting the tire pressure right,” Mike explains as he used a twig he found nearby to get the pressure to approximately 1.5 bar. Holding up the small piece of wood, he added, “This is the most ancient tool that nature has ever created. If you know how to use it, you can do everything with it. You clean your teeth. You can deflate a tire. You can even wipe your arse with it.” It might be his ability to exist both sternly and merrily that makes him right for this job.

Father and daughter, Jessica, work as a team and deflate the tires. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

In our mighty steeds, we barreled west through the warm, savanna-like empty terrain. Some 1200 dunes run north to south and we’ll be crossing them on our journey west.  “Here you have vegetation, and where there’s vegetation there are usually signs of life,” Horn explains excitedly, “and so, while it is arid and there is no water, you think something might be able to live here—that’s what makes it exciting.”

The Big Red dune, over 40 meters high, is the largest dune in the Simpson Desert and the starting point of most expeditions. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

Pole2Pole expedition is rooted in three pillars: environmental protection—through providing research on wildlife and the environment; adventure; and sharing. Any discoveries that might contribute to science were supposed to be noted and marked with GPS coordinates by team members. I had prepared myself to encounter red kangaroos, desert dingos, wild camels hoary-headed grebes (which, despite the Tolkienesque name, is actually similar to a duck), Australian bustards, even bilbies (a surprisingly cute cross between a rabbit, mole, and jumping mouse which may or may not kill you). Alas, save for a single dingo the only animal we encountered was the fly and therefore cut the scientific part of the expedition, short.

Photo: Alex Rae

Now entrusted as a driver, I took turns at the wheel with the Horn kin as night descended rapidly. Visibility in such a corrugated landscape can prove deadly if not careful. Revving to the top of a dune to successfully cross it leaves little time for reaction if the car ahead in the convoy is stuck, something invisible until too late. To take precaution, every vehicle trekking through the desert must be 3.5 m high, carry a fluorescent red safety flag, and is equipped with a Citizens Band (CB) radio so we can communicate within our convoy as well as contact travelers within a 3-4 km range—useful for alerts or friendly conversation that ranged from witty conversation to lewd jokes, which unfortunately I couldn’t make much out of given the rather thick Ozzy accents. In any case, they were welcome during the long and sometimes monotonous drive.

The importance of the safety flag. You can see it over the ridge. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

Night was upon us. “Be on the lookout for the camp. Right-hand side,” Stamoulis notified through the CB. A few faint lights glimmered and we made a right turn after a day of going straight. I half-expected an adventure with Mike Horn to include hunting and foraging our own dinner, but chef Billy Dohnt and the entire support crew prepared something of Michelin-star quality. Grilled surf & turf featuring giant shrimp, kangaroo, emu, and alligator with fresh greens and avocado in a light vinaigrette, boiled potatoes, and fine French mustard, plus apple crumble with cream for dessert. All accompanied by some amazing local wines and brews.

Our camp for the first night. Nothing but stars and sand. And shrubs. Want to watch more? click here Photo: Alex Rae

We worked together to make the camp a cozy and light-hearted place to wind down for the night. We all had swag kits, which were like large duffel bags that we unrolled and within them had a self-contained foam mattress and collapsible tent, all-in-one. The full moon illuminated the camp like a great blue gas lantern. In front of our large campfire, dubbed “Bush-T.V.” we sat spellbound. The wood crackled and embers rose towards the stars. Its flame kept us warm from the bitingly cold night as the arid and bare desert couldn’t retain the heat of the day.

Gathered around the fire in the bitter cold desert, telling stories, drinking wine. Photo: Ryosei Suzuki

All the while, earthy, full-bodied red wines and craft beers flowed freely and we carried on the ageless tradition of storytelling around the campfire. Mike Horn’s tales of hazards and thrills on every corner of the globe had us hanging onto his every word. He also spoke of the sadness of seeing starving polar bears drown or so weak that they’re killed by their own prey. He even hit us with a bit of trivia: Do you know what “Arctic” and “Antarctic” mean? (Answer at the end).

Mike telling one of his many stories around the fire. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

Horn makes no announcements that he’s going to sleep. Nor does he bother with things like tents. Instead, he unfurled his swag kit by his Mercedes and slept right on top of the tent/mattress, beneath the stars. Shortly after, I got hit by a wall of exhaustion and didn’t even care if there was a lurking dingo, I crawled into my swag tent and Morpheus’ embrace held me tight.

Tuesday, August 8

I awoke from such a deep sleep, I had to piece together my surroundings. Is that sound outside a dingo scavenging the camp or a fellow expeditioner snoring?  Why are my dirt-covered boots inside the tent with me? Happily warm in my silk lining and winter-thick sleeping bag, I shunned the freezing air outside. But then I remembered wise words for Mike Horn, “Without discipline, you can never be motivated. People ask me how I can be motivated to get out of the tent every day, whether there are 200 km winds or it’s -50ºC? I’m not motivated to get out of the tent, I’m human. I’m disciplined to get out the tent”. I thought of those wise words as I put my discipline on snooze for 15 minutes.

Dawn in the desert. Worth it. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

My day officially started at 5:30 in the morning with wet wipes for a shower. I reassembled my various bits of clothing and gear and made a beeline for the campfire, and found a few others had the same idea. Light crept up from the horizon. The world turned purple, then blue, dark yellow, and eventually orange as the sun made its grand entrance.

Billy got breakfast going when suddenly a small generator disrupted the peaceful silence of the desert and crackling campfire. Of all the reasons there was a ginny was for…a Nespresso machine. Any romantic notion of an old-school camp rumbled away as the harsh reality of modern comforts and technology that we’d left far behind came rushing back. It was like finding a Starbucks in the middle of the playa at Burning Man. “I don’t know man,” Dohnt said to me with a resigned look. “Someone said we needed one, so I made sure we had it.” All was forgiven as he broke out the bacon steaks, eggs, fruits, bread and butter. And vegemite.

Mike preparing and serving the crew some amazing ham steaks, eggs, and bruschetta. Truly a breakfast of champions. Photo: Alex Rae

Breaking down the camp was as simple as rolling up our swag and making sure we left nature untouched as we found it. By 8:00 a.m. we were pointed due west to cross a few hundred more dunes to Poeppel Corner—where Queensland, Northern Territory and South Australia converge.

lanruoJ roodtuO ehT. Want to watch more? click here Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

I took the wheel in one of Mike’s cars, this time accompanied by Stamoulis who at this stage of the trip just went by “the Greek” and the legendary Erwin Wonisch, an original designer of the Mercedes G-Class. He knows every nut, bolt, and detail of the vehicle since it was first developed in the early 1970s and manufactured in Graz, Austria. It was another day of learning advanced driving techniques accompanied by a soundtrack of laughter and eighties music. “Forget what Mike taught you,” Wonisch said in his unmistakable German accent “Put the other diff lock on and go up the dune in third gear. Ja! Go!” So much for Mike “learning everything I know from Erwin”.

Legendary Erwin Wonisch (bottom right), one of the fathers of the Mercedes G-Wagen. Photo: Alex Rae

We passed dry riverbeds, their thin white crust crumbled beneath the tires, leaving deep red and brown scars in the track. Contrasted with cloudless blue skies, it was a sight to behold and a welcome break from the up and down dune driving. Anyone crossing this stretch alone could be stranded for days without ever seeing another person or even able to make outside contact. In such inhospitable terrain, death is always a possibility.

Photo: Alex Rae

Approximately 170 km from Big Red, we finally arrive at Poeppel Corner. A large bronze plaque set on a concrete pillar greets us, commemorating this arbitrarily selected geographical spot (it was moved a few times since the 1880s when Mr. Poeppel, a surveyor, had first set the point).  A few souvenir pictures later, Horn gravitated to a concrete pillar planted in the sand and decided that he would lift this 100-kilo object because he could. He doesn’t back down from a challenge and this was no exception. After half a dozen thwarted attempts, he kept at it, psyching himself up more each time. We held our breaths as we collectively envisioned him literally breaking his back, or a hernia at the very least, attempting this seemingly futile exercise. Through sheer determination, strength, physics, and stubbornness, Horn finally managed to leverage the massive concrete slab onto his shoulder and swagger a dozen meters on shifting sand before unceremoniously dumping it back from whence it came. Mike the übermensch proving yet again he’s not actually from this planet. We let out a collective muted cheer for his exploit, relieved we didn’t need to use the sat phone for a medevac.

Poeppel Corner. Where 3 Australian states meet. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

The caravan continued west towards the famed Dalhousie Springs, a remote oasis that sports more than 60 springs and pools, some as warm as 40C. One more night in the outback, we set up camp. Most of us knew one another for little more than 24 hours. We arrived from varied walks of life, professions, ages and cultures, yet it felt like we were already a tight-knit team. Two days of driving in a terrain I’d never encountered before with two of the most experienced, hardcore drivers in the world—and neither of them reprimanded me too much. Not bad if I may say so myself.

Despite having a generator to produce espressos, we were still far from modern amenities, wandering off to find a quiet spot to dig a hole and squat. The full harvest moon made the night incredibly bright but feeling pretty vulnerable with pants around the ankles in a makeshift desert WC.

Mike holding up Issue 12 of The Outdoor Journal which also featured him on the cover and his crossing of the Namibia Desert. Photo: Alex Rae

Around the fire that night, German YouTube superstars Felix von der Laden and Peter Smits expressed to Horn that they hadn’t been disconnected from the internet for this long in their lives. And so, Horn and the Germans shared their two divergent alien worlds around the campfire, a generation gap happily extending a piece of each other for better understanding. “Let me get this straight,” Mike said in a rare moment of incredulity “you have millions of followers on YouTube…who watch you play video games?” “Yes, that’s how we started a few years ago” Peter added.

It was the first time I ever saw Mike with an expression I’d never thought I’d see: genuine surprise and incredulity. That split moment was the very definition of a “generation gap”. Mike, however, rarely backs down and went on the counter-offensive to try and understand and conquer the unknown. Within minutes he was asking a deluge of questions, smiling as he chipped away at this totally alien idea. Always curious, always exploring. “That’s why I keep exploring. It’s food for me. It’s what makes me happy.”

I let him grok the new ideas and I turned my gaze and mind towards the shimmering stars above and I noticed the constellations, familiar but somehow subtly different from my normal Northern hemisphere view. Like the last time I was in this land, I had a sense of ‘twilight zone’ surreality that I quite enjoy as it keeps me on my toes.

A perfect starry night descended upon us. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

Caked by the dust and sand from the past few days, I peeled away from the fire to slip into dreamland, looking forward to the next day’s adventure to Dalhousie Springs and the promise of a hot bath.

Wednesday, August 9

We emerged from our warm cocoons before dawn to find Horn had already stoked the fire and prepared bruschetta made with bread freshly baked the night before in a cast iron pot by Billy the master chef.  The smell of coffee wafted through the camp and following it to its source I was greeted by poached eggs and a bounty of spreads, fruits, and pastries. And vegemite.

Packing up, tying down. Photo: Alex Rae

Upholding the “leave no trace” doctrine, we were back on the road traveling along the French Line track, named for French surveyors who had come on an unsuccessful search here for oil more than a century ago. I rode with Mike as he piloted at breakneck speeds down dry river beds, fervently attacking every dune like it was his last. While he was in his element I figured it was a perfect moment to pick his brain.


LF
: You’re known as Mike Horn, “Explorer“. What is the difference between adventure and exploration?
MH: I think we all have an adventurous spirit but we are not all explorers. An explorer explores the adventurous spirit. You can be an explorer in art, in science. When you become an explorer, you’re willing to go out of your comfort zone and explore your adventurous spirit.

LF: What is “Adventure Travel” for you?
MH: Adventure travel means you’re learning something new, seeing something new, and going off the beaten track. You can’t necessarily make a living with adventure so it’s got to be more than your passion. It’s got to be your lifestyle, a way of living. What we usually have in life is too many options. We opt out of everything! It’s not the easy moments, it’s the difficult ones you want. Greed is one of the biggest downfalls of the human being. The more he has, the more he wants. It becomes this vicious circle that you go in that you think that you only live alone on this planet and you don’t care about the rest behind you.

LF: Do you believe adventure travel can save the world by educating people?
MH: I think that adventure travel can be a big catalyst to make people want to conserve the planet for future generations. Respect nature and respect the people that will admire nature the same way you do who will come after you.

LF: Do you get a say in giving a message for the environment and generate awareness?
MH: I don’t think “the environment” is something we should speak about anymore. The environment should become a lifestyle. Conserving the environment and taking care of the environment is simple respect.

LF: What keeps you going when you’re in a difficult situation?
MH: I think about coming back alive to a family that supports me, to a group of people that love me. I don’t leave home because I don’t like being home. I come back home because I love my family, I love my daughters, unfortunately, my wife’s not alive anymore, but I loved coming back to see her. That’s why I want to survive, because it’s sincere. I don’t do what I do for any other reason than to feel happy and content with my life but I have a responsibility that goes with it. That responsibility is towards the people that give me the freedom to do what I do. To be able to take and use that freedom means respecting one thing: you have to come back alive.

LF: What’s a “Mike Horn motto” we should live by?
MH: We have to be a little bit of a criminal in our lives. Just think of robbing a bank. That excites me. How am I going to outsmart that alarm system and all that? When you go out and adventure, you’ve got to be able to think through the whole spectrum of life.

LF: Adventurers, or adrenaline junkies, are commonly associated with recklessness and bravado, people who don’t respect life or their own lives.

MH: I don’t do it to die. I do it to live. The moment I take the decision to cross Antarctica I know I could die, but I’m not afraid of losing. That will to win becomes bigger than that fear to lose. If you have that will to win, then dying is part of what you do.

LF: What is the worst thing you have ever had to eat to survive?
MH: Rotten walrus that was killed by a polar bear. It was bloated and half rotten. It was my limit but I had to survive.

LF: That sounds positively revolting. OK, so what is the best thing you’ve ever eaten?
MH: I had a 3 star Michelin chef, a friend of mine, prepare some of my meals for my arctic expedition. Once a week I’d have a treat. They were the best ever meals, foie-gras, poulet farci, etc. The best thing I ate during my travels that I provided for myself were wild strawberries. And caribou. Caribou is tender, sweet. Very good.

LF: Everyone has a weakness in life. What’s yours?
MH: Chocolate.

LF: Do you have a favorite curse word?
MH: [With a great big sarcastic smile]: I never say curse words. Ha ha. If I had to choose, I guess it would be ‘cac’.

Watch our exclusive video with Mike Horn for more interviews and more stunning footage of the Simpson Desert crossing here

 

And with that, he wore a big grin and his eyes lit up like a mischievous kid. His charisma is what so effortlessly captivates people, making them willing to follow him over the edge of the world. He’s affable and a jester who likes to tell naughty jokes, yet a laser-focused leader the instant a situation calls for it.

Mike’s famous (?) dancing moves. “He has no rhythm at all!” Jessica exclaimed. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

Listening to Horn, I understand that he truly is passionate about life, the good and the bad. He talks fast, trying to get out as many thoughts as possible in a short a time. His ideas, experiences, and memories resulting from such an extraordinary and saturated life magnetizes anyone within earshot into his orbit. When he curses, which is a lot, it is not because he’s vulgar but rather he can hardly contain his enthusiasm and steadfast zest for living.

While the weather and scenery remained relatively unchanged, the color of the land became slightly darker and richer as we continued further inland, reminding me of African bush.

Photo: Ryosei Suzuki

We arrived at Dalhousie Springs in the late afternoon. Flushing toilets and camping lots awaited. It was a bittersweet feeling as we neared the beginning of the end of this amazing adventure. The almost 40C hot thermal pool after four days without more than wet-wipes was sublime. Our motley convoy lingered in the pool until sunset, playing in the water, floating around and trying to swim towards the hundreds of birds that rested in the surrounding trees. We stepped out from the utter bliss of the dark green hot spring and within seconds we were literally assaulted by swarms of mosquitoes. We rushed to change into dry clothing, swatting ourselves like maniacs doing so.

The warm, 40 degree, Dalhousie Springs in the middle of nowhere. They were a welcome break and a chance to get clean. Photo: Alex Rae

As open fires weren’t allowed on the campgrounds, this last evening together was lit by the harvest moon. We spent the night swimming beneath the Milkyway as we celebrated the journey and took it upon ourselves to lighten our liquids in tow.

Thursday, August 10

On the last morning of the expedition, one of our Japanese members from the team Ryosei Suzuki, led us in a welcome impromptu yoga session. We did sun salutations as dingoes circled in the distance. We indulged in the last breakfast of the trip and packed up for Mount Dare, the next closest inhabited place some three hours away by car. From there we’d fly to Sydney, and then homeward bound.

Mt. Dare. The only civilisation for hundreds of kilometers. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

Mt. Dare was nothing more than a gas pump, car shop, restaurant and souvenir shop with a broken windmill which really completed the stereotypical image you’d expect of a middle-of-nowhere outpost like this. It was just missing some koalas and kangaroos. We entered the unassuming faded red front door and were totally awestruck. Strung from the ceiling were hundreds of foam beer coolers from around the world. Stickers, hats and other memorabilia, including old magazines and VHS tapes brought by passersby over the decades filled the space. The fun cheery staff was everything I could have hoped for from an Australian outback hole-in-the-wall. It was nice to have a stone cold beer and a rustic lunch, but it was a bit too soon to be hit by things like satellite T.V. and the internet. I left my devices switched off and disconnected to savor the adventure spirit a little longer.

In the fields behind the Mt. Dare outpost, a small turboprop plane similar to the one that had brought us from Brisbane to Birdsville lay in wait to carry us off to Sydney.

Mike gives a great big hug to Satoko Suzuki. Photo: Ryosei Suzuki

As we boarded, I realized these last few days were normal, possibly even relaxing, for the greatest explorer of our time. “Thanks Mike,” I said on my way up the ramp stairs, giving a firm handshake. “It’s been an amazing adventure for us and a dream come true, thanks for having us along for a few of your 30,000 days.”

“Remember,” he replied, still firmly shaking my hand, pulling me in towards him a bit, looking me squarely in the eyes like he was going to deliver the secret of the universe and with a slight grin, and in his enthralling Afrikaans accent told me, “If your dreams don’t scare you, you’re not dreaming big enough.”

Mike imparting some advice and always more stories. Photo: Alex Rae

PS: The answer to the meaning of Arctic & Antarctic? From the Greek ‘arktos’ or “bear” and “anti-bear”. In the North, there are bears, while in the south, none. I bet you didn’t know that. I certainly didn’t. Now you have a pub quiz question you can use. You’re welcome.

Watch our exclusive video with Mike Horn for more interviews and more stunning footage of the Simpson Desert crossing here

Hi there! Inspired to cross and explore the Simpson Desert? Let us know and we can help you organize it! Deserts not your thing? Visit outdoorvoyage.com and choose some of the best adventures around the world with only the safest and most reputable adventure operators.

A beautiful group picture finale. Photo: Alex Rae
The end of a long and hot adventure. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

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Op-Ed

Apr 22, 2019

Wilderness Porn

In the social media era, nature has become a commodity—hashtagged and hearted for mass consumption. But at what cost? Is our planet ultimately paying the price?

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WRITTEN BY

Douglas Baughman

Last month, when scrolling through one of my very few social media feeds, past the usual fare of thumbs-up aphorisms and pc bromides, I came across an alarming article reposted from Forbes. The headline read “Unless It Changes, Capitalism Will Starve Humanity by 2050.” Beneath the bold black letters was a photo of a desolate and hopeless landscape—a stark contrast of anything I would normally see from accounts I follow on picture-sharing platforms.

In support of the apocalyptic foretelling, the article’s author, Drew Hansen, cited a bulleted inventory of statistics as evidence, from the exponential rate of species extinction and the millions upon millions of acres lost each year as a result of deforestation, to rising population growth, increased levels of poverty, and the continued exploitation of world resources, including an over-reliance on fossil fuels that contribute to climate change.

Photo by Jeff Finley.

“Our most treasured natural landscapes become articles of mass consumption.”

None of this was news to me, generally speaking, and while I may waver to and from agreement or denial of the projected outcome, I am fairly steady on the crux of facts. I studied U.S. energy policy in graduate school, specifically the link between carbon emissions from fossil fuels and global warming, basing the majority of my research on studies conducted at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado, and various scientific and government agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I also knew that during the intervening two and a half decades, nothing had really changed, not substantively, except maybe the urgency of warnings. In many instances, especially among factors affecting climate change, conditions had gotten worse. Global atmospheric carbon concentrations have steadily increased, by about 15 percent during that time period, from 358 parts per million in January 1994 to 410 ppm as of the first month of this year, according to data compiled by NOOA. At the same time, economic pressures threatening once-sacrosanct public lands have only intensified.

Read next on TOJ: Three Things Everyone Can Do to Fight Climate Change Right Now

But what I did not know, or rather what I had not realized, was just how easy it is to turn a blind eye from all of it—the despairing news and dire predictions—and instead find more peaceful refuge in images that showcase vibrant wildlife and natural grandeur, like the one recently posted @planetearthtv of a blue iridescent wave curling from the Indian Ocean and crashing on the shores of Sri Lanka, or the snow-capped crown of Mount Moran reflected upside-down in the still waters of the Snake River @natgeotravel, or a baby elephant guided by the doting trunk of its mother, both of them safe from the butchery of poachers @hearthofafrica.

For many years, I lived in Boulder, Colorado, where access to open space and the stretches of wilderness areas just beyond the foothills are always within eyesight. A short ride up the canyon switchbacks can offer some pretty spectacular vantage points for photo opportunities. On a clear day, facing west toward the Continental Divide, vistas of wintry peaks stitch the Rocky Mountains to the horizon. Conversely, to the east over the patchwork communities spanning the Front Range, a sepia fog on most days blurs the bird’s eye view. The first scene is well-photographed, the other almost never. Yet, they are two sides of the same coin.

The author shooting the Continental Divide, near Boulder, Colo. Photo by: Mary Colbert.

Cropped from the mess of reality, these selective portrayals become more like works of art than photographic realism. And like all works of art, they are an interpretation of the world, in this case an idealized and subjective version, but not true of the world in whole. Strung together and reinforced over time by subtle and subconscious increments, they form a false narrative, albeit an unintended one, whose numbing effects may be counter-productive to addressing imminent environmental issues in a measurable way.

“A preferential focus on the pristine is ineffective at addressing global environmental challenges.”

On Instagram, @NatGeo alone has more than 103 million followers who post, share and by the hundreds of thousands “breathtaking images that inspire people to care about the planet,” according to a recent statement from National Geographic Partners in celebrating its breach of the 100 million followers mark. Plainly there is an appetite, not just at National Geographic, but across many other sites and social media outlets. Strictly from the perspective of environmentalism, and even among enthusiasts who share a passion for the outdoors, has this over-whelming swell of appreciation channelled awareness into meaningful action? And if not, as Hansen’s outline of unpropitious trends indicate, then what of the appetite itself? Is it simply an idle act of consumerism, the product of economic privilege, as some social historians and environmental theorists have suggested?

Photo by: Marco Gnaccarini.

In a highly influential essay presented in 1989 during a visiting lectureship at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies called “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique,” Indian ecologist Ramachandra Guha described a fundamental flaw within environmentalism “to equate environmental protection with the protection of wilderness,” a concept he further contended was artificial and distinctly American, borne from a unique social and environmental history.

Although Guha’s main intention was to question the validity and wholesale export of what he considered an impractical form of American-centric environmentalism to populations across other parts of the world, in the process of pressing forward his thesis he made many salient points that offer an interesting insight into the roots of our attitude toward nature, and how that perception hobbles the advancement of global environmental solutions. “Here,” wrote Guha, referencing an earlier thesis from American environmental, social and political historian Samuel P. Hays, “the enjoyment of nature is an integral part of the consumer society.”

Photo by Anh Vy

Hays had attributed contemporary environmentalism to evolving consumer behavior, echoing similar observations from esteemed economist John Kenneth Galbraith. In an article titled “From Conservation to Environment: Environmental Politics in the United States Since World War Two,” Hays traced the history of changing patterns of consumption—beginning in the late 19th century from a concentration on basic “necessities,” i.e. housing, food and clothing; followed in the early half of the 20th century to an increasing attention on “conveniences” in the form of durable goods, such as household appliances and automobiles; and culminating finally with a focus more toward “amenities” and “luxuries” as a direct result of a rise in discretionary income and a correlative increase in leisure time—pinning them to varied new sectors associated with consumption, like the “recreation economy,” the “leisure economy” and the “environmental economy.”

“In this scenario, the environment is up-cycled.”

“One of the distinctive aspects of the history of consumption is the degree to which what once were luxuries, enjoyed by only a few, over the years became enjoyed by many,” wrote Hays. “And so it was with environmental amenities. What only a few could enjoy in the 19th century came to be mass activities in the mid-20th.”

The nettle for environmentalism within this economic framework, unfortunately, is that those areas of more enviable amenity (read: our most treasured natural landscapes), and by proxy to a degree nature itself, become articles of mass consumption, subject to the same principles and driving economic forces as any other commodity or luxury good. In this scenario, the environment is up-cycled. The more exotic, remote and rare supplants the less-desirable, commonplace and humdrum. It is a process for which social media and photo-sharing sites especially are extremely efficient. If the Grand Tetons or Yosemite’s El Capitan are the archetypal crown of American conservation (evinced by the number of times either one or both appear on the calendars of some of the most prominent environmental organizations), then what hope exists for a 100,000-acre expanse of sagebrush? How can environmentalism possibly survive that level of self-competing rigor?

El Capitan. Photo by Arun Kuchibhotla

Instead, Guha argued that virtually every landscape on Earth is affected in one way or another by human interaction and that a preferential focus on the pristine is ineffective at addressing global environmental challenges because it ignores the surrounding problems, such as pollution and over-population. When imposed throughout the world, he claimed, the emphasis on wilderness is actually harmful. In regions like India, for example, which shares many geographic similarities and an ecological diversity comparable to the U.S., but with a radically dissimilar cultural and social history, including most importantly a long-settled and densely populated countryside, the situation is very near the reverse when compared to circumstances in America. It would be impossible to set aside broad swaths of wilderness without displacing large groups of native people.

One of the unspoken obstacles of the environmental movement, and perpetuated in many of the images we choose to post and share and like, is the lingering mythology of the American Wild West. Notions of wide open spaces that once may have kindled the fires of Manifest Destiny or lent a special component of religious vigor to ideas of Calvinistic predestination are deeply embedded in our history and cultural psyche. It may be an outdated ideology, but it still shapes our environmental biases today. It is what John Kenneth Galbraith coined the “conventional wisdom,” the only enemy of which is the march of obsolescence.

Photo by Florian Olivo.

I recently visited Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a popular New York City neighborhood known for its hipster energy and progressive attitudes, and whose majority of residents would identify, I strongly suspect, as an environmentalist, or at least supportive of environmental causes. And still, to my surprise, so much litter covered the streets and sidewalks, like nothing seen in the city since maybe the 1970s. I watched as a small girl struggled to propel a scooter against strong gusts of wind coming off the East River, her progress further hampered by an aerial assault of plastic bags, some wrapping around her front wheels, while her parents remained either unaware or indifferent. I wondered, what makes this environment—the East River, or for that matter, the Bronx River, near where I live now—less enviable than, say, the Snake River in Wyoming? Or is it the edict of our conventional wisdom that directs us to accept a set of values that would rank one above the other

“Familiarity may breed contempt in some areas of human behavior,” Galbraith wrote in the opening pages of his groundbreaking book, The Affluent Society, a cornerstone for understanding the sway of cultural attitudes on economic policy, “but in the field of social ideas it is the touchstone of acceptability.”

Without negating the large body of science that unanimously agrees preservation of wilderness and wildlife is essential to biological health, nor the value of the imagery to inspire its appreciation, the war for environmental well-being will be won in battles that not only strive to protect what we have but also restore what we have lost. Otherwise, it is hard to see how a preoccupation with one-sided points of view and accepted half-truths will prepare us for whatever 2050 will bring.

Feature image by Daniil Silantev

 

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