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Last week I spent an enormously memorable hour talking with Mike Horn. Not only is the South Africa-born resident of Lausanne one of our age’s most gilded and frankly most obdurate explorers, he also has an extraordinary ability to inspire.
The message – if we can call it that – that came through has many prongs. On the one hand he’s an environmentalist, whose expeditions continue to highlight the degradation of habitats as diverse as the Amazon rainforest and the North Pole.
Last year, with the whaling trade halted by lockdowns, he went to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and recorded whale song. In doing so, he discovered that without the threat of hunting, whales were more communicative, more in touch with their young and (although I’m not quite sure how you measure this) generally happier. Nature, he said, has a way of healing itself, if only we’d butt out.
On the other, he’s a go-get-’em, bull-by-the-horns kind of guy who believes in and epitomises the indomitable human spirit that he reckons resides within us all. Discipline, he said simply, was what helped him become the first person to circumnavigate the Earth around the equator without the aid of a motorised vehicle. All it took was focus, he says, to walk across the North Pole in the featureless darkness of winter. Somehow, he found the confidence to face down a firing squad in the Congo and walk away with his life.
Yes, Mike Horn is an incredible human being. I came away ready to conquer all my fears (“Fear is your friend; fear is your insurance policy”) and climb my own personal Everests. And then went to bed.
Horn’s achievements are known the world over, but in watch circles he’s best known as a Panerai ambassador. The Italianate watch company paired up with him 20-odd years ago and has since released a long series of adventure-grade watches bearing his name. One even bore part of his boat, Pangaea, which, he says, had been round the world with him on no fewer than 27 occasions. Versions of most have been on Horn’s expeditions, one left in the field after it was hammered into a cliff face when he ran out of pitons. There’s a watch for someone to go and find.