South African-born explorer Mike Horn is to the French-speaking world what Bear Grylls is to the US. Debbie Hathway spoke to the ‘greatest living man’ in Geneva, before he set off to resume his circumnavigation of the globe.
My interview with Mike Horn at this year’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in Geneva ranks among the most inspirational of my career. He was there for the launch of the Panerai Submersible Mike Horn Edition PAM00985, a limited-edition professional diver’s watch, and I was the only South African journalist in a 1 400-strong international media contingent. The connection was instant and I was on a high for days.
It’s the effect of what I call the ‘Mike magic’ – his ability to excite, to inspire, to delight and to engage a global audience that includes the all-important funders of his ‘crazy’ dreams. In a recent Instagram post taken on the grey East China Sea, the caption reads: ‘The sun lives inside ourselves.’ That’s Mike to a T.
While SIHH was underway, Mike was busy with preparations for the next stage of his Pole2Pole expedition, an estimated three-year circumnavigation of the world that began in 2016. In addition to giving payback to main sponsors Panerai and Mercedes-Benz, who have supported Mike for almost two decades, scheduled stops in this epic adventure are necessary for his financial survival. Over the years Mike’s income has been fuelled variously by television appearances, giving talks and motivating top sports teams. Television programmes that cover Mike taking celebrities into nature and teaching them how to survive have worked rather well and become quite popular. ‘As you know sponsorship has become a bit more difficult, so you have to find alternative means of financing. If television is the way to finance what I do, then I have to make space for that,’ he told one journalist.
In another interview, he described his business model as one that pretty much works around selling a dream.
Get investors emotionally and financially involved in what you do – that’s when you find sincere and honest partnerships, creating value out of being the first person to cross Antarctica, to swim down the Amazon River or to cross the North Pole in winter. ‘It has a lot to do with marketing and advertising, but it’s a philosophy that explorers had in the past and still have today – that we can still go out there and make our dreams come true,’ he says.
Mike believes more companies today want to invest in authentic, true-life stories. Mercedes-Benz, pioneers in the world of mobility, found synergy in his pioneering work in exploration. The Richemont connection came when Johann Rupert took his own Panerai off his wrist and gave it to Mike at the Laureus World Sports Awards when he won Action Sportsperson of the Year in 2001. ‘I didn’t know him from a bar of soap – I knew more about his father and the Rupert family. I said, “Wow!” This was the only watch I wanted to wear or would buy,’ says Mike. ‘That Panerai association came out of the blue when I really needed it the most.’ Relationships like that, which come from the heart, last forever.
At the time of writing, he had just embarked on the crossing of the Arctic Ocean via the North Pole to complete his Pole2Pole expedition. It’s the culmination of a boyhood dream that started when Mike read books about Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton, legendary explorers of the Antarctic. ‘You need a lot of experience if you want to go out there and do something that nobody else has done – it takes a lot of preparation. We don’t risk losing money, we don’t risk losing a reputation, we risk losing a life,’ he said in a recent interview. ‘And that’s where the real investment and the real dedication to what I do becomes the point of interest – because I’m willing to commit. I’m willing to commit much more than money, I’m willing to commit my life. That has a different value.’
The aim of Mike’s expeditions is to explore culture and nature in remote regions and to share his discoveries with people worldwide. The Mercedes-Benz G-Class enables him to do this, but it’s something that attracts criticism. ‘When I drive to climb K2, for example, people criticise me for driving with that G-Class, but I need the G-Class capability to get over the Himalayas,’ says Mike. ‘I’m going to places that no one has been and I’m doing it in the cleanest possible way. The G-Wagen’s engine conforms to the latest Euro 6 emissions standard. I need that vehicle because it’s made for me like the Panerai watch is made for me.’
He describes his life as one constant exploration, one constant activity. ‘I always try and explain I’m not bigger and stronger than anybody else. I’m just a normal 53-year-old male who has been active for the better part of my life. Activity is what keeps my mind sane.’
Visit Mike Horn’s website to find out more about his expeditions.