Explorer Mike Horn is now at the mid-point of his epic Pangaea expedition, a four-year enterprise that will cross all seven continents without using motorised transport. Explorers Journal contributing editor Nick Smith caught up with Mike in the Gobi Desert. If it’s Mongolia it must be camels…
Sitting in a tent in the Gobi Desert Mike Horn describes what he does as ‘normal. It’s just normal.’ At the mid-point of his four-year Pangaea expedition he’s taking a well-earned breather from weeks of camel trekking in the blazing sun. We’re planning our route for the day on a map spread out before us on a makeshift table strewn with coffee cups. The idea is to meet the camel wranglers, saddle up and trek westward through the Mongolian Steppe. It feels anything but normal.
I’ve flown in from London to join Horn on part of his Asia leg of his expedition, changing planes at Paris, Moscow and finally Ulan Bator, where I hop onto an old Soviet military helicopter and fly a further four hours west into the desert. As we make our descent into the fabled Singing Dunes I reckon I’ve been in the air for 24 hours and so it’s nice to be greeted by a woman in a red jacket offering me a chilled glass of champagne. Horn’s sponsor – the house of G.H.Mumm – is holding a press conference to update the world’s press on Pangaea’s progress.
Horn is one of the world’s highest profile adventure-style explorers and his exploits are legendary. One of the reasons for his visibility is that he embraces the triangular relationship between exploration, sponsorship and media, regarding it as healthy and symbiotic. He’s all about the message, telling me that exploration may once have been about discovering new lands and mapping the world, but now it’s about communicating environmental issues. To do that you need a financial means of propulsion and a media conduit to the wider public.
But before we can get down to the interviews and photo shoots there’s some real work to do, because Mike Horn likes to share his experiences rather than just talk about them. ‘How can you understand what I do unless you share part of that experience with me.’ An opportunity too good to miss, I make the token gesture of swatting a few flies off me, take a swig of water and with the early morning sun on our backs we wander through the Singing Dunes.
Nick Smith: How did the Pangaea project come about?
Mike Horn: When I walked around the Arctic Circle I had a lot of time to think. That’s when I developed the project. Without noise pollution or visual pollution your mind is your own and you can pull projects together very quickly without being disturbed. After 20 years of exploration I’ve seen a lot of changes in the environment: polar bears being killed by grizzly bears, birds migrating in the Arctic that shouldn’t be there. I’ve seen brown polar bears, and the changes in Antarctica with the ice shelves breaking up.
It bothered me a little bit that I wasn’t doing anything and that my playground was being destroyed. That’s when I thought I’d like to reunite the world through a project called Pangaea, referring back to a time 250 million years ago when there was this one pristine supercontinent. I thought it’s impossible to put the continents back together, but you can put people together. And they can be used to channel data about the state of the environment.
NS: What resources did you need at the beginning of the project?
MH: The biggest untapped source of energy today is our youth. I am from an age of consumerism, but my two daughters are young enough to change the way their generation thinks. We are consuming, but they can conserve. As a boy I dreamed that I could go on a boat with Jean Cousteau. But I was never given the opportunity. I am now giving that opportunity to young people around the world who would like to experience the beauty of nature. I wrote down three key words: Explore, learn and act. The exploration is to go out and find the beauty of the planet. The learning part is to find out how to conserve that beauty for future generations. And the action is to work backwards to erase the human footprint on that beauty. And that’s what the project is about.
NS: Who can take part in the Pangaea expedition?
MH: Any kid between 15 and 20 years old can apply. Our team in the office goes through all the thousands of applications. It’s like American Idol: there are interviews, they have to post videos online and so on. I’m aiming to work with influential kids that will be the leaders of tomorrow. People who can change industry, politics, the world. We select 24 and they get put through a strenuous further selection process of communications training and then wilderness survival in the Alps. At the end of this process we filter out 12 – two from each inhabited continent – to join me on my expedition. Having these people with me gives me the chance to communicate with the whole world from the Gobi Desert.
NS: How does the expedition translate into tangible scientific fieldwork?
MH: When the young explorers get home, they get posted out and start on the ‘act’ programme where we reconstruct coral, clear the garbage out of the ocean, plant trees and so on. We have three pillars: biodiversity, social community services and water. All the projects based on these pillars are sustainable. We don’t just go in there once. These are five to ten year projects, and we are giving the youth a starting point to rebuild the world.
NS: What effect will Pangaea have on the Gobi Desert?
MH: We’ve taken soil samples to give us an indication of the fertility of the region. We’ve looked at water here, which is one of the biggest problems. Then we looked at the desert people who are living here, vegetation dispersal and over-grazing. We’ll give all that information to the university of Munich in Germany, which will examine how we can scientifically work with the youth in Mongolia to save the ground water and to prevent overgrazing. Then our young explorers come back to help to implement the project.
NS: Why do you put such an emphasis on media coverage for Pangaea?
MH: We don’t get our money from governments. My personal sponsors fund this expedition and so we want to give something back to them. But more important is the idea that we can somehow tell our stories to guys in the bars back home. If you walk into a bar the one thing you can guarantee is most people will be speaking about what’s in the newspapers, on TV or on the internet. The platform is there for us, and we need to create a buzz. And this is basically to what explorers do today. We go out, find knowledge and share that knowledge.
For further information on the Pangaea Expedition 2008-12 visit Mike Horn’s official site
A small toast to a century of exploration…
When Captain Jean-Baptiste Charcot became the first Frenchman to set foot on Antarctica, he celebrated in true style with a bottle of champagne, a newspaper and his trusty pipe. The year was 1904 and the bottle was a gift from his friend Georges Mumm, head of the Champagne house that sponsored the explorer’s Français expedition. The famous toast on the ice shelf lent Charcot’s expedition was immortalised in one of the great expedition photographs from the Heroic Age. For Charcot there was a synergy between his fine wine of choice and the pioneering values of his adventures.
A century later the association lives on. In May 2008 Mike Horn set sail from Monaco under the watchful eye of Prince Albert, on one of the most ambitious journeys of discovery undertaken in recent years. Spanning four years, Pangaea will – if all goes well – take him through the North and South poles, far-flung desert islands and the oceans of the world, as a celebration of ‘the beauty of planet Earth.’
Horn teamed up with Mumm Champagne to help spread an environmental message through a co-ordinated press offensive that would use every type of media available to him. Ever mindful of the significance of Charcot’s iconic toast in Antarctica, Horn and Mumm prepared to celebrate each successful leg of the trip with an exceptional ‘Explorer Experience’ – a champagne-paired dinner where press photographers would be able to reinterpret digitally the classic photo taken a century ago.
Horn’s ‘Explorer Experience’ in the Gobi Desert was the exact midpoint of the expedition. So far he has hosted dinners on an ice shelf in Greenland, a sand bar on the Great Barrier Reef and in Antarctica. Next up, he will head for the top of the world when his next field press conference will be held as close to the geographic North Pole as logistics will allow. This will be followed by expeditions into the Amazonian rainforest and the wilderness of Siberia. He says: ‘we’re all explorers today. There is no message other than we must take positive action to save the planet. And we must do it today.’
This article first appeared in the Summer 2011 edition of the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York.