x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Extreme and adventurous

The Life: World explorer Mike Horn talks about the world of professional extreme sports.

Mike Horn says when he and his contemporaries started exploring, it was far from a commercial undertaking. Satish Kumar / The National
Mike Horn says when he and his contemporaries started exploring, it was far from a commercial undertaking. Satish Kumar / The National

Mike Horn is a survivor. He has experienced sub-zero temperatures in the Arctic, lost a finger and trodden the thin ice between life and a frozen death. He has walked through Amazonian rainforests with a machete and followed a monkey's eating habits to survive. And he has lived to tell the tale.

He knows nature at its harshest, but also at its most beautiful.

"In the Amazon jungles you have tiny frogs that when attached to your skin, the veins dissolve and you bleed to death through your skin," says the 47-year-old. "How amazing is that?"

By the time Mr Horn and his generation of explorers started travelling the globe about 30 years ago, the world had shrunk and there were no new continents to map or new seas to chart.

But over the past three decades, he has seen the birth of an industry born out of the pursuit of world exploration and adventure that caters to market forces; similar to the trend that started when Old World explorers set sail at the behest of their kings.

Although Mr Horn, who has been involved in adventure sports for 25 years, partakes in the trend to sponsor his expeditions, he also prefers to teach young people how to conserve nature.

"Trade and commerce have always been drivers, even as some explorers and travellers have sought to use their benefits to temporarily escape them," says Professor Tim Youngs, the director of the Centre for Travel Writing Studies at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom.

Today, Mr Horn believes people are peddling sensation. "I am an old explorer now," he says. "But when we started, it was not commercial."

In 2010, the global adventure travel industry was worth US$89 billion (Dh326.9bn), according to a study from George Washington University, the Seattle-based Adventure Travel Trade Association (Atta) and the research firm Xola Consulting.

Another study by Atta has forecast the Middle East adventure tourism market will grow 5 per cent every year and be worth $1.5bn by 2020.

Yet in the past 12 years, Mr Horn, who launched his company, the Mike Horn Expedition Center, in 2008, has seen a growth in awareness about the environment. He is often invited to speak about conservation and the results of climate change he has witnessed.

But the South African's first brush with sponsored extreme sports goes back to 1989, when an Italian watchmaker spotted him in Switzerland, where he was working as a ski instructor and a raft guide.

The watch company asked him to take part in an advertisement that showed him going over a waterfall. In 1990, the company offered him a contract and asked him to join a team of 30 athletes to market its watches around the world.

"We were kayaking and going down waterfalls and then it started going out of hand," says Mr Horn. Then "some of us started dying".

He stopped working for the brand in 2000.

A break came at the Laureus World Sports Awards in 2001. At the event, the Italian-owned Swiss watchmaker Officine Panerai signed him up, as did the German car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz in the same year.

Since then, all of his expeditions have been sponsored by the two companies - and he carries their flags wherever he goes, including to Abu Dhabi's Emirates Palace Marina, where he flew in recently for a media event that was part of the Pangaea Project, his four-year sailing trip across the world.

The project explored deserts, oceans and mountains without using man-made power devices and set off preservation efforts with the help of local schoolchildren.

The explorer hopes to engage in a similar effort in Fujairah, partnering with the University of Munich.

"People here live off the land, the oil wells for instance," says Mr Horn. "You have to give something back to the nature, the mother."