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November 12, 2009

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Calling young eco-explorers

EXPLORER, extreme athlete and environmentalist Mike Horn is calling on hardy young people to take an expedition to the ends of the Earth, witness miracles of nature and take back a message to save the planet. Michelle Zhang laces up her boots.

To South African Mike Horn, impossible is nothing. Acknowledged as one of the world's greatest adventurer-explorers, the 43-year-old has crossed the Amazon jungle, hiked through drug-trafficking zones in Africa, climbed two peaks over 8,000 meters high, traveled the Arctic Circle without motorized transport and marched to the North Pole during winter darkness.

"The impossible exists only until we find a way to make it possible," Horn once said. "My philosophy is simple: Whatever I do, I do it to live and not to die."

Now Horn is writing a new chapter in his life.

Through an ongoing project called the "Pangaea Expedition," he aims to share his experience and knowledge and encourage young people to create an improved, sustainable relationship between mankind and nature.

His undertaking, the Young Explorers Program (YEP), began late last year with previous trips to Antarctica, New Zealand and Indonesia.

The first trip next year will be to the Himalayas in Nepal. A later one will be in China, to the upper reaches of the Yellow River near the Gobi Desert.

Other expeditions will visit Amazon rain forests, savannas, African jungles and veldt and remote destinations most people only dream of.

Interested young people can apply online (see below).

Around 12 people are selected for each demanding journey lasting 10 to 12 days. There are three trips a year and the program will run for at least four years, giving 144 young people from around the world the opportunity to see breathtaking nature, environmental damage and learn what can be and is being done.

Then they spread the message.

Global trekker Horn, who lives in Switzerland, was in Hong Kong recently to promote the project with Li Jun, China's very first participant in the Young Explorers Program. She went to New Zealand in May.

The Pangaea Expedition is sponsored by brands such as Swiss luxury watch maker Officine Panerai.

Explorers live and travel on a 35-meter yacht called "Pangaea" (Pan Global Adventure for Environmental Action). The word also means "all lands" in Greek. A theory holds that the continents were once massed together as a supercontinent called Pangaea around 200 million years ago.

"We'd like to unite young people from all the continents on this boat where we have to learn to respect each other and respect everything we have - from food to electricity - so that we can live in harmony together in the future," Horn says.

"We show them the beauty of the planet and teach them how to conserve that beauty," he says. "Then we work together to clean up the ocean and repair the damage done by human beings to the environment."

The program is open to people between the ages of 13 and 20.

Shenzhen native Li was the first Chinese to join a YEP team.

In May, the then 17-year-old traveled to the fjords of the South Island of New Zealand, where she observed bottlenose dolphins, learned about fauna and flora, set up stoat (ermine) traps and visited Maori families. They spent four days hiking the Dusky Trail, known as the most difficult hiking trail in New Zealand, and one of the most beautiful.

"As a city girl, I was deeply impressed by the amazing scenery all along the trip," Li recalls. "I never expected to see such beautiful, unspoiled places because I had been told about the damage men have done to the Earth.

"The trip has changed my mind about the planet: If we work hard to protect the beauty and resources of nature, we will be living in a better world.

"I'm very confident about it," she says, firmly.

YEP participants are encouraged to pass on their new visions, knowledge and environmental message to their peers and others around them.

"The Pangaea Expedition is not only a personal challenge, but one that will bring great benefits to the world through generating awareness of the current state of our planet," says Angelo Bonati, CEO of Officine Panerai, a long-time supporter of Mike Horn and his projects. "We honor men of value and stand behind Mike's value of tradition, innovation and respect for the environment."

During his two decades of exploration, Horn has seen far more of the Earth than virtually everyone and personally witnessed the profound and alarming changes in the environment.

In 2006, it took him and his friend, Norwegian explorer Borge Ousland, 60 days and five hours to reach the North Pole from Cape Artichesky in Russia, in the permanent darkness of the Arctic winter.

With no dogs or motorized transport, they used skis, pulled sleds and had to swim frequently in the freezing Arctic Ocean.

The biggest problem, says Horn, is that there was open water due to the warming climate. The temperature should have been much lower and they should have traveled mostly on ice.

"Everything was moving and drifting," he recalls. "It's no longer a continent but just ice floating on the water.

"That is also why it's important to teach young generations - our most powerful energy source - how to take care of the planet so that we could conserve it for the future," he adds.

Horn's most unforgettable moment in 20 years of exploration came at the North Pole, when he saw the first flash of sunlight for the first time after two months complete darkness.

"I realized that there is life again, and hope," he says.

Having traveled around the equator in 18 months and around the Arctic Circle in two years and three months, Horn says he has never thought of retiring. He is always challenging the limits.

"Sometimes, when I survived a really bad storm, I promised myself I would never go back, but that's when I learned the most, in the worst condition," he says.

"It's like drinking: When you drink too much, you promise that you won't drink any more, but in the night you start to drink again," he laughs.

In the Arctic Circle, or on the North Pole, sometimes it's easier to die than to survive.

"Just walk out of the tent, sit down and sleep and you won't wake up again," Horn says. "Most adventurers die because they don't have a family, there is not a 'rope' that is pulling them back home."

Horn has two daughters, Annika and Jessica, 16 and 15, who joined him in 2005 in crossing Bylot Island and in 2007 in skiing to the North Pole in temperatures of minus 35 degrees Celsius. They are the youngest people to reach the pole by ski.

"I'm a one-of-a-kind father," Horn says. "No other man could give their family what I have given mine. Because I'm always away from home, I feel like I have to give them something to make them feel emotionally attached to me. That's why I brought them to explore with me."

Horn doesn't think much about death.

"No other man in the world has done what I have done in the past 20 years," he says. "I live my life to the full of it. If something happened to me now, I would be satisfied with the life I had. And that's my way to live."

Young people wishing to join the Pangaea Expedition (next is the Himalayas in Nepal) can send applications to the Mike Horn official Website ( Candidates must speak at least one of the following: English, French, German or Spanish.


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