Review: Dream of a lifetime: Crossing Antarctica by Mike Horn

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Dream of a lifetime: Crossing Antarctica
Mike Horn
Publisher: Jonathan Ball
ISBN: 9781776190096

The reputation of Johannesburg-born explorer Mike Horn, who now resides in Switzerland, is well known. Since dedicating himself to unique and rare adventures in the 1990s, he has criss-crossed the globe and assembled a long and varied CV of endurance. Spin-offs of this have been projects in environmental awareness, particularly among the youth; TV shows; coaching in various forms, particularly international-level sports teams; and public speaking.

His French TV shows are especially popular, which perhaps explains why the first edition of Dream of a lifetime – Crossing Antarctica was published in that language, too, in 2018. The latest edition was published this year as a South African paperback and has been released with an exclusive foreword.

The book is a first-hand account of a life-long dream the author had to traverse the southern polar icecap on his own and on unexplored routes. Simply covering 5 100 kilometres would be an achievement for many, but doing it in one of the planet's harshest environments is a feat embraced by very few.

His retelling of the adventure is relatively straightforward, beginning with how tragedy led to its being galvanised by the support of his family. There's a layout of the plan and its eventual execution.

The constant return to his guiding motivation builds tension and provides pause when the story picks up speed, but it is also a constant response to that single question going around in the reader's head, that of what causes a person to put themself voluntarily through this ordeal.

There is a boyish excitement to the tale. Horn's story touches on his experiences as a youngster growing up at the tip of Africa and the guiding influences of his childhood heroes. He's a believer in passing on one's values, especially to children, which undoubtedly gives the book its style.

Giving the story pace, biographical details are mentioned along the way, as are the hard-fought principles that have made him a sought-after coach. They start with a punch on page 1:

An average life lasts 30 000 days, and it is our duty to make every one count, to make the most of each passing minute. We don't come into this world to be simple bystanders to our own existence.

The book also adds to our insights on the state of the global environment at a time when it is front of mind.

Dream of a lifetime – Crossing Antarctica is a crackingly good tale, although readers might also find themselves agreeing with Horn about impatience. In the early pages, he describes waiting to leave as someone "going around in circles like a caged animal".

The same impatience is present in the way the book unfolds. Early chapters seem flabbier, edging into sentimentality. It all changes when he lands on the ice. Where the sudden unknown would overwhelm us, Horn's story moves into sharp focus. There is no room for error or being beyond the moment. Everything comes down to calories, weather, kit, distance, psychology and the discipline to control what can be controlled in pursuit of hyper-efficiency.

The pages fly by. The journey over the ice is as ferocious as the pace its reading makes. Here's a passage as example. Horn is deep into the trip when the heavy sled carrying all his provisions overturns suddenly in a snowstorm. The emergency release on the kite that pulls him along is broken, so he's dragged along.

Once, twice it lifted me three or four metres off the ground, only to drop me back down like a sack of potatoes. Every time I hit the ice, a growl of pain escaped me ... Every time I tried to get back up on my feet, the strings stretched a little more and my kite catapulted me back into the air. I crashed down lengthwise, like a quartered puppet. I could only protect my head while my body landed on the ice with a thud …

After being lifted off the ground a fourth time, "[e]verything started to move in slow motion …," he writes. "The blizzard was shrieking even louder, baying for blood. A shroud of snow started to cover me. I couldn't hear, see or feel anything – not even the cold – except for the dagger in my shoulder."

Above all else, Dream of a lifetime is inspirational, no matter your age. At 200 pages, it's an easy weekend read and one that now, more than ever, will have you champing for fresh outdoor air.

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