South African Sibusiso Vilane has gone where no black man has gone before. He has scaled Mount Everest twice, climbed the world’s Seven Summits and trekked to the South Pole unassisted. This past April he walked to the North Pole – in just six days.
By Joan Barsulai, Nairobi
Trekking across the North Pole had been on Vilane’s mind for years. But financing the 23,000-euro trip posed a challenge. Most days he was living hand to mouth, despite his successful mountaineering expeditions and the motivational talks he frequently gives.
“Looking for funding can be tough,” says Vilane. “I got the sense that most people were thinking I was a joke, because no black person had ever done what I wanted to do – so what made me think I could do it?”
Besides loving a challenge, fortune found him. Businessman billionaire Sir Richard Branson, an avid adventurer himself, heard about Vilane’s plight and offered to fund the expedition.
A flexible attitude
Vilane trained hard for three months by dragging dozens of tyres every day, building the muscles needed to pull a 50-kilo sledge. He also ran several road races, and cycled. Together with a group of – white – counterparts from the US, the Czech Republic and Russia, he started the journey.
Despite all his preparation, nothing could have readied Vilane for the minus 25˚C temperature. The days were long, the conditions arduous and the terrain tough. Humongous boulder-like blocks of ice tormented their sledges.
“I learnt the hard way that travelling across the dynamic polar pack ice requires a lot of patience and agility, not to mention a flexible attitude, in order to be able to deal with the unexpected diversions that pop up in the course of each day,” he says.
The team was constantly challenged by melting ice, having to cross hundreds of leads – open sections of water within the ice masses. Some were up to 50 metres wide. At one point, American crewmember Tom fell waist-deep into one. The team swiftly helped him as he struggled to keep hold of the ice. They kept him warm to prevent frostbite from destroying his limbs.
Vilane recalls other terrifying moments when they would wake up to find their tents had drifted away for over three kilometres. Polar bears were also a constant worry. “Fortunately, we never came across any. The only polar bear I saw was a stuffed one at the airport building,” he jokes.
And yet, crewmembers grappled with a never-ending fear that came from knowing they were walking on an ice mass that was floating on the sea and, at any moment, they could plunge into the five-kilometre deep Arctic Ocean and die.
On top of the world
But it wasn’t all hardship. The team kept their spirits up. Vilane tried his hand at the guitar.
He vividly recalls the beauty that surrounded him. “To see the Arctic Ocean, frozen as it was, was a marvellous experience. The noisy ice cracks at night were memorable. Even though each day was pure agony and torture, the entire area was very scenic and the beauty up there, oh dear, very indescribable! It made it worth being there. The most outstanding experience was by the time we were edging nearer to the North Pole. I looked to the horizon and there was nothing, just emptiness. At that moment, I realized that the entire world was caving under my feet, because I was now at the top of the globe. It was mesmerizing.”
Although the team only managed to walk 18 kilometres a day due to the tough terrain, it took them – an incredibly fast – six days to reach the North Pole.
So now what? Sibusiso is keen to keep motivating others. “For the many expeditions I have done in the past, it has become a challenge for me to find fellow Africans to team up with,” he says. “I want to inspire as many Africans as possible through my talks, and to lead African teams to climb various mountains like the Kilimanjaro, as I have done in the past.”