Over the last eight years, Sibusiso Vilane has climbed Mount Everest twice, negotiated the world’s other six highest peaks and became the first African to walk to the South Pole unassisted. He’s now got his sights set on the North Pole.
By Joan Barsulai, Nairobi
Sibusiso Vilane made history by going where few men have ever gone before. This mountaineer, expedition guide and motivational speaker not only became the first black African to scale Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, but also he became the first to reach the South Pole. This week he begins his walk to the North Pole.
Sibusiso was born in 1970 to a poor family in Mpumalanga, South Africa. His parent’s divorce at age four forced his mother to lodge him and his sister over with his relatives, who raised them in desolate circumstances. Sibusiso regards this time as one of his greatest challenges.
“Most days we only had one meal,” he says. “We were naked most of the times, as we could hardly afford to buy any clothes to wear.” When he was six Sibusiso became a goat herder. He only managed to start school when he was nine years old, when his mother took him and his sister to Swaziland, where she was working.
After high school, in 1996, while working as a game ranger in a nature reserve, he met John Doble, the British High Commissioner. They became friends, which would change Sibusiso’s life forever. They would take walks around the countryside, crossing rivers and scrambling over rocks. Sibusiso had mixed feelings. “I had nothing with climbing when I was young. I told John that we black people do not climb mountains, because it was for rich people.”
During one of their conversations, Doble pointed out that Mount Everest, on the Nepalese-Tibetan border, had never been climbed by an African since New-Zealander Edmund Hillary and his Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay had scaled it for the first time in 1953.
A dream was born and Sibusiso began to pursue it relentlessly. It took him about seven years to prepare himself by climbing Africa’s highest mountain Kilimanjaro and three Himalayan mountains, and to arrange the funding.
In March 2003, Sibusiso climbed the Everest with nine other climbers. It was a harrowing experience, with highly unfavorable weather and dead bodies of hikers strewn on the mountain slopes. In May they reached the summit. Acclaim and awards followed.
Climbing for charity
His success inspired Sibusiso to undertake other climbs to support various children’s charities. He managed to raise 250,000 rand (24,500 euros), and, for the second time, he climbed the Everest, this time via the challenging North Ridge. This achievement made Sibusiso the only black person in history to ever have successfully climbed the Everest twice. What's more. he did it via two different routes and both times on the first attempt.
After conquering several other mountains, Sibusiso set his eyes on a South Pole expedition. In 2007, he walked to the South Pole for 11,300 kilometers unsupported and unassisted, setting yet another record in the process.
Sibusiso’s achievements have earned him the admiration of many, including Nelson Mandela, who has hailed him as a “great hero”, adding that “Sibusiso’s achievement clearly sends a message to the world that Africa is now here, and what he has done stops the monopoly by Canada, New Zealand, and the USA, who claim that they are the only ones who can challenge the almost impossible and triumph.”
Between 4 and 14 April of this year, Sibusiso will be walking on the frozen Arctic Ocean on his way to the North Pole, a tough challenge that will involve fighting polar bears and melting ice.
Sibusiso has an ambitious plan for the future. “I would like to lead a pan-African team, consisting of representatives from ten African countries, to the Everest. I would also like to go to space someday, but there is no chance of that happening, unless I can befriend a billionaire."
Sibusiso currently makes a living giving motivational talks, because he says expeditions do not earn him any money. He also wrote the book To the Top from Nowhere about his expeditions. “I still live hand to mouth, and I still struggle for opportunities, but my achievements have made me realize that I can achieve anything that I set my mind to.”
Follow Sibusiso's trek to the North Pole here.