1. Setting My Own Compass
As a child, if I could dream it or imagine it, then I could do it too. Everything that can be dreamed up between two ears is possible when one doesn’t know any better. I could do everything I wanted: become a World Cup football player, sail around the globe, ski across the great wastelands, climb mountains, live like Muhammad Ali, kiss the prettiest girl in the class, save the world from destruction, grow up to be like Albert Schweitzer, be a fireman, escape from Alcatraz, travel to the moon or to Mars.
I started school late and was among the bottom three in the class academically for twelve consecutive years, I wasn’t particularly good at sports, and my circle of friends was small. I really didn’t seem to have anything going for me. I never did anything extraordinary as a child. But I dreamed about it. And I never stopped dreaming.
At some point it dawned on me that my chances of being a fireman, a footballer, an astronaut, and a superhero all at once were limited. My dreams became more focused.
In 1990, Børge and I became the first to reach the North Pole without the assistance of snowmobiles, dogs, or depots. In 1993, I became the first to walk alone to the South Pole—unlike most solo expeditioners, I chose to have no contact with the outside world. Then, in 1994, I climbed Mount Everest. In doing all of this, I fulfilled my ambition to become the first to reach the Earth’s three poles on foot.
This is, in part, an account of the dreams and ideas that never lost their hold on me and that led to these adventures. These dreams evolved and, in time, were brought to fruition by curiosity and personal ambition. It’s interesting to note that while on these journeys to my original goals, I began to set new ones . . . to see fresh horizons and more exciting possibilities. I find it difficult to imagine this world without believing that there is still more to be done and experienced.
“I’d have done anything to experience what you did,” someone said to me after I made my first voyage across the Atlantic. I was twenty; we had just reached Barbados from Cape Verde off West Africa, and I had swum to land from the boat and just put my feet on terra firma for the first time in a long two weeks. Over the years many others have said the same thing to me. But I am not certain they really did want those experiences. If they did, they might have tried.
When I was a kid, I was a great admirer of the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl. One of the first books I read was about his voyage in 1947 on the raft Kon-Tiki
from Callao in Peru to the Tuamotu Islands in Polynesia. Heyerdahl had a fear of water after having twice almost drowned as a child; nonetheless, he had a dream of crossing the Pacific on this handmade raft of balsa logs. Six people sailed with the Kon-Tiki
—which was a facsimile of the prehistoric rafts the native people of Peru had built—westwards for 101 days across the Pacific in order to prove that people could’ve settled Polynesia in this way.
I was hugely pleased and a little surprised when, in the autumn of 1994, I was invited to Heyerdahl’s eightieth-birthday celebrations, and I looked forward to having the opportunity to pay my respects. At the party lots of Heyerdahl’s old friends gave speeches. They all praised—as was fitting—this man who’d discovered so much, the Kon-Tiki
man. Several of them also talked about the opportunities they’d had to travel with Heyerdahl, although for one reason or another—studies, partner, family, work—they’d been prevented from doing so. The speeches were long. Throughout them I watched Heyerdahl, who smiled to himself as he listened, and I came to a realization. “The crucial difference between everyone else and you, Mr. Heyerdahl,” I said to myself, “is that you made your own choices and didn’t let others make them for you. When you had opportunities, you took them and thought about all the obstacles later.”
Had the speakers just chosen what seemed the safest option? Had they allowed others to make the decision for them? Or perhaps they considered their obligations at home weightier? The difference between Heyerdahl and the others seemed to be that Heyerdahl was following his own dream, while they were trying to follow the dreams of someone else.
The South Pole, perhaps? Alone, then, to the South Pole! For me the decision was made the moment the idea came to mind. Thereafter all I had to do was think through how it might be achieved in rational detail. Had I turned things on their head— done the fine- tuning first, then nailed the idea, then thought it through to see if it was workable before deciding whether or not I’d pursue it— I’d never have made it. For me there’s a great joy in setting targets. My own North Poles. Not Heyerdahl’s, not my neighbour’s, not my family’s. I’ll do it! I’ll sail across the Atlantic, help someone in need, buy a bottle of champagne, say no to a temptation, write a book like this, start a publishing house, become a lawyer, start a family. In times to come, what we may regret are the chances we didn’t take, the initiative we didn’t show. What we didn’t do. If you say it’s impossible and I say it’s possible, we’re probably both right.
Sometimes I wonder what has become of all the dreams and ambitions that I never did anything with. I wonder where they are. I don’t think I’d have to look very hard to find them. As many have noted before me, it’s easier to take ourselves out of our dreams than to take our dreams out of us.
Copyright © 2020 by Erling Kagge. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.