Ever dreamt of embarking on an extreme, once-in-a-lifetime adventure? What about summiting a previously unclimbed peak? … or having an intimate encounter with a shark? 21-year-old Rick Kotze, who recently took part in Mike Horn’s Young Explorer Program, shared his experience of a brave new world with Africa Geographic.
Rachel Lang: Tell me about yourself…
Rick Kotze: I was born in Pretoria, South Africa. I’ve always been a really active ‘yes man’ kind of guy – just really trying to learn and experience as much as I can. When I heard about the Young Explorers Program, I jumped at the opportunity to apply. After a tough selection process in Switzerland, I was chosen to take part in the 10th YEP expedition to the Everglades swamps in Florida, USA.
RL: What was your hardest experience as a Young Explorer (YEP)?
RK: The last two days of the selection camp in Switzerland were extreme. There were two teams competing against each other over a distance of 50 kilometres through the Swiss Alps, with nothing but a compass and a map! We did everything you could think of – rowing, cycling, running and climbing some crazy peaks. But I was surprised at the effect that the team situation had on me – it was purely this motivation that made it possible. The influence a well-structured team can have on a person is massive.
RL: It makes a big difference doesn’t it?
RK: On the expedition we paddled more than 200 kilometres in five days. By day four, with an aching back and blistered hands, I hit a wall. But then I saw a 16-year-old girl paddle past me, smiling. I knew she had been through everything that I had, and she looked at me and said, ‘Woohoo! Yeah, let’s do it…’ It brought me back to life, and suddenly I had the will to keep going. Before becoming a Young Explorer, I had read and heard phrases like ‘teamwork’ and ‘seize the day’, but until I had experienced them, they were just things that my Mom had said.
RL: It must have been interesting to have a team represented by so many nationalities…
RK: It broadened my whole perspective on life. We were on a 30-metre boat with 23 people from 12 different countries. I listened to the other YEPs talk casually about the things that they’d done and was completely in awe of all their experiences.
RL: Well I am pretty in awe of your experiences
RK: A lot of the time it was surreal. In Florida I kayaked up to a shark that was nearly the same size as our boat. It was less than a metre away from me in water that was only knee-deep. On TV you hear people saying they’ve had an intimate moment with an animal – I really did. It has changed my perception of sharks and I’ve become more involved with them than I ever thought I would. I’m actually going to work with an NGO doing shark research in December and that was all inspired by that one event.
Another highlight was the first time we sailed Pangaea. It took 10 of us about 20 minutes to get all the sails up, and then I looked and just saw these huge things bulging in the wind and the boat being pulled along with them. The sound they make is amazing.
RL: Did you enjoy spending time with Mike?
RK: He’s quite a character [laughs]. He has this ability to take a group of people and get more out of them than they would ever imagine of themselves. He does expect a lot from us though – nothing less than 110% – but rightly so. It would defy the whole purpose of our being there if he let us get away with being a bit lazy.
RL: Plans for the future?
RK: I’m currently studying industrial engineering at Stellenbosch University. I’d like to use my degree to improve the sustainability of life in South Africa. There’s room for improvement in farming practices, industrial waste management and everyday living. The ‘green’ mindset is very contagious! Africa is a hugely diverse and rich continent, but by having so much we also have a lot to lose, and if we don’t act soon, the damage to our environment may be irreversible.
I’m amazed at the effect that YEP has had on my life. It’s strange going into it because you know it’s going to be a life-changing experience, but even so, it’s transformed the way I think. It’s driven me to do things I would never have done before, even though I was interested in them.
Rick is currently (at the time of this blog post being published) climbing Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe.
Inspired by Rick’s daring adventures? Read more about the Young Explorers Program including trekking through the Amazon rainforest, crossing glaciers in Nunavut, Canada, and diving with turtles in Malaysia in ‘A Brave New World’ in Africa Geographic’s June issue.