Vilane shows the way to the top

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Advice from Sibusiso Vilane, “You’ve got to dream and then set out to achieve your dreams.” (Image: Sibusiso Vilane)


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Nothing is impossible, Sibusiso Vilane told assembled scouts when he was unveiled as the new Chief Scout of South Africa in March 2014. “You are limitless!” sounds like a call to action when you are among the greatest adventurers alive.

Vilane has endured glacial temperatures and violent snow storms to become one of fewer than 150 people to climb the highest peak on all the continents. Once he had completed the Seven Summits, Sir Ranulph Fiennes goaded him into taking on a real challenge – the Goliath Challenge. Goliath, or the Three Poles Challenge, recognises adventurers who have climbed Everest and have walked unaided to the North and South poles.

In 2008, along with partner Alex Harris, Vilane reached the South Pole. In April 2012, he reached the South Pole, becoming the first African, and one of only a handful of people, to accomplish the Explorers Grand Slam. As Vilane reminded the scouts: “Strive for great heights and remember that it is not about where you were born, where you live or what you become, do or have. It’s about what legacy you want to leave behind.”

Sibu, as he is affectionately known, was born in what is now Mpumalanga before his mother moved with him and his sister to rural Swaziland where his income as a cow herder kept food on the table. As the sole provider he was kept out of school until he was 10; but it was not that he was older than everyone else that bothered him. “I had no shoes because there was no money, and I had one uniform. As a child my family’s poverty embarrassed me.”

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“There will be challenges but it’s about just being persistent and not giving up,” has been Vilane’s advice to children that he gives motivational talks to. (Image: Sibusiso Vilane)

While working as a game ranger at the Malolotja Nature Reserve in Swaziland he met former British high commissioner John Doble. Impressed by his strength and stamina, Doble suggested that Vilane join him in a climb on the Drakensberg. That expedition was in 1996.

And on to Everest

In 2003, Vilane found himself at Everest base camp unsure even of how to wear his climbing harness. Physically and mentally he felt ready to face the challenge, it was just the mechanics of climbing with which he needed to get comfortable. “I was attracted to the mountain so it came down simply to getting into the mindset. Not once in the 60 days it took to reach the summit did I think that Everest was impossible.”

It is a message that forms a big part of the talks Vilane gives to corporate clients and schoolchildren: with determination, hard work and perseverance there is nothing you cannot achieve. Standing above the world was, at the time, the highlight of his life. Along with a South African flag, Vilane placed a copy of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, at the summit. “Reaching the top and Mandela’s example were proof that we are capable of accomplishing anything we set our minds to. That message, that we Africans can reach great heights, was all over the world – I could have died there but I would have been the happiest man.”

In Nepalese, Everest is Sagarmantha, “Goddess of the sky”. In June the temperature can drop to below -30°C, and it takes just two minutes to freeze to death. On 3 June 2005, Vilane summited Everest for the second time, this time ascending from the more difficult North Ridge. Returning to base camp alone and without water and oxygen, he came the closest to death he ever did.

Resting in the howling wind, trying to catch his breath, he began to fall asleep. “The music of the devil was sounding very clear. The mountain was beckoning me to lie with her forever. She had so much energy, felt so alive, as if she was going to consume me like so many other climbers,” he wrote in his autobiography, To the Top From Nowhere.

Saved by ubuntu

He was saved by Mingma, a Sherpa who had given up his opportunity to reach the summit to bring Vilane oxygen and water and guide him to safety. By saving his life, Mingma had confirmed a long held belief of Vilane’s: that working together, people can accomplish miracles.

It’s an idea that inspires his charitable endeavours too, ensuring he is playing his part for others. Three children’s charities benefitted from his second Everest climb: the Birth to Twenty Research Programme at Wits University, the Africa Foundation and the SOS Children’s Village in Swaziland.

Since 2006, he has been the African ambassador for Lifeline Energy www.lifelineenergy.org. He dedicated the 1 113 kilometres he trekked to the South Pole to the children of South Africa. And in May 2008, Lifeline Energy gave 300 Lifeline radios to children from the Nkomazi district, where he was born, thanks to those who sponsored his trek. “The future entirely depends on the education of children, their access to information to broaden their thinking and understanding of the ever-changing and challenging world,” he says.

There have been plenty of other efforts to help others, such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for Caring4Girls and youth leadership development programmes, and running the Comrades Marathon in aid of the 46664 Bangle Initiative www.46664bangles.com.

In his book, the adventurer talks about the lessons he learned from surviving and overcoming near-death experiences; in the end you can depend on none but your own strengths. “Nothing but myself can break me. By self-limiting, by not entertaining that the impossible does exist in my mind, as long as I believe, then nothing can break me.”

Expedition bug

Vilane has the bug now. He has gone from a poor boy to a man who leads expeditions to the top of the world, a man who claims that boredom would overtake him if he was not climbing mountains or testing himself in the worst conditions on the planet. “I never dreamed I would be ‘the first’ to do anything in my life but now, I cannot live without an expedition. When I am not on an expedition, I am preparing for one or I am dreaming of expeditions to come. There are so many more challenges I strive to conquer.”

For all his firsts, Vilane calls his 20-year marriage his finest achievement and his four children his greatest joy. One day he hopes that his children will join him on an expedition. His wife, Nomsa, while wary, would not have a problem letting her children join their father on top of the world. “When he returns you can see how much he enjoys having his family around. I see how climbing mountains have made him appreciate life so much more and to pass that gift on to our children would be a blessing.”

Climbing mountains, testing yourself against nature is something that everyone should aspire to says the motivational and inspirational speaker. Testing yourself in adversity makes you a better person and can help change the world. No matter what challenge you choose for yourself, “it’s important to have the ability to persevere, despite the difficulties that lie ahead of you. It matters that you know that you are capable of anything.