Mountains are not Stadiumsby Andy Davis / 16.09.2011
Monde Sitole is one of those guys that makes you feel like an under-achiever. The 21 year Khayelitsha resident is a professional adventurer with an impressive list of achievements under his belt already. At the age of 17 he got a taste for adventure sailing a tall ship across the Atlantic. Since then he’s set his sights on climbing 7 of the world’s scariest mountains. He summited Kilimanjaro in November last year and Mount Elbrus in Russia, just last month. But how does a regular ‘kasi kid pull it all together to find the money, support and energy to become a professional explorer?
Mahala: Tell me the Monde Sitole story? Where you from? Where did it start?
Monde Sitole: One thing led to another. I was born in Livingston Hospital, KwaZakhele, Port Elizabeth. From an early age I’ve always been inquisitive so amongst everything that was happening at home, the library was my temple. And that led me to reading a lot of adventure stories. I was an armchair adventurer for a long time…
Did your parents like push you to read? To better yourself?
Actually I never spent time with my father nor with my mother. So I was always walking from one place to another. When I was in Port Elizabeth I stayed with my aunt. Then I went to the Eastern Cape as my tradition dictates, then I came back to Port Elizabeth and finally Cape Town, where I stayed with my moms for a while but she was working a lot of the time so I used to stay in the library for a long time. My interest in adventure only really started when I picked up an article about Mike Horn.
Yeah, Mike Horn. The greatest explorer South African. He’s the guy that circumnavigated the whole world. He also circumnavigated the Arctic Circle and lost four of his fingers.
So you discovered these guys and decided that this is what you want to do?
No, at that time it seemed too farfetched and too abstract. But once I got the opportunity to be on the tall ship where we sailed across the Atlantic…
How did you get that opportunity?
I am also a poet and an MC, so I was in the Khayelitsha Festival performing and I met Ang, who works for Sailing South Africa and they were putting together this crew to sail this old tall ship across the Atlantic
What’s a tall ship?
Tall ship is like a moerse… it’s a big, big ass ship… you see that house there? That’s too short. It’s like the traditional sailing ship in the olden days. Sailing, real sailing.
How many people went on the boat?
Ten people from Africa were chosen and we stayed for four months on the ship.
And before you got that opportunity, what was your situation at home? Would you have had the cash to go to London?
No. For me, as I said to you, it was always an idea. But even if I had the resources back then, I didn’t have enough conviction…
Yeah, because I remember even when I was on the ship. I remember I was on the mast one day, it was thundering, the ship was rocking and I was up on the mast was wearing nothing but my shorts and my flip-flops and that confirmed to me that I had greater things to achieve.
You had an epiphany?
Yeah, a turning point. Like a signal that sealed it for me. It was raining, it was thundering…
And you weren’t scared?
No, it was flippen nice. And I realized then that the greatest gift we are given is just to be.
So what did you do when you came back?
On the flight back to Cape Town, everything was put into perspective. Maybe for the first week I was nostalgic and then after that I wanted to create more moments like that. I literally sat at the computer and conceptualized the seven summits expedition. I researched who has done it, how many people have achieved it, what are the rules, everything. I started to learn about mountaineering. I went to the Venture Forth Mountaineering school, learnt about everything and started doing hikes.
When did you get your first sponsorship?
One thing first, I had to learn how to write proposals by getting rejection letters from companies. Everything was a learning process. My first sponsor was Primedia and the Dis-chem foundation. They’re the guys who paid for the Kilimanjaro trip.
And how was that?
It was eye-opening to how sugar-coated adventure is nowadays. You go there and there are porters carrying all your stuff. The porters are the actual climbers. So, hence I follow the climbing patterns of the old climbers like Anatoli Boukreev, who said “mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my desire to achieve, they are the very cathedrals where I practice my religion”. A lot of people have one night stands with the mountain. Edmund Hillary used to say, “it’s not the mountain you conquer but yourself”. You’re climbing yourself actually, the mountain is just a metaphor. Even the guys who say they are unsupported on their expeditions, these days, they’re not really unsupported. It’s sugar-coated. There’s a guy holding your tissue going “oh, you’re sick”. It’s not really adventure.
So what happened next?
After I came back from Kilimanjaro, I had no gear sponsor leading to my next expedition to Mount Elbrus.
Russia, the Caucus Mountains.
White man land.
Yeah, they call it the white mountain. It’s the highest in Europe. There’s still a debate between Mont Blanc and Mount Elbrus. But it has been shown that Elbrus is tall, very, very tall. Obviously it’s not taller than Kilimanjaro but it’s more technical because of the crampons, the ice axe, the ice, the crevasses, everything.
So you’ve just nailed that.What’s next?
Everest. No more procrastination. You know when you’re ready, you don’t need to convince anyone else. But Everest is not the most technical mountain, it requires more patience, more time commitment but Denali is the most technical. It’s colder than Everest. It’s more solitary.
Alaska. You drag a sled, 120 KGs of sled with a backpack also. Igloo houses.
So when will you do that?
I’ll do that next year also. March I’m climbing Everest then I skip two months then Denali.
Then Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America.
Do you have funding for all of this stuff already?
Yeah, I know how these guys work. When I come back from this trip, I had already shot a documentary with SABC 2 that’s going to air this September. Whenever you get back from an expedition the frenzy is there. I have magazine and radio interviews lined up. So I lure funding that way.
Don’t you ever get scared that you’re going to kill yourself doing this?
No, I feel more alive when I’m closest to death. I fear nothing about death, I fear inconsistency. I fear staying another day in this environment [points around at the city]. I feel chained. I am like an animal in a man’s body.
What happens when you’ve climbed all the mountains? What will you do then?
I’m still going to do the sailing around the world alone. There are certain mountains… It’s like when you’re reading a book, you read the whole book but when you read it again you focus on certain paragraphs. A lot of people climb mountains for the bragging rights. For me it’s more personal. I will climb them and go back again. There’s a lot of unexplored mountains. For me, I’m more in love with K2 than Everest. It’s too overrated. Obviously the funders want to fund Everest, it’s like good marketing but K2 is much more… They say K2 makes no attempt to sound human. The bigger the risk, the more the lure.
What does your family say about this fixation?
Mixed reactions. The first issue is passion. Where I come from, doing something for a passion is farfetched and abstract. My mother would ask me: “What are you going to fetch on top of the mountain?” No matter how philosophical you can become about the mountain, she’s like “and then?” But I try stay detached from people’s expectations.
Aren’t your family members inspired by you?
My father. My father likes nature. He stays in De Aar, but his home is in Phillipi. He calls it “Eden” because of all the plants and trees. The first thing he asks whenever he calls is “How are my flowers?”
What’s he doing in De Aar?
He’s old, man. He just retired.
The name Monde Sitole?
Monde means Patience, Sitole means Seed.
Who are your big sponsors now?
Redbull, JFE Group, they are the guys who give me an income also. They are like a nature adventure tender company. There’s Rotary, I also do work with them like development. I’m going to align with them in terms of building the indoor rock climbing concept. We’ve already got funders for that. I’m just trying to get land.
Where? In Khayelitsha?
Yeah, there’s going to be a skate park as well. And we have conceptualized something called Khayelitsha Greats. So all these guys who came from Khayalitsha, like Pumeza Matshikiza, she sang at the Monaco wedding, she’s like the best opera singer. The idea is to create role models for the youth because many have lost the capacity to dream and they don’t have relevant role models who have come from the same situation but transformed their time into something amazing.
At the beginning you said you’ve got a deep well? What did you mean?
Yeah, I said that when I’m tired I’m not like any other people because I’ve got a deeper reservoir to draw from. The inspiration, the passion, like I’m consumed by this passion.
What do you say to ‘kasi kids who come to you saying that they don’t have means, or opportunities to do what they want?
For me, because usually I understand where they’re coming from, it’s easier to interact with them. What I say is that the impossible only exists because we don’t strive to make it possible. Because if you don’t have any dreams, if you don’t have anything to work for, you’re just existing without purpose. But when I take these kids on the mountain, they instinctively appreciate nature because they understand that it is not nature that is at risk but it is them. Nature can reconstruct or destruct. We are the ones who rely on nature for our continued existence. Not the other way around. That tends to put things back in perspective.