A Life Less Ordinary 02
Mikael’s a man who challenges what it means to be an ‘explorer’. Born in Sweden in 1962, he’s completed a lengthy list of expeditions often under the flag of the prestigious Explorers Club, but with little interest in finding fame or fortune. A skilled documentary maker, his work - and adventures - put people at the heart of the story. Strong opinions and insightful answers, he knows what it means to really bring adventure into our lives.
What were your first adventurous experiences?
I think as a kid I used my backyard, which in those days was forests, open fields with deer, hare and the odd moose, rivers and lakes full of pikes and perch, as areas of exploration. I didn´t know in those formative years that explorers existed, I was more into being a secret agent tracking down the bad guys, and by doing this, I kind of explored the area and stretched the limits of my comfort and that was kind of a first indication of a possible future explorer or traveller or whatever you want to define it as I am doing today.
On top of this countryside upbringing and freedom to do this without my parents getting in my way, my sister was married to a English fella and they lived near Epping Forest, so the family used to go there every 2-3 years. They travelled a lot and I remember climbing trees in Epping Forest, sitting and eating chips at country clubs whilst the elder folks drank beer. I remember taking the train up Snowdon in Wales and running down in madness over open fields to yet another fish and chip meal. We slept in tents; I remember us kids were shown pictures from the travels of my sister and her husband in the evenings. I loved it!
By the way, this agent thing stuck as well; when I turned 13 I wrote to the Swedish Foreign Office and offered my services as, to use the lingo of the agent business, a “field” worker. I don´t think they got it, because they sent me loads of pamphlets for agricultural work all over the world. Such a sad discovery and the end of my agent dreams.
As soon as I turned 14 I went on my first Interrail journey (30 days of travelling Europe by train), followed by the same the following summer, and I haven´t stopped since.
But, I have to add the great importance of books. I have read, read, read and read again since those days and that has indeed inspired and helped me to make my dreams (I prefer projects) come true.
How do you think they may have shaped your life?
Well, these three factors plus that I am born in a country of wealth, where I had this great opportunity, has made the difference.
Was there a moment you decided that regular life just wasn’t for you?
I knew this very early on, when my football pro dreams didn´t turn out, mainly due to that I was all drama and very little team player. I just didn´t fit for a regular life, this I knew early.
Plus very few of the kids I grew up with read and dreamt like me. At least that is what I believe. Already at 12-13 I decided to become “something”, either pro footballer or a bit later, an explorer like those “heroes” the books had brought to my attention. Especially like a Swedish explorer and writer, Rolf Blomberg, who had the Amazon, anacondas and headhunters as a specialty. I did “follow” his tracks later when I cycled from Chile to Alaska, I stopped by and visited the Auca Indians he described in his books. I did not see any anacondas though…but I was as inspired by writers like Kafka, Tolkien, Erich Fromm and Alistair Maclean.
Are expeditions a past time of the privileged?
There´s no doubt that being born in the privileged and rich part of the world as of great help when doing Expeditions, whatever the definition for what that is, seems hard to know. It seems today anyone can call a short jaunt somewhere a big Expedition and get away with it. And many privileged and less privileged people do!
So, back to the definition of what constitutes an expedition and I think the definition from the Explorers Club is a good one. It states to get the honour to carry a flag for an expedition, it has to be a project which can further our understanding of the world we live in. So, if it is just a great adventure, that won´t be enough. And to get the flag you also have to be able to “market” your expedition, so it is seen in the media in one way or the other.
There´s no doubt that most people involved in, for example, the Explorers Club are indeed privileged and that quite a few do it as a past time, and not as a job. They also do it because not only do they want to do it, but they have -or can easily get - the funds needed to do it. So, yes, today expeditions as per the definition above are still for the rich and privileged. And, I should add, for those who as well as access to funds, also have been trained to have good self-confidence and have a good education - which helps them explore their interests.
If I hadn´t been born in Sweden with my simple background, and if my sister hadn´t lived in the UK and had an interest in travel, and if I hadn´t discovered books (thanks to school), I would not have this great life today. I wouldn´t have known it existed.
I think it is still the case, especially in the UK with your split society between those who can access privileges or not, but maybe less than it used to be. But I didn´t know this was the case before my walk from Manchester to London when I realized that almost all my explorer friends were public school kids who could access all this above mentioned privileges like good education, self-confidence, funds etc.
Afterwards, I have made new “explorer” friends, quite a few who come from simple backgrounds and not a public school background, which shows that there´s light at the end of the tunnel.
Historically, with a few exceptions (like H.M Stanley for example), it was overwhelmingly the case for explorers to have a privileged background. Just take the case of the Danish-Greenlandic explorer Knud Rasmussen, who was my favourite explorer for years. It wasn’t until I started to plan my Greenland documentary (currently a work in progress as I am writing these words from there, in one of the most isolated places on earth) that I found out that in reality he was the son of a priest whose precinct was way bigger than Britain, and his status was that of a “king” or great leader of this particular area we live in now, me and the family.
So he got all the advantages of a privileged upbringing training him to become a leader, it gave him self-confidence and a great education, so that gave him a great advantage in every way. Having said that, he did do a good job, but it is a constant irritation that not everyone has the same opportunity and they should have. I also don´t like how some of the talk goes when privileged explorers meet each other and they talk about ‘the others’. At times they forget I belong to those ‘others’.
I get any emails from young people from the less privileged world who dream of becoming explorers and having what they see an interesting life. They ask me, what do we do to become explorers when we don´t have any money at all? So I tell them to try small expeditions in their own neighbourhood; perhaps do a bigger journey that doesn´t cost bigger money; perhaps get some media and then talk to the government, potential sponsors and, most of all, read books to help get a bigger perspective than most other people. That will help a lot. Books make a difference.
What’s the most practical way people can get a little adventure in their life?
Read a book, open the front door, walk out, open your eyes, smell, focus and set out! And, understand that life is short. There´s nothing after this, so just treat every day as your last and life will become adventurous!
Where does a major adventure start? Is it an idea, a dream, a conversation?
I think it is an individual thing, but again, read books! That is how you get started and inspired. And with time, once you’re a full time explorer, there are other things that set off a new adventure, such as adding another piece of the meaning of life.
I just live like every day is the last day in my life, which means many problems; it’s a roller coaster life, but never boring, a total adventure. But, most important for me is to show my girls the great things of life and by this, like now living in Greenland, give them opportunities and self-confidence and give them an advanced chance to love life. And, so far, so good!
Adventure films have a few common narratives: the hapless amateurs, the ‘suffer fest’ or rites of passage etc. How else could we approach these films?
I am slightly sad you asked me that, because it is true and it just shows we have developed very little within this genre. One reason is that most of these films are generally done by young people heading out for one of their first adventures: They´ve got things to prove on all levels. Secondly, these ways of telling stories match how the society we live in today understands the same theme 99% of the time. And this is the same reason why extremely few original films make it to bigger festivals or public TV.
I think it is up to people who commission films/TV either as broadcasters or at festivals, to make the choice of films in a way that there´s a new angle to it. Unfortunately, I think most people who go to adventure film festivals or who want these type of films on TV, want this type of easily digested drama. I don´t think they remember any one of these types of films afterwards for any time at all.
We need to develop there too, us humans. Our films have to offer something more of the world around us than this well overused narrative of adventure.
Large-scale expeditions need meticulous planning, how important is it to leave time for serendipity?
Everyone is different. I am personally somewhere in between. I always think I have done a good planning, but spend most of my time sorting problems out that turn up due to bad planning! Best is to just go and see what happens after some basic groundwork. And with the years I do get some stuff for free, and I know what kit is needed and so on. At least I think I do....
When the going gets tough, do you need to be tough to keep going?
Just motivated and understanding why you do this. When it comes to the physical aspect, I train almost every day in some capacity, but not to prepare for an expedition, but just to feel good. And years of expeditions make you more durable on all levels, absolutely, but it is all in the head - and in good books!
This is another thing that overwhelmingly overdone by people who like to dramatize life for their own benefit. Honestly, it is tougher to live in a Victorian house in Moss Side a year than to climb the highest of mountains in the world!
Are there things you’ve learned from people you’ve met on expeditions which you’ve then applied in your life?
Meeting people is why I travel. Right now I live in an isolated community in Greenland, not far from the icecap, with few opportunities to get in or out except with a boat or helicopter. I am here to get a realistic perspective of Greenland and its people, but also to show my girls a bit of the world I grew up in, the northern Swedish countryside, so they can better understand my oddities and the overwhelmingly good sides of countryside folks such as community, generosity, warmth and kindness. And the bad ones as well, such as gossiping, jealousy and a lack of willpower to understand the outside world. And I know I will also learn plenty of things of great value from these Greenlanders, things which I will carry with me the rest of my life.
However, in all honesty, I think I have applied quite a lot of things, but may have been quite odd and stubborn from the outset. I am 55 years old now and quite set in my behaviour. But still I am learning loads of new things everyday, things that widen my understanding of the world.
You’ve included your children from a very early age. What are they learning that other children might not?
Hard question to answer. But here’s what they learn all at once everywhere: diversity; equality (we are all the same and have the same value) everything is possible; there´s no obstacles that cannot be handled, and the world is a good place and people are generally very good. My children adapt to any situation really easy, everything and nothing surprises them and at the same time, they are very curious, they love life, they trust people, they play very well together and know that both the outdoors and books are important. And there’s advantages to being different people, just like their dad and mum!
Would a virtual reality expedition, still be a ‘real’ expedition?
Touching, smelling, being part of it is life. Virtual reality is just a momentarily experience.
Mikael is currently living in Greenland with his family making a documentary comissioned by SVT and the Film Comission Skane, with the international version co-produced by Kensington Tours
- he’s a fascinating character; you really should follow his adventures!
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