A trip to Antarctica motivated Robert Swan to launch a 50-year mission to preserve the continent

The call of a frozen continent. That's how this journey began.

Romantic, till you remember that with 5 million square miles of frozen ice, Antarctica is one of the harshest places on earth. The world's highest, driest, and coldest continent. Also, the unshakable centre of a 11-year-old's dreams.

“I saw a film on it, and it grabbed my imagination…” says British explorer Robert Swan, settling down for an interview at the plush TVS Capital Funds Ltd. office in Chennai — a world removed from the gruelling adventures that made him famous.

By the time he was 33, Swan had become the first person to walk to both the North and South Poles. Today, he's an environmental leader and motivational speaker, besides being an addicted adventurer. His travels and teaching have resulted in appointments as the U.N. Goodwill Ambassador for Youth as well as the Special Envoy to the Unesco Director-General. He was also awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1995.

However, for the child who grew up with pictures of Antarctica, and its early explorers, plastered across his bedroom walls, the only thing that mattered was getting there. “I was fascinated by the idea that no one owned Antarctica. Think about it… it belongs to all of us… every single person who reads this owns a piece of Antarctica the size of a football pitch.”

Swan grew up dreaming, and talking incessantly, about achieving this journey. “As I grew older, it went down rather well with girls at parties,” he smiles. “I knew I had to walk. It was the only way that would be respectful to the place. Kind of like how they used to do it. It would also be cheaper… Because even then I realised doing anything in Antarctica would cost a lot.”

His first target was to raise $5 million for the expedition. “And 23 years ago, that was a lot of money.” It took seven years. “I lived in London, in an old warehouse. Drove a taxi to support myself. It was very hard. But when people said no, I asked them why. Then I learnt how to adapt my sales pitch for the next person. How to sell it better.”

In 1984, he finally set out on a ship named Southern Quest travelling 15,000 miles, over three months, to reach Antarctica. Then, Swan and two other volunteers set out on skis to cover 900 miles (1,400 km) to the South Pole — each pulling 350-pound (about 160 kg) sleds filled with provisions for the journey.

With no radio equipment or emergency support, this journey is the longest unassisted walk ever undertaken on earth. “It took 70 days. I lost 32 kg on the journey — and this was despite eating 5,000 calories every day. The coldest day was minus 73 degree Centigrade.”

Swan's honest enough to admit that he had no lofty philanthropic aspirations then. “That journey was done to make history. I never thought about the word ‘environment' — ever. I thought it was somebody else's job.”

Till something happened that changed him. “As we travelled, we started developing painful blisters across our skin. Even my eyes were blistering — they eventually changed colour from dark blue to this light shade you're seeing,” he says, leaning forward to display his unusually light eyes with dark pupils.

“We couldn't figure out what happened. We had studied the history of Antarctic explorations 100 per cent, and no one had recorded anything like this. We came back and discovered we had walked under the hole in the ozone. Everyone's heard of it now, but that was news then.”

That's when he realised how vital it was to spread awareness. “I had felt the effects… Without an ozone layer, nothing will grow. We will all fry up.”

Hence his 50-year mission began. “We're only on year 19 now.” The mission ends in 2041, which has become Swan's catchphrase. That's when the Madrid Protocol, which provides additional protection to the Antarctic Treaty, designating Antarctica as ‘Natural Reserve Land for Science and Peace' for 50 years expires. (Forty-seven countries, including India, have signed the Antarctic Treaty).

“Our aim is to preserve Antarctica forever,” says Swan. “To leave just one place on earth untouched… You stand there, in that vast wild wildness and think ‘hang on a minute. We're nothing.'” he says. “It makes you realise that when people talk of how we ‘must save the planet' it's rubbish. The planet looks after itself quite comfortably. It's our participation that counts.”

Three years later, he gathered a team of eight people from seven nations in an attempt to reach the North Pole. “You basically walk across a frozen sea.” It went well — at first. “We were 1,000 km from land. No radios, no helicopters, no submarines… just us. Suddenly we found the ice melting under our feet. This was four months before it was supposed to melt — we were tasting and touching climate change for the first time. It was terrible. We thought, ‘Wow, we're dead.'”

Their solution was to ‘cheat time.' “It was summer so there was day light 24/7. So we walked for 40 hours at a stretch… 40 hours without stops — because every time we stopped we'd drift south. People had frostbite. Some people's heels fell off their feet. It was the worst thing that's ever happened to me.” He pauses, and then unexpectedly jumps up, charging towards a nearby table to knock on it. “Touchwood!”

“It took 56 days, but we did it, and it was a great day.”

Realising that the young were more passionate about the environment, Swan began to work on ways to engage them and show them how they could, in turn, engage with the earth.

He attended the First World Summit for Sustainable Development as a keynote speaker. “I had the dubious privilege of speaking to all the bloody world leaders at 8 in the morning, when they were all probably still asleep.”

Ever since, he has been on a mission. “People love 2041, because it's theirs. It's a mission to save our participation on earth. Today, it comes down to an energy challenge. How we use energy, how we conserve energy, where our energy comes from — these are the greatest challenges for our survival as a species.”

Now he's in India with the message. “The old world messed up. Now India and China have the opportunity to fast-track through all those mistakes we've made. Forget about saving the planet, It's the biggest business opportunity on earth.”

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