As the first black African to summit Mount Everest and walk to the South Pole completely unaided, Sibusiso Vilane, 40, is one of South Africa’s – and indeed the continent’s – most inspirational heroes.
He is also the first black man to climb the highest peaks on all seven continents, earning him a place in the prestigious Seven Summits club, which has just six South Africans among its 198 members worldwide.
The driving force behind Vilane’s gutsiness is the will to encourage all young Africans to “reach the top” in their personal journeys through life.
"I just want them to realise that they are unique as Africans and we can match the world with anything we do – be it sport, be it business, be it anything. You've got to dream and then set out to achieve your dreams. There will be challenges, but it's about just being persistent and not giving up," he says.
Vilane is an accomplished athlete on the road and in the water too, having completed the Duzi canoe marathon, the 56km Two Oceans Marathon and the 89km Comrades ultra-marathon.
This year he’s planning to lead an expedition up Mount Kilimanjaro with his daughter and prepare for a solo crossing of the entire continent of Antarctica.
Vilane was born in Mpumalanga province, but grew up and was schooled in a remote village in Swaziland. His South African mother was a domestic worker and his father, a Swazi, reportedly had little to do with his upbringing. He completed his O-levels at school, thanks to sponsorship from a Canadian couple in Mbabane.
After school Vilane worked as a labourer for a construction company, but was determined to find a better position. After sending out hundreds of applications for all kinds of work in 1993, he got a job as a game ranger at a nature reserve in eastern Swaziland – but he admits he had little clue about what a ranger actually did when he was first interviewed for the post.
Three years into the ranging stint, British High Commissioner to Swaziland John Dobel visited the reserve where Vilane was working and asked to be taken on a guided walk. After their first arduous hike together, the two became good friends.
On a later walk, Dobel told Vilane that he’d make a great mountaineer and asked the young ranger if he’d be keen to climb Mount Everest if given the support.
“I didn’t think,” Vilane said of his response to Dobel’s question. “I just said I’d be delighted.”
Preparing for his first Everest ascent
The friends began by summiting peaks in the Drakensberg and Dobel set about trying to find sponsorship for Vilane’s dream expedition to the roof of the world.
In 1999 Vilane climbed Kilimanjaro and went on to the Himalayas to train in 2002, climbing a series of peaks that were between 6 000m and 8 000m high.
He was shocked by the cold on this trip and saw a fellow mountaineer fall to his death. "That really freaked out my team," Vilane says. Dobel then asked him if he was still keen on Everest.
“I said I'd had headaches, been nauseous and watched someone die. But I'd seen Everest and I wanted to go there. I said to him that in Africa we have man-eating lions, in Tibet they have man-eating mountains."
That same year Vilane was accepted to join an Everest team. He took three months’ leave from the Mpumalanga reserve where he was working at the time, and flew to Kathmandu – telling nobody but his wife, Nomsa.
Although few knew of the ranger’s plans, then minister of environment and tourism Valli Moosa met Vilane at the airport as he was about to leave for Nepal, and handed him a South African flag.
“He believed in it. That just gave me all the energy to do it – and show the world that Africans are capable of reaching great heights,” Vilane says, adding that his first trip would not have been possible had his trusting employers not offered to carry on paying him while he was away. “If I didn’t get paid, I wouldn’t have been able to support my family back home.”
After braving relentless snow storms and bitter cold, Vilane summited the 8 848m-high Everest on 26 May 2003.
"I was walking and weeping and praying all at the same time. The summit is a highly spiritual place, so sacred, but I felt welcome there. I looked across the world and said to myself: 'You are the first black African to stand here.' It felt okay.
"Realising that finally I was there, that the message that I had been carrying for 60 days, that we Africans can reach great heights, was all over the world. The feeling was: even if I collapse at that time and pass out and die, I would not have had a problem. I would have been the happiest person ever," he adds.
Vilane became a national icon overnight and made headlines around the world.
He was named “a real hero” by Nelson Mandela and personally congratulated by then-president Thabo Mbeki. “In this, he has shown the heights we can all scale in life if we put our shoulder to the wheel and work at things without flagging. Sibusiso, you have done us proud!” Mbeki said.
Vilane’s achievement is all the more remarkable considering how ill-equipped he was.
“On my first Everest expedition I felt very poor compared to the other climbers. I, unlike the others, couldn’t afford to phone my family while I was away – that cost US$10 (R71) a minute. My kit was also very different to theirs – I was wearing combat trousers and what I would usually wear in the bush – the others had all kinds of thermal gear.”
He said he used the climb to shatter misperceptions that mountaineering is only for the affluent. “What I wanted to show is that we can all do it – whether you’re rich or poor.”
Although he said “never again” when people asked Vilane if he’d return to Everest, the idea of tackling the mountain from the far more challenging North Ridge took root.
He wrote to adventurer extraordinaire Sir Ranulph Fiennes asking him if he’d join the second expedition. Fiennes accepted immediately. Vilane also invited Alex Harris – one of South Africa’s most accomplished mountaineers and the first local member of the Seven Summits club.
This time Vilane wanted to use his climb to raise money for children’s charities. "I've always had the desire to help children. That comes from my childhood – I was helped by people when I was young and I was using this as a charity climb, so that is what got me back into climbing again," he says.
The second expedition was far more gruelling for Vilane and his team. Fierce winds lashed the mountainside unabatedly, grounding the climbers for almost two months, but they eventually reached the top in late May 2005.
This time Vilane carried an abridged version of Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, with him to the highest peak.
"When I reached the summit, I felt as though I was stepping onto a very sacred place and could not contain myself. I fell to my knees weeping," he says.
On the way down Vilane ran out of food, water and oxygen, and fell behind the others in his team. Luckily the expedition leader noticed this and sent a Sherpa to look for him.
"That man saved my life. He gave me water and oxygen and I felt strong enough to stand and continue. But now I know how people die on Everest. You want to rest and you sit. Then you want to sleep. It comes in such a way that sleep is all you want. And then you've had it," he says.
Despite this brush with death, the mission was a success and Vilane raised $40 000 (R284 140) for the Birth to Twenty Research Programme at Wits University, the Africa Foundation and the SOS Children's Village in Swaziland.
In 2006 president Mbeki awarded Vilane the Order of Ikhamanga for his outstanding contribution to sport.
On 17 January 2008 Vilane set another record as the first black African to walk from the edges of Antarctica to the South Pole completely unaided. Together with his partner from the second Everest summit, Alex Harris, the two dragged all their food and equipment, weighing 130kg, behind them on sleds over 1 200km for two-and-a-half months.
They walked for at least 20km or 10 hours a day, braving the most vicious winds on the planet and temperatures as chilly as - 40 degrees Celsius.
Vilane describes this as "the toughest, most challenging thing that one can ever endure", but he says it never pushed him to his edge.
“Physically the South Pole is the toughest thing you can ever do in your life. It requires great endurance, but it never broke me down and it still didn’t push me to my physical limits.”
He dedicated this trek to the children of South Africa and raised enough money for NGO Lifeline Energy to provide 300 wind-up and solar-powered radios to households headed by children in Mpumalanga.
According to the organisation, South Africa has an estimated 1-million child-headed households – mainly due to the heavy toll HIV/Aids has taken on the country’s adult population.
The radios are being used to bring vital information and education to these orphans, who often cannot attend school or afford batteries or electricity to power such devices. The audio programmes teach children how to grow small garden plots to feed themselves, take care of small livestock and prevent diseases like malaria and HIV/Aids.
“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,” Vilane says.
These days Vilane is the programmes coordinator at a private game reserve in Limpopo province and is heavily involved in a rhino-protection programme there – a vital job considering the recent spate of poachings across the country and elsewhere on the continent.
The father of four is also a patron of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Conservation Leadership Group.
In 2010, 333 rhinos were killed illegally in South Africa – a 173% increase from the previous year, according to figures released by the World Wide Fund for Nature.
This year hasn’t been much better: 21 have been taken out so far.
Growing demand for rhino horn in Asia is largely to blame for the unprecedented spike in killings. Despite there being no scientific backing for the claims, rhino horn supposedly helps cure cancer and increases virility.
A recent article published on the African Conservation Foundation’s website says a burgeoning Chinese presence in Africa – driven by the need to secure vital resources for that country’s rapid economic expansion – is exacerbating the problem.
When Vilane’s not out in the bush, he gives motivational talks around the country and keeps active by running laps around his property. Because he lives in the middle of the reserve, it’s not safe for him to exercise beyond the fenced-in area.
“It’s not ideal, but it helps keep me fit,” he says. This tenacity and determination will undoubtedly help him succeed in his next mission in Antarctica.
Vilane has also written a book, To the Top from Nowhere, which tells of his journey from modest beginnings to becoming a world-renowned champion mountaineer and adventurer. Gail Jennings, a writer from Cape Town and fellow climber, is the co-author.
This year’s climb up Mount Kilimanjaro with his 18-year-old daughter will be a particularly meaningful one – it will be the first time a family member accompanies him on an expedition.
Married since 1995, Vilane says his wife Nomsa is the “unsung hero of his success”.