This renowned adventurer was once a barefoot herdboy. Now he’s at home roaming the world’s highest peaks

2013-08-22 00:00

WHEN I speak to Sibusiso Vilane this week, he’s waiting for a plane to take him to Tanzania. For the next week, he’ll be leading a group of climbers up Mount Kilimanjaro, a mountain he’s climbed 14 times.

For Vilane, this is all in a week’s work: leading climbs is a part-time job, along with public speaking, which is what he’ll be doing in Pietermaritzburg next week, on August 30.

Vilane (43) will be here as part of a fund-raising drive by Singakwenza Education and Health, a KwaZulu-Natal-based NGO (see box). As one of South Africa’s most famous adventurers, he’s in demand as a motivational speaker, and his achievements are indeed impressive.

Last year, he became the first black person to complete the grand slam of adventuring known as the three poles, these being the climbing of Mount Everest, and reaching both North and South poles.

Prior to that, he also climbed Everest from both sides, and completed the Seven Summits Quest, climbing the highest mountains on each continent.

In recognition of his achievements, he has received the Order of Ikhamanga and attended an international reception for adventurers at Buckingham Palace in 2011 hosted by Queen Elizabeth.

Conquering extreme challenges is nothing new for him. He’s the first to admit that his difficult childhood helped pave the way for his recent triumphs.

Born in the then kaNgwane homeland, now part of Mpumalanga province, Vilane moved to Swaziland with his mother after his parents separated when he was six. He didn’t go to school until he was 10 years old, having spent the intervening four years as a barefoot herd boy. He got his O-Levels in 1991 before working as a manual labourer and then as a game ranger.

“I was nurtured into [being tough] by my conditions, which were very harsh. They moulded me,” he says. “Had I grown up in an environment where I had everything in front of me, I don’t think I’d have had the mental strength and attitude about life and hard work [that I do].”

He clearly developed a taste for extreme challenges. A keen long-distance runner, he completed his fifth Comrades Marathon this year.

“It excites me to put on my shoes and go for a run. I find gyms claustrophobic, and like to go outside in the fresh air and run.

“I enjoy being tested to the limit. I love the situation where I am in a state of doubt and don’t know how I’ll be on the other side. I know I’m going to suffer, but it will all pass.”

Another important event in his life was meeting a British tourist called John Doble while working in Malolotja Nature Reserve, Swaziland, as a tourist officer. Doble, who lives in the United Kingdom, later introduced Vilane to mountain climbing and together they did hikes in the Drakensberg where his passion for climbing grew.

“John is like a brother to me,” says Vilane. “We talk regularly and he still supports my climbing ambitions. He helps me with sponsorship and if I travel overseas I see him.

“He’s been very influential in my climbing and identified my potential to climb mountains. He put me onto the summit of Everest and the other seven summits.”

For Vilane, mountaineering is about more than just getting to the top. “I’ve felt an amazing energy when climbing mountains . A mountain is a living thing. It has power that can make or break you if you don’t show it respect.

“I say that I don’t climb mountains, the mountains allow me to climb them. It gives me an amazing freedom, peace and camaraderie. That friendship is like the Comrades. Only on mountains do you feel people really care for each other.”

Getting to the top of any mountain, big or small, gives a sense of fulfilment and achievement, he says.

“I feel blessed to have been able to experience that, especially coming from my background. Mountains are transforming — they change the way you see yourself and life.”

His biggest challenge in life, he says, has been overcoming his humble beginnings.

“It was like starting from scratch. At times you feel like accepting how things are, but then someone says no, it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve been blessed by people who have helped me and encouraged me.”

His adventures have shown him things he could never have imagined as a herd boy, and he describes his trip to the Arctic as “amazing”.

“As we got closer to the North Pole, I felt like the world was caving in under my feet. We were literally on top of the world. I was so lucky to see that.”

Vilane has been a professional public speaker for 10 years, giving at least one or two talks per month, sometimes more. In September, he has 10 speaking engagements.

“It all happened after Everest. There was huge interest from schools and corporates. I was happy to do it, but didn’t really like it. I left my game ranger job when I realised what people were able to learn from me.

“The fact that I’m seen as an inspiring figure gives me so much energy. I feel very privileged to share the message.”

His home is in Nelspruit where he lives with his wife and four children. There he relaxes by cycling or reading and is currently working his way through The Secret, a bestselling self-help book by Rhonda Byrne, which he’s finding “very inspiring”. He’s just written his own first book, To the Top from Nowhere, published by Aardvark Press of Cape Town.

“Sometimes, people say: ‘You’ve done all this, what’s there left to do.’ But there’s lots I’d still like to do.

“ I want to climb more mountains, run more marathons and explore Greenland, where I did my training for the North Pole expedition.

“At 43, I’m at my peak. It’s not over, not when a 80-year-old can summit Everest. I’m only halfway there.”

About Singakwenza

SINGAKWENZA, meaning “we can do it”, is a non-profit organisation that aims to provide low-cost, high-impact health and early education through empowerment programmes to economically disadvantaged communities, particularly in rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal. To find out more, visit

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