Talking to Mikael Strandberg is comparable to meeting a real-life sage from an old explorer’s tome; highly interesting, often surprising, and effortlessly enlightening. Mikael was born in Sweden in a humble countryside village decorated with fields, forests, rivers, lakes, and wildlife. This close proximity to nature along with his sister’s affinity for travel sowed the seeds of what would become a life of inner and outer exploration, living one day at a time and constantly learning through experience. His excursions have earned him a formidable reputation amongst the world of adventurers, covering almost 100 countries over 34 years as a professional explorer, fellow of The Explorers Club, and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
Mikael now lives with his two daughters in Malmo, Sweden, and is already planning his next adventure to the Arctic Circle in 2021. As an explorer, Mikael embarks on daring projects while documenting his experiences which ‘can further our understanding of the world we live in’, as defined by The Explorers Club. He has now made six documentaries, most recently of which was the award-winning depiction of his time in Greenland, where he stayed with his family for a year before having to return due to his daughter’s health difficulties. We were glad to find out that little Eva’s condition has stabilized, and even as we write this (August 2020) Mikael and the girls are on a 35-day cycling tour in the Northern region of Sweden.
How did your love for exploration begin?
Largely due to books. When I started reading books of all interests, it showed me a part of life that you see very little of in the village where I grew up. I actually preferred reading in the library over going to school. The more I read, the more I opened up my mind and eventually started travelling as a backpacker. I spent almost a year in India when I was 18, travelling pretty much all over the country. During that trip, I met a guy who told me about his cycling expedition from Ireland to India, and that really inspired me to become a storyteller through my travels.
What made you decide on India as your first destination?
Well it was actually because of my interest in Terravada Buddhism which led me there. I wanted to visit Dharamsala, which is where the Dalai Lama stays. I was searching for the meaning of life, basically, and somehow the thought of being there seemed like a good place to find answers. I had an idea to become a monk, but being there and experiencing their way of life taught me that it wasn’t really necessary. As interesting as their life can be, they are just humans like anyone else after all. So I figured I could just let life teach me the lessons I needed to learn. Also, the group-based monastic living was not my idea of fun.
That’s when I decided to do a bicycle trip of my own. I looked at the map and realised that I could cycle all the way from the Southern-most tip of America, which is in Chile, all the way to the Northern-most tip of America, ending in Alaska. That was in 1986. Cross-country cycling wasn’t as popular as it is today so I got some attention from the press back home in Sweden. I did 2 more cycling trips after that, and along the way someone from Swedish television asked me “Why don’t you bring a video camera with you?”. And that was how I started out documenting and making films out of my travels. I learnt everything as I went, no formal training - for better or worse (laughs).
The more I did it, the more it got me thinking about what would be my next expedition.
Were you alone on these expeditions? How did your family respond to your newfound lifestyle?
Mostly alone yes, but you meet many people along the way. Nowadays, I have my family with me who give me a lot of perspective in addition to being great company. Although as a young traveller, going out on my own was an invaluable experience which I highly recommend.
As for getting started, it’s just an innate feeling that I had to go explore the world. You either have this inkling or not, and when it required going away for long periods of time, it was just normal to my family. They knew that it was something I wanted to do so it was never an issue.
With the amount of cross-country travel, did you encounter trouble with immigration officials and authority figures?
Well yes, and unfortunately those positions are often filled by people who enjoy making others suffer to justify their power. You take it as it comes and be patient. Nowadays I prefer going to places that are generally easier for travellers, although there are exceptions such as Russia. I still like going there a lot, even though it’s costly and tough to do so.
What was your first documentary?
The first documentary I did was about riding in Patagonia on a horse for a year. During that trip, I delved deeper into the big questions of who we are as humans. Again, life needed to teach me, so it was about having more experiences. So, I decided to learn from yet another way of living that is quite alien to a Swedish-born lad - I went to live with the Masaai in Kenya. I walked through Maasai-land while there was a terrible drought - I would see humans and wildlife wasting away, and the occasional lion who was too weak to do anything in the extreme heat.
We just walked through the desert-land, not realizing that we had passed through a plot of land owned by certain Maasai people. They would pop up suddenly and ask for money as ‘tax’ for passing through their land. There was a lot of negotiation involved, mostly in English. I tried to pick up a little bit of Maa, their local language. It’s quite poetic and descriptive; eg. instead of saying ‘i’m hungry’, you say something like ‘my stomach is rumbling’.
It was definitely one of the toughest and most complicated expeditions I've undertaken, but a rewarding one too. The African people are just fantastic people in general, and I learned a lot from them, particularly the Maasai. They are strong, kind, and generous. In other parts of the world, people may have a certain image of the Maasai being tribal red-robed warrior types, but that’s just a romanticized picture painted by early explorers and the like.
Have you ever been to our neck of the woods ie. Singapore/Malaysia?
Yes! I’ve been a few times now to Kuala Lumpur for speaking engagements, but the first time was when I cycled up the East Coast of West Malaysia, going through Taman Negara (our National Park). It is very beautiful, and Malaysia has the best food in the world. Every city you come across spoils you with Chinese, Malay, and Indian food that’s simply unforgettable.
Upon viewing your TEDTalk (linked below) about trekking through -58 degrees in Siberia, we couldn’t help but wonder - how did you go to the toilet outdoors in those conditions?
Haha! Well, the good thing about humans is that we put on fat around our private areas, which helps retain some body heat when it’s time to go. It’s a quick affair because of the cold, but it’s never really a problem. In summer as the ice melts, it gets washed away conveniently.
You’ve spoken about the fear of almost freezing to death while you were there. Have you felt fear like ever again?
The fear of my daughter’s health is much worse than any fear I felt for myself in Siberia. Fear can be useful on explorations - it keeps you on your toes. Also, I was somewhat prepared for my Siberia trip by staying in the coldest inhabited place in Scandinavia. In another way, growing up in Sweden also prepared me for the cold virtually since birth.
But the fear you feel for a loved one is a whole different ball game. Whatever it was, we had to take action and face it head-on. Years of exploration and living in uncertainty does help, though. By going through hardships, you’re doing the hard work and heavy lifting required to face the adversities in life. Life can be very difficult sometimes, but facing challenges gives you the tools to meet hardships as they arise.
When our bodies are pushed to the extreme, endurance athletes often speak of experiencing hallucinations. Did you encounter any such thing on your travels?
I’ve never actually been asked that question before! The best thing about being an explorer is having an extremely short memory. Experiences come and they move on, so I don’t actually remember if I did hallucinate, even though I may have. That being said, I'm quite good at not pushing myself too much in order to conserve energy for the next day, so I managed alright.
Interestingly, I don’t find the conditions of cold weather (or deserts) as challenging as the humidity of rainforest climate! The humidity drenches and drains you - I found it the most difficult. As far as Siberia was concerned, it was not easy but I fell absolutely in love with the country. One of my favourite places on Earth. Cold weather, but warm people.
Which country are you most keen on visiting again?
There are just too many to name. I went back to Russia for 2 film festivals in which I won awards for my documentary in Greenland. It was wonderful to be back in Siberia, where I met even more warm & engaged people. They are genuinely curious, and I really like that. Both Russians and Siberian natives are wonderful people.
You’ve met people from all nationalities - what are some common traits you find across the board?
By today’s media standards, it is easy to conclude that humans are well, evil. But believe me when I tell you; I can count on one hand the people I met who were unbearable. Most of them are overwhelmingly nice, warm, and generous. In fact, the harsher the living conditions, the kinder the people.
Another common trait would be the need for exchanging stories. Socializing and gossiping is incredibly important for human beings, I realized. No matter where I went, it was quite a defining trait of any group of people. We feel closer to one another by involving ourselves in each other's lives.
There is also the trait of being prejudiced. Unfortunately, wherever I would travel to I’d encounter people who are prejudiced. I’ve never come across a culture without it. Racism is a very human trait, and it plagues tribes, neighbourhoods, and religions alike. However, it is comforting that these people remain the minority - at least in my experience.
Can you talk about how NORMALNA (accepting everything just as it is) has helped you in your daily life?
What I’ve learned the most about living the way I do, is that life is short. The answer is: Just live. Do as much as you can. We’ve been given a supreme opportunity to have a life in the first place, and then we will pass on. Keep it simple, live at full speed. You don’t have to collect, because nothing is guaranteed. I think the Covid-19 crisis has brought this fact into stark realisation for most people. I only live with what I need, and I try to show my daughters the same.
Happiness is quite an abstract concept. I feel absolute love when I see my daughters and how they are growing up into fully-fledged human beings. They are 50% me and 50% their fantastic mother - it’s such a great joy.
I am content, but I do not view life as happy or sad because I don’t look for happiness to begin with. It’s just about live, live, live. Soon it will all end.
Do you have any books you would recommend?
My favourite author on all levels is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote many great books. I recommend all his work. I also like Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul and Kafka, among many others.
Lastly, any advice for budding explorers?
Just GO! Haha. I’ve received hundreds of emails from people who are interested in becoming explorers themselves, which is very encouraging.
I would say that you have to develop courage to do what others consider delusional, crazy, and impossible. Create and cultivate your own vision for adventure through thorough research, reading as many books as you can, and meeting people with experience. It is also important to learn the skills required to sell your vision to possible media partners and sponsors.
Follow your heart and vision, and keep yourself fit by doing regular exercise. Don't waste your time listening to naysayers, because their negativity stems from jealousy of not having the guts to do what you do.
Prepare as much you possibly can. And finally, read the first point again.
Follow Mikael on social media:
Facebook - @Mikael Strandberg
Instagram - @explorerglobal
Stay updated on his adventures through his webpage: www.mikaelstrandberg.com
TEDx Talk: NORMALNA, The Siberian Way to Understanding the Meaning of Life - TEDxMälaren - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Pqg0zIuvzA