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Walking to the South Pole

  • Story Highlights
  • Sibusiso Vilane first black African to walk unassisted to the South Pole
  • Climbed Everest in 2003, then in 2005 to raise money for children's charity
  • Had hoped South Pole trek would help many disadvantaged African children
  • Planning to climb last of the seven summits in June, will be another 'first'
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By Hilary Whiteman
CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- When Sibusiso Vilane became the first black African to climb Mount Everest, the 2003 expedition made headlines around the world.

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Nelson Mandela described Sibusiso Vilane as "a real hero" after he became the first black man to climb Everest.

Nelson Mandela declared Vilane "a real hero", and in a glowing press statement South African President Thabo Mbeki gushed that "he made all of us stick out our chests in justifiable pride and wonder."

This January, Vilane made history again by becoming the first black African to walk unassisted to the South Pole. This time though, the fanfare was decidedly muted.

"The day we got to the South Pole, the front page story was about the first guy to win a canoe marathon," says Alex Harris, Sibusiso's long-term climbing partner and companion on the arduous trek to the Pole.

He says their expedition made "page five or six", adding by way of explanation that, in South Africa, "the public's imagination is by and large caught up with traditional sports like rugby and cricket."

Regardless, "almost every black person knows who Sibu is," Harris says. "They all think he's crazy, but they're definitely inspired."

The South Pole

For the record, on Thursday, January 17, 2008 Sibusiso Vilane became the first man of color to walk unassisted to the South Pole. "Unassisted" means that Vilane and Harris undertook the journey on foot, dragging all their food and equipment -- all 130 kilograms of it -- behind them. click here to read Harris' online journal

It took 65 days -- longer than they had expected. When they reached the Pole they were down to just two days of emergency supplies.

"It was my hardest journey ever," says Vilane, now back at home in South Africa where he lives with his wife and three children.

"You don't see that vastness of wasteland. The whole continent is covered in ice. You spent two months there and you feeling like you're the only living soul on earth. The joy of finishing, realizing you're getting to the end of your goal. It was really a transforming experience."

Vilane also hoped it would be a transforming experience for some of Africa's poorest children.

Before he left, he teamed up with the Freeplay Foundation, a charity best known for distributing wind-up and solar powered 'Lifeline' radios to disadvantaged families and communities, many of whom have no other access to information or education.

"I thought if I can get a radio for every kilometer I walk that would be awesome," he says.

He walked 1113 kilometers. He got 140 radios.

Vilane insists he's not disappointed: "I'm very happy with what we've got."

Alex Harris is not so sure: "He was definitely disappointed."

Motivation

Sibusiso Vilane was born in South Africa but spent most of his childhood in a remote village in Swaziland.

"I grew up in a rural and very poor community with my grandmother. It was very tough."

It's what now gives him motivation to climb -- the hope that his triumphs might inspire other disadvantaged African children that they too can achieve great things.

Vilane says he came across climbing "by coincidence" while working as a game ranger in Swaziland.

It was there that he met the former British High Commissioner to Swaziland, John Doble, who asked Vilane why a black man had never climbed Everest.

"I said: 'It's because we'd never been given the opportunity, we can't afford it.'"

Doble offered the help he needed and in 2003 Vilane was standing on top of the world.

"It became a big story in the world, the first black person to summit Everest. I never thought I was going to climb again," he says.

But he did. Several times. In fact, in June he's planning to climb the last of the seven summits, North America's tallest mountain, Mount McKinley or Denali, in Alaska.

For Vilane, it'll be another first.

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"Only four people in the entire continent have done the seven summits. I'd be the first one of color to be there," he says.

If Sibusiso achieves his aim of inspiring others, he's unlikely to be the last. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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