For explorer and adventurer Johan Ernst Nilson, being great means stepping outside your comfort zone. He applies the same rule to great tasks of learning about life and the world. Johan started his illustrious career as a motivational speaker, environmentalist and adventurer, as a result of a wager. One day, he accepted a challenge to cycle from Stockholm to Africa. As a young boy, he didn’t do well with physical education classes at school, but with his epic new mission at hand, whatever Johan lacked in strength, he compensated with determination and will power. It took him 52 days to reach Sahara in Morocco.
Other ambitions projects included crossing Antarctica on foot and reaching summits of the world’s highest mountains on all seven continents. In 2007, he became the Swedish President of Everest Summiteers (ESA). A traveller with over 30 expeditions under his belt, Johan focuses on environmental projects and climate challenges our civilization might face. Johan is a member of both The Explorers Club and Travellers Club.
Born in Sweden in 1969, Johan has passion for travel and exploration running through his veins. This insatiable thirst for learning about different cultures and ultimately himself pushed him to sail, climb, sledge, cycle, trek, surf and ski across this planet’s most remarkable terrains, often putting himself at the mercy of the forces of nature. Fear of the unknown hasn’t stopped him from visiting more than 140 countries, where he’s received a warm welcome from prime ministers and tribesmen from all over the world; he’s woken up next to lions, and shared nerve-racking stare-down moments with buffaloes and grizzly bears.
Q. What are your most memorable expeditions to date?
A. I once arranged a rock concert at almost 6,000 metres on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. All funds raised, from the live Facebook broadcast, went to a charity saving elephants. Another memory is driving with four doctors across Africa, from Alexandria in Egypt to Cape Town in South Africa, with 5,000 glasses which were for kids with eyesight problems, so they could go to school and read. I’ll also never forget, I once made a DIY airplane, an engine and a hang glider’s wing out of a rubber dinghy and I took it across Europe to Africa.
Q. Tell us about any unusual experiences with local tribes?
A. I was in the Amazonian jungle, in Brazil, and I took a photograph of a native family with my camera. I showed it to the man, and he recognised his wife and his kids in the photo. Looking at the picture for the first time made him so happy, but he was confused by the man in the photo (which was himself) because he had no idea how he looked.
Q. Have you come across any unusual cultural traditions?
A. In Tibet they stick their tongues out when greeting each other. Can you imagine coming to a village and having 500 people stick their tongues out at you just to welcome you? It felt very unusual from a cultural point of view.
Q. Any unforgettable spiritual experiences?
A. It must be when I was traveling to Dharamshala in India to meet the Dalai Lama and having conversations about life and the world with him. It lasted for about an hour and I cherish that time with him. Another time that was one of the most memorable experiences was standing on the summit of Mount Everest literally feeling the thrill of standing on top of the world. After ecstasy, there comes realisation that you are only half-way through your journey, and the second part is going to be harder and more dangerous because 70 per cent of deaths happen on the way down.
Q. Have you met some truly inspiring people along your travels?
A. I’m inspired by everyone who can overcome their fears and go outside their comfort zone. Inspiring people aren’t born into greatness; some of them, like Nelson Mandela and Gandhi are just normal people with a great vision. I am inspired by my kundalini teacher guru Singh and by many writers like Deepak Chopra. In Kathmandu, I met Buddhist practitioner Lama Pema who was given a task of looking after children there by the Dalai Lama. Sadly, many youngsters fall victims to poverty, prostitution and other crimes. He’s spent over 30 years building children centres and schools to help them. He has a very pure heart.
Q. Where has been the most enchanting sunset you’ve ever seen?
A. Have you ever seen a three-day sunset? It happened in Antarctica. There’s a moment when there’s a change from nine months of darkness to three months of sunshine and you have a chance to see the most incredible sunset – when everything around you is coloured in all shades of gold, and it lasts for three days.
Q. What about the most beautiful sunrise you’ve ever seen?
A. I can’t ever forget the view of the sun rising over the Himalayan mountains. You have to be up at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. and it’s dark and freezing cold, but when the mountains start turning pink you are treated to a mind-blowing light show.
Q. What’s the most gorgeous beach you’ve been to?
A. The best beach I’ve ever been to is in Papua New Guinea in Indonesia – it’s untouched and pristine, as nature intended.
Q. Tell us about some of the most unbelievable views you’ve experienced of the world?
A. I took a balloon ride in Myanmar and the view of shiny golden temples was pretty remarkable, especially when we flew low. I can imagine that’s what Thailand used to look like 100 years ago before it got ruined by tourism.
Q. Talk us through some memorable wildlife encounters?
A. In Alaska, just outside Talkeetna, I saw a grizzly bear as I was walking. We had a moment when we looked at each other, then he went the other way. Once I gave a hug to a lion outside Johannesburg – that was when we were releasing the lion back into the wild.
Q. Has anything ever gone wrong with your travel plans?
A. I fell through ice once in the North Pole, with all my clothes on. It took me three days to recover and we had already run out of food. I was there for 55 days and lost 27 kg – I don’t recommend this diet! Another time I was crossing Antarctica with my kite when a gust of wind pulled me three meters up into the air and then I came crashing down. I damaged my ribs and spinal discs. I also got sunburnt when hiking Mount Everest. I had to spend weeks at the doctors trying to get my skin back. I won’t forget the time I cycled in the jungle in Guatemala and an insect bit me on the forehead. It was so sudden and painful that I came off the road. It’s amazing how something so small can cause such pain and cause such havoc.
Q. Where have you spent the best night in a tent?
A. I spent eight and a half years of my life in tents so that’s a tough question to answer. I have some crazy memories from the Arctic, where ice moves all the time. It makes noise very similar to the sound of a polar bear. If you’re sleeping in a tent you must come out with a rifle every time to check if this noise comes from crushing ice or a polar bear trying to come closer and snack on you! Once, I fell asleep in a tent, when trekking in Africa and an animal fell asleep on the other side of the tent. It turned out to be a lion, attracted by the warmth of my body. I’d never been so quiet in all my life!
Q. Have you ever been particularly scared during your travels?
A. I got scared when a rock fell off my path when I was climbing Mount Everest. Also, there was a time when I came across five hundred buffaloes – they were just standing there and looking at me. You should know, if one starts running, they all follow, and you don’t have a chance! Falling through ice at the North Pole and hitting an iceberg when sailing to Antarctica was scary too. Also, when I took my DIY airplane across Europe, I got into the air corridor designated for airplanes flying above Paris. I was petrified!