Amazing Nomads: Lungi Mchunu – a Humble Zulu Girl

Lungi Mchunu has written her name in history, becoming the first African woman to sail to the North Pole. This endeavour is made even more incredible because she grew up frightened of the ocean.

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Photo © Photo Supplied: Lungi Mchunu

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Amazing Nomads: Lungi Mchunu

Lungi wrote her name in history becoming the first African woman to sail to the North Pole on a climate change and plastic pollution expedition boat. Before sailing, Lungi ran several basketball initiatives which led to led to global collaborations in Honduras, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Ghana, and Oman yet she still refers to herself as a 'humble Zulu girl'.

What’s in the episode

00:38 Meet Lungi, a humble Zulu girl

01:23 Growing up

03:00 The support of family

06:02 The international language of sport

08:05 Meeting Greg

11:11 Research expedition opportunity

13:14 Plans for 2020

14:17 Heading to Tokyo

15:47 Next episode

Quotes from the episode

“I suppose I had a goal. I knew that I would travel, but I didn't know where to and when it would happen.” – Lungi

“I'm the first of everything. So even in my neighborhood, I'm like the first person that has traveled so much abroad. I was the first person to sail. So, all these things that I'm doing, are new to everybody. And as much as I learn and grow, everybody around me is also learning and growing with me.” - Lungi

“I figure I'm going to be that annoying Granny, someday, that always has a load of stories.” – Lungi 

Who is in the episode

After a year of facing her childhood fear of open seas, KwaZulu-Natal’s Lungi Mchunu was selected as part of a ground-breaking expedition, becoming the first African woman to sail to the North Pole.

A sailor, explorer and climate change activist, Lungi also ran basketball initiatives to bridge the gap between the South African fraternity and the global community. Her work to global collaborations with the same goal in Honduras, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Ghana, Oman.

Follow Lungi’s blog here and on Instagram

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Resources & links

Learn how to capture meaningful travel stories and go on global scholarship assignments for World Nomads.

Want to make money while you travel? Check out the World Nomads Partner Program.

Next Episode: The World Nomads Podcast – Ethiopia

About World Nomads & the Podcast

Explore your boundaries and discover your next adventure with The World Nomads Podcast. Each episode will take you around the world with insights into destinations from travelers and experts. They’ll share the latest in travel news, answer your travel questions and fill you in on what World Nomads is up to, including the latest scholarships and guides.

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You can get in touch with us by emailing [email protected].

We use the Rodecaster Pro to record our episodes and interviews when in the studio, made possible with the kind support of Rode.

Speaker 1: The World Nomads Podcast, bonus episode. Hear Amazing Nomads sharing their knowledge, stories, and experience of world travel.

Kim: Thank you for tuning into this amazing Nomads episode. Introducing Lungi, from South Africa. Now, Lungi wrote her name in history, becoming the first African female to sail to the Arctic with a climate change and plastic pollution expedition, Phil, made more incredible because she grew up frightened of the water.

Phil: Before sailing, she also ran several basketball initiatives, which led to global collaboration in Honduras, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Ghana, and Amman. Yet she's still referring to herself as a humble Zulu girl.

Lungi: Because I am. Don't I sound sweet, guys?

Kim: You do, you do sound very sweet, but I mean, anything but humble. You've got so many achievements under your belt that Phil and I feel like massive underachievers, just talking to you.

Lungi: No, as much as that's true, I'm still the normal girl from next door that speaks to everybody, that hangs out with everybody, so I'm very down to earth. So all of those achievements are just little things to add to my resume. And things that I came across, just pursuing my passions. That's all it is.

Kim: We'll learn about those, as we go, but I want to first know about your childhood, where you grew up and what it was like.

Lungi: I grew up in South Africa, between KwaZulu-Natal and Johannesburg, in a single-parent home. So, I'm a city girl, and I lived with my mom most of the time. My parents are divorced. I have two older brothers, so I grew up playing basketball. I wanted to be a pilot, pretty normal childhood, so I was just very busy with sports, I was always away on weekends, competing and stuff like that. And I had friends like everybody else, hung out with everybody else, but I just, I suppose I had a goal. I knew that I would travel, but I didn't know where to and when it would happen. And that's about the only thing that has stuck out till now.

Phil: Was travel common in your family? Was it something everybody did?

Lungi: Nope. I'm the first of everything. So even in my neighborhood, I'm like the first person that has traveled so much abroad. I was the first person to sail. So all of these things that I'm doing, are new to everybody. And as much as I learn and grow, everybody around me is also learning and growing with me.

Kim: They must love having you over for a cup of tea. Just finding out what your latest adventure's been.

Lungi: I figure I'm going to be that annoying Granny, someday, that always has a load of stories. So yeah, no, they've been pretty supportive, even though it's things that they don't understand. And they've been good to me, and I think everybody is starting to see life differently, I suppose.

Kim: Nice one. So before we get to the ocean, let's go back to basketball, and growing up playing that. And the things that you've achieved as an adult with that. You've done so much with sport.

Lungi: Yeah. So in basketball, like I was saying, that I grew up playing basketball every weekend, that was my go-to place. That was my place to explore and to feel free. And I think this was in 2010, I realized that other kids didn't have that same childhood that I had, you know. And kids were getting into drugs, which is a problem, globally. And I wanted to give them a piece of my childhood. So, that's how I got started in community initiatives through basketball. So that was the intent, and it just blew up in my face. It became something so big. What was meant to be just for my community, ended being a global thing in the space of a year?

Kim: Explain.

Phil: Yeah.

Kim: Tease that out a bit. How did it become global?

Lungi: So basically, South African basketball had sort of died down, because of the misadministration with our Federation. So basically, the international community didn't even know that we existed. So, what I wanted to do was to bridge the communication gap between our International Federation and the players on the ground, because they were missing out on so many opportunities to compete globally because we didn't have an administration.

Lungi: So I created an online magazine in aid to bridge that gap, and while I was doing that for my local community, then suddenly, there were people in Ghana, Uganda, "Lungi, this will be great. We would like to be featured in your online magazines. Can you come to our events, to promote us as well?" And that's how I got the Ambassadorship with our International Federation, FIBA, in Switzerland.

Lungi: And being associated with the Federation also brought other communities that were struggling, like from Honduras, Puerto Rico, Brazil. So these are people that I worked with daily, regardless of the language barrier. We used to use Google Translate, just to get through meetings and stuff like that. But I mean, we all had the same passion. We wanted to share this love that we had for basketball with future generations.

Kim: You don't know how to ... when it comes to sport, you don't necessarily need to know how to speak another language, because we all know who's upset that their team's losing.

Lungi: Exactly. So, sport is a universal language on its own, so that made it a whole lot easier. And the fact that we all had the same passion, with our communities. So we just got together, and I got to help them as much as they were helping me. And we were promoting what used to be streetball, being three-on-three? So that would be like two or three people get together at a basketball court and you just play together. So FIBA was working on formalizing that. So, the slogan at the time was, From the Streets to the World Stage. So we promoted that, I think, between 2014 and '16, I must have traveled like almost every other weekend promoting this discipline of basketball, which was only approved by the International Olympics in 2017. So now, it's going to be an Olympic discipline.

Phil: Are you tall? Are the Zulu people tall, generally? 

Lungi: Most of them are, I'm not tall. I'm like 1.63.

Phil: Okay.

Lungi: ... So I'm not tall at all.

Kim: But you wouldn't want to be-

Lungi: I'm pretty short.

Kim: ... six foot eight, because then there'd be issues on the sailing boat, with the boom.

Phil: Yes.

Lungi: Of course.

Kim: So, I'm going to pat myself on the back, there.

Phil: Nice segue. Well done.

Kim: Nice segue. Yeah, nice segue.

Phil: Can I tell you a joke about that? Do you know why the boom on a ship is called a boom, on a boat? Do you know why it's called a boom?

Lungi: Oh, come on, no.

Phil: Because that's the noise it makes when it hits you in the head.

Kim: Oh, Lungi.

Lungi: Everybody tells that story when you're [crosstalk 00:07:52]. Not very original. Everyone.

Kim: Now you are a girl that was afraid of water. You met this amazing man called Greg Maud. What happened?

Lungi: So I met with Greg after I had done a Competent Crew in the North of France. So that's when I fell in love with the sailing thing. I was like, "I need to go back, I need to find ways to go back." So I was looking for local people that could give me ideas on how I could go forward with sailing. And Greg had just done the Talisker Rowing Challenge. So he had, I think he rowed ... It was on the Atlantic, so he had just completed that, and it was like the only person that I could find in Joburg that could speak to me. And he was ever so kind. He came to the bank. I was working at the bank at the time and I was so nervous, like, "Oh my God, did I meet this amazing guy?" And he was so kind, and he gave me his words of wisdom and had it not been for people like that, just cheering me on and telling me that I'm on the right path, then I probably wouldn't be here.

Phil: Look, I know how you get the sailing bug. I have done a little bit.

Kim: Oh here we go.

Phil: No, it's fantastic.

Kim: Yeah I know but ...

Phil: I haven't done, I've never, no, I've never been out of Sydney Harbor. I don't ... I haven't done ... well, not true. I've been out twice, but I don't do oceans.

Lungi: Well, you need to get out of the world. You guys have the Southern Ocean next to you, so you need to get out.

Kim: I'd love to see Phil in a boat in the Southern Ocean, the roaring 40s. The roaring 40s. I do love him, he's just so fun to stir.

Phil: But I get it. It's like all that, you know, feeling the wind and you know, and a sailboat reacts differently from a powerboat because it's part of the ocean, not sort of sitting on it. So it's such ... I understand how you get the passion for sailing.

Kim: Give us a list of things that you've done, as part of this love of the sea?

Lungi: Well, when I started with the Competent Crew and I fell in love with it, I had to find ways to be part of the community. So, I wanted to be an onboard reporter on the Volvo Ocean Race.

Kim: You can do that Phil.

Lungi: At the time, because I figured, you know what, I have this photography and videography certificate that I don't use much. You know, I just take random photos here and there, so maybe I could do this whilst experiencing what it's like to be at sea for longer periods. But, unfortunately, that didn't work out and I think that was a blessing in disguise, because that only fuelled me to go further, and I started training. I would travel like at least every two to three months, I would be in the North of France or the South of France. I'm training there with my sailing schools.

Lungi: And then in 2017 a friend of mine bought me a ticket to meet Mike Horn in Switzerland. Yeah. So I went and met this guy and he was talking about how he went from Pole to Pole and stuff like that. I was like, that's interesting. But at the time I didn't even know that two months later I would get an opportunity to be part of a crew on a research expedition to the Arctic. And I only had a Day Skipper at the time. So that's like, most people consider it crazy. You can't sail to the Arctic with a Day Skipper, but I did.

Kim: Now, now you've lost me. So, this is what, sailor speak?

Phil: Well there's a sort of training, sort of layers of training that you do. So you do a Competent Crew and then you can do Day Skipper, which means you take a small boat out during the day, but there's no sort of celestial navigation involved in that or no passage planning or all those things. You must work your way up to ... well, Lungi now has, which is a Yacht-Master certificate. You would kind of figure that if you're going to go to the Arctic, you'd have at least a Yacht-Master, not Day Sailor.

Kim: Yeah. But don't we ask for forgiveness, not permission?

Phil: That's right.

Kim: Exactly. Exactly. I was very fortunate, and I think that it was like the best decision as well in terms of testing my skills. I mean, as much as I didn't know much, I later realized that I knew a lot more than what I gave myself credit for, because there were only four experienced sailors on board, so the three being the crew and the other one being the captain and the rest was just your scientist and research guys. So, I had to do amazing stuff. I had to learn how to navigate, avoid sea ice and all these things, learn how to use a higher frequency radio, to radar and stuff like that. So, I was one of the important people in the boat, and I ended up being Navigational Support and a Watch Officer.

Phil: Okay.

Kim: So, let's go back to your bit of sailing. I mean at least you get out and you do it. I think it's great.

Phil: Yes, the world's heaviest Foredeckie. Behave, girls.

Kim: What's next? What's happening for this year?

Lungi: So, I will be doing a couple of things. I need to get back into sailing as soon as the season starts in Europe. So that's going to be April, May. I'll also have Maiden which is a legendary boat, I believe you guys ... Phil must know this because Maiden was there earlier on in the year, and Wendy got to be the Skipper of it. I think it went around Australia quite a bit. Yeah, so I'll be on-board Maiden. The boat is currently on a world tour, raising funds for girls' education, and it's a legendary boat. It's like, you know the epitome of what female sailors can do, which was skippered by Tracy Edwards in '89, '90, and they had an all-female crew on the Whitbread Race what was ... but is now called the Ocean Race.

Lungi: So I'm going to get onboard that. I will also be doing a couple of speaking engagements, and I'm working on a project right now with FIBA to combine my love for sailing and basketball as well as reducing our carbon emissions. So we're going to be doing a tour, I think we're going to start from Turkey up to Tokyo just before the start of the Olympics, and it's going to be loads of fun.

Phil: A bit busy then.

Kim: A little bit busy. If you do find yourself in Sydney, please contact us. We'd love to have you here at World Nomads headquarters. One final question. If you weren't this humble Zulu girl that didn't push her boundaries, and overcome your fear of the ocean, what would your life look like now?

Lungi: I honestly don't know. I probably would have settled. Maybe I would have carried on with basketball because the community part of me has always been a Lungi thing, so I probably would have continued with basketball and helping out where I can, and stayed within banking as well, which would probably have limited me, but I think at some point it would have come out because these things eventually come out. So one way or the other, I would have traveled and eventually have come across all of this stuff and met this Lungi that I'm getting to know now.

Kim: And we love the Lungi you've become, encouraging us all to find our limit and go beyond it.

Phil: Lungi is also working towards sailing solo around the world in 2024.

Kim: Of course she is.

Phil: Yeah. Why wouldn't you?

Kim: Go Lungi. Tell us about our next episode, which you can get from wherever you download and subscribe to your favorite podcasts.

Phil: And next episode, we're off to Ethiopia.

Kim: Ooh. Bye.

Phil: Bye.

Speaker 1: Amazing Nomads. Be inspired.

1 Comment

  • Kerry Biddle said

    Well done, Lungi! What a fantastic adventure and learning experience for all those around you to share.

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