Ness Knight is an explorer who tests her mental and physical limits in some of the world’s most remote locations and terrains. Here she shares a unique insight into the fascinating world of exploring as a career, and her amazing adventures on bicycles.
Interview by Adele Mitchell
The day it peaked at 49 degrees Celsius I lost consciousness 200 meters from a fresh lion kill due to heat exhaustion…
When I spoke with Ness she had just returned from a solo fatbike expedition covering 1000km across the remote and wild desert terrain of northern Namibia. Earlier this year she also cycled across Bolivia with adventurer Laura Bingham, travelling with no money and instead relying on resourcefulness to find food and a safe location to camp each night.
Her next challenge is to become the first female in history to row across the Pacific Ocean solo, non-stop and unassisted.
Ness, who is 31 years old, was born in South Africa but moved to the UK aged 15 and now lives between Yorkshire and London.
AM: How did you become an explorer?
NK: In 2011 I quit my job teaching digital marketing to entrepreneurs in London after realising that I was showing others how to build their own businesses from the ideas they were most passionate about, yet I was not taking my own advice.
It also was about the same time I decided that staring at a screen 9-5 day in and day out was not for me. I had no idea what the future would look like or what direction I would go in, but I did know that sitting behind a desk working for someone else’s dreams and business was not it.
It all started a few months prior when I bought a postcard that said ‘What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?’ and pinned it to the bottom of my computer screen at work…
It stayed dangling there for a long time, barely noticed, until one morning I sat down, thought long and hard about this little postcard, and decided I would write down an honest answer to its question.
When I leaned back and re-read my list, one bullet point in particular jumped out at me: have the courage to find the thing I am most passionate about in life, master it, and build a career out of it.
That Friday I handed in my notice and took a leap of faith.
What happened next?
My first two expeditions were in 2012 (stand-up paddle boarding 1000 miles along the Missouri River and solo cycling 2000 miles across the USA) and were always planned out as very personal challenges that would give me the time and space to figure out what the next chapter of my life would look like. A part of that journey was to set myself challenges that broke my norm in a big way, testing mind and body out in the wilderness, testing my meddle.
It was midway through my second expedition – solo cycling across the USA – that I noticed people had started following my journey, living vicariously though the highs and lows of my account of life on the road, and it dawned on me that there was an opportunity to make something more of it all. Perhaps this could even be my new career?
I loved traversing unknown lands and meeting people from far flung corners of our planet – it just fascinated me to hear their stories and get to understand their perspective on life and the world around them. Being out on solo expeditions is where I come alive, not least because you have to learn to trust yourself, your decisions, and your abilities.
I did however notice that I was surrounded by beards in the adventure/exploration scene, and that had to change. Just maybe this was a niche in which I could thrive. I saw it as a huge opportunity. It irked me that there weren’t more women hitting the headlines and gaining deserved spotlight and airtime, women who were achieving the most extraordinary things with incredible tales to tell of daring adventures around the globe. As I set out on a new career path to become a female adventurer, the will to fight for others like me to succeed in this, too, stayed with me.
Do you have a background in travel or sport?
I have neither. At school I was renowned for being completely uncoordinated with a tendency to accidentally walk into door frames due to an extraordinary lack of spatial awareness. This didn’t bode well for being picked for sports teams. I can safely say that my childhood friends are suitably baffled and bemused by my endurance expeditions.
In reality, endurance is predominantly about the mind. Your willpower has an annoying habit of trying to give up well before your body has run out of steam (an important survival tactic deployed by our minds way back when humans hunted, when food was not guaranteed and we needed to preserve energy), but this is where I have found my strength: in the patience, resilience and the (oftentimes) sheer stubbornness that it takes to push on when the pain/boredom/exhaustion/self doubt hits its peak.
In a way it is learning when to leverage your emotions, and when to quiet them down and plug on through. I’ve always believed that our minds are both our greatest enemies and our most powerful tool, you just need to understand its quirks and learn how to wield it right.
You’ve just returned from a solo expedition traversing 1000km of the remote and wild terrain of northern Namibia on a fatbike. Why this challenge?
The ideas for my expeditions are born out of sheer curiosity for exploring our planet. I have a map that covers a whole wall in my office, which I sit in front of and dream up journeys I would love to do, places and cultures I would love to explore. I then distil those down in to what could be achieved in the next two years and those get written down on Post-it notes and stuck to the map. The next part of expedition planning is dictated by my uncontrollable urge to try out different disciplines, especially ones that I have never done.
I chose a fatbike for this expedition as it gave me the opportunity to traverse the most testing landscapes imaginable and to push the bike to the extreme, taking on terrain no one had ridden before on this type of bike.
I would be traversing though boulder strewn volcanic regions, thick grassland, jagged rocky gorges, scree slopes, riverbeds, thorn fields and sand dunes. I was in at the deep end learning as I went, cracking bones on rocks, falling down more times than I care to count being battered and bruised, but ultimately coming away from the expedition having learnt to master this bike.
The temperature range in Namibia was 42 – 49 degrees Celsius – what was it like riding in such extreme conditions?
The day it peaked at 49 degrees Celsius I lost consciousness 200 meters from a fresh lion kill due to heat exhaustion, and was luckily discovered by the lion warden.
The heat was incredible. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Most days I would scout ahead to the horizon desperately seeking out the next Shepherd’s tree or rock to shelter under for a few minutes just to cool my body temperature down.
It is an unforgiving wilderness that tested me to my absolute limits physically and mentally. I cached water along my route (it would be otherwise and impossible journey), but not enough due to grossly underestimating the intensity of the heat, so I had to supplement with any natural water resources I could find en route. Of which there were almost none due to a three-year drought.
Cycling over hundreds of dry riverbeds and watering holes was utterly demoralizing. The watering holes that did still exist were a sorry sight. Wildlife would trek from hundreds of miles around to quench their thirst, and that meant risking coming face-to-face with Africa’s big game: lion, elephant and rhino.
I remember one morning setting off in the direction of guttural roars from a pride of lion that I knew would be at or around the watering hole. When I arrived I found a fresh rhino print in the mud by the waters edge. They were all here. They would all know I was here too, but I couldn’t see them behind the bank of reeds. I was well down the food chain; a vulnerable, pink, fleshy morsel wondering wide eyed through big game territory. Never before have I felt so attuned to, and a part of, my environment.
How did you adapt your kit and bike set up?
It was critical to reduce equipment down to the bare minimum, eliminating anything that added extra weight for little gain. No luxuries or home comforts were allowed. Labels were cut off and all kit was chosen based on how lightweight it was. I used bike bags to pack all my gear into, and a carbon fatbike as it had a reputation for being nigh-on indestructible (it lived up to this reputation too!).
Water was precious, so cleaning the bike did not take priority until it became an issue. I sacrificed my toothbrush to clean the dirt off the mechanics each day instead. Sand got into every crevice of both body and equipment. When I reached the coast the salty air very quickly launched an assault on the bike, and rust became the enemy number one. Riding through remote locations is enthralling, but it does come with little niggles. That’s all a part of the appeal though.
What’s it like riding in the desert and how on earth do you ride the 300m sand dunes you encountered?
It is magnificent. You cannot deny the vastness of this remote corner of the world. To know that there is no other human for hundreds of km’s in any direction is unique. We don’t often get the chance to be that alone.
Riding up a sand dune is surprisingly easy on a fatbike. The tires are enormous, and once deflated to increase the footprint even further, it feels like you are floating across the sandy surface. It is a full body workout to get to the top of a giant dune, which you do by tacking back and forth, up and up. The most exhilarating bit is flying over the ridge, and hauling arse down the other side with sand blasting past you, stinging your bare skin, as you slalom down a beast of a dune. Fatbikes were originally made for snow, but they are truly at home on the dunes. Those sand dunes were some of the greatest fun I have ever had on a bike.
What did the hardships of your Bolivia experience teach you?
Admittedly, I was completely unprepared for cycling across a country with no money and no backup. Secretly I had thought it would be pretty easy, and didn’t give much thought to that side of it. It turned out to be one of the most frustrating and humbling experiences I have ever had. For the first time I felt what it was like to have no security, no money, no food and no safe shelter. Laura and I slept in gas stations, next to graveyards, under bridges and, bizarrely, in a church that we found out later was on a street well known for high levels of prostitution and violence. Not knowing if we would eat that day or find a safe place to sleep is a sobering reality when you can’t even speak the language.
The biggest lesson I learnt was that people are innately good. Most people, in fact especially those with little to give, will open their heart and home to you if you can treat them with kindness. People only tend to close themselves off and become unfriendly when they feel judged.
The expedition reminded me to be grateful for all that I have back home, as few people around the world have the comfort of stability and safety. We ate rotten food from the roadside, wolfed down leftovers from peoples abandoned meals and shared dinners of a few dry crackers between us. For the first time I understood the desperation of not knowing when or where the next meal would come from.
It’s safe to say that I will never be doing an expedition like that again. What an eye opener!
What is the reality, in your experience, of being a solo adventurer and a woman?
I love heading out on expeditions as a female. I have found people to be less wary of me simply because I am a woman. I do think, though, that any adventurer, male or female, experiences a generosity, kindness and openness from mere strangers across all cultures, in all corners of the planet. There is something about adventure, about doing things that are out of the ordinary that seems to bring out the best in those we meet along our travels.
One cold winter night, whilst cycling across America solo, I pulled into a town knowing there was nowhere to camp for miles ahead. I walked into a McDonalds, sat in the centre of the room and eavesdropped on the conversations of those around me, outwardly appearing immersed in my own thoughts. I could tell by the conversation between an elderly couple that they were wonderful people, so approached them to ask if they knew of somewhere I could pitch my tent or lay my sleeping bag for the night; a lawn, a church, a community centre, anything. They looked me up and down, told me I look far to hungry and grubby to go anywhere except home with them to be fed and cleaned up. They went out of their way to look after me, and didn’t even bat an eyelid at bringing a filthy, bedraggled stranger into their home. They almost refused to let me leave the next day, and only let me part on the promise that I would stay with their friends a few towns along on my route. This began a chain reaction all the way across America of people who knew people who would put me up, feed me and tell me stories of their towns and cities as I travelled west. To this day I get a lump in my throat thinking about the incredible good will and generosity of everyone I met. They treated me, a total stranger, like their own family.
If only we could hear more of the stories and accounts of kindness and compassion in this world, perhaps we would see that the bad ones are in the minority. Perhaps it would change our perspective of how much good there is out there. Perhaps we would see the similarities between us all, rather than looking for differences.
What have you learned both about yourself and about the world as an adventurer?
- We are all far more capable that we think we are. Our mind is our most powerful tool.
- The fear of failure is the most important thing to get over in life. You simply cannot let it hold you back.
- Learning to trust yourself and your decisions is the greatest gift you can give yourself.
- People are innately good.
- I would rather try something and fail than regret having never had the courage to do it.
We’re certainly inspired. Share Ness’s story, follow her on Twitter or tell us about your adventures below.