True Grit: Ness Knight

Adventurer Ness Knight shares her inspirations and anxieties as she prepares for her next daring expedition

Travel 2 Mar 2018

Fatbiking in Namibia, 2016
Training for the Essequibo trip in Wales, 2017

Eight years ago, Ness Knight was working for social enterprise, teaching people how to take their passion and transform it into a business and lifestyle. Realising she wasn’t taking her own advice, she quit her job, flew to the Missouri River in America and became the first female to stand-up paddleboard 1,000 miles.

It’s a dramatic career change by anyone’s standards. ‘I just needed some head space,’ explains Knight. ‘I didn’t know it would be a new career at the time. After the Missouri River, I couldn’t decide what to do next, so I cycled – solo and unsupported – for 2,000 miles across the USA.’

Knight joins a long line of famous explorers, and it’s not just men that have traditionally achieved such feats.‘Female explorers such as Martha Gellhorn have always existed, they just didn’t get their share of the limelight.

Social media has changed that dramatically. And there are now a huge number of brands actively looking for females to become ambassadors.’

She pauses. ‘There is no denying that as an explorer I am still surrounded by beards, but it’s certainly changing.’

Since her American adventures, Knight, 32, has run from London to Land’s End (the equivalent of 15 back-to-back marathons) and become the first female in history to swim the length of the Thames. She spent this winter in a canoe getting to grips with the biting cold of Welsh rivers alongside fellow explorers Laura Bingham and Pip Stewart, in preparation for their two-month descent of the Essequibo River in Guyana this spring.

Knight, who talks with the speed of white water rapids, is beyond excited. ‘Many of the things I’ve done have been about a personal and mental journey, so this trip is my first proper exploration. The Essequibo is the third longest river in South America and is largely unexplored; we will hopefully be the first team, male or female, to have ever canoed from the source of the river to the sea. Two guides from the Wai Wai tribe are coming with us for at least a month, so we can learn about their history, culture and way of life.’

Bingham was originally going to do the trip alone, before realising it was ‘too hardcore’. While a team of three is less daunting than a solo trip, help is still at least a day away and, as Knight points out, ‘almost nothing is to hand.’ Swimming the Thames and paddleboarding the Missouri sound positively routine compared to the challenge of untouched virgin rainforest.

Ness Knight with fellow explorer Pip Stewart

Her enthusiasm is infectious, but Knight is not without apprehension; mostly in the middle of the night, when she tries not to think about what could go wrong. ‘Of course I wake up in a sweat at night. I’d be abnormal if I didn’t. I have many moments of, “Good God, what have I got myself into?” I don’t want to be in the jungle in a panic, so I have to allay all my fears before I go.’

Knight manages those fears through visualisation. ‘If I visualise every possible scenariothat could go wrong and exactly how I’d react to it, over and over, then that reaction becomes automatic. The science behind it is solid: our brains can’t actually tell the difference between an imagined and real situation. It’s shocking how quickly you can transform your mindset.’

It’s easy to see why Knight is an acclaimed motivational speaker; she might not inspire you to canoe an unexplored river, but she is persuasive on positivity and the positives of failure. ‘We put so much pressure on ourselves to get things right first time. It’s ridiculous; failure is hugely important for character and growth. It’s how we learn.’

When Knight returns from Guyana at the end of March, she will take a 1970s sailing boat down to the Med in preparation for her biggest challenge yet: later this year she will attempt to become the first female to row the Pacific Ocean solo and non-stop. The seed was sown around the time she left her job; she read about Roz Savage, a management consultant who resigned to row solo across each ocean.

Savage spent 250 days completing the 8,000-mile journey across the Pacific, but Knight intends to do it in one go. ‘I haven’t been able to get the idea out of my head for eight years. What would it feel like to row halfway across the world using your own physical strength? No motor, no sails. It’ll be the biggest thing I ever do in my life.’

Details of the trip are top secret – ‘in case someone beats me to it’ – but Knight will reveal that the boat is custom-built and around 24ft, to resist the extreme battering it will take. She is, bizarre as it sounds, risk averse; her website begs cyclists to wear helmets and hi-visibility clothing, and she calms her anxious mother by explaining that each trip is meticulously planned, with every possible worst-case scenario explored.

Her mother will be relieved, then, that Knight insists her thirst for adventure will be sated by her Pacific expedition. She wants to focus instead on storytelling. ‘Through writing, photography and film, I want to find, uncover and retell the stories of issues facing communities around the world. I have seen the harsh reality of the damage we’ve done to our environment. It has, at times, been painful to see.’

Can climate change be reversed? ‘I honestly don’t know. I’ve seen communities with almost nothing, creating businesses that do good to do well, that aren’t just about making money. I believe we’re on a wave of change, partly as a result of brilliant documentaries such as Blue Planet. But we have to reconnect kids with the natural world; it’s about leveraging the passions of the next generation.’

As for her old desk job, Knight hasn’t for one moment regretted quitting. ‘Gosh, no. I decided eight years ago that I didn’t want to be 20 years down the line and regretting the things I didn’t have the balls to do.’ Asked if the reality of adventuring has lived up to her dream, she can’t answer soon enough. ‘Absolutely! I’d rather try and fail than not have the guts to try at all.’