Vanessa Knight: the joys of South West USA

Extreme adventurer Vanessa Knight on how cycling through the USA changed her world of travel

8 mins

Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean which are you?

All four. I wouldn’t know how to choose between them. I wouldn’t want to! I’ll be doing expeditions in each of these environments over the next few years. A Pacific Ocean row is in planning stages. I cycled to the top of a mountain on my last expedition in the USA. And I have my eye on the Marathon des Sables.

First travel experience?

My first big travel experience was to South America, travelling for the best part of six months across Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. While there I spent two months at a big cat sanctuary, Inti Wara Yassi, located in the depths of the Bolivian jungle. I ran through the jungle for eight to ten hours each day; first looking after an ocelot, and then taking on a puma named Simba. An incredibly challenging experience mentally, physically and emotionally, but one of the best of my life! It was most certainly one of the catalysts that sparked a deep love for adventure.

Favourite journey?

Thus far it would have to be my solo cycle 2,000 miles across the USA. There is nothing on this planet like a solo endurance challenge to allow you to explore your inner-self and challenge your body to its limits. I came out of it exhausted but ready to take on the world.

You learn to trust your own decision making because you have to, there is no other choice. No-one else is there to do it for you! The beauty of the incredible fauna and flora was astonishing. From meteor craters, to high altitude semi-deserts, to vast ice-capped mountains and sweeping, arid valleys littered with tumbleweed and dust. An epic experience, if you fancy touring along Route 66 for a month or two.

Top five places worldwide?

1. South-west Bolivia. Scenery that is just out of this world. Turquoise and blood red acid lakes, bubbling geysers and vast salt lakes.

2. Peru. Incredible wildlife, Machu Picchu and the Nazca lines. Wonderful!

3. South African game parks – Kruger National Park. There is no place like Africa for gaining a real understanding of just how majestic the animals on our planet can be.

4. Scotland. Rugged, raw and beautiful terrain. Magnificent hiking/mountain biking at every turn. I will be journeying though a lot of Scotland on my Big British Adventure this summer; a 1,500 mile endurance triathlon.

5. Australia. For incredible, stunning and extreme environments. This year I will be stand up paddleboarding the Murray River from source to sea.

Special place to stay?

Camping. Whenever possible. But my favourite was in the ghost town of Glenrio, Texas. You really feel a place when you can stare up at the stars and hear each snuffle and every single crackle of a twig from the passing wildlife.

Three items you always pack?

I do endurance journeys, so nail clippers (though I do usually forget these), a Leatherman and a camera to capture the moments.

Passport stamp you're proudest of?

Bolivia. So many brilliant memories, from cycling down the world’s most dangerous road to being tackled to the floor by a puma. I would certainly go back to see more of this place.

Passport stamp most like to have?


Guilty travel pleasure?

I am famous for my secret (well not so secret anymore!) sweet and chocolate stash. Always with me.

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

Myself, usually, as I do many solo expeditions. But my ideal companion would be my partner as we both have a blast, and are fit as fiddles, so can mission on spontaneous mini outdoor adventures.

Best meal on the road?

Argentinian steaks. Unreal!


Worst is on long expeditions where you end up munching on oats mixed with cold water. Just boring, boring, boring!

Most surprising place?

Most surprising place would have to be the central and western belt of the USA. I simply was not expecting to see such a multitude of amazing terrain and richness of character travelling across its wilderness on the old Route 66.

The people were incredibly kind and generous too. I realised from this trip that people are innately good, and out there to help mere strangers even.

Most disappointing?

The most disappointing must have been Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt. A tourist trap where most simply stayed in luxury hotels. It was also a sad journey, as the day after I left a multitude of shark attacks happened – likely brought on by the incredible amount of chumming and dumping of fish in the area. To this day I wonder if the hard nudge of a very large ‘something’ hitting my foot in the water could have been a shark? No divers were anywhere near me.

Where do you NOT want to go?

Cairo city. I have heard too many awful tales of this place. I hope someone out there has some better stories for me about travelling though it!

Who/what inspired you to travel? Any travel heroes?

David Attenborough brought the wonders of our planet Earth to us in spectacular style. But my need for travel was born in my country of birth, South Africa. There are a thousand adventures to be had out there and I spent my entire childhood outdoors building tree houses and exploring nature.

Roz Savage, who rowed the three oceans solo, inspired in me the belief that an ordinary person can achieve something extraordinary, if only you try. And finally, how could you not want to explore every corner of our planet. There is so much to pack into one lifetime!

What do you listen to on the road? Any song take you back to a particular time or place?

I love listening to Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Steve Vai and all those brilliant chaps. But I always take a complete range of genres because each place you travel puts you in the mood for a different vibe of music. I listen to a lot of downloaded audiobooks and podcasts.

My favourite recently was Professor Muhammad Yunis’ ‘Building Social Business’. Autobiographies are a favourite too alongside a good dose of comedy! Essential on a solo expedition or long distance travel.

What do you read?

I usually read one autobiography alongside a fiction book like Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’ series.

Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity? Anyone who made you lose it?

Yes. Too many to count! Most recently I met an older couple – Nancy and Buzz –- on my USA solo cycle, who took me in, fed me and out of the blue decided to buy me an expensive winter sleeping bag because I was cold and would be heading into sub zero temperatures in high altitude on the mountains ahead. They didn’t know me from a bar of soap, but opened their home and hearts to a complete stranger. Nancy told me something I will never forget “We want to help you not because we expect something in return, but because once, long ago, someone helped us and we have this opportunity to pay the favour forward. We know you will do the same some day for someone else.”

A few days later I was woken at dawn, in the ice and cold, by a local cowboy who had spotted me the night before cycling alone and decided to bring a flask of coffee in the morning and check I was still safe after a night camping out in the middle of nowhere. It’s all about the small gestures of kindness.

What's the most impressive / useful phrase you know in a foreign language?

How to say ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ in as many languages as possible! A little politeness goes a long way…

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

Giving a running commentary on everything I am doing or seeing. I don’t even realise I am doing it, but it’s a good thing I travel solo a lot! I think there must be nothing worse than a travel companion who likes to constantly point out all the weird and daft things she sees along the way.

Snowbound in a tent in Antarctica, how would you entertain your companions?

A game of twister? No, the brilliant and unusual stories of adventures and experiences from each person’s life are always a winner! Just sans a campfire I suppose!

When and where in your travels have you been happiest?

Cycling solo in the middle of the Mohave Desert, USA. After 40 odd days of cycling I found myself alone in the middle of the desert. Mountains looming in the far distance, thick forests 100 miles to my back and suddenly I was struck by an incredible sense of awe for my surrounds. I stopped and just burst into tears, and belly laughing all at once. You feel a sense of elation and also a true respect for nature. Very special!

What smell most says 'travel' to you?

The smell of my old hiking boots I’m afraid! Not the most pleasant, but they come out for big dog journeys to epic, far out places.

Given a choice, which era would you travel in?

Now, actually. I have so many incredible means of travelling. Stand up paddleboarding, cycling, kayaking, running, ocean rowing, paragliding, mountaineering, sailing, base jumping, mountain biking, you name it!

And I have all the basic technology I need to stay out in wilderness for quite some time, safely, like GPS, SPOT trackers, solar power, water makers etc.

If you could combine three cities to make your perfect metropolis, what would they be?

Los Angeles, for the brilliant surrounding landscapes of California – from sea to mountains, to forest to deserts, there is just so much to do outdoors.

Venice, for its postcard perfect beauty and uniqueness.

London, for its vibrant culture, arts, music and history.

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