Going above and beyond

A close encounter with a pride of crouched desert lions in a dry river bed could have signalled a messy end to East London professional adventurer Peter van Kets, who recently returned from mountain biking through 1300km of desolate desert landscape along the border of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.

Van Kets, 50, returned unscathed, – bar a very sore bottom – to his Sunrise-on-Sea home last week after spending up to 11 gruelling hours and 90km a day in the saddle in the Dunlop Beyond the Desert Edge Expedition.

The month-long journey across an arid, rocky landscape was the first of a series of five “Beyond” expeditions conceived by Van Kets and well-known Cape Town photo-journalist and author Jacques Marais.

Marais cycled chunks of the excursion with Van Kets, when he wasn’t capturing the exquisite beauty of the terrain.

“This is a series of expeditions that will take us into terra incognita . They will be journeys of discovery in places where no-one has been before, besides the locals who live there.”

Van Kets explained the journeys would be a celebration of human endeavour that will see him mountain biking, kayaking or trekking across uncharted territories and would focus on the animals, plants and humans who live there.

The first expedition began at Serra Cafema close to the river mouth of the Cunene River on the border between Namibia and Angola.

It followed the edge of the Skeleton Coast National Park down to Swakopmund.

“The scenery was unbelievably spectacular – full of desert rock and dry riverbeds. At times it looked like a Martian landscape. There were vehicle tracks in some areas, but the rest of the time I followed animal tracks like gemsbok trails or ancient elephant tracks which they cleared through the rock over the centuries. It was a very technical, tough ride.”

Due to scarcity of water in the region, Van Kets was supported by Capetonian brothers Peter and Graham Kirk who ran communications, captured video footage of the terrain and its wildlife and set up nightly camps.

Van Kets was lucky to be in close proximity to a wilderness safari guide in one of their vehicles when he heard the unmistakable roar of a desert lion.

“I had just finished watching a herd of six desert elephants in Damaraland and I was about to get back on my bike when a lion roar made the ground shake. The guide said I shouldn’t worry so I carried on cycling and 6km later I saw four sandstone rocks 70 metres away and stopped.”

The “rocks” turned out to be three crouched female lions and a young male. “They had seen me coming. Had I carried on cycling for another 10 metres I would have been in trouble,” said Van Kets, who retreated gingerly and took refuge in the vehicle.

The hair-raising encounter emphasised the beautiful reality of an unspoilt wilderness.

“There are no fences, it is wild. The area is split into conservancies which are run by local people like the Himba tribe and the Damara and Nama people.”

This is where the charity aspect of the expedition comes in. Funds raised will support Children in the Wilderness, of which both Van Kets and Marais are ambassadors.

“It is an NGO run by Wilderness Safaris, which operates in central and southern Africa and which educates children born in wilderness areas to love and take care of the natural environment. It teaches kids how to co-exist with big and dangerous game so they don’t hunt rhino or lions. They get reimbursed if a lion eats a cow or a goat.

“And it teaches them the value of tourism, which brings most of the money into these areas.”

With this in mind, Van Kets and Marais have their eye on another four adventurous expeditions.

“Each one will have the ‘beyond’ theme. We are planning sea kayaking between Mozambique and Tanzania, a Beyond 23 Degrees trek and bike ride across Africa along the Tropic of Capricorn, and a dhow circumnavigation of Madagascar and crossing the island from West to East on foot. In Beyond the Rift I will kayak or row across the Great Lakes of Africa’s Rift Valley.

“The next Beyond expedition will be next year, same time.” — barbarah@dispatch.co.za

Please sign in or register to comment.