An expedition along Namibia's Skeleton Coast
Riding a thousand miles is a tough challenge at the best of times, but throw in mammoth sand dunes, ferocious headwinds, extreme isolation, and lions, and it becomes one of the toughest challenges on the planet. But this did not deter Dr. Kate Leeming as she set out to become the first person in history to ride the entire length of Namibia’s coastline, the Skeleton Coast.
The 1,621 km journey, captured in a four-part documentary series, Diamonds in the Sand, sees Kate endure some of the most inhospitable terrain and harshest climate on Earth in one of Africa's most remote and spectacular locations.
"Behind the harshness of the landscape, there was real beauty; the wild ocean on one side, towering dunes on the other,” Kate recalls. “Eerily, the coastline is littered with the sun-bleached skeletons of dead animals and the rusting remains of countless shipwrecks...where those lucky enough to make it to shore quickly discovered it didn't guarantee survival.”
An accomplished cyclist and bike explorer, Kate has a long list of palmares to her name. She was the first person in history to ride across Africa, from its most westerly to its most easterly points over 22,000 kilometers, to explore the causes and effects of extreme poverty. She was the first woman to ride across Russia unsupported to help the children of Chernobyl. Kate also rode 25,000 kilometers through Australia while partnering with UNESCO.
In her most recent extreme adventure in Namibia, Kate battled extreme headwinds, energy-sapping sand dunes, and came face to face with the endangered but deadly Kunene Lions hidden amongst their vast desert range. With soaring temperatures and continuous soft sand, the desert pushed Kate to the edge of her mental and physical limits. The journey, which took a month to complete, was about much more than struggling through gritted teeth and included incredible highs in the form of stunning landscapes, fascinating history, and unique animal life.
“The wildlife was another highlight of the journey for me,” Kate says. “Here, it does not rain. Plants have evolved to extract moisture from the sea fog, while many of the animals have also made unique adaptations, amongst them elephants and rare brown hyaena. Perhaps most fascinating, if not worrying on a bike, are the desert-adapted lions, the only cats known to enter the water to kill seals. We saw tracks where they'd been dragging seal carcasses away from the beach."
Kate also discovered some of the harsh realities of life for an underprivileged community living on the fringe of Swakopmund, a coastal city. She listened to heart-breaking stories where lack of opportunity has deprived them of the basic necessities of life; access to food, clean water, shelter, health, education, and decent work. However, Kate, whose journeys always have a humanitarian element, saw reason for hope when she spoke at several schools in the area. She was inspired by the thoughtful questions and joie de vivre.
One of the biggest surprises of the expedition came at the very end of Kate’s journey as she entered the town of Oranjemund. Dubbed as 'Namibia's most mysterious town,' it was closed to outsiders for 85 years, as it existed to service a huge diamond mining operation. With the mine winding down, the diamond company is keen to support the residents, and the town has, for the first time, opened its doors to the world. A juxtaposition in the desert, Oranjemund offers modern amenities, while wild oryx wander the streets and a 500-year-old shipwreck, the Bom Jesus, lies freshly excavated, complete with the 3,000 gold coins found in the sand.
“It was a bit of a shock to come into civilization at the end of such a journey, but Oranjemund was the perfect place to do it,” Kate says. “With an air of mystery surrounding it and right on the doorstep of the desert, it's the perfect stepping-off point for anyone wanting to make their own adventures in this part of the world."