Kate Rawles is fresh off a month-long cargo ship journey, having spent a year cycling the length of South America solo, on a bamboo bike called Woody that she built herself. Needless to say, when we meet in a coffee shop near Russell Street she has a lot to say in the short time we had.
A member of the Adventure Syndicate, Kate is no stranger to long-distance cycling. She previously cycled from Texas to Alaska, to raise awareness of climate change. This time, in South America, she explored environmental issues, meeting people standing up against a giant gold mining corporation, innovative conservation projects, rainforest and a turtle-themed school. She now plans to write a book about her adventure.
How do you prepare for a year’s cycling? I ask.
“I started cycling in pretty bad shape,” she says. Having trained for the 114 mile Fred Whitton Challenge in May, months before she left, she then got too busy preparing.
Then it was 13 days on the ship (because it’s less carbon intensive than flying) and five weeks off the bike exploring Panama and Costa Rica.
“It doesn’t really make a difference,” she says, “because you’ve got over a year to get fit.”
She finally set off at the end of January 2017, in the dry season.
Temperatures ranged from “about 35 degrees, maybe more” to “cold enough for my water bottles to freeze inside the tent”, she says.
“It was either very, very dry or very, very humid.”
However, she and Woody coped. “The bike was unexpectedly brilliant,” she said. “That was the first time I’d ever built a bike and I really didn’t know if I was going to get to the end.”
“Lots of people say “you were on your own as a woman in South America?” and that was hugely positive, I had nothing but kindness from people the whole way.
“Everyone wants to look after you. In the end, I just gave up and let men carry my bicycle; I never ever thought I would. Of course, they were always astonished at how heavy it was!”
Kate says she filtered water from streams, and even from a green, duck-covered pond.
“Suddenly all the dots join up in your head,” she said. “When you’re on a bicycle you’re really aware of water, how important it is and how much you need it. Suddenly you see these lead and gold mines and what they were doing to the water, the ecosystem and to humans drinking the water – that was really shocking.”
Kate describes some young people she met, who took on one of the biggest mining companies in the world – and won.
“They organised themselves and educated people about the impact and then held a public referendum and fought off the gold mine, which is astonishing. Colombia is a really tough place to be an environmentalist”.
“It really makes you think: If they can do that there, we can do so much more here, because our biodiversity, our insect numbers are crashing.”
“Nature’s not a luxury, it’s actually our life support system, and if we destroy biodiversity and ecosystems, we are putting at risk our fresh water and our soil fertility, and our clean air, stuff we really can’t do without.”
This means thinking outside of nature reserves, including ‘wildlife corridors’ to help migration of animals and insects, like Panthera, a project linking panther territory along the Andes.
It means rethinking our industrial farming system that creates “biodiversity deserts”, including the banana plantation she rode through, where she was caught in the firing line of an aerial crop sprayer.
Although these issues are far from home, they affect us all, and we can help.
“Every time we spend money we’re voting,” says Kate. “People got behind the plastic issue, partly because of David Attenborough. As citizens and as consumers we’ve got way more power than we think to turn these issues around.”
“Also how we vote and what organizations we belong to.”
She spent two weeks in the Atacama, the world’s driest desert, where one day the only living things she saw were “two insects and one shrub”. The most breathtaking places were often the hardest, from the baking, dazzling salt flats, to a pink flamingo lake in Bolivia, to four days spent pushing the bike up and down rough, steep gravel tracks through incredible mountains. She dropped from eight to seven stone, and sometimes it took all day to cycle ten or twenty miles, but mostly, she says, she felt lucky to be there.
“My basic attitude is, it’ll be fine, and if it’s not life-threatening it’ll be an experience. I’ve got a credit card in my back pocket so if I’m in a really bad situation I can get myself out of that. I think you have to keep that in perspective when you’re cycling through countries like Colombia or Peru where there’s huge poverty. We’re privileged we’re even there.”
Kate believes we can learn from the world around us, if we embrace, rather than ‘conquering’ it – travel sensitively and try to reduce our impact on the planet, and give back, by raising money or awareness of issues or, say, volunteering.
There’s one animal, in particular, she believes we can learn from. “There’s something lovely about anteaters. They never eat all the ants, they always leave enough for the anthill to regenerate, and I just think there’s a great message for humans: ‘don’t eat all the ants’.”