A FURNESS environmentalist has completed an epic journey of more than 8,000 miles across South America on a bamboo bicycle she made herself.
Dr Kate Rawles, from Ulverston, left the UK by cargo ship in December 2016, aiming to raise awareness and inspire action on biodiversity loss.
Arriving in Colombia, Dr Rawles then followed the spine of the Andes mountains across Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.
Along the way, the 55-year-old visited a range of biodiversity and conservation projects, including a school that has an entire curriculum based on turtles, vast rainforest reserves and small-scale sustainable farms.
“The trip has been amazing, in all sorts of ways,” Dr Rawles said. “The landscapes and places and different countries I’ve cycled through, the people I’ve met, the projects I’ve visited and also the changes I’ve noticed in myself as the journey progressed. It’s been an absolute privilege to take a year out of ‘normal’ life to do this.”
Dr Rawles explained that the main lessons she wanted to bring back to the UK were that nature was ‘not a luxury’ and that ‘huge changes’ were essential to protect the earth’s future.
“On this journey, I’ve seen the chaos that ensues when farming collapses or when deforestation leads to deadly mud avalanches,” she said. “In the UK, we’re starting to understand how disastrous it would be to lose our bees and other pollinators or what happens when trees and other vegetation are removed from hillsides and then the excessive rainfalls we’ve been having because of climate change lead to flooding. And it’s not just about what nature does for us. We share the planet with many millions of living beings, who are as entitled to be here as we are.”
And although Dr Rawles’ journey was filled with highlights, cycling on ‘Woody’ the bamboo bicycle was not without its challenges.
“Some of the traffic, especially in cities, was definitely hair-raising,” she said. “Colombian buses could be particularly demonic! Other hair-raising things often involved weather. In Colombia and Ecuador there were some sudden torrential thunder and lightning downpours that instantly turned roads into rivers and in which it was impossible to see anything – like potholes, signposts, floating tree-trunks, the road etc.
“In Patagonia, the wind was sometimes so strong it was impossible to move forwards and I had to get off and just hang on to the bike. There was a section in southern Bolivia that was so hard – lots of pushing the bike on thick gravel roads up steep climbs at altitude – it reduced me tears of frustration and tiredness.”
However, the positives far outweighed any negatives and included the diverse landscapes, incredible plants and animals and the kindness of the people that she met.
“I love the freedom and openness of being on the road, not knowing where you will end up that night, often wild camping,” she said. “I love getting fitter and stronger and the way things that are so easy to take for granted in ‘normal’ life – like clean water, food, somewhere safe to sleep – give you such enormous happiness. A long cycling journey really changes what you value and I think that’s hugely positive. And it teaches you to trust: that you are stronger than you think, and that things will work out.”
Dr Rawles, a former lecturer in Outdoor Studies at the University of Cumbria, is now making her way back to London and plans to be back in Ulverston by April.
“What’s next?,” she said. “A wonderful time of catching up with friends and family after having been away for over a year. Preparing and giving slide show talks and writing the book which I know from experience will be a much harder challenge than the ride!”
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