Njinga, the story of Kate Leeming’s 22,000-kilometre trek by bicycle across Africa—dodging rebels, insurgents and Somali pirates and exotic and dangerous wildlife while battling extreme conditions from desert to jungled terrain on non-existent and faint tracks, is more than a story of mental grit and physical endurance.
I caught up with Kate (considered one of Australasia’s top women explorers of all time) to find out more about her incredible ‘Breaking the Cycle in Africa’ Expedition—a world-first cycle journey from Senegal to Somalia. My interview coinciding with the launch of her new book and feature documentary, both entitled Njinga, and her next massive expedition and project, Breaking the Cycle South Pole.
Why did you choose cycling as a tool for awareness?
I choose to travel by bicycle because it gives an incredibly close connection with the people and the land, I love bringing a line on a map to life and travelling under my own steam gives a tremendous sense of place and a unique and grounded perspective of how the world fits together. Virtually everyone can relate to riding a bike at some level, so when people follow my journeys and read stories of my adventures, I am inviting them to share in my experiences. My expeditions have subsequently become a platform to inspire and foster understanding about cultures, geographies, environmental sustainability and in the case of the Breaking the Cycle in Africa Expedition, the causes and effects of extreme poverty. I am able to tell it how it really is and my journeys are opportunities to develop deeper understanding for all involved. And now that I have established a track record with several successful expeditions under my belt, as well as writing, speaking and filmmaking, I am able to garner support because my expeditions are about far more than just a bike ride, a simple adventure or a world first.
What makes exploration such a powerful catalyst for engaging new generations in vital issues?
I think that there is an explorer in everyone. From Day 1 of our lives we are on a constant journey of learning – a quest for knowledge and understanding to make sense of the world and our place in it. Story-telling is the oldest and most powerful form of conveying messages as it can provide great context and meaning. Fundamental to every major expedition I undertake is the story I aim to create and the messages I plan to encapsulate within the tale to educate and motivate my audience, especially the next generation. When people follow my journeys, read my books or watch my film, I try to relate to the explorer within, inviting them to ‘come along for the ride’ and in the process, help to develop empathy with the people and topics I am dealing with. I hope the next generation will be better-equipped to make the right decisions about the hard issues that will confront them and that they will be better leaders for it.
How did you expand this approach with the special education program you developed?
The Breaking the Cycle in Africa education program was developed in partnership with the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) and was promoted further by UNESCO and Plan International Australia. The DEECD ran an innovative e-learning program where teachers and students followed my journey via my regular blogs and images and took part in three modules developed from three fertile questions including: ‘How am I connected to Africa?’ ‘How does where I live effect who I am?’ and ‘Why should I care about poverty?’. The program was multi-disciplinary and was designed to complement many areas of the curriculum so that teachers could elect to take part in as much or as little of it as they deemed appropriate.
How did the reality of the ride compare with your perceptions of Africa and preparation beforehand?
While I had researched, planned and prepared meticulously for the journey; climatic and environmental conditions, security, social issues and possible logistical difficulties, nothing prepared me for the realities of the adventure and the rich diversity of the African continent.
Many of the roads weren’t in the condition that my maps portrayed; without warning, a major highway suddenly became a sandy or muddy track and sometimes the road depicting a secondary border crossing wasn’t actually a road. The line on the map was simply an average of the tracks that connect settlements and the only way through was to ask locals which way to the next village. Cycling through these backwaters was a highlight even though the diversions made it physically challenging to keep up with my carefully timed schedule. The sandy tracks between the Mauritanian/Malian border connected communities so remote that some people had not even seen a bicycle before!
I was constantly exposed to the elements, landscapes and changes in culture. Travelling by bike tends to break down barriers and I was constantly amazed how my expedition brought people together and provided a common platform for communication. For example, the governments of Somaliland and the Puntland State of Somalia, which traditionally don’t get along, worked together to ensure my safe passage across the lawless 135-kilometre no man’s land between the two states.
The journey west to east across the African continent was an emotional rollercoaster ride. Nothing could have prepared me for witnessing poverty in its rawest forms. Several times I found myself in confronting situations where many local people still don’t have the chances they deserve due to any number of different combinations of issues, such as conflict (past and present), a lack of education, the effects of HIV/AIDS and other diseases, poor food security and limited economic opportunity. At the time I could only offer to tell their stories (as I have done in Njinga, the book and the documentary), but I resolved to do what I can to make a difference in the future.
As an official activity for the UN you visited several key projects, can you tell us about these?
In order to gain a deeper understanding of each of the key development issues I teamed up with ten different partner organisations and arranged to visit 15 separate projects during the journey. These partners ranged from international organisations including UNESCO, Plan International Australia, Millennium Promise, World Bicycle Relief and Edun Live to smaller grassroots initiatives such as the Afar Pastoralists Development Association, HUG (Help Us Grow), Taakulo Somaliland Community, The 500 Supporters’ Group and Tidene. Through the visits it was evident that, no matter the size or outreach of the organisation, no development assistance is truly effective and sustainable in the long term if the workers, both local and international, don’t listen to and collaborate fully with the cultural needs and structures and the leadership of local communities.
One impressive example I learned about firsthand was Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), a movement that started in Niger more than 30 years ago and is now sweeping across the Sahel region and beyond. FMNR is a simple agro-forestry initiative whereby farmers learn how prune the shoots growing from the stumps of trees that have been cut down (for firewood mostly). The result is that more than five million hectares of land that had been lost to desertification has already been regenerated, almost doubling the average farmer’s income and providing resilience in this drought-prone region at the base of the Sahara Desert. Initially FMNR was rejected by the farming communities and it has taken decades of education and encouragement, particularly of community leaders, to adapt their traditional land management techniques. During the devastating droughts in 2010 and 2011, in regions which had embraced FMNR, no one was lost to starvation and communities could rely on their ‘banks in the ground’ to generate an income.
What did the locals make of your long distance challenge?
When locals learned of the length of my journey, they tended to find it difficult to comprehend. If they did understand, they were usually overwhelmed. Even across many of the more conservative Islamic countries in the Sahel region, where my actions were totally foreign, I was shown unconditional hospitality and respect despite our cultural differences.
How did you deal with the danger element of this expedition?
When organising the expedition I researched thoroughly to find out where the likely danger areas were and developed a plan to mitigate the risks. By the time I started in Senegal I had built a huge network of connections, especially in the least secure countries and regions. One of my key strategies was to connect with Australian resource companies with interests in Africa. Each of the eleven companies that partnered my project had headquarters in the capital city of the country where they were operating and direct contacts with government officials. This enabled us obtain security information and protection where needed (even armed escorts at times) as well as visas. This also gave us access to local knowledge so we could adapt our plans if necessary.
On the whole though, cycling is a safe form of travel as a cyclist poses no threat and my presence was always treated with intrigue and respect. Local people went out of their way to protect myself and the team, especially in areas where there were known to be bandits and opportunists.
What was the worst and best experience from your journey?
Perhaps the most difficult time for me psychologically was when I was ill with a chest infection in eastern Niger pushing into Harmattan, powerful trade winds that whip dust and sand straight off the Sahara Desert. I had already been going for two and a half months and in that time had endured three gastros and two chest infections, and was travelling slightly behind my carefully-timed schedule with at least 17,000km and more than seven months to go. I never wanted to give up because I believed so strongly in my mission and did not wish to let my sponsors, supporters and the thousands of school children who were following my journey down. This was a difficult time where to get through I often focused on the big picture of what I would achieve by completing the expedition and visualizing what it would be like arriving at Cape Hafun. Then I would ‘zoom in’ and compartmentalize my ride for that session, setting small goals for myself such as reaching a landmark or even the next white post on the side of the road. I learned to look for the beauty in my surroundings, the finer details of the landscape and bush. It was about filling my head with positives and keeping my mind busy with interesting trains of thought or a favourite song.
The start and finish of the expedition was the most exciting; the start because the tedious and stressful organisation phase was over and the adventure – when I am totally in my element – began; the finish because I had successfully made it and achieved what I set out to do. Arriving at the derelict lighthouse at Cape Hafun, the most easterly point of Africa, having cycled 22,040km in an unbroken line from Senegal, was an amazing feeling. The mayor of Hafun village at the base of the desolate tabletop mountain confirmed that no one had cycled across the continent to reach Africa’s most easterly landmark before. Some of the soldiers who were protecting me as well as my sister and cameraman (who travelled in one of the bulletproof vehicles) fired a few rounds out over the Indian Ocean to celebrate. It was a special moment for all involved.
What are your top tips on: safety, cycling and getting the most out of an adventure?
I always ‘ride to survive’ and that means being switched on to your surroundings the whole time. I try to make eye contact with drivers, especially those entering from the side, but if I sense that someone or a group looks threatening I ignore them completely. I wear reflective or brightly coloured clothing to ensure that I am seen. I’m fairly adept at listening for vehicles approaching from behind and can usually pick their line (whether or not they are travelling too close) just from sound. As they draw near, I tend to pull out towards the centre of the road to ensure they give me some space and then pull back to the edge just before they pass.
Cycling long distances for months on end is a particular skill. It is mostly about pacing and working within yourself to maintain a workload that can be repeated day after day. I recommend to always select one gear ratio lower than you would for a normal training ride and keep the pedals spinning at a faster cadence to compensate, otherwise your legs will tire and joints can become sore or injured. Having your bike set up correctly and wearing hard-soled cycling shoes and padded shorts will make a huge difference to comfort and pedalling efficiency. Regular hydration and food seems obvious to maintain energy and concentration levels, but when on the bike all day, without a good routine it is easy not to take in sufficient nutrients. I generally take a small drink every ten to fifteen minutes (depending on the conditions) and eat a sweet or biscuit (stored in my handlebar bag) every five kilometres if possible.
Plenty of research, a mission that you believe in and developing a good plan that is adaptable are the foundations for a successful, challenging and enjoyable adventure. If you can back up the question ‘Why?’ with what you are doing and how, then you will be well on the way to making the most out of your adventure.
What have your travels taught you about gratitude and the best way to empower others?
Experiencing many parts of the world at close quarters has opened my eyes and certainly given me a deep appreciation for my own stable upbringing and the investment my parents made for my education. A random meeting with two teachers in a small village in northern Senegal made me aware that only Westerners, people who were born into similar circumstances to me, would ever have the vision and opportunity to create such an expedition. I realised that I was born into a particular set of circumstances that enabled me to dream this up. Even with the best of intentions, we are all products of our respective environments and can only see things in relation to how we see ourselves. But the teachers and I agreed that using my experiences to educate and empower others is an effective way of promoting cultural understanding. My expedition was deemed as a positive action by many governments, organisations and individuals with which I connected. For example, the government of the Republic of Congo promoted my story on national television to inspire Congolese women in particular and ‘to show them what women are capable of’.
You have a new challenge on the horizon, what will this entail?
My next venture, Breaking the Cycle South Pole will include the first bicycle crossing of the Antarctic continent. I plan to use the expedition to raise funds and awareness for AIDS in Africa as a response to one of the issues I learned so much about during Breaking the Cycle in Africa. To give me the best chance of success and to document the journey in a television series I am working with a highly experienced support team including Australian polar explorer and guide, Eric Philips and award-winning Swiss documentary filmmaker, Claudio von Planta.
After the first training session last year in Spitsbergen, Arctic Norway, I can gauge what will be required physically to deal with the extreme polar conditions and as a team we know the kind of innovative technology that needs to be developed for our equipment and clothing, the systems for documenting the journey, communications and safety.
How will you prepare for this?
Cycling across soft and unstable snow and ice surfaces requires a high degree of strength as well as endurance. The base of my work is being done in the gym with strength and interval training, then some longer rides, sand cycling and Pilates sessions. Closer to the start of the journey I will need to acclimatise to the cold and altitude (the South Pole is at about 3000 metres elevation and I will have to cope with temperatures as low as -40 degrees Celsius). My ultimate plan includes a series of smaller expeditions and training runs involving every continent on Earth as well as a journey across Greenland, which has conditions most similar to Antarctica.
In Spitsbergen I trialled the world’s only all-wheel drive fatbike, custom made for me by Christini Technologies, based in Philadelphia. The innovations worked well, but a few adjustments are being made to improve flotation and bike balance before the main expedition. There are several other key items of equipment that are being developed including solar-powered handlebar mitts, special polar cycling boots and functional clothing.
I am unable to go ahead with developing the equipment or training runs until I have secured more funding. Finding financial support is now the only issue preventing the expedition and associated projects from happening.
How long will it take to complete?
It should take about 45 days to complete the 1850 kilometres, but I still need to do more training sessions and testing of equipment before I can give an accurate time frame.
Physically what is the toll and how do you balance recovery?
My body tends to thrive on expedition and I have always managed to return in great shape, if not a little tired and with a few extra scars on my elbows from falling off. When, after a few weeks of returning from a long journey, the excitement of the successful venture wears off, it is a difficult time. Mentally I feel deflated and often quite emotional and physically my body struggles to readjust to a sedentary lifestyle and metabolising normal quantities of food.
What is the greatest insight or lesson you have garnered from your many adventures?
I have learned that, with the right vision, a realistic and adaptable plan, the ability to gain the support of a capable and appropriate team and serious amount of persistence and hard work, it is possible to achieve what many would deem impossible. It is essential to focus on the question ’How do I get through?’ rather than ‘What will stop me?’.
Will it incorporate an educational program like your last trip?
Yes, I plan to develop a global education program focussing on leadership (in the fields of environmental sustainability, social responsibility, geography and science). I have gained the interest of several stakeholders, but until I can find more of the funding, I cannot engage my potential educational partners.
What advice can you offer others on seeking sponsorship for research/awareness expeditions?
Finding sponsors, especially funds is the most difficult challenge of all – it doesn’t matter how good you are at what you do or how amazing your plans might be if you can’t find the financial support to make it happen. I always start with my own network, testing the water with people whose advice I value and those who are well-connected. I also build the value of my expedition by developing some partners which give the whole project more credibility – for Africa this included UNESCO, the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Plan International Australia and other partners. There has to be a strong alignment between your activity and the potential sponsor. Your proposal needs to clearly define your mission, what you are doing and why, how, when and most importantly to a sponsor, what’s in it for them as a sponsorship deal is a two-way relationship. You have to sell yourself and your credentials in such a way that the sponsor likes and trusts you and that they believe you can deliver the proposed outcomes. I would never send a proposal to anyone without first thoroughly researching about the organisation and being able to suggest ways in which I could work with the company.
To find out more about Kate and to purchase a copy of NJINGA visit www.KateLeeming.com