Across South America on a Bamboo Bike

Across South America on a Bamboo Bike

Posted at 11:00 - 10th December - Sarah Booth

Kate Rawles used to be a lecturer in environmental philosophy and outdoor education. After 20 years of university life, Kate got on her bike and became an adventurer! With a passion for the enviroment and sustainability, Kate decided that adventure would be the perfect way of raising awareness of the things we need to change in order to look after our planet and create a viable future for our families. In this fascinating feature, Kate shares her experiences of traveling through South America on her Bamboo bike and everything she learnt along the way.  

"Adventure is a powerful and positive concept. People love having adventures and hearing about them." Kate Rawles

So Kate, what was it that inspired you to leave your job in an educational institute and become an educational adventurer?

There’s a North American activist called Bill Plotkin who writes that, if we can find the intersection between what we are passionate about and what the world actually needs, that’s the sweet spot where we will be at our happiest and most effective. I’ve been lucky enough to figure out a way of having adventures, something I’m passionate about; and using them to help raise awareness and inspire action on our most urgent environmental challenges – something the world most definitely needs. I think I’m more effective as an ‘educational adventurer’ (great term, thanks!) than I was as a university lecturer. I’m definitely happier. Much as I loved my work in many ways, the university was never 100% the right place for me. I felt it was time to get back out into the world and experience and learn new things.

Your ‘adventure plus’ cycles have taken you over 13,000 miles around the world. Why do you think adventure is such a powerful way of raising awareness of environmental issues?

Adventure is a powerful and positive concept. People love having adventures and they also love hearing about them. I’ve found that embedding environmental messages in the story of an adventurous journey is an effective way of making those messages more engaging.

If we think of the huge transitions we need to make if we are to achieve real sustainability as an adventure, then it encourages an up-for-it, positive, can-do attitude. To be successful on an adventure you need teamwork, to embrace the unexpected, to set off not quite knowing whether or how you are going to get to your destination but willing to set off anyway and to work with allies, including unexpected ones across all sorts of sectors. While most adventures have tough bits they are typically hugely rewarding and fun too. We need to think about protecting our planet in those terms rather than in negative terms - giving stuff up and feeling depressed. No-body loves (or listens to) a miserable, depressed environmentalist …. everybody loves adventure. At least in theory!

"Yet somewhere underneath all that doubt there must have been some sort of belief that I might nevertheless somehow pull it off, and a sort of slightly deranged determination."

- Kate Rawles -


Your most recent adventure plus saw you cycle from Colombia to Cape Horn. What are the challenges and rewards of cycling across a continent?!

The rewards are so many it’s hard to know where to start! My trip was focused on biodiversity so cycling through a huge diversity of landscapes and ecosystems, from coast to desert to high mountains to rain forest was just wonderful; as was the chance to encounter all sorts of incredible animals and plants and the many, amazing people who are working in a huge variety of ways to protect them. When you cross a whole continent, you get a real sense of the fabulous diversity of that continent’s cultures, environments, geology…. There were obvious challenges in terms of altitude, climate, distance, time away and so on. But the biggest challenge was probably language. My Spanish started out terrible and to my shame it ended up terrible too. Another challenge was eating well as a vegetarian, especially when I was reliant on cafes and truck stops. I ate a LOT of eggs and rice!

What did the journey teach you about yourself?

I’ve been re-reading my journals as preparation for writing my book and found an early entry that was a real cry from the heart. I’d basically howled, ‘what on EARTH am I doing?!’ – leaving friends and family for over a year, setting off completely out of shape, rusty in terms of cycling touring and how it all works, in order to cross a continent whose languages I didn’t speak, on the trail of an issue I barely understood, on a bike I’d built myself that I had no idea whether or not would hold together… and yet somewhere underneath all that doubt there must have been some sort of belief that I might nevertheless somehow pull it off, and a sort of slightly deranged determination. I’m a bit mystified by it really but clearly that underlying confidence and determination is in there somewhere, and that’s really good to know. I’ve also realised I’m good at optimism and at trusting – both people, and that things will work out. I’ve also learnt that I really can stay in the mindset of ‘if it doesn’t kill or seriously harm you then pretty much anything else is an interesting life-experience….’

You completed your challenge on a bamboo bike that you built yourself. What made you choose bamboo and were you surprised at how it handled the 8000+ miles you put it through?

I really liked the idea of learning how to build my own bike. On top of that, a bike with a bamboo frame (the wheels, forks, cranks etc are all standard) has a somewhat lower carbon footprint than an equivalent made of steel or aluminium; though all bikes are relatively low-impact and the main carbon savings I made were to cross the Atlantic by cargo ship rather than by plane and to eat only vegetarian food. Nevertheless, riding a low-impact bike that used to be a plant felt really in keeping with the aims and ethos of the trip. It was also a total people magnet and absolutely brilliant in terms of opening up conversations – everyone loved the bike and had loads of questions about it. It far exceeded my expectations in terms of reliability, toughness and performance, easily handling the 8000 plus miles, in all sorts of weather conditions, off and on road, carrying a LOT of weight including full camping equipment and a laptop! Bamboo gives a very smooth, shock-absorbing ride too, which was a definite advantage on some of the rougher roads.

Can you tell us a bit about some of the people that you met in South America and what they are doing to preserve their own biodiversity?

I met many brilliant, committed people in South America working to protect biodiversity in all sorts of ways. These ranged from conventional nature conservation in reserves and corridors, to anti-gold mining activists who were literally risking their lives through their campaigning work; from a school whose entire curriculum was based on turtles to a woman who had bought millions of acres of Patagonian rain forest to turn it into nature reserves; from a monkey conservation organisation that taught local people how to make money by turning recycled waste into plastic fence posts rather than cutting down the monkeys’ habitat to grow food; to local fishermen trying to protect their coastline from industrial overfishing. It is truly inspiring to learn how much smart, committed, passionate individuals can achieve. If they can achieve it in the often challenging countries of South America, we can surely achieve it here too.

"The most recent WWF Living Planet Report tells us that we have lost 60% of our wild populations of animals over the last 40 years." Kate Rawles


Your aim for this journey was to study and raise awareness of biodiversity. Do you have a particular experience that has stuck with you in terms of the real time effects our modern day lives are having on biodiversity?

The most recent WWF Living Planet Report tells us that we have lost 60% of our wild populations of animals over the last 40 years. 60%!! We are wiping out other species at such a rate it’s been called the sixth great extinction caused, for the first time in the planet’s history, by a resident species – us.

This has consequences every bit as serious as climate change, though these are much less well understood and publicised. One of the most striking that I encountered on The Life Cycle journey was the mud avalanches that can happen when forests are cut down from mountainous or otherwise sloping areas. Trees help ‘stick’ the soil to the ground and soak up water but when they are removed the ground becomes waterlogged and the soil can be literally washed away. Some of these mud avalanches closed roads just ahead or behind me. Some destroyed villages. People were killed. This particularly resonated with me because I live in Cumbria where we’ve also had problems with flooding and soil erosion related to loss of trees (and to climate change of course.)

Another striking example is loss of pollinators because of industrialised agriculture and overuse of pesticides. 98% of life on earth, including humans, depend on sun’s energy for food. But the only living beings that can directly harness the sun’s energy are plants. Everything else – including us – either eat plants or things that eat plants! Many plants depend on pollinators…..

Leaving that aside, biodiversity is basically our life support system - the web of life that we are part of and depend on. When you meet and see incredible animals and plants that are endangered, like the tiny cotton top tamarin monkeys in Northern Colombia, for example, that’s just incredibly sad. We are allegedly the most intelligent species on the planet. Surely we can figure out how to co-exist with the other living beings we share the planet with, who we utterly depend on and who are every bit as entitled to be here as we are?

Do you maintain a positive outlook about the profound changes that are required to look after our planet? What do you think motivates people to make the required changes?

Yes I do. The window of opportunity to achieve the changes we need is closing fast but right now it is still there. And giving up in despair is for sure a self-fulfilling prophesy. There is always, always a way to improve things…..

I think what motivates people varies a lot. In general though, I would say that having the knowledge - of what’s happening to our planet, its climate, its astonishing variety of living beings and ecosystems onland and sea and what this means in terms of the consequences for people and other species - is key. But this knowledge typically has to be felt as well as known, experienced as well as understood intellectually. It also has to be held alongside practical ways of taking this all forward, with knowing how to take meaningful action. Having other people around you who care and are taking action too definitely helps. And of course most people are passionately concerned that their children’s future is not under threat (which tragically it currently is.)

What practical, action based advice would you give to our followers who want to know how they can start taking action to tackle climate change whilst maintaining their modern day lifestyles?

I think we need to take action on all our major environmental challenges, including but not limited to climate change. So looking for the win/win/wins is a good start – actions that will help on multiple fronts ie climate change and biodiversity loss and plastic pollution preferably while also adding to real, human quality of life too.

In general, our biggest environmental negative footprints are associated with

  • Flying
  • Meat eating
  • Other energy use through transport and heating etc
  • Having children (!)
  • Buying lots of stuff

Cutting back on flying is a huge win. I’ve been on a flying ration since 2006 – no more than one per three years – and I find I’m able to stick to that so long as I treat myself to some really fabulous trips in the UK or train-reachable Europe. Sea-kayaking in the Outer Hebrides, for example - hardly a hardship!

Often, buying less stuff that is higher quality and lasts for longer – outdoor trousers for example! – is a big win for people and the planet, as is supporting locally grown food that doesn’t rely on heavy pesticide/herbicide use ie organic or close to organic. This doesn’t have to be expensive – many towns now have veg box schemes, for example, that provide fantastic quality food that’s very affordable. Not using single-use plastic is another multiple win. Simply taking your own re-usable coffee cup and water bottle wherever you go, for example, will soon add up to hundreds fewer throwaway plastic bottles and cups.

Making your concern visible is key too. Tell others what you are doing and why. Joining organisations will make you politically visible and encourage our (timid) politicians to take action to a more sustainable system for all. Above all, find ways of living a lower impact AND higher quality life – and visibly celebrate that.

At the end of the day, we need system change. But that’s the topic for another blog! Meanwhile, I’ve been putting answers to exactly this question on my website – the how to act on biodiversity loss page is up and live, others to follow.