Adventure cyclist Kate Leeming has cycled the width of Africa, pedalled 25,000km around Australia, and is the first woman to cycle unsupported across ‘new’ Russia.
The epic story of her 22,040km cycle expedition across Africa has it all: dodging rebels and Somali pirates, close encounters with wild animals, pushing two wheels over massive sand dunes, and meeting the many diverse, kind and determined faces of Africa. This world first journey was not only a physical quest, but an odyssey to highlight the development needs of war-torn and poverty-stricken nations.
Before Kate starts her talking tour around Australia in June, we sat down and asked her about how she prepares for such extreme adventures – from the deserts of Africa to the freezing tundra of Antarctica.
Who is Kate Leeming?
On August 16th 2010 I became the first person to cycle an unbroken line from Africa’s most westerly to its most easterly point, from Pointe des Almadies, Senegal to Cape Hafun, Puntland, Somalia.
Crossing 22,040 km over ten months, my Breaking the Cycle in Africa Expedition was not only a physical quest but an odyssey to highlight the development needs and activities of war-torn and poverty-stricken nations. Cycling through twenty countries, I aimed to find out what is being done to give a ‘leg up’ rather than a ‘hand out’ – to shine a positive light on the issues, cultures and geography of Africa.
I have two previous world firsts under my belt – the Trans-Siberian Cycle Expedition (1993) when I became the first woman to cycle across the new Russia unsupported (aiding the children of Chernobyl), and the 25,000km Great Australian Cycle Expedition (2004/05) which included the first bicycle crossing of the Canning Stock Route by a woman.
In between expeditions, I work as a real tennis professional. I have won 5 Australian Open singles titles and been ranked as high as world number 2.
Why the South Pole after Africa?
I have always been inspired by the feats of the heroic early polar explorers and modern explorers such as Robert Swan, who has been my mentor and supporter ever since the Russian expedition. I have also always been intrigued by Antarctica, its extreme climate and stark natural beauty and its place in the world as a key regulator and driver of world climate. With recent developments in bicycle technology, it has become a more feasible challenge to cycle across the snow and ice.
After completing the African expedition, I felt empowered to make a difference to some of the issues I learned so much about. With the Antarctic crossing via the South Pole likely to take about six weeks, it is a ‘sprint’ relative to my previous journeys – an extreme event that lends itself to a fundraising/awareness campaign.
How do you choose the equipment and clothing you take with you on expeditions?
For the polar expeditions, key specialist items of clothing, such as the outer shell, down jacket and bottoms and polar cycling boots are still in development. I learned on my first training run in Spitsbergen that controlling my body temperature in the extreme cold will be a real challenge. While riding I will be working so hard that, even in the extreme conditions, I will have to allow for some air flow to prevent me from perspiring because the moment I stop, if the moisture freezes I am in trouble.
The main items of equipment fall into two categories – biking and camping gear. The bike I tested in Spitsbergen is a prototype all-wheel drive fatbike. The camping gear – tents, sleeping bags and mats, cooking equipment, etc – and communications technology are of the highest quality and made for the extreme climate, but these will be no different to the equipment used on other types of polar expeditions.
How do you layer for such extreme environments?
I will be taking a few options for the next-to-skin and middle layers, all designed to trap warm air next to my skin and wick away moisture. Depending on the temperature, I will be wearing one or two layers of thermal tights (one with a cycling chamois) and probably a fleece mid-layer in the extreme cold. I also have the option of knee-high woollen polar socks to protect my lower extremities. I will have a few fleece mid-layer options. I will have liner gloves, gloves and mitts to protect my hands, though on the bike one of the most essential pieces of protective equipment will be my handlebar mitts, also known as poagies.
Are there any luxuries you take with you?
At the start of my 1993 Trans-Siberian Cycle Expedition, Russian polar explorer, Dr Misha Malakhov gave me large stainless steel thermos so we could have tea during the day to ‘boost morale’. Misha had already carried the thermos on one of his famous treks to the North Pole with Canadian polar explorer, Richard Weber. I have since carried that thermos with me on each of my three major expeditions across Russia, 25,000km through Australia and across Africa and, as long as the seals are still effective, it will come with me across Antarctica making it perhaps the world’s most well-travelled thermos, including both the North and South poles.
What do you miss most while you are away?
While on expedition, I don’t really miss the comforts of my ‘normal life’ in Melbourne because I am totally in my element. I believe that it is a privilege to do what I do and I am committed to do what ever it takes to complete the mission. Of course, I love my family and friends, I enjoy my coffee, good food and a few glasses of red, and I dare say in Antarctica I will try not to think about enjoying a warm shower and comfortable bed.
How do you communicate with the outside world?
Communications have come a long way since my Russian expedition in 1993, when I had to communicate with the outside world by sending a telegram once a week to our base in Ryazan, 200km south of Moscow. In Australia and Africa I simply used a combination of mobile phone (changing SIM cards in every country in Africa) and carried a satellite phone as a back-up. For Antarctica the Iridium Go! (satellite Wi-Fi hotspot access point) would suffice unless we are required to send regular broadcast quality footage or do video conferencing.
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