(Correne Coetzer) Following the success of a feature documentary about her journey through Africa, Australian adventurer, Kate Leeming has now released a book with the same name, Njinga, telling her story about meeting the diverse people of Africa and getting insight in their cultures, dodging rebels, insurgents and Somali pirates as well as exotic and dangerous wildlife while battling extreme conditions from desert to jungled terrain on non-existent roads and faint tracks.
Traveling across 20 African countries, Kate has cycled the equivalent of twice around the world at the Equator. On August 16, 2010 Kate completed a ten-month, 22,040-km journey across Africa from Point des Almadies, Senegal to Cape Hafun, Puntland, Somalia.
ExplorersWeb caught up with Kate, finding out more about her journey through Africa as well as her future plans to cross Antarctica on her special-design bicycle.
ExplorersWeb: What is the story you want to share about Africa and your journey on your bicycle?
Kate: My journey 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.
What I discovered changed my life forever. This amazing journey continuously reveals the truth of Africa and its diverse people and cultures in a way that could only be seen from a bicycle.
ExplorersWeb: As a woman cycling in Africa, were there times that you were scared and/or in danger?
Kate: I think people would expect me to say cycling through a warzone in Puntland, Somalia accompanied by two bulletproof vehicles and a full military unit, taking a secret route to avoid al-Shabaab insurgents and Somali pirates to reach the finish of my journey… or maybe the shooting incident in the jungled Pool region of the Republic of Congo when Ninja rebels fired at the soldiers in the security vehicle just ahead of me.
While such situations seem precarious, I didn’t feel particularly scared because I had trust in those protecting me and my team. I was far more afraid when I felt a potential threat from dangerous wild animals that I knew could be around in certain situations.
Perhaps the only time I was genuinely scared in Africa was when I was riding at dusk through the eastern end of the Bwabwata National Park on the Caprivi Strip in northern Namibia, paranoid at the very real possibility of lions viewing me as meals-on-wheels.
(By the way, I was the only cyclist, but as I was filming it, I needed to use a support vehicle, otherwise I would not have been able to capture many of the interactions effectively.)
ExplorersWeb: How did you plan your route, because you took a big loop to the south?
Kate: The route essentially reflects the mission of the Breaking the Cycle in Africa Expedition.
My original idea of cycling from the most westerly tip (Point des Almadies, Senegal) to the most easterly landmark (Cape Hafun, Puntland, Somalia) evolved when I was looking at a map showing education levels and noticed that a band of countries with Africa’s and the world’s lowest rates of literacy spanned the continent across the Sahel.
When I looked into why this was the case it was obvious that the low levels of education were inextricably linked to the main issues relating to poverty and so I decided that the physical mission of the expedition would be to cycle west to east across the African continent in an unbroken line, but that the purpose of the project was to explore the causes and effects of extreme poverty and particularly the positive aspects; how to offer a ‘leg up’ rather than a ‘hand out’.
For security reasons I avoided eastern Chad, Darfur, the Central African Republic and eastern DRC, but the extra long diversion also reflected the purpose of the expedition. I had arranged to visit 15 different projects en route so that by the finish I had covered all of the main issues relating to extreme poverty.
The journey also had to be timed with the seasons, to travel along the base of the Sahara during the coolest months and to minimize cycling through the two wet seasons north and south of the Equator. I also had a limited time because I had to keep to a budget. The expedition finished four days ahead of schedule and on budget without missing a kilometre (apart from river crossings).
ExplorersWeb: How did you body keep up with the physical demands?
Kate: The organizational phase was so intense that I had to survive off minimal sleep for the last couple of months and with barely any time to train. Subsequently I began the journey exhausted and unwell, so I just had to bite the bullet and tough it out for the first few weeks.
After three bad gastros and a couple of Harmattan-induced chest infections in the first three months, I lost a fair amount of weight and decided to avoid street food so I could maintain my health and keep to schedule, which worked. One of my strongest skills is that I am able to pace myself at the right workload to be able to repeat the effort for the best part of a year. I was in great shape at the finish.
ExplorersWeb: Where did you get food? What did you eat? Our Western stomachs are not always use to the bacteria in Africa. Did you have problems?
Kate: I basically used to eat vast quantities, for example for breakfast I’d consume about 4 or 5 ladles of porridge. We would always stock up in major centres and could usually source food regularly from local markets. Mostly we’d cook ourselves to avoid stomach issues, of which I had a few. We had five ways of filtering and treating water.
As I cycled alone for most of the time, I always carried plenty of energy food and water for emergencies.
ExplorersWeb: How easy was it to find a safe and quiet campsite at night. It is amazing how an area seems without humans and as soon as one stops, people come out of the bushes ;-)
Kate: It was particularly difficult to conceal a red Land Rover. We’d usually pick a site maybe a kilometre or more away from the road (depending on how much cover we had) and water sources and in between villages.
If we did camp near a settlement, we’d always ask for permission from the local leader, though this often led to unwanted attention until after dark. If we were travelling with security personnel we’d usually be asked to stay undercover and sometimes we would camp beside security checkpoints where we were guaranteed 24-hour protection.
ExplorersWeb: What kept you going in difficult times?
Kate: I believed in the mission and I would never have wanted to let my sponsors and supporters down. I was always eager to see how the next chapter of this amazing and eventful journey would unfold.
If I wasn’t feeling well I tried to ignore my competitive instincts, drop down a gear or two and just keep the pedals spinning. It was most important to focus on ‘How do I make it through’ rather than ‘What will stop me’.
ExplorersWeb: Fast Forward to the Future: What route do you plan on Antarctica?
Kate: Leverett Glacier – Geographic South Pole – Hercules Inlet (about 1850km).
ExplorersWeb: What have you learned from the 3 adventurers who tried and tested cycling on Antarctica last season?
Kate: Their considerable achievements have confirmed that my dream is totally possible, though I don’t underestimate the struggle in an extreme environment that is constantly changing. Each person had a different way of going about it. As my motivation is just as much about raising funds and awareness for HIV/AIDS in Africa and running a global education program, I need more support around me to deliver the quality of material necessary and to make the most of the opportunity (which also makes it more expensive).
I haven’t altered how I am approaching the expedition as a result of what Maria, Juan and Daniel have accomplished so successfully – we all have/had different methods. I have altered my course to make it an Antarctic crossing rather than stopping at the South Pole. Originally I was convinced to stop at 90 degrees south as it would be simpler to sell the world first to supporters, but in my heart I am now really doing what I dreamed of all along. All of my major expeditions to date have been about crossing continents.
ExplorersWeb: Will you still use you special bicycle that we talked about last year?
Kate: The Christini all-wheel drive fatbike that I trialled in polar conditions in Spitsbergen last year would be capable of doing the job with a few modifications, but I have found an engineer who has suggested a better-balanced design with more flotation on the back wheel and that would be 3kg lighter and made of titanium.
The only thing holding me back is lack of funds. As soon as I can find a good portion of the sponsorship budget I will refine these innovations and have it made. The main benefit of the AWD bike is that I spend slightly less energy staying upright and saving energy in the extreme cold can only be a positive thing, so I’m all for it.
"Njinga" is available from Australian book stores and www.KateLeeming.com from September 29, 2014 in Australia and by mid-October in the UK/Europe and USA/Canada. It can be shipped to other countries from Australia.
Njinga is a Zambian word for bicycle. It is also the name of a strong, courageous, compassionate queen, who led a four-decade resistance against Portuguese colonists in seventeenth century Angola.
Njinga is Kate’s second book. Complementing the book is a feature-length documentary, also entitled "Njinga", which is now being entered into film festivals around the world. Njinga won the Best Documentary, Best Cinematography (Documentary) categories in this year’s Action on Film International Film Festival held in the US in August. The documentary’s director, Martin McCann, was runner up for the Best Director Award. A TV series will be complete by early 2015.
Kate’s first book, "Out There and Back”, published in 2007, tells the story of her 25,000-kilometer bicycle ride through Australia. In between expeditions, Kate works as a senior professional at the Royal Melbourne Tennis Club and is the current women’s world number two real tennis player.
Kate is currently organising and seeking sponsor partners for her next expedition, "Breaking the Cycle South Pole". In November, December and January of 2015 and 2016, she plans to become the first person to cycle across the Antarctic continent, raising funds and awareness for AIDS in Africa – a response to one of the issues she learned so much about during her Breaking the Cycle in Africa Expedition.
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