Postcards from CarbonCycleKate's Life Cycle
Your quick-fire update from Kate Rawles as she rides Cartagena to Cape Horn, exploring biodiversity on a bamboo bike called Woody…
Each week, Kate shares the image and instances that sum up her adventure…
The highlight = Absolutely fabulous cycling over high mountain passes in Peru’s spectacular Cordillera Blanca.
The low point = My partner, Chris, who joined me for a month, getting altitude sickness on the way to the Punta Olympica pass, one of the highest paved roads in the world. There was nothing I could do to help except put the tent up and wait until he recovered. Luckily he did, and without needing to go down and lose all that hard gained height.
The funny = Meeting up with great friends, Lee and Ferga, in the tiny town of Chacos in the Cordillera Blanca and finding the best ever pizzeria!
The natural world nugget = Plants in this mountain range have adapted to cope with intense solar radiation, low temperatures and water availability. Many have leaves covered in short, downy hair – an adaptation that protects them from losing water from the intense solar radiation and low night-time temperatures of the mountain climate. Animals who live here include the puma (how wonderful would it be to see one!).
The image = The summit of Portacheulo de Llanganuco
The highlight = My latest highlight was a detour from Quito, Ecuador, to the Amazon rainforest. It was absolutely amazing to climb a viewing tower and see ‘the lungs of the planet’ stretching for thousands of miles. The Amazon forest really is so very, very precious in terms of the incredible diversity and sheer numbers of plants and animals that live there.
The low point = Learning that Yasuni National Park, one of the most fabulously diverse areas of the Ecuadorian Amazon, is now being drilled for oil. This will have hugely damaging impacts on the forest and its inhabitants, human and other-than-human.
The funny = Being rescued from toothache by the manager of a Nature Reserve in southern Ecuador and taken to his dentist in a nature reserve truck! Funny when it was all over.
The natural world nugget = Cloud forests host as much biodiversity and are every bit as important as rainforests, but get much less publicity. They are the lesser known cousins of the forest world…
The image = Me and Woody being filmed at a cloud forest reserve in Southern Ecuador by a local nature-focused social media guru.
The highlight = My latest highlight was an amazing visit to a Paramo ecosystem in Northern Colombia, where I met a wonderful biologist working on the conservation of Andean or ‘Spectacled’ bears.
The endangered spectacled bear is the only bear native to South America and the only surviving member of the ‘short-faced bear’ family. It is blackish in colour, with tan or gingerish markings around its face. These markings vary and are unique to each bear, but often make them look as if they are wearing glasses – hence the name! They are excellent tree-climbers and sometimes even build platforms in trees to hide and store food.
The low point = Learning about conflicts between the rare, spectacled bears and locals. Because the bears have lost so much habitat, they end up straying onto farmland and sometimes harassing cattle, with predictably bad consequences.
The funny = Being wetter than wet all the way through and having to wash out my trainers, thick with mud, in a rain-water gutter. It was pretty funny for onlookers at least!
The natural world nugget = The Frailejones plants in the high Paramo ecosystem capture water from passing clouds and then release it into the soil through their roots, eventually forming rivers that provide water for entire ecosystems below. Plants are amazing!
The image = A very soggy Kate with a Frailejones plant.
The highlight = Meeting Jennifer, the bravest woman I have ever met. She’s a young single mother campaigning against an immense goldmine in her community of Cajamarca, Colombia. She’s up against Anglo Gold Ashanti, one of the biggest gold mining companies in the world. She and a group of young people organised a public referendum and the town voted NO to the mine, which is an amazing outcome when you consider the army of people and wealth of resources the goldmine have on their side. I wrote a blog about it here.
The low point = Learning about the power of mining companies – much, much bigger than it ought to be for any healthy democratic system.
The funny = Being rescued while in the process of trying to get a visa extension. Apparently this online process is now utterly impossible unless you happen to be in a hostel staffed by a teenager with the skills to upload and compress multiple images of passport before the site crashes. I have rarely felt so lucky or so grateful!
The natural world nugget = In the process of mining for gold, not only can mercury get into water and soil, but previously buried sulphides acidify and become a source of pollution for hundreds of years. I had no idea! No more gold for me.
The image = The amazing Jennifer and fellow activist, Bart.
The highlight = My latest highlight was arriving at the tiny mountain town of El Cairo after a wonderful ride, where I met lots of lovely people and found out about a brilliant project called Serraniagua. Amongst other things, they encourage local farmers to take pride in their organic, sustainable, biodiversity-friendly, traditional farming methods and resist ‘modernising’ them to pesticide-heavy, intensive, biodiversity-hostile ones. They conserve mountain forest habitats and run a truly brilliant café with local, organic and very, very delicious coffee. I didn’t want to leave!
The low point = My first night of truly unpleasant squits. That’s all you need to know about that one!
The funny = There was a military check-point en route. The soldiers were rigorously searching all other passing traffic, but when we arrived, they just wanted their photos taken with Woody!
The natural world nugget
You can grow lots of coffee and only coffee on an area of land and make more money, but have to use pesticides, so end up losing biodiversity and polluting your water. OR, you can grow coffee in amongst other trees – like avocado and mango – have a lovely range of fruit and veg, not need pesticides, protect your biodiversity and water AND end up with even more delicious coffee (because it matures more slowly in shade).
The image = Soldiers with me and Woody at the military checkpoint at La Carbonera, en route to El Cairo.
The highlight = Arriving at Salento, heart of the coffee region. The 19th century explorer, scientist, writer and natural-world guru, Alexander von Humboldt, described coffee as ‘concentrated sunshine’! I’m with him on that one.
The low point = Hearing about deadly mud-avalanches in Medellin, not long after leaving. As usual, these affect the poorest people who live in houses perched precariously on unsuitable slopes. Not just a ‘natural disaster’, a lot of it is down to deforestation causing soil erosion and affecting the stability of slopes, and climate change contributing to unusually heavy and erratic rainfall.
The funny = Being taken by surprise by the 1,200m non-stop climb to Manizales. A local cyclist had told me it was flat all the way. Sort of funny. And a wee bit embarrassing. Now an avid user of Michelin online world maps, complete with contours.
The natural world nugget = Bamboo is the fastest growing plant on the planet. It can be harvested constantly without affecting its root system or causing erosion. It produces 35% more oxygen than hardwood trees and captures 4% more carbon. Info thanks to EcoCultura, a fab project combining sustainable, locally sourced bamboo bikes with training and job opportunities for young people https://ecoculturablog.wordpress.com/about-bambooco-bikes/
The image = Woody in Salento against a typical building front. He was soooo colour coordinated there!
The highlight = This has to be my first off-road section of the trip. It was 20 absolutely beautiful – and tough – miles from Caldas (not far from Medellin) to Fredonia, a tiny town in the mountains. It was SO good to be properly in the hills and replacing traffic noises for strange and wonderful new bird songs.
The low point = I got caught in my first torrential rain, with thunder and lightning accompanying the downpour as dusk was falling. The roads became rivers in minutes, I had to take my glasses off and I couldn’t see the road, potholes, floating branches or road signs. It was pretty scary!
The funny = Being overtaken on the final climb to Fredonia by two 7 year olds with one bike between them. I was definitely trashed. But still…
The natural world nugget = Colombia has more species of birds than there are in North America and Europe together.
The image = This was taken on the Fredonia route. I love this because it was just so incredibly beautiful up there. I think this almost captures it.
The highlight = Cycling to the small, colourful town of Guatape to spend two weeks on an eco-hostel/organic farm/language school in an attempt to improve my terrible Spanish.
The low point = Trying to avoid death by buses during a blood-sugar crash half way up a traffic-gnarled, 11-mile climb out of Medellin.
The funny = Being recognised (because of Woody) by another student on the Spanish course who was at the same hostel as me in Cartagena. I am now officially ‘the bamboo bike lady!’
The natural world nugget = Armadillos have two ways of crossing a river. They can breathe in really deeply and use their lungs like inflatable air sacks to float across. Or, they can breathe out really deeply, empty their lungs of air and walk across the bottom, holding their breath – which they can do for up to six minutes. Incredible!
The image = The view of Medellin, the second-largest city in Colombia, from about quarter of the way up the ‘Las Palmas’ 11-mile climb.
The highlight = Two and a half days of solid cycling upwards, with the highest point at around 2,700m.
The low point = Two and a half days of solid cycling upwards...
The funny = Cycling back down a rather long hill whilst still in possession of the key to the motel room I’d just left. Funny in retrospect. Not at the time.
The natural world nugget = The tiny Cotton Top Tamarin Monkeys aka ‘Titis’ are brilliant little creatures, and unique to NW Colombia. BUT, they only have 2% of their forest habitat left and they're endangered. As well as deforestation, there’s good money to be made by catching and selling wild animals as pets, which doesn’t help.
So, what is helping? An excellent social/environmental project run by Proyecto Titi, including habitat conservation and income generation for locals.
The image = Aagh, this is so hard! So I’m sending two this week. The first because Colombia just doesn’t do drab! And the second because it captures the lush greenness of the mountains and the beauty of one of many flowering trees you often see by the roadside
Read more about building your own bamboo bike here
The highlight = Heart-achingly beautiful forest and mountain scenery in the Sierra Nevada and the work of all sorts of brilliant environmental organisations (mostly run by amazing women) to protect it.
The low point = Relentless blasting headwinds for the four days I rode north. When mixed with brutal monster truck slip stream, I kept having to get off and hang on to the bike so as not to be blown off.
The funny = Ending up temporarily cycling north when I’m ‘supposed’ be heading south. ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans!’
The natural world nugget = Anteaters never eat ALL the ants. Anything we could learn there, humans?!
The image = Anteaters crossing! I think it’s because it really made me realise that I am not in the UK! Plus anteaters are amazing creatures. And they never eat all the ants…
Get more from Kate and follow her SPOT tracker at: www.outdoorphilosophy.co.uk