I love it when a plan comes together…

It was winter 2016 and it was dark, cold and rainy.  I needed little encouragement to start making travel plans when I walked into the Royal Geographical Society’s Explore weekend. Two days of roaming around historically charged rooms listening to incredible humans share tales of their studies / endeavours / adventures.  Perfect. At the bicycle-touring workshop I met the world-renowned cycling guru Dr Kate Rawles and her bike Woody. Kate was about to ride her homemade bamboo bike the length of South America (The Life Cycle) to raise awareness about biodiversity conservation issues (she’s on that journey right now, in fact). This immediately set my imagination into overdrive.

Meeting Kate and ‘Woody’ at the RGS

Stupified looks have become commonplace over the years, when telling people about my plans (I’m going to Mexico to count fish and measure coral, I’m going to be an underwater videographer, I’m in Africa studying manta rays and whale sharks with world leading experts, I’m going to travel around South America by myself, I’m going to work with orangutans in the sweaty Bornean jungle). But riding around on a bicycle that I’ve made myself out of grass… that brought a new level of laughter, gentle mockery and disbelief.

Next decision; cycling, or cycling with a purpose?  That decision didn’t warrant too much thinking time…

I was recently part of the paddlepickup team. We were the first all female team to kayak the UK from coast to coast (Bristol to London, which was 308km), clearing pollution out of the waterways as we went. Our mission was to keep as much plastic as possible from reaching the sea, spreading awareness as we went. It was a fantastic expedition to be part of and I made new lifelong friendships with likeminded people who want to make a positive difference. Here is my video about the trip:

Ocean plastic pollution is a topic I feel very strongly about, having worked in marine conservation for 5 years; 3 years of that with the BBC Queen of Mantas Dr Andrea Marshall at the magnificent Marine Megafauna Foundation. During this time, we witnessed manta rays (which are listed as vulnerable to extinction on the IUCN redlist) coughing up plastic whilst trying to feed. We found remains of turtles that had been poached, a dead turtle with a belly full of plastic, another dead in the sea with a huge long-line hook in its face and saw countless animals dragging around, or entangled in, fishing nets, lines and other manmade debris. It was sickening. But because it’s in the sea and people don’t see it in front of them on a regular basis, it’s not something that features in most peoples’ awareness. Out of sight, out of mind.

Cutting a manta free of fishing line in Ecuador

I feel outraged by shocking statistics such as by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans, if we continue as we are currently. I am not OK with animals suffering and dying because humans aren’t disposing of rubbish properly and I also believe we can all survive perfectly well without using so much plastic.

Terrifying stats on plastic in the ocean by biofinagroup

So, now I have a plan for getting around and a passion for plastic pollution picking! Now I just needed a destination. Somewhere that I feel safe, as a first-time female solo cyclist; while I get my teeth into worldwide cycle touring. Perhaps even with friends to visit along the way. Having lived in New Zealand many years ago, that seemed to tick those boxes. Nevermind the teeny tiny geographical glitches in my beginner’s touring plan; huge mountains, inclement weather and famed, ferocious winds. I booked the ticket before I thinking too much about those things. Those things are all part of the adventure, right?!

It might seem like a strange place to go on a conservation awareness trip.  Mention New Zealand and most people think of happy hobbits skipping around in pristine pastures and ferny forests. But littering and ocean pollution are global issues. So, as I cycle around New Zealand, I’m going to give presentations on marine animals and plastic pollution at local schools and community groups and organise beach and river cleans. These events are always fascinating in showing what the main local pollutants are.  From there we can look at ways to lessen the frequency these items are purchased and / or found in the waterways.

This wonderful quote sticks with me always:

“We all make a difference. We have to decide what kind of difference we are going to make.”  Dr Jane Goodall

Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something. This is my something.

In the beginning, there was bamboo…

Just choose the bamboo that feels right?  Seriously?!

A few short minutes after introductions at the Bamboo Bicycle Club, there we were; handling and choosing the bamboo for our bicycle frames.  Obviously, we were given guidance on the desired circumference and internode measurements.

Step 1: choose the bamboo that ‘feels right’…

This was no casual meander into the world of bamboo.  ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ popped into my head.  The power of choice.  The responsibility of knowing that what I picked will have to carry my belongings and me on lengthy voyages.  Oh, the pressure..

We were snapped out of our wide-eyed reveries and hand-held through what can only be described as one of the most satisfying days I can recall.  It was like being in Santa’s workshop.  Measuring, marking, drilling, filing, sanding, taping… and by the end of day 1, my bamboo was starting to look like a bicycle frame.

End of day 1: time for a bamboo beer

Day 2, in simple summary, consisted of sticking all the bits together with bandage-like strips of hemp soaked in resin.  Wrapping our frame joins, lovingly securing our handcrafted stems; it was creatively cathartic.

Day 2: hemp and resin joins

Days 3 and 4 consisted of hours and hours and hours of sanding.  First with a machine, which already felt intuitive and pleasing.  But then came the numerous hours of finer sanding, blemish-filling and more sanding by hand.  By this point I was getting to know every nook and cranny of my frame.  This is not a feeling you can get from buying a bike off the shelf.  This is an intimate, loving relationship between maker and materials with a wonderfully slow, manual process.

Days 3 & 4: sanding, sanding, more sanding

Although I like the theory of being able to see the raw, natural joins, I wanted the lines of the frame to remain fluid and seamless.  So I had the idea of painting the lugs (the joins) a nice, light shade of yellow, which I might then subtly decorate.

Sanding and ideas of natural decoration

Cue James opening the pot of yellow that he had in stock.  This was the visual equivalent of emptying a bag of sour sweets into your mouth all at once.  WOW… not quite what I had in mind.  After talking around the pros and cons of subtly vs boldly making a statement (and also slightly influenced by impatience and wanting to spray my frame immediately!), I decided to go for the ‘melonengelb’.  Go boldly…

Day 5: wow, that is YELLOW!

Days 6, 7 and 8 were spent pimping my ride.  The plain bikes look fine and all, magnificent even, but I have a bit of an arty heart.  And if this bike is going to be my home, my adventure companion and a huge part of my world, then I want something just a little bit different that reflects what’s important to me.  (And I want some words of encouragement for when the hills are tough…)

Sun, seeds, plants, plankton, magnificent marine creatures, the oceans, mountainous lands, towering trees…
Don’t stop until you’re proud – the top tube
Today is going to be super duper
I want to see what happens if I don’t give up
Ready for parts!

So for now, I’m eagerly awaiting the call to tell me that all the parts have arrived and I can once again delve into the magical world of the Bamboo Bicycle Club workshop.  Until then I have to busy myself with destination research and route planning…