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Global Wheeling Interview

Two-wheeling for change: An interview with Kayden Kleinhans

Kayden Kleinhans takes his footprint seriously - the ardent environmentalist has travelled 31,000 carbon-free kilometres and he’s not even close to calling it a day.

I caught up with Kayden in Tableview a few months before he began his latest trip - around 15 000 kilometres across the Americas.

In fact, he’s since conquered the South and Central America, had his odometer stolen (and then returned) in Peru, and cycled about nearly 8000 carbon free km’s - saving over a 1000 kilograms of carbon purely by travelling on human steam. Solo. Unsupported. Just a man on a mission.

Bicycling to Lemcid, Mauritiana

Down-to-earth, upbeat and relentlessly cool, Kayden wasn’t one of those cyclists practically born on two wheels.

Iguaza Falls, Brazil

It was in the UK that his life changed. Working as a bike messenger in Central London would probably put most people off cycling for life. Not Kayden.

He discovered a love for cycling that took him to Australia, where the “bike bug” really hit him. It was while cycling across the Nullarbor Plain in the South of Australia in 2005 that the concept of Global wheeling was born.

And instead of coming back with enough money to buy a car or put down a bond, he returned to South Africa with two bicycles and a dream. A year and a half later, he found himself in Vietnam. On a bike of course.

Kayden Kleinhans

Picking up odd jobs on the way, he found himself working as an English teacher in Indonesia, cycling everywhere while his brain ticked with ideas.

Back home again, he noticed how cycling was becoming a commodity: “It was going in the direction of the lycra brigades, everyone in their skintight lycra or on their offroad mountain bikes. Nobody was saying let’s explore the country, let’s go on tour and mix bike and bush”.

Bicycle maintenance at Oaxaca, Mexico

Determined to spread the freewheeling bicycle culture he espouses, Kayden began setting up the Global Wheeling Foundation, an organisation that converts the carbon-free kilometres accumulated on his global bicycle expeditions into trees that get planted in disadvantaged communities.

“I wasn’t happy with what some of the other Non-profits were doing. I wanted to set up something that I believed was true, where 100% of donations would go where they were supposed to, and not to director bonuses or anything like that. Global wheeling is a nonprofit that puts its money where its mouth is”.

Hugging a tree, Southern Guinea

From planting 2010 trees as a carbon offset for the FIFA world cup to a mission from Manchester in the UK to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, or a trip along the West Coast of Africa to Cape Town before heading up the East Coast of the continent, Kayden uses his pedal-powered expeditions to raise awareness of society’s reliance on fossil fuels and the power of the bicycle to alleviate congestion and minimise carbon emissions.

Dressed in flip flops and board shorts, Kayden is about as unpretentious as it gets. For each carbon-free kilometre he rides, a tree gets sponsored (through public donations and the help of various wholesale indigenous nurseries that support his cause).

And while he doesn’t physically plant trees, he works with local municipalities, schools and environmental projects to find an outlet where a framework or support system is already established “so trees get to places that want and deserve them, and will nurture them in the long-term”.

Tree planting

Then there’s also the Bums on Bikes programme, “where we’re trying to get more bums on bikes and reduce cars on the streets for a greener and happier city, and the Recycle a Bike programme:

“We bring over containers of second-hand bikes from the States, the UK and Europe to Africa, where they “get fixed up and go to people who need them out here, predominantly people from previously disadvantaged communities”.

Kayden Kleinhans

“I’d love to bring bicycle culture to Cape Town, the kind of culture that you find in Amsterdam, where people hop on their bike, go down to the shop with their big wicker basket, put their kids on the back and ride to the shop to get their groceries. I want people to become carbon-conscious, to think twice about hopping in the car to go and get their loaf of bread from a shop that’s 500 metres down the road”.

What’s the most you have cycled in one day?

277 km across Nullarbor plains in south Australia. It’s completely unrealistic in the grander scheme of things but I had a very strong tail wind running from Perth to Sydney so I can’t take all the credit.

It was so strong I was moving even if I didn’t pedal. The landscape is also very flat, so you couldn’t really ask for easier conditions. I don’t know if I’d do it again but I can tell you I slept very well that night.

And the longest time you’ve gone without speaking to another person?

I don’t really know. It can certainly feel really long -especially the Sahara, which was pretty desolate. I’d say I’ve gone days at a time.

Crossing no mans-land, mauritania

Why do you cycle in flip flops and shorts and not in ‘proper’ gear?

What I wear today is what I’d wear on my bicycle. I don’t believe you need to look like you stepped out of a sci-fi movie to enjoy a ride. I’m happier with the fuss-free approach. Less is certainly more when touring on a bicycle, so eliminating socks also helps with weight and laundry.

Travelling light saddlebags on bicycle

What do you carry in terms of gear and what is your average load?

Well the bike itself weighs 15 kgs and on top of that I carry about 35 kgs worth of luggage, so I make sure I carry my own ropes so I can rig anything I need to.

Saddlebags on touring bicycle

In Guinea Bissau there was such thick sand that I had to rig the rope against a tree like a pulley system to get the bike up and over.

Pushing bicycle through thick sand

I also wear Hemporium T-shirts (Tony is one of my sponsors) but apart from that, I carry a rainsuit, and an extensive tool kit so I can fix everything myself. Also a swiss army knife and a cellphone on text roaming so I can keep in touch.

Apart from that, I have all the right equipment for the job - a tiny light-weight and efficient gas stove, a fleece jersey that’s waterproof, lekker gloves, a beanie.

I never listen to music - I like to be where I am - yes, it can be loud or quiet but it is what it is. I trekked across the country to be where I am, so I might as well enjoy that moment, and be in that moment.

Kayden Kleinhans cycling on his worldwide bicycle tour

How do you plan?

As best as you can for different conditions. You can’t prepare for some places and some situations - in the Sahara I ran out of water but managed to trade a tin of Zambuk with a Berber nomad in the desert.

I usually do about a 100 km a day (about the length of the Cape Town Argus), so if it’s 200 km I’ll estimate that it’ll take two days to reach the next village and carry enough food and water till then. You can’t let fear into the equation because you’re alone and you’re out in the bush - you’ll do your head in!

I use local maps and set out my route per country, but sometimes I deviate - if there’s a beautiful mountain pass 100 km south I’m going to check it out.

Kayden Kleinhans at Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

And if it takes an extra three weeks, so what. I rely on local knowledge to find my way around inside a country - I’ll pull into a local bar and ask where I should go. There’s no knowledge like local knowledge.

Can you tell me some of the most scary or challenging experiences you’ve had?

I travelled through the Ivory Coast during the civil war and had to bribe my way across the rebel-held Muslim North. I was also shot at in Spain during hunting season.

Guinean hunter

I was in the process of pitching my tent off the road in a hunting area (unbeknownst to me), which is army green and lekker camouflaged in the bush - when someone heard a rustle, and thinking I was an animal on all fours, took a shot.

I jumped up and got tuned by a Spanish oke in Wellington boots and a rifle. Seeing as camping is illegal in Spain, I was lucky it was a shot that missed. I’ve been knocked over by a car in Gambia (ended up with a lot of broken gear), had my passport taken away from me (also in Ivory Coast) and had to buy it back, been refused entry at the Nigerian border, and was attacked by six guys in Togo who tried to steal all my stuff.

I fended them off with some serious language and cricket bowling action with my panga; I don’t think anyone wants to lose an arm. But you can’t afford to lose your gear; you have to protect it with your life.

So I am completely paranoid about my bike, I often sleep with it in the tent with me (it just fits inside). But if you let fear get to you, you are just going to pull the plug; so you have to keep it simple: food, water, shelter and just getting from A to B.

Sleeping on a rusty car

What were some of your most inspiring moments?

Riding through the Sahara Desert was hugely spiritual - with that vast openness and my intense vulnerability (you can only take as much as you can carry, so you have to ration yourself on food and water, cutting things in halves and quarters and putting them in little bags) it was the closest I have ever felt to something bigger than me.

Cyclist contemplates the dusty road ahead to Senegal

It’s really humbling, makes you realise you are a small speck in the grander scheme of things. Then there was the time when I’d just crossed over from Senegal, which was rebel held and quite tense, into Guinea-Bissau and came across this butt-naked little kid, who has probably never seen a white person before.

Though he was completely taken aback to see something so alien, this dusty white guy on a bicycle, his first reaction was just to smile. I just thought, man if that’s your initial reaction - what a great moment.

Then there is that feeling of freedom that becomes addictive, not knowing where you’re going to sleep that night - whether it’s crashing under a tree during a thunderstorm or being invited into the village to share a meal with the chief and his family.

Camping in Mexico

This sense of vulnerability takes you right out of your comfort zone - it is travel in its purest form.

How have people responded to you on the road and with support (sponsorship/donations)?

Europe was very cold, nobody wanted to give me the time of day! I had more people coming up for a chat or flashing me a smile in one day in Morocco than in a month in Europe.

A lot of people think Africa’s this unfriendly, unsafe place, and while there are places that are a bit rough, generally the people are very warm and very hospitable.

A bicycle parked on a busy dirt road to Accra, Ghana

Interestingly, I find sponsorship is better in South Africa, but support and donations are stronger abroad, so it’s a harmonious balance overall.

How do you get by in terms of accommodation?

90% of the time I’m in a tent, in a bush, under a tree, next to a waterfall, behind a sand dune… 9.99% of the time I’ll be taken in, particularly by villagers in Africa, who offer me a spot to sleep and a meal that night. Then there’s that 0.01% where it will be someone who owns a guesthouse or lodge who invites me in.

Why the America’s, and what’s your intended route?

I feel I have a strong connection with the Americas since a childhood fascination with the Amazon jungle! From August 2012 (to currently), I'm going to be crossing South America, Central America and North America - over around 13 months.

Starting in Buenos Aires and crossing directly into Uruguay then into the south of Brazil, cutting across Paraguay into Bolivia, clipping the tip of Chili, coming into the bottom of Peru, then up through Ecuador, Columbia, hugging the west coast of the continent across central America up into Mexico and then the States, finishing at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada.

Crossing with bicycle and sacks of grain into Ghana via boat

It’s a big trip, which is why I personified my bike with the name Little Miss Sunshine. I’ll need some company on the way.

How have your experiences changed you?

Hugely! My social skills become somewhat diminished as I spend so much time in my tent by myself. It takes me three months to get to the point where I can socialise at a normal level again.

On the flip side, I’d say I’m more open to change. You’re confronted by so many different things on the road that you realise you can’t apply your framework to everything else. The ability to adapt is a major plus.

Bicyclist reaches London

How does it feel, just you, out on the road?

I’ve learnt the art of being alone without getting lonely. I’ve been through a lot of introspection and I don’t always like what I find, but I’ve found my happy place. It’s my meditation time - I’m at my clearest when I’m on my bike in the middle of nowhere - like I’m in the right place.

Cyclist at sunset

Is this your purpose?

I hope not - I always wanted to be a rockstar but I can’t sing or dance!

In light of the current global environmental crisis, what is your vision for the future?

Bums on bikes full stop. I want to see Cape Town ‘amsterdamised’. I’d love to see the inner city with no cars, completely pedestrian. I’d love to see businesses thriving on the back of a bicycle - like ice-creams on bikes.


Benefits of a bicycle

I’d love to see people thinking twice before hopping in a car, or buying meaningless gifts for someone’s birthday. Plant a tree instead!

I believe we can create a low carbon economy that’s as profitable as the system we have at the moment. If we had a shifting paradigm, a collective mindset that was united in making money in a sustainable way, we’d be on to something amazing.

Any advice for someone else?

Go for it, whatever it is! Doing an expedition like this has changed me and I think it’s more for the good than the bad. The right time is now!

What’s next for you?

I’m forming a bond with a local film company and would like to use film as a platform to creating an eco ethos. I’m getting better at filming myself - I want to build a rig on the bike.

I also want to do smaller trips, maybe shorter 6 month trips and turn it into six episodes, like Global Wheeling does India. Then take six months off and write about my experience. I want to share my stories, inspire people and make them have a bit of a chuckle.

Huayna Potosí

How can someone get involved?

The simplest way is to sponsor a carbon-free kilometre via the Global Wheeling website and for every km sponsored I will plant a tree in SA. It will cost $20 and can be done via PayPal on the website.

My travel blog can also be found here and subscribed to if you want to keep up to date with my trials and tribulations.

Cycling up to Sani Pass, Lesotho

Lastly, the two-part independently produced Global Wheeling documentary is currently running a fantastic community-based fundraising drive through a crowd sourcing platform that offers amazing, unique perks and incentives, from signed, original photos of the trip, to handcrafted wire bicycles made by local artists, and gifted trees with African GPS coordinates.

More details about supporting the fundraising drive and helping to get the documentary off the ground, are available here. Global Wheeling can also be found and followed on the facebook fan page.

Lake Titicaca

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