Baja, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru – by bike

Opinion piece
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Velocity magazine have just published the following article by Sarah Jenkinson, Associate at Tibbalds, reflecting on her cycling sabbatical in Summer 2018.

I have cycled all my life, but since 2009, it’s become a serious hobby of mine. Mainly for the joy of travel and adventure and sometimes to test my endurance and strength. I’ve always road cycled, increasingly seeking lighter bikes and thinner tyres and it’s brought me a continued sense of joie de vivre.

However, a couple of years ago I realised there were times when I was getting a little fed up with sharing a road with vehicles. And sometimes I just didn’t want to cycle fast. Instead, I wanted to explore and escape. So, when my boyfriend and I decided to take six months out to share our passion for adventures on two wheels, we decided it was time to get off the beaten track and into the wild.

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I had road-cycled the west coast of America, between Vancouver to San Diego, in 2015 with a couple of buddies. It was a blast and it was beautiful. So when we found out about the Baja Divide mountain biking route covering 2500km south from San Diego to the tip of the Baja peninsula, this seemed like just the ticket. It involves biking through the real wild-west desert outback on remote tracks, back to back nights of wild-camping and picking up food and water at the few resupply points identified in the route notes. What an adventure.

We built strong and beautiful mountain bikes, perfectly spec’d for rocky and sandy terrain with the strength to carry our bike-packing bags. We read notes, I learned Spanish, we got our packs down as light as possible and got all the best adventure gear we thought we needed. Advance training didn’t work out due to some recurring back issues and work getting very busy, but we agreed that we could take things easy at the start and get stronger as we went.

Unfortunately, however, Baja in April doesn’t really allow for taking things easy! The best and sensible option for taking on the route is between November and April. After this, it gets too hot and too dry and these are both key issues for survival in this relatively extreme part of the world. Timings of other issues back home meant the earliest we could go was the start of April, so we had to make the most of it and see how far we could get.
Water sources were scarce (sometimes two and half days apart) and the terrain was tough. The trip required patience and calm and the ability to manage fears. It required the acceptance that a lot of my confidence, capabilities, support and networks that I had back in London were to be stripped away and that I had to work out how to survive in a totally alien environment. There were poisonous snakes and spiders, relentless kilometres of deep sand to trudge through or rocky faces to get across, increasing heat, and remoteness and isolation that I had previously never experienced.

Furthermore, I discovered that mountain biking is technical and requires strength and skill, both of which I did not have at the start. I found myself physically and emotionally extremely challenged.
I would like to be able to say that I owned it; I managed it well; I embraced the challenge. But I can safely say I struggled. Tears were shed and I was pushed to real lows. I felt I was surviving and certainly not thriving. What made it more frustrating is that I so wanted to relish in it. I wanted to own it, sap up each moment and delight in every obstacle and consequent achievement. Campbell was. He really was. Right there in front of me. Raptured by it all.
Salt in the wound.

However, as we all know, time is a healer. It took a long while but gradually I became stronger, more skilled, calmer and able to appreciate more and more beauty as fear converted to wonder. Finally, I was amazed by the feeling of living by the sun and the ecosystems we inhabited. I was enthralled by the insects, birds, flora and fauna we found. I also came to greatly appreciate the ability to overcome fear. Baja was absolutely my baptism of fire and it certainly set me up for the Andes, the second part to our cycling sabbatical.

Colombia, Ecuador and Peru couldn’t have been more different! Rain, people, so many settlements and green vegetation everywhere. The routes were more defined and so this part of the trip provided a lot of thinking time.

Too much? I don’t know. But I was able to watch and learn as we travelled through many villages, towns and cities, meeting so many new people. We saw people’s different priorities; supporting their families, loving their communities and care-taking of their local resources and ecosystems. I realised, first-hand, how the city gives so much to its inhabitants but so abruptly disconnects people from the natural world. Urban environments make it too easy to turn a blind eye to the way we are depleting the world’s resources.

I have come home greatly appreciating friends, families and colleagues close-by to share my passions and enjoy their company. I am appreciating having a physical home and waking up in the same bed every morning. I also now feel strongly about making the right decisions about what I consume; where it comes from, what it is made from and how it will impact the world – from its creation to its disposal. I feel conscious of choosing low impact options and focusing on quality not quantity. So, I am aiming not to fly in 2019, began volunteering with older people in my local community last September and now seek out more eco-focused grocery and household items. It won’t solve the big issues, but it’s my way of living in what feels like the right way.

At work, I feel inspired to see how we can make our cities breathe, prioritise landscape and improve people’s wellbeing through a closer connection to nature.

The other thing I know is that I will be taking every opportunity to keep exploring, going on adventures and getting out into the wild. Despite what’s happening in politics, I deeply believe we must keep looking outwards, learning and growing from and with our neighbours and our planet.

To hear more about this adventure and five more from women in the built environment industry, come to the Adventure Inspiration Talk, hosted by the NLA on 29th January at 18:00.

Tickets are £16, all proceeds go to the Club Peloton charities, including Coram.

Original article posted on Velocity magazine