Gobi Desert, Mongolia, June 2009.
“The Wind. It howls, yells, screams in my face. It grabs me by the shoulders and tries to wrench me back to China. It’s forceful, ferocious, determined. But so am I. I’m further from home than I’ve ever been. I’m out of water and food. I’m scared. It wouldn’t be so bad if not for the wind. It seems intent on stopping me. Each time I press down on a pedal it’s a struggle. My mouth has dried up. Sand works its way around my glasses and into my eyes. I imagine what it would be like to disappear. I could leave a last message on my video camera, like a black box on a plane. Or would that be a bit over dramatic?”
I had been on the road for nearly one year. I had left Brisbane, Australia, on the 10th of August 2008, in my quest to reach Copenhagen, Denmark, by the 6th December 2009. The day before the United Nations Climate Change Conference, the COP15, would begin.
The journey preparations had been hurriedly thrown together from June. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was trying to turn a pipe dream into reality with a tight deadline. Copenhagen, I wanted to get there in time to demand change, to demonstrate the capacity to travel great distances in a sustainable way, to demonstrate the commitment needed to stop climate change. I was a 27 year old social worker from Canberra, who had never cycled more than 3 days in a row, but I was determined to do something about the greatest threat facing the planet and this was my way.
I didn’t even have a bike. I remember asking people who had cycled over continents for advice, but all they would tell me was that I’d work it out along the way. I was frustrated with their lack of specifics ,but I guess that was how it turned out. I must say I don’t share their guidance style. Now if anyone asks I try to tell them all the things that I had wanted to know. But it is true, you work it out along the way.
I didn’t know how it was going to work but I thought that somehow my cycle would do something good. I talked to Greenpeace, Oxfam and Friends of the Earth. A few businesses helped me out with the cost of gear and priceless advice. But I needed to be on the road if I was going to make it to Copenhagen in time. So before I knew it and before I was ready I was crossing Story Bridge Brisbane and entering the world.
It was really once I arrived in China that I felt I wasn’t doing it right. It was March 2009 by then. I mean, I’d made it far enough to think that Copenhagen was possible. I had cycled through the harsh dry expanse of the North Australian Outback, admittedly learning the rules of hydration the hard way after a night in the hospital with heat exhaustion. I had eventually made it to Timor-Leste when I again paid the hospital a visit, this time to receive 7 stitches in my face after collapsing on the road. It seems I hadn’t learned the hydration rules properly after all.
South East Asia had been strange. The cycling had been tough. The heat, the rain, the volcanoes of the Indonesian Archipelago. The tourists. I was shocked by the cultural, ethical void created by the swarms of hedonists who had colonized vast swaths of land up and down the coast lines. Thailand, never formally occupied by an invading foreign force was now totally economically dependent on tourism. Gigantic, red bellies swayed up and down the beaches, searching for a free plastic deck chair.
But I had started to question my endeavor. Was I really having any impact on anything? Was anyone talking any notice of what I was doing? I had received a bit of media attention in Australia ,but so what? That didn’t mean anyone had decided to get out of their car and onto a bike.
I determined to do things differently. I was tired, lonely and about to head into Mongolia. I proposed the Ride Planet Earth Challenge; could people travel in a sustainable way at least 1 tenth of what I was doing on my bike, at least 25km a week? Leave the car in the garage. I began setting up the Ride Planet Earth international day of action for the 6th of December 2009. I had seen the impact long distance adventure cycling had on people. They were usually amazed, excited, inspired. Unless they were fellow long distance cyclists, to whom the whole thing was quite normal. But that was the point, to make it normal. There were so many people I met, cycling from Europe to Asia or back in the other direction, all whose actions could inspire others to change their behavior. Some were making use of the fact, raising money for charities, or doing something similar to me, trying to promote sustainability and environmental protection. But what if we could all work together and encourage people at home, in the cities, to get out on their bikes. Jointly demonstrate the capacity and willingness of ordinary people to fight climate change.
A combination of luck and the hospitality of Mongolian herders kept me alive and on course through the Gobi and on into Russia. Cycling through Mongolia had been the best and hardest 32 days of my life. I will never forget the shimmering glow that covered the Steppe as the sun set and the icy dew glimmered. Alone but for the earth and my bicycle, I felt I had left reality all together and entered Imagination. Reality only returned much, much later in the snow outside the Bella Centre in Copenhagen, chanting along with 99, 999 others, demanding the action from governments that ultimately didn’t materialize.
I was slowly joined by more and more people as we approached Denmark. The first in Georgia, then another in Turkey, then Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia… and those who couldn’t join what became known as the Cycle Change Convoy, who joined us in their city or town by arranging actions that would take place on the day we reached Copenhagen, the 6th of December. More and more people wrote to me saying they were going to ride that day, setting up cycling rallies, demonstrations, critical mass rides and cycling picnics all over the world.
On the 5th of December 2009 we had arrived in Roskilde, 25 kilometres from Copenhagen. I had been joined by cyclists from all over Europe, Spain, England, Holland and Germany. And Ride Planet Earth would include events taking place on every continent. We arrived in the center of Copenhagen the next day with a group of 60. Carrying banners, singing chants, urging “Cycle Change, not Climate Change”. We were joined in action by thousands of other people from around the world, in places like Dar Es Salaam, London, New York, Sydney, Shanghai and Quito. A week later I was meeting with the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, giving him messages from participants from around the world, urging immediate climate action.
The COP15 was a failure. But the inspirational actions by hundreds of thousands of people around the world showed the capacity of the human community to ensure a safe and sustainable future. Cyclists must play a vital part in working towards that goal and will surely continue to do so in the upcoming years.
For more information on Ride Planet Earth and to find out how to participate this year please see www.rideplanetearth.org or email Campaign Manager Kim Nguyen at email@example.com.