By Linda Laker

Pedal Power chatted this week with Leonie Katekar about her new travelogue and memoir of bike-packing through South America,  “When we’re not afraid”.

Canberra can take some credit for getting Leonie into cycling. She grew up in Canberra and rode to Phillip College daily before departing for Sydney where she studied medicine.  But we don’t really have mountains…

In 2019, Leonie set off to ride through Central and South America, taking in the 4,000 metre high pass through The Andes and riding all the way down through Patagonia to Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina.  All up, she travelled over 12,000km in seven months, averaging around 79kms per day – although she modestly points out on the 40 kilometre climbing days up to that 4,000 metre high point, she averaged less!  And she did this not only as a personal challenge, but raised funds to support children with cancer and their families.

Leonie had multiple reasons for choosing this route – the experience of many different little and complex countries, because of the mountains (!), and how it captured her imagination.  A guiding mindset throughout her journey was, even knowing The Andes would be difficult, other people had done it, so it’s not impossible.

She chose a Surley Troll – long known for their simple, utilitarian, steel bikes – so she had confidence she could pretty much fix most issues ‘on the side of the road’ if necessary.   Given it would be her constant (and only) companion for the journey, the bike was named Gitana (Spanish for Gypsy).  This was a nod to Gypsy, her dog and usual faithful companion.

There’s obviously a lot of things you need to get right if you are going to cycle 12,000 kilometres by yourself.  For Leonie, her top three were:

  • Fitness – for her, this was riding to and from work every day and weekend practice runs of 70-80km a day out in the Victorian countryside with all her gear. This also helped her decide what she really needed and ensured she knew how everything worked;
  • Food – this level of cycling makes you absolutely starving. Not only did Leonie need to ensure she had food for days there were no suitable stopping points, she also had to contend with ‘siesta’ and making sure she got to that day’s town or village for lunch before 2pm. Fabulous, cheap, huge lunch meals kept her going once everything was shut, mostly till around 8pm; and
  • Rhythm – for Leonie, this was starting early and getting to her overnight location by lunchtime. This worked for her and meant she would be able to have a rest and look around. It also avoided the stress of arriving after dark trying to find accommodation.

Leaving in June from Guatemala, Leonie ‘followed the summer’ south.  Although expecting to come across many other cyclists, she found it was only really down through Patagonia along the Carretera Austral (road of the south) there were many other cyclists, and blissfully, few cars.  As Leonie describes it, this provided some 1,200kms of amazingly scenic cycling where all you hear is the sound of your own wheels.

And the incentives and rewards to finish?  Before starting on the most challenging part of the ride through The Andes, Leonie gave herself a two week holiday in the Galapagos Islands.  And at the completion of the ride, a cruise to Antarctica was a well-deserved reward for her faith in herself, her fund raising and the inspiration she gave, and continues to give, for everyone to ask themselves “What would I do if I was not afraid?”, and trust that whatever the challenge, it’s not impossible!

But why, you might ask?  In Leonie’s words

“I discovered my own personal resilience and confidence and joy of facing my daily challenges alone.  I re-found the joy of life – my ‘mojo’.  The worries of life that weighed so heavily on my mind and body, released themselves from my grey matter and are now gone and forgotten, leaving peace of mind and freedom in the heart.”

It’s just as well Leonie got her mojo back because she headed home to Australia in early 2020, just in time to participate in some of the world’s longest COVID lock downs in her current hometown of Melbourne.  With a great sense of humour, Leonie pointed out that seven months of cycling alone was good preparation for lockdowns!

Leonie hopes sharing her experiences in her new book will inspire others to confront fears, be brave and better experience life.

To hear Leonie Katekar tell some of the tales of her journey, head over to Paperchain at 34 Franklin Street, Griffith, on Sunday 13th March at 3pm for the launch of her book, “When We’re Not Afraid”.