Adventure cyclist Kate Leeming has cycled the width of Africa, pedalled 25,000km around Australia, and is the first woman to cycle unsupported across ‘new’ Russia. The epic story of her 22,040km cycle expedition across Africa has it all…dodging rebels and Somali pirates, close encounters with wild animals, pushing two wheels over massive sand dunes, and meeting the many diverse, kind and determined faces of Africa. This WORLD FIRST journey was not only a physical quest, but an odyssey to highlight the development needs of war-torn and poverty-stricken nations.

As Kate prepares for guiding her challenging World Expeditions cycling expedition form Leh to Manali in the West Himalaya we got a chance to sit down and asked her about how she prepares for such extreme adventures – from the deserts of Africa to the freezing tundra of Antarctica.

Who is Kate Leeming?

On August 16th 2010 I became the first person to cycle an unbroken line from Africa’s most westerly to its most easterly point, from Pointe des Almadies, Senegal to Cape Hafun, Puntland, Somalia.

Crossing 22,040 km over ten months, my Breaking the Cycle in Africa Expedition was not only a physical quest but an odyssey to highlight the development needs and activities of war-torn and poverty-stricken nations. Cycling through twenty countries, I aimed to find out what is being done to give a ‘leg up’ rather than a ‘hand out’ – to shine a positive light on the issues, cultures and geography of Africa.

I have two previous world firsts under my belt – the Trans-Siberian Cycle Expedition (1993) when I became the first woman to cycle across the new Russia unsupported (aiding the children of Chernobyl), and the 25,000km Great Australian Cycle Expedition (2004/05) which included the first bicycle crossing of the Canning Stock Route by a woman. ‘

My latest challenge, Breaking the Cycle South Pole, will include the first bicycle crossing of the Antarctic continent via the South Pole (2015-16) while making a difference to several issues that I learned about during my African expedition as well as creating an education programme about leadership.

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In 2014, my documentary ‘Njinga’ won two awards at the Action on Film International Film Festival in Los Angeles – best cinematography and best documentary (sport). ‘Njinga’, My second book, complements the documentary; the first, Out There and Back, chronicles the Australian expedition.

In between expeditions, I work as a real tennis professional. I have won 5 Australian Open singles titles and been ranked as high as world number 2.

Why the South Pole after Africa?

I have always been inspired by the feats of the heroic early polar explorers and modern explorers such as Robert Swan, who has been my mentor and supporter ever since the Russian expedition. I have also always been intrigued by Antarctica, its extreme climate and stark natural beauty and its place in the world as a key regulator and driver of world climate. With recent developments in bicycle technology, it has become a more feasible challenge to cycle across the snow and ice.

After completing the African expedition, I felt empowered to make a difference to some of the issues I learned so much about. With the Antarctic crossing via the South Pole likely to take about six weeks, it is a ‘sprint’ relative to my previous journeys – an extreme event that lends itself to a fundraising/awareness campaign. Breaking the Cycle South Pole has been created as a response to Breaking the Cycle in Africa where the team will be supporting HIV-AIDS projects (by raising money for the Global Fund) and contributing to education.

How do you choose the equipment and clothing you take with you on expedition?

For the polar expeditions, key specialist items of clothing, such as the outer shell, down jacket and bottoms and polar cycling boots are still in development. I learned on my first training run in Spitsbergen that controlling my body temperature in the extreme cold will be a real challenge. While riding I will be working so hard that, even in the extreme conditions, I will have to allow for some air flow to prevent me from perspiring because the moment I stop, if the moisture freezes I am in trouble. The outer shell is being designed with zips in accessible places so that I can regulate the vents with mitts on. The cut of the cycling outer shell will be similar to cycling rain-proof jackets with a longer tail and arms to accommodate the riding position. The moment I stop I am vulnerable to getting very cold very quickly. I therefore will keep my down clothing on the bike to be pulled on the moment I have to stop. Specialist winter biking company, 45NRTH make the best cycling boots available which are good for -20C, but they are in the process of adapting them to cater for lower temperatures. These even have attachments to keep my gaitors in place – essential for keeping the cold from penetrating around my ankles.

The main items of equipment fall into two categories – biking and camping gear. The bike I tested in Spitsbergen is a prototype all-wheel drive fatbike. Engineered by Christini Technologies, it is the only one of its kind, purpose-built for my expedition. If some technological improvements are made to allow for more flotation on the rear wheel and improved overall bike balance, then the extra grip gained from the front wheel drive will make this bike desirable for others wanting to ride in the polar extremes. The camping gear – tents, sleeping bags and mats, cooking equipment, etc – and communications technology will of course be of the highest quality and made for the extreme climate, but these will be no different to the equipment used on other types of polar expeditions.

How do you layer for such extreme environments?

I will be taking a few options for the next-to-skin and middle layers, all designed to trap warm air next to my skin and wick away moisture. Depending on the temperature, I will be wearing one or two layers of thermal tights (one with a cycling chamois) and probably a fleece mid-layer in the extreme cold. I also have the option of knee-high woollen polar socks to protect my lower extremities. One or two thermal tops will be worn and when its really cold I will have the option of using some arm warmers. Keeping the arms well insulated has been proven to help keep the hands warm (quite an issue for me in particular) because they help maintain the temperature of the blood circulating to the hands. The torso tends to emit more heat. I will have a few fleece mid-layer options. I will have liner gloves, gloves and mitts to protect my hands, though on the bike one of the most essential pieces of protective equipment will be my handlebar mitts, also known as poagies.

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Photo: Phil Coates

Are there any luxuries you take with you?

At the start of my 1993 Trans-Siberian Cycle Expedition, Russian polar explorer, Dr Misha Malakhov, whose company Centre Pole ensured the logistical success of the journey, gave me large stainless steel thermos so we could have tea during the day to ‘boost morale’. Misha had already carried the thermos on one of his famous treks to the North Pole with Canadian polar explorer, Richard Weber. I have since carried that thermos with me on each of my three major expeditions across Russia, 25,000km through Australia and across Africa and, as long as the seals are still effective, it will come with me across Antarctica making it perhaps the world’s most well-travelled thermos, including both the North and South poles. A boring old thermos, now with a few dents, would not usually be classified as a luxury item, but the ritual of being able to have a hot flask of tea to boost morale during each tough day of travel is in my book a simple treat that I will look forward to.

What do you miss the most while you are away?

While on expedition, I don’t really miss the comforts of my ‘normal life’ in Melbourne because I am totally in my element. I believe that it is a privilege to do what I do and I am committed to do what ever it takes to complete the mission. I don’t dwell on the things I don’t have in the field, it doesn’t help when times are tough. Of course, I love my family and friends, I enjoy my coffee, good food and a few glasses of red, and I dare say in Antarctica I will try not to think about enjoying a warm shower and comfortable bed.

The most vital piece of gear/clothing you have with you?

I think every piece of equipment that we take will be essential all of the key items mentioned are vital as well as pieces like the Cold Avenger Mask that will protect my face and lungs, goggles and head gear to prevent heat loss. I’m also looking at using a Suunto Ambit3 to track my progress and upload the data to a special mobile application that people will use to follow the expedition daily.

How do you communicate with the outside world? Sat phone/Spot etc?

Communications have come a long way since my Russian expedition in 1993, when I had to communicate with the outside world by sending a telegram once a week to our base in Ryazan, 200km south of Moscow (there were a lot of broken down systems then at the end of 70 years of communism). In Australia and Africa I simply used a combination of mobile phone (changing SIM cards in every country in Africa) and carried a satellite phone as a back-up, which was particularly useful in the Australian outback. For Antarctica the Iridium Go! (satellite Wi-Fi hotspot access point) would suffice unless we are required to send regular broadcast quality footage or do video conferencing. Then an Iridium Open Port system would do the trick.

Thanks Kate and good luck with the expedition


In June 2016, join renowned cyclist and adventurer Kate Leeming on a challenging  cycling expedition form Leh to Manali that traverses the backbone of the West Himalaya. This fully supported adventure will appeal to highly motivated cyclists keen to get their first experience in the Himalaya, home to one of the world’s highest and most rugged mountain roads.

For more information head to World Expeditions

About The Author

Dave Casey

Dave has worked as an International Expedition Leader and in Outdoor Education for over 15 years. He has extensive travel and guiding experience in Australia, NZ, Asia, South/North America and Europe. In his spare time Dave is a keen bushwalker, mountain biker and climber while also dabbling in some mountaineering and sea kayaking. He is currently working at Paddys as the National Account Manager, to fund all of the above.

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