Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Bamboo bicycling around New Zealand

  • Written by  Libby Bowles
  • Published in Explorers
Bamboo bicycling around New Zealand
22 Nov
2018
Impassioned teacher and marine conservationist Libby Bowles looks back at her bamboo bicycle tour of New Zealand’s schools, where she built awareness about and inspired solutions to the ocean plastics crisis

The years of animal behaviour study and conservation expedition work had paid off; I was living my dream. Coastal southern Mozambique was my home. I was working with Dr Andrea Marshall, the BBC Queen of Mantas and Dr Simon Pierce, world-renowned whale shark expert, at their flagship Marine Megafauna Foundation research centre. Mornings were spent diving with and studying majestic manta rays and whale sharks in the turquoise, nutrient-rich Indian Ocean. Afternoons would slip by as we fastidiously processed ID photos and data in our reed-hut office. In the evening, we gave conservation lectures to enchanted tourists about the challenges these enigmatic creatures face and what we, as marine conservation scientists, were doing to protect them.

Unlocking and learning their secrets was my life. While diving, we collected tissue samples, which showed us the trophic levels of their prey and what depths they feed from. Acoustic and satellite tags showed us how deep they dive, how far they travel and behaviour patterns. Every find was fascinating and many were ground-breaking. We poured our hearts and souls into research and writing papers, with a view to gaining these ocean giants legal protection from fishing and trade pressures. Yet there was one anthropogenic threat we hadn’t tackled at that time.

I have been in the water hundreds of times with manta rays in five continents and every single encounter has been special to me. However, during one particular dive off a small Indonesian island, my conservation focus instantly and entirely shifted. We began our dive and soon encountered four reef mantas (mobula alfredi) feeding in the plankton-rich water. It should have been another blissful encounter. But the mantas navigated their way through water more densely filled with single use plastic rubbish than the tiny plankton they were there to consume. Crisp packets clung to the front of their fins like gaudy tattoos and polystyrene containers and plastic cups hung in the water column in such numbers that I could barely capture a usable ID photo of the manta rays’ belly spot patterns. I didn’t have to wait for sleep to be haunted by images of these innocent creatures feeding in a murky plastic soup.

manta komodo jpgA manta ray glides through the waters of Komodo, Indonesia

As huge an honour as it was to spend time underwater with these graceful leviathans and work with world-renowned scientists, I knew that my path lay in raising awareness about the plastics issue closer to the consumer source. Surely if everyone knew what was happening beneath the surface, they would care enough to change their habits. I would return to teaching in the UK while I considered my next move.

I have always encouraged my pupils to realise they have huge potential to change the world now and don’t need to wait until they are adults to unleash it. A child’s heartfelt plea for a cafe to switch from plastic to paper straws, for example, is (I believe) far more likely to have success than an adult doing the same thing. Amy and Ella Meek of Kids Against Plastic are the perfect junior ambassadors for change; encouraging children around the world to get ‘plastic clever’ and join them in removing 100,000 plastic beverage items from the environment, one for every marine mammal killed by plastic each year.

Challenging me to follow my own ‘walk the talk’ advice, my year five pupils decided that I’d had the right idea to return to education, but I needed to follow our school mantra, DREAM BIG. I should embark on a worldwide education mission. I should travel in an environmentally friendly way... why not by bicycle? This was an extraordinary mission, so I would need an extraordinary mode of transport – a homemade bicycle made of grass, just like the one that Dr Kate Rawles had inspired me with at the 2016 RGS-IBG Explore weekend. Being compostable with a low carbon footprint, a bamboo bicycle would be the perfect vehicle to help me pedal out my message.

Six months later, my homemade bamboo bike Sunny, covered in messages of determination and positivity, joined me aboard a flight to New Zealand (for my first foray into solo-cycle touring, my pupils allowed me to travel by plane to begin somewhere safe and welcoming, with challenging and stunning surroundings). As a keen, but casual, cyclist who has historically avoided hills, I knew a huge, mountainous challenge lay ahead and I was ready to give it my best effort.

Throwaway Living
In 1955, Time magazine printed an article entitled ‘Throwaway Living’, celebrating newly marketed single use plastic; durable products lasting up to 1,000 years could now be thoughtlessly discarded! Our insatiable appetite for convenience has taken plastic production from 15 million tons in 1964 to 448 million tons in 2015, and will likely double over the next 20 years. Over 90 per cent of plastic is created from virgin fossil fuel sources and it is estimated that only 9 to 14 per cent of it is recycled. Annually, more than eight million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean. Once there, plastic kills 1,000,000 seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals annually. In its macro form, it kills by entanglement, suffocation and starvation. Once broken down into microplastic, it soaks up chemicals and contaminants in the sea which are then released into the bodies of sea creatures that eat the microplastic. The time for blame has passed, it’s time for solutions from all parties; consumers, producers, governments. Every one of us can make a difference by avoiding single use plastic.

Despite enjoying a clean and green image, New Zealand is one of the many countries that has, until recently, been sending much of its recycling waste to China. Additionally, in January 2018, it was given the rather unenviable accolade in a World Bank study as the most wasteful developed country in the world, creating 3.68kg of rubbish per capita, per day. This was all being announced as New Zealand, only a week behind the UK in viewing Sir David Attenborough’s latest offering, was experiencing the phenomenal Blue Planet II effect. It was a perfect time to be cycling there on a bamboo bicycle talking about ocean plastics and solutions.

I toured for nearly five months, collaborating with Sustainable Coastlines, an Auckland-based charity that coordinates and supports large-scale coastal clean-up events, education programmes and training workshops.

In addition to meeting and being endorsed by ocean-loving songster Jack Johnson, I was delighted when I was invited to join the veritable godparents of ocean plastics awareness campaigning (5Gyres Institute and Algalita South Pacific) on an educational tour. We presented together at the National Aquarium and handed in the Greenpeace ‘Ban the Bag’ petition to the New Zealand government. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has since announced plans for a nationwide ban on plastic bags.

Libby outside NZ parliamentLibby outside the New Zealand parliament with Greenpeace

Having been favourably featured in local and national press, I was flooded by requests to visit schools and communities around the country. I could barely cycle from venue to venue fast enough, sometimes visiting up to four schools a day and cycling 40 kilometres afterwards to be poised and ready to present again. It was exhausting, but as I climbed into my tent at night, my head hit the pillow in a swirl of gratitude and happiness that I was following my passion and making a difference.

Far surpassing any secret goals I set myself, I gave 105 school presentations to over 7,000 pupils during three months of school term time and 1,000 adults from all sectors of the population. I spoke at schools in low socio-economic areas and to community groups, NGOs, university professors, festival-goers, surf clubs, prominent private schools, Maori maraes and government figures. More informally, I talked with anyone who would listen, in shops, at campsites and, often, on the side of the road.

I was heckled more than once by parents whose children had become passionate anti-plastic advocates. Conversations went something like this: ‘You’re that lady on the bamboo bike (usually accompanied by pointing at my bicycle). My child won’t let me buy anything with plastic packaging, it makes food shopping so challenging!’ I would reply that they must be very proud to have such caring and proactive children and enquired how they felt about their newly adapted shopping habits. They invariably conceded that once they had overcome the mental hurdle of changing their consumer routines, they were making healthier choices, enjoyed supporting local producers more by shopping at fresh produce markets, spent less money and produced less waste. They would then conclude that, actually, their children had helped them make great changes and they were very proud of their real life superheroes, creating a wave of positive change at home and in their local community.

As recent Explore feature writer Fearghal O’Nuallain mused, the word ‘explore’ no longer solely encompasses rugged, brave people conquering previously untouched realms, or even talented scientists discovering new species in far flung places. To me, it’s about exploring how we can protect what we love. It’s about exploring ways to be better cohabitants, engage with, and appreciate the world around us. It’s about thinking outside the box and achieving more than we imagine we can.

Some people possess the drive and skills to change laws, invent life-saving machines or medicines. We all have our own unique superpower. Mine is to educate. I derive enormous pleasure from igniting sparks of passion and imagination, then marvelling at what unfolds. Since embarking on my mission, I have seen faces light up, determined ideas forming and have received countless messages from community groups, schools, families and children telling me about significant, tangible change they have helped create in their local communities. From banning plastic straws in local cafes and posting viral requests on social media imploring people not to buy plastic, to successfully persuading a council that a whole town should go plastic free, change is afoot and it can’t happen quickly enough. As Margaret Mead said: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’

Fuelled by a love of the ocean, teacher and conservationist Libby Bowles continues her mission to create real life superheroes. Having most recently cycled across southern Africa, Libby is now back on home turf in the UK, touring schools, appreciating clean tap water, hot showers and unwavering electricity. www.treadlighter.org

This was published in the December 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!

geo line break v3

Related items

Subscribe to Geographical!

PEDALLING PACK

hi res bike for kit copy

Bicycle
Bamboo Bicycle Club • £600+
Handcrafting your own bicycle from grass, hemp and a handful of components provides endless conversation starters, and is extremely satisfying. From the moment I hopped on board, it has been the most comfortable and fun bike I have ever ridden.

ortlieb back roller classic ql21 pannier pair yellow EV229665 1085 1

Panniers
Ortlieb Back-Roller Classic 40L • £120
Sturdy, waterproof  panniers aid your focus and sanity when cycling in the rain. I arrived at numerous schools drenched, but within minutes a dry towel and change of clothes enabled me to continue my mission unscathed.

Icebreaker5

Clothing
Icebreaker merino • (varying prices)
Merino is not only a natural fibre that keeps you warm when it’s cool and cool when it’s warm, but it doesn’t smell. On long expeditions in remote places, that is something to be treasured!

water to go

Bottle
Water-to-go 75cl • £22.50
Water-to-go bottles enable you to avoid buying water in single use plastic bottles, even when local water sources are untrustworthy. The filters even remove nano plastics.

samsung
Mobile Phone
Samsung J5 Pro • £149.99
This compact smartphone packs quite a punch. Equipped with 13MP cameras front and back, 32GB of expandable storage and Microsoft suite apps, I used this phone with a bluetooth keyboard to provide most laptop capabilities without the weight and cost.

the north face womens venture 2 jacket hardshell jacket
Jacket
North Face Venture 2 • £90+
Having reliable waterproof outer layers makes a huge difference to both physical and emotional performance. These can be coupled with merino layers for added warmth or wind proofing. With limited packing space, versatile gear becomes invaluable.

tent

Tent
MSR Hubba Hubba NX • £327
This is lightweight, compact and quick and easy to pitch. Gear can be stored in the two porch areas. On dry nights, I ditch the flysheet and stargaze through the inner sheet mesh.

drybag
Drybag
Aquapac waterproof bike-mounted case • £24.99
Using a reliable drybag with your phone is invaluable when navigating in the rain. 

exped mattress
Mattress
Exped Synmat UL 7 • £108
Insulated, luxuriously deep cushioning means bumps go unnoticed and I’ve slept so much better with this that it almost feels like cheating. The valves are perfect for quick deflation. 

pipedream 400 new style
Sleeping Bag
Alpkit Pipedream 400 • £229
This lightweight sleeping bag is filled with ethically-sourced goose down. I get cold easily, so I wear a layer of merino in less than 8°C, which keeps me warm. It took a while to get used to so much warmth with so little weight.

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • Natural Capital: Putting a price on nature
    Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of the world that nature provides for us – the air, soils, water, even recreational activity. Advocat...
    The human game – tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    London: a walk in the park
    In the 2016 London Mayoral election, the city’s natural environment was high on the agenda. Geographical asks: does the capital have a green future,...
    Alien views
    The tabloids would have us believe that immigrants are taking our houses, our jobs, our school places and our hospital beds. But a close reading of th...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.