Wheeling all over the world
Dougie Herd encounters the problems of long-haul travel in a wheelchair.
Circling the globe in a wheelchair, assisted by an around-the-world ticket, the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and a good pal, you can predict that somewhere along the way you’ll come'a cropper.
Before take-off, the far too fertile imagination of the novice circumnavigator conjures up excitement in remote, romanticised places. A crisis on the cobbled streets of old Maccau, perhaps? Or at Ayer’s Rock, deep in Australia’s Outback, adventures wild and wonderful await, maybe? And if not there, then surely murder, mayhem and melodrama on the streets of San Francisco?
Well no, actually. For most of us, that’s not the world we’ll visit. When our cropper comes, it’s not remote , never romantic and always ignominiously unadventurous. Usually, it’s just embarrassing.
My own cropper came at Sydney’s Circular Quay while heading for the Opera House on Bennelong Point. Too much the Sightseer to notice what was coming, I was tipped unceremoniously from my chair as a wheel caught in a drain. Barbara, grasping air where once she’d held my handles, looked down at me aghast.
When ‘guttered’ in the southern hemisphere , you strive to be cool. A deep desire that not a soul should notice ﬁlls your being. But the railway station’s taxi rank, beside the ferry terminal adjacent to one of the wonders of the world, is not the place to make a prat of yourself in private.
As I looked up with what I knew would fail to pass for dignity, it seemed as if the whole nation had come to watch the Poms at play. A voice, like God’s from above, boomed out with Aussie
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cheerfulness: ‘G’day mate, need help there?’ No escape, and all Australia knew. Another tourist had just hit town.
The great Down Under drain disaster is wholly unimaginable, of course, as you wait to board your first long-haul flight. For wheelchair users that’s an airport transfer with little dignity. Well-meaning but often untrained staff lift you from the wheelchair, strap you to a tiny trolley and wheel you backwards down the aisle to your seat. Eighty years evolving aeroplane design have produced the Boeing 747 but it still takes two bulky lads to load my thirteen stones on board like a sack of intercontinental potatoes.
Disabled people enjoy the dubious benefit of being first on and last off
any plane. At best, it’s educational. You meet ground crew, air crew, men with clip-boards and women with rubbish bags. You witness the delivery of newspapers, compare the food for different classes and read in-flight magazines from cover to cover before the first of your companions surrenders a Boarding Pass.
The moment finally arrives, though. The door closes, lights dim and you’re off.
Economy Class long-haul ﬂying is cramped, noisy and punctuated with interruptions. The wail of a wean being ﬂown to granny; the man sitting at a window seat who constantly visits the toilet; a call-button’s ‘ping’ to summon a steward at 4.30pm, and the
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well-intentioned cycle of food, drink and face-cloths. Flying long-haul is a means to an end. A way ofgetting there around the globe; wherever there might be.
Hong Kong perhaps?
Just landing at Kai Tak is exciting enough. Your soar past the 33m-high Lantau Bhudda, drop through the skyscraper canyons of Kowloon’s unbelievable cornucopia of consumption and race to a halt by the South China Sea, on the pencil-thin strip they calla runway.
The city wraps a humid welcome round you as you drop to the apron in the ‘handicap truck’. The sticky atmosphere captures you as the next Jumbo lands almost in the taxi rank. This is the Orient, where stopping over is never enough. You scratch the surface and the magic draws you back like a magnet.
The itinerant wheelie travels on, though, south to Oz. Sprayed with a bug-killing aerosol as the plane arrives, you’re let loose on the natives of Sydney. The precautionary scoosh seems unnecessary in a glorious land where sea-wasps’ stings kill, spiders are homicidal and alligators hunt in packs.
Halfway round the globe, water disappears the wrong way down the plughole. Australia is an awesome land, populated by richly diverse peoples. They seem mostly to be constructing something good from what might otherwise have been no more than Kent with sunshine.
Australia is the essential mid-point on a global journey leading inexorably to the USA. South America is possible but more expensive, Canada less appealing. America the unavoidable; a land you love or hate. Whichever it is, the ‘Land of the free and home of the brave’ must be seen to be believed, before the last long haul takes you home across the ‘pond’.
Itineraries for everyone, increasing awareness of disabled travellers’ needs, accessible accommodation and good guidebooks are combining to open up the world to more people with the means and inclination to travel.
Globetrotting in a wheelchair demands planning, patience and a sense of adventure. Which traveller doesn’t have those, though?
You need the will and your wheelchair. Oh yes, and your passport, travellers’ cheques, tickets, guide book, puncture repair kit, spanner. . .
00 The List 27 March — 9 April 1992