Sunday, August 29, 2010

Crossing the Ditch-part one

Last year (July 2009), I and four friends/support staff went to Australia for eight days as a chance to escape the winter weather and as a celebration of the completion of my tertiary studies. It also became an opportunity for me to make connections with individuals and organizations in the disability sector.

This trip was my first undertaking of overseas travel without the physical support or input of my family, who up until my tertiary study had been my primary caregivers. Being a new scenario for me there was a lot of learning that took place, both in the organizing phase and while travelling. I would like to share this experience and the tips I picked up on the way, which I hope will help others to take similar trips.

We flew in to Brisbane from Auckland with Air New Zealand, who provided a very helpful service and had the equipment to cater for my mobility and seating needs. I used a seat harness to help me sit upright which was available only with certain airlines and an Eagle hoist for transferring from my wheelchair to the seat. This meant that my companions didn’t have to do manual transferring. Unfortunately this did mean that I had to be seated quite a long way back in the plane which was somewhat cramped and uncomfortable. The aircrew were really good about following directions with my wheelchair and made sure that my chair was waiting for me at the exit of the plane.

The rental vehicle that was brought to us at the airport was from a company called Flashcab Rentals, which specialise in the rental of mobility adapted vehicles, based on the Gold Coast. The vehicle we hired seated five with a lowered floor in the back and a ramp and tie-down system for my chair. It was a fabulous vehicle to be driven in, I felt very stable and it drove smoothly. We did quite a bit of driving as we explored some of the area around Byron Bay where we stayed, including the trip down and back to Brisbane, as well as a trip to Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary.

In Byron we rented a house from a local real estate agent that manages holiday rental homes. It was a lovely house with a very nice garden that was located in a nice quiet neighbourhood. It would have been almost entirely suitable for our requirements if I had taken note of the fact that there was a step at every entry point into the house. This meant that we had to find someone to make a temporary wedge ramp so that I could access the house with my electric chair. Although I chose to rent a house there is a motel/lodge set up for people with disabilities, including a pool with a ramp and a spa with a hoist not far from where we stayed. Other then that place there were other homes/units that we heard of before we went away and while we were there that had better suited accommodation. It did take a lot of looking and asking questions to find the accommodation but if you are clear in what you are looking for and can be specific when checking details with people then it should go well.

Byron Bay seemed to be a mix of laid back and friendly surfer town but at the same time a vibrant music and culture scene that catered for both the locals and the frequent tourists. The other towns in the area seemed to all have a friendly atmosphere and were generally fairly accessible. As far as finding out what is on in the way of local entertainment it is best if you have a local contact, but if not then there are often flyers in the cafes and shops. Largely we avoided the major tourist centres like the theme parks and only went to Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary for a day trip as a way of seeing the wildlife. This helped reduce some of the costs as theme parks and zoos all seem to be pretty expensive.

Planning a trip is all about making it what you want it to be, for example my trip was an escape from the New Zealand’s cold winter. I wasn’t worried about what we would do for activities, so I didn’t plan anything in particular. But if you have an interest in shopping or theme parks or seeing particular landmarks, then all that just takes some research. There are some disability organizations like the Cerebral Palsy Association and the Muscular Dystrophy Association in the Melbourne area that have holiday homes for rent. These places are well set up for accessibility and have some of the basic equipment like bathroom chairs and hoists, but these things can all be investigated on their websites or by contacting people directly. There are also other places and organizations that provide extra health and mobility rental equipment.


1) When making bookings for accommodation, vehicles or activities and planning flights make sure that whoever you deal with (especially travel agents) that you are specific with them as to your situation and needs. Sometimes it is best to even consider stating things that you consider obvious or logical, even if you are dealing with an agent who says they have experience with disabled clients.

2) When deciding when to get to airports and the check in/boarding gate it is a really good idea to try and get there at least an hour or half and before the normal recommended time. This is particularly important when you board the plane especially if you have difficulties with mobility or will need assistance with getting settled.

3) Make sure that you get accommodation that suits what you need. It can help if you make a list of requirements for accessibility before speaking to an agent. A good way to make sure you cover everything is to have a look at your own home and what is critical in its set up to your ease of use.

4) Get a letter from your GP or specialist outlining any particulars of your condition, any particular risks associated with it and what the general course of treatment involves. Another more basic letter can be useful at times when dealing with airport staff in making arrangements for your travel, especially if you need a harness or some other setup or equipment.

Lastly I would just like to thank everyone who has support my ambition to travel, especially the four committed, caring and humorous ladies who travelled with me. It is people such as these four, whether they are family, friends or formally employed individuals that make this sort of adventure possible for individuals such as myself.