Trips by air
|Touring Eastern Australia October 1999||We of course had a marvellous trip but the intention of this article is to focus on practical aspects of the trip and to pass on
what we hope is useful information to other interested parties.
Firstly a little about ourselves and the equipment we took. This I feel is necessary to give a better understanding of our handicaps and capabilities. We are both in our fifties and enjoy good health but I could do with losing some weight to be really fit. My wife Wendy, is a T5 paraplegic following a horse riding accident 18 years ago. I can lift her, which was often more expedient and was very occasionally necessary. Single steps present us with no problems whatsoever and we will tackle small flights of up to three steps without too much hesitation. Wendy uses a Quickie 2 manual wheelchair which has been modified so that it can also be turned into a powered chair using a motorised adaptation supplied by E-Fix. When travelling, we fitted the electric adaptations and packed the manual wheels in a canvas padded bag which we had specially made for the purpose. This way we had the lightness and convenience of a manual chair for use when an electric chair was not practical and the use of a powered chair for the occasions when the climate and terrain would have quickly taken its toll on the fittest of helpers. The flexibility of this arrangement was invaluable. We also took a transfer board and a 2 inch toilet seat adaptor. The latter took up considerable suitcase room but it also proved invaluable. We packed our hand baggage in two rucksacks, one hooked conveniently on the wheelchair, the other, once on my back, allowed my hands free. Both rucksacks were useful everyday items once at our destination. The remainder of our effects, including medical supplies, went into two suitcases.
By and large we consider package tours unsuitable for disabled travellers, many of the packaged activities being out of the question for handicapped people. For this holiday we researched our own travel and accommodation using the internet. This in turn led us to some very good helpful publications, ‘Easy Access Australia’ by Bruce M. Cameron and ‘Travel in Australia for Disabled People’ available from the Australian Tourist Commission. We initially booked a flight only deal through a well known travel agent but later requested them to book some named strategic hotel accommodation, car hire and a rail journey. This later request resulted from a lack of confidence on our part in using the internet and the time commitment needed to make our own bookings. In retrospect this was a mistake, not a big one but I now know it would have been better to persevere and make our own bookings. Travel agents have ‘arrangements’ with hotels which they will try and steer you to use. Fine you would think if that hotel is one you particularly want to use. However in spite of our invoice showing ‘disabled access room requested’ most of the hotels, for what ever reason, had not bothered to rigidly apply this. They appear to only make sure that they have an allotted block of rooms for that agent available at that time. On most occasions the receptionist shuffled the room allocations on arrival to insure the adapted room was free. We were fortunately not holidaying in peak season and 90 percent of the time we had no problem. On two occasions we had to wait some hours for the room to be vacated and at one hotel it caused a real problem solved only by taking an unadapted room and going out and hiring some aids. The travel agent could not be totally blamed for this.
Our itinerary was to take us to Singapore for four nights then onward to Darwin for four nights where we hired a self drive car to take us to the Kakadu National Park for four nights. We returned to Darwin via the Lichfield National Park to catch an onward flight to Cairns where we stayed seven nights. Here again we hired another car for the drive to Cape Tribulation for a three night stay. From here we drove to Brisbane stopping where we felt like it and taking seven nights over the 1200 mile journey. After five nights in Brisbane, we caught the train to Sydney where we spent the last 10 nights of our holiday. From Sydney we flew direct back to the U.K. During our stop overs we got about using taxis, trains, boats/ferries and buses. We booked tours direct with the local operators having first ascertained their suitability for a wheelchair user and in many cases we obtained discounts for the disabled. We found it was preferable to deal direct with the local operator, even local agents could not be relied upon to have the information we required and what is more they would not offer disability discounts. I have compiled a separate list of tours/visits we undertook with comments particularly about wheelchair access and this can be accessed via the top left hand menu.
Of the 12 hotels we stayed in only two had no disabled facilities. Both of these were a little off the beaten track but with my help,and that of the raised toilet seat, we managed. More information about these hotels can be found via the top left hand menu.
We found the motel style the most convenient and very good value for money. At all our major stops, taxis for wheelchair users were available but not strictly necessary for us, although with luggage and wheelchair, a Taxi Estate (station wagon) was essential. Fortunately about every fifth taxi is an estate and Maxi Cabs based on ‘people carrier’ models were also an alternative, especially in Singapore, although these cost a little more. We found Australia to be far more accessible than the U.K., and driven by the 2000 Olympics, Sydney has made and is still making considerable improvements in wheelchair access. We managed in Singapore. They have also done much to improve access but some of the modern shops in Orchard Road were not accessible due to flights of steps from street level. We stayed at the Traders Hotel on the Tanglin Road.
Darwin, having been completely rebuilt following a devastating cyclone in the seventies is much more accessible. It is largely flat and its out of town bus service is wheelchair accessible although it is not that big that you cannot wheel/walk to most places in the centre. However the ‘Tour Tub’, an about town tourist bus, was not accessible. Four wheel drive camping tours are the thing here but they are really not suitable for wheelchair users and if you really want to see this part of the world we recommend you hire your own vehicle. If you can not easily get in and out of a high sided 4 wheel drive vehicle, you will have to stick to all weather made up roads as we did. We stayed at the Mirambeena Resort in Darwin and the Frontier Kakadu Village.
Cairns is also very flat and very accessible. Most people use Cairns as a base to visit the attractions of, the Great Barrier Reef, Karunda, the Atherton Table Lands and the out of town beaches. We stayed at the Rihga Colonial Club Resort, an excellent hotel for wheelchair users. They offer a free courtesy bus service to and from the airport, in our case they provided a wheelchair friendly taxi, and they run a wheelchair friendly free courtesy bus service in and out of town. We saw no other wheelchair friendly buses.
For the wheelchair user, Cape Tribulation is perhaps best visited on a day trip.We could not find any lodgings which could truly claim to be suitable for wheelchair users. This is a remote, mountainous, unspoilt area and long may it remain so. We stayed at the Coconut Beach Rainforest Hotel, with whom I had correspondence before our departure. They can offer two rooms without stepped access and did their best to meet our needs. However the terrain was far steeper than I was led to believe with paths a little on the rough side and not really suitable for wheelchair users. Planning constraints in this nature conservancy area, restrict vehicular access and path improvements.
From Cape Tribulation we drove to Brisbane, sight seeing all the way and taking 8 days over the journey. Since our arrival in Australia we had collected hotel chain brochures and appropriate hotel adverts, armed with these we set off. Non of the accommodation was pre-booked more than a day in advance.
Day 1 - via the Atherton Table Lands to Mission Beach. We stayed at
the Mission Beach Resort, motel style, very accessible but no bathroom
We stayed in the Novotel in Brisbane, a fully accessible pre-booked hotel. The main difficulty in Brisbane is the hilly terrain. We would have to have made great use of taxis, even for short journeys, had it not been for the power chair.The riverside areas including the centre are the main attractions and are fairly level and wheelchair friendly. Across river ferries had easy access but we saw no wheelchair friendly buses.
From Brisbane we took the XPT train to Sydney, a journey of nearly 16 hours, the train being 1 hour late arriving in Sydney. We had obtained advanced information direct from Australia Rail and in spite of pointing out to our travel agent that these trains only have one carriage suitable for wheelchair users, we found we were not booked in it ! Fortunately on the day of travel the train supervisor arranged a seating exchange. The carriage has a fully accessible adapted toilet at one end and the seating can be configured to suit the travellers requirements. Boarding and alighting from the train was via lightweight ramps which are carried on the train. There were two wheelchair spaces and space to stow a collapsible chair. Standing transfer to the aircraft style seating was easy and Wendy chose to do this. The other end of the carriage served as the trains buffet bar from where passengers could collect refreshments and meals. An attendant would bring disabled travellers the inexpensive ‘aircraft style’ meals if you so wished.
We loved Sydney. It’s a beautiful natural setting and the way the old dock sides and railway sidings have been turned into first class public amenities and the vibrancy this generates, impressed us. It is also very accessible. We stayed in the Novotel on Darling Harbour. They have six adapted rooms and for convenience this location was superb although the room was not the best we had stayed in. From the hotel there is ramped access to the monorail and Darling Harbour water front with all its cafes and its shopping centre. All but one of the monorail stations are accessible and this was a convenient way of getting to the City Centre. (The last monorail station was in the process of being modified.) A light railway, similar to the Manchester tram service also ran close by. Whilst we did not use this, we noticed it was wheelchair accessible. The State Transport Authority (STA) ferries are all accessible (private ferries are not) and a map is available showing you which piers have wheelchair access. The STA Darling Harbour pier is accessible and we used the ferry frequently to go to Circular Quay, the main ferry and bus terminal in Sydney. From here you can make onward ferry journeys or catch a bus. However, not all the busses are wheelchair friendly so you may have to wait longer for one but the fares are cheap. The fare to Bondi, a 45 minute journey was £1. The Sydney Explorer, the City hop on and off day ticket red tour bus was not accessible but the Bondi Explorer, the hop on and off day ticket circular tour blue bus travelling further afield was. We only used a taxi once and that was to get to the airport on our departure. We had no trouble with access to buildings, other than the Opera House, If there was disabled access available, we never found it.
I have said little about our flights because there is plenty of information available. We flew with Qantas and have only the standard complaints, Heathrow were their usual little dictatorial selves and denied Wendy access to the plane in her own wheelchair in spite of our pleas. In contrast Sydney and the aircrew allowed the same wheelchair to be stowed on board in the cabin. Why do we still have no wheelchair accessible toilets on long haul flights ? 23 hours without access to private toilet facilities is disgusting. We had a caravan with a fully accessible private toilet. If it can be done in a caravan without intrusion into the living space why cannot it be done on aircraft? We mentioned this to the crew and gave them a note of how it could be done without using any more space than they were already using. We can but hope?
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