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Travelling with a disability: New Zealand

by Bruce Mumford

Bruce Mumford outside the Museum Bull

We had only been back a few days from our trip to Europe when Louise said she thought we might go to New Zealand next Christmas. It was then I knew the travel bug had bitten.

All we needed was a golden egg-laying goose and we'd be right. Fortunately for us one came along - and I know it's like finding a needle in a haystack for people with disabilities to be able to trip over such a windfall. However we were lucky.

But enough of multiple metaphors; New Zealand was great!

Before we went we asked people who had been before to find out where we should go. Nearly all replied, "Everywhere's good". Not much help, we thought. Now we know they were right!

There are many reasons why the Australian tourist with a disability should go to New Zealand. For a start, they speak English - well sort of (I had almost perfected my Kiwi accent, but the rest of the family forbade me 'prectising' in the car). This makes communication and understanding of our needs so much easier.

New Zealand is so close - only 3 hours on the plane - and so much cheaper than Europe. Even in their High Season car hire, accommodation and tourist attractions were much cheaper than Europe in the middle of Winter. Although food and petrol were more expensive than in Australia, they were still quite a bit cheaper than Europe too.

Like Tasmania, there's a lot to see and do in a small area. Unlike the rest of Australia, you don't have to drive for hundreds of kilometers between big 'tourist spots' (in New Zealand everywhere's a tourist spot!). And while it might seem clichéd, it's true that New Zealanders are very friendly and helpful. Also true, but I thought fair, that a TV advertisement there had a set of New Year's resolutions which included "making more fun of Australians".

Things for me seemed a bit harder than Europe in some ways; but that was because with chronic progressive Multiple Sclerosis (MS) things get worse - and it was a year later. Louise was right though; it's a good idea to try these things while you still can.

The great thing about New Zealand is that there's a wide diversity of things to do and see for people of all levels of ability. Before we left, I had imagined myself sitting down reading the paper while the family went off 'tramping' (Kiwi speak for hiking). Far from it! While Louise and the boys did more physical things, I was able to enjoy other less demanding activities, including just looking at the stunning scenery.

There are many, many activities most suitable for visitors with disabilities in NZ. Like anywhere else, there are still places that either cater poorly for those needing good access, or who don't even bother trying. At one place I was sat in front of a video because seeing the real thing would have been too difficult. My son Ashley commented, "This is just like 'The Victory' in Portsmouth Dad".

I had an exciting time trying to get down a moss-covered path into a glow-worm cave (run by a very big tour company) that had a walkway that was only about 3 feet lower than the cave roof over a raging stream. Tricky on crutches! I gave up after one punt in the dark was followed by more steps, more walkways and another punt. As there was no wheelchair available, I ended up having to get a 'fireman's chair' all the way back to the wharf.

At Lake Taupo

It didn't surprise me much that the same company had no access to their steamship cruise in Queenstown (they had a wheelchair - but it was at the destination on the other side of the lake).

However, many tours made an effort and I liked the attitude of staff on a "King's Swim with the Dolphins" cruise we did in the Bay of Islands. "You tell us how you want us to help". That works.

A good number of tourist attractions were very well set up for disabled visitors and a number provided me with great help. At "The Buried (by a volcano) Village" in Rotorua, not only did they have a wheelchair available, but the site was mostly accessible with a great indoor display and easy paths around the site. While the rest of the family went to explore inside the excavated huts and down to the waterfall, I was able to read the information on plaques (conveniently placed at wheelchair height) and to trundle around the scenic walkway on the edge of the escarpment. Even though my journey was level and only about one tenth as long, we still met up at the junction around the same time! Ah well, I've since worked out - at the face of the magnificent Fox Glacier - that on my crutches a "5 Minute Return Walk" takes 35 minutes. So I'm about 7 times slower than your average tourist. Sometimes more if I'm thinking as well as walking!

The Albatross Centre outside Dunedin even had an electric scooter available allowing me to take the steep, but spectacularly scenic path up to the viewing hide. We did a small bus tour to Milford Sound with 'Trips 'n Tramps', which wasn't expensive, but was very well organised for me, with wheelchairs waiting whenever I needed one. Even though I decided kayaking wasn't for me at Okarito, the owner kindly drove me for a tour of the old gold-mining town, while the family kayaked across the lagoon to see nesting white heron.

Accommodation was variable, but best when I had booked it myself, contacting the managers months before on the internet. The internet is a great tool for the travelers with a disability and I found New Zealanders very helpful here too. All my queries were answered and often if a place could not take a booking, they'd refer you on to someone else who could. When emailing Europe, I was used to about a 60% reply rate. In New Zealand it was more like 100%. By all means try to avoid any places with "Lodge", "Manor" or "Resort" at the end of their names, as in my experience, this just meant vastly inflated prices with very little or no help for people with a disability!

Some 'accessible' places the travel agent had booked for me had plenty of room inside, but getting through the door was impossible in a wheelchair because of the step! But many places we stayed in were great and not at all expensive. A proportion of all motels in NZ are now required by law to be accessible. One bathroom even had a mirror at wheelchair height (most 'access designers' forget that one)!

A tip: because you'll probably need a downstairs room, try to get one in a single storey building - as someone above you, usually means lots of noise!

In short, I found the size and price of a tour, attraction, motel or company was rarely proportional to the access provided or the help given to tourists with disabilities. In fact, it was usually the reverse.

In future travels, we have decided to ditch the electric wheelchair and invest in a manual wheelchair. Obviously this option is dependant on the type of help you have available, but we found the electric wheelchair too bulky and inflexible for traveling, with batteries that seemed to become weaker and weaker. And Louise and the boys demanded the exercise.

More access travel tips

I have learnt this holiday that we all have to be careful in choosing activities that are within our capabilities. Certainly tourist attractions should make some efforts at accessibility, and many now do, but sometimes white-water rafting, glacier walking and bungee-jumping are best left to others (although Louise thought I could try this last one, without the elastic cord). As I have said, the good thing about New Zealand is that nearly everywhere there are a range of activities suited to most levels of ability.

When traveling if you are disabled, it's very important to book ahead. And don't be afraid to say you could do with help. It's taken me a while to work this out, but most places are set up to cater for people with disabilities and are only too happy to help if given notice. You might be pleasantly surprised and even find yourself at the front of the queue for once!

Do try to use a travel agent who specialises in accessible travel.

After two big trips overseas now as a tourist with a disability, I've decided to set up my own disability tourism consultancy. I have come to understand that regular travel agents generally don't understand the needs of the disabled traveler; and who better to help than someone who is disabled themselves and has tried traveling?

If you are thinking of going to New Zealand, I found Tourism New Zealand very helpful and you may also seek help from CCS - a private disabilities organisation in New Zealand. There's also supposedly a disabled traveler's NZ site, but I haven't been able to reach it. I would also be happy to answer any further queries you may have. Please email blmumford@exemail.com.au

Published: June 2006

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