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By Robyn Gobert,
Disability Advocate and Access Consultant, Barrier-free Lifestyles.
Web Site: www.cairnsbug.org/disability.htm
There's an old joke that goes:
"I was born with nothing and I'm pleased to say I still have most of it."
This joke would be a fair portrayal of my life, but there are no complaints here. I've just returned home from a week's gallivanting around the state.
What a gift when, a few years ago, I became keenly aware of death sneaking up behind me. Gone were the invincible days of my youth. Age concentrates the mind!
The acute knowledge of my mortality has served to remind me of my belief that I'm here because I've got a big job to do - well, often several jobs - and so I feel an urgency, the need to make the most of every day. I awake with the knowledge that there's still a lot for me to do and so it's best that I put pain aside, get busy and just get on with it.
I'm not particularly different to you. Those who know me well will readily attest to the fact that I'm just an ordinary woman, struggling with my humanity like everyone else.
It's my great good fortune to say, however, that I've been propitious enough - thanks largely to those whom I've been fortunate enough to have believe in and support me - to live an extraordinary and exciting life ~ wheelchair or no wheelchair!
No, this hasn't been due to wealth, education or social position. It's been achieved through the process of developing my skills and then recognising an opportunity and pursuing it.
The only thing that might serve to make me different is: I take life's more challenging experiences on the chin and learn from them, while thinking of a way to turn them into a positive.
I've found that having been a community volunteer for 23 years, willingly sharing my knowledge and giving my time and skills away, has never failed to return the same in kind at some time or another.
People will often say, when hearing of the way my life has panned out, with national TV appearances and "holidays" away, "Gee, you're lucky!" They're right from the perspective that there are a great many people who have been absolutely wonderful to me - but you know? The harder I work, the luckier I get?
A few years ago a producer from Foxtel was talking with me about the possibility of making a documentary of my life. After reading whatever press material I'd managed to keep in an old apple box and dig out for him, he laughed heartily and said, "You know Rob, they keep trying to knock you down in one way or another and you won't let them. You keep getting back up and excelling, in spite of it all." How very nice of him to notice.
Rather than bore you with my thinking processes that have led me to live a relatively unusual life, let me tell you the story of my most recent experiences across Queensland by way of demonstration.
A few weeks ago, sitting quietly, enjoying the beauty and tranquillity of my back yard, the thought struck me that, as my mobility is slowly diminishing, I probably wasn't going to see much of this great country. I felt sure I would never get to see anything of the rest of the world.
This idea hit me profoundly at the time and it caused me to give it quite a bit of serious thought.
That morning Queensland Rail (QR) and I had been in contact about the imminent arrival of the Tilt Train to Cairns - the diesel engines that will pull it are being built right now by Walkers in Maryborough - and I'd been questioning what provisions they'd been making for people with disability.
They'd previously sent a couple of gentlemen from QR up to see me and we'd looked at the plans and talked about disability terminology within their advertising.
During the weeks since then a few others with disabilities had told me that they believed there were still some kinks in the train system that might need a little more concentrated effort to sort out.
I'd sent an e-mail to one of the gentlemen who is involved with the marketing of QR, alerting him to these comments.
"Why don't I come down and have a ride on the train, then I'll be able to judge for myself what any problems might be and possibly offer a suggestion or two?" I offered.
The next day I read a press release from the Tourism Minister and saw how hard they were working to try to support the Queensland Tourism Industry after the September 11th disaster.
An opportunity seemed to be presenting it's self. I recognised that this would be a beaut time to write another positively focused disability tourism article about disability travel in Queensland.
Perhaps you'll agree that one of life's greatest gifts is the ability to be a friend and embrace the opportunity to share your dreams with your friends.
I sat down and began sending e-mails off and talking with people about my germinating ideas. They got excited right along with me and entered into the spirit of things, lending a hand.
By the end of the week Queensland Rail had accepted my offer and had most generously offered to take care of all train travel for me. They'd put me on the tilt train and any other train I needed to use in order to get to my destinations. A carefully planned itinerary was scheduled and tickets were delivered to our friends Nola and Steve in Brisbane for our collection on arrival.
In return I'd use my practiced eye and write an independent report on my experiences, ideas and findings for them.
The good news kept rolling in. To our great surprise Paul, my husband/carer and professional photographer, managed to get a week off work so he could accompany me. After 18 years of marriage it seemed we were to have a honeymoon!
Paul's presence was an added bonus as he was born 60% deaf and about two years ago he all but lost the sight in his right eye. He's trained himself to use his left eye and continues to pursue his passion of photography and photojournalism, as well as teaching TAFE. Having him along on a trip is invaluable as it is a ready made opinion on vision and hearing impairments.
Our friends began to e-mail their friends and my idea was increasingly embraced and developed. The e-mail was running hot and plans were being put in place. Some was to be a surprise for me.
I shared my ambitions with Special Interest Tourism Manager Glen Miller. I'd met Glen some years before and the previous year I'd organised the talent for Tourism Queensland's FNQ photoshoot when they'd made their Accessible Queensland photo CD. I somehow managed to appear in seven of these positive disability images as well as on the cover of the book. Take a look at www.tq.com.au/imagelibrary
Tourism Queensland supported my endeavours and provided our Qantas flight down to Brisbane.
On board the 737 Paul and I shared a moment of magic. We were watching the blood red sun set through the smoke from the cane fires on the horizon over the tip of the western wing.
Paul nudged me and pointed. Through the window on the other side the red, full moon was rising over the tip of the eastern wing. How many times do you see that?
I looked into the cabin to catch someone else's eye - to share it with them too - but they were all glued to the video screen. We smiled and cherished the opportunity to make a memory.
Pretty soon we were:
Paul and I were fulfilling a long held dream by coming to the beautiful O'Reilly's [reservations@oreilly's.com.au]. This guesthouse, situated on top of a mountain in Lamington National Park, afforded us the most spectacular 24 hours among the abundant birds, great food and friendly family and staff.
Regardless of the challenges the terrain presented, this great group of people were very interested in what else they might consider doing to provide more equitable access to their facilities. They were open, encouraging and embracing.
While there we were mugged by the dozens of parrots for our little white packet of seed. They were delightful and we found ourselves willing perches for the irascible and colourful crimson rosellas and regal king parrots as well as the black and yellow regent bowerbirds and iridescent black satin bowerbirds. Red crowned fruit pigeons waddled around our feet and the brush turkeys jealously caused havoc among themselves.
Photo - being mugged by the abundant birdlife!
While attempting the famous treetops walk and enjoying the silence and serenity of 6am in a rainforest, Paul asked me to pose for a shot where he could photographically show that we were on a swinging bridge in the tallest treetops. Photo - on the swinging bridge.
Only the occasional rustling and squeaks of the little yellow-breasted robins and the odd scuttling of logrunners had broken the silence of the morning when, unexpectedly and magically, we had a spooky and wonderful experience.
I called, "Oh damn! I'm wearing green! I really need something red to show up in the shot!"
Silently, a big red king parrot landed on the railing beside me and walked down, cheekily demanding to look in my hand for contraband seed.
A red presence upon request!
Silently and solemnly he posed for the shot then flew off as quickly as he'd appeared!
I had tears in my eyes at the unexpected beauty of the moment and whispered, "Thankyou, whoever was responsible for that."
Telling the staff about our crimson visitor over the wickedly good breakfast, they quipped, "Oh good, the batteries are still working in that one then?" Talk about take the mickey out of we country folk . . . we all laughed!
Terry Umstad [email@example.com] came back to collect us the following day. He was a beaut host and a careful, practiced driver, regaling us with local knowledge and taking us to look at all of the best spots in the area.
We lunched at the Mount Tamborine vineyard and winery, swapped "access horror stories" and enjoyed the cool of the balcony.
Photos of Terry and his beaut van at the vineyard.
Terry took everything in his stride, but back on the Gold Coast he was perplexed when I insisted on the need to stop and have myself photographed with three statues of geckoes in a playground. He just couldn't grasp what it was that I was after until I drew his attention to my "good luck gecko" brooches I'd been wearing.
Paul explained, somewhat embarrassed, that I am a gecko freak!
"The house is littered with them on every shelf, glass ones, rag ones, plastic one . . . people send them to her and friends always know what to buy Robyn for birthdays and Christmas."
Eventually we were delivered to the Gold Coast and went to visit our friends Dave Davis and Jeanette Hollier from Freedom Wheels Rentals [firstname.lastname@example.org].
We got to road test their fabulously accessible van. Dave, who is very tall even in his chair, has just had a forward facing sunroof installed in the van and coupled with the high windows that afford a great view, she was looking very slick.
Dave had kindly arranged for Paul and I to stay at Ashmore Palms as he was very impressed with the amount of disability access this caravan park had been putting in recently. I had a look at the new accessible units and they looked great! Very comfortable and affordable in cool, beautifully tropical surroundings.
Early next morning we boarded the tilt train bound for Maryborough. Business class. What luxury! I had been given a seat as well as a wheelchair spot and both were comfortable. Staff were marvellous.
Friends from the local disability access group, Access For All picked us up at the station and drove us to meet our hosts Norm and Kelly at Susan River Homestead.
We relaxed and enjoyed two friendly and fun filled days around beautiful Hervey Bay.
There wasn't much free time to partake of any of the exciting activities on offer at the homestead, like horse riding and paragliding. Actually, I didn't even ask if they had a wheelchair accessible horse!
The night we arrived, while we chatted with our friends in the lovely old dining room over a delicious dinner - which included their famous cauliflower soup - we learned that we were to be picked up early the next morning by Greg Potent from Suntours.
Natureworld was hardly open when we arrived there with Greg. Nipper the orphaned baby wombat was just snuggling down for a snooze and I took the opportunity of enjoying a cuddle while he was in the mood. The wallabies were appreciative of our feeding them so early and we had all of the animals and birds to ourselves at that time of the morning. The female crocodile eyed me with a look that suggested I owed her money… but I knew the cheque was in the male. (Boom-boom!)
Enjoying a cold drink and strolling at Arkarra Tea Gardens was an opportunity to enjoy the lake and the plentiful native birds. It's certainly a nice part of the world down that-a-way.
After we'd had a good look around Hervey Bay and had even been treated to the story of Ghost Hill, I had an opportunity to help out as Greg showed us his very comfortable bed and breakfast and talked of his ambitions to make it all-person accessible. Afterwards, we sat in his garden room and gobbled prawns and crab, fresh from the seafood wholesaler down the street.
We looked at the boat club and some of the upmarket sites around town, stopping in to get aquatinted with what lives under the water.
Getting the royal tour!
At Reefworld there was just time for an exciting opportunity to feed the big barramundi, talk more disability access shop-talk, then get splashie with the turtles as I fed them by hand before it was time to be off to our next mystery destination.
Gerry and Terrina Geltch of Air Fraser Island had generously offered to take us on a flight over this big sand island at sunset. Although I had not embraced the idea of flying in a small plane in the past, this one looked sturdy enough to cope with me. Saying a silent prayer that went something like: "Well, if it's my time, here I come … so please save me a chair by the fire . . " with the help of a handy milk crate I slid on board for the flight of my life.
Paul was happily clicking away in the back, photographing everything that presented an opportunity. We both absolutely loved it! After landing I gave our pilot a quick hug and he said in his best Biggels impersonation, "Yes, we've once again defied gravity and cheated death . . ." How did he know that's how I felt?
Fraser Island is glorious and the sun on the many freshwater lakes shone like Christmas beetles wings as we flew over this massive sandpit. There's no disability access to the island, so it was especially nice to be offered this opportunity to enjoy it from the air.
The next morning we had an extended morning tea at the homestead with some of the locals.
It was my first opportunity to meet the legendary Julie Martens, (Hervey Bay's Access Industry Project Coordinator) in person. We'd been e-mail buddies for quite a while, swapping access news over the years, and Julie had been responsible for much of this terrific famille, which had provided an overview of this beautiful part of Queensland.
With much more earnest discussion of the pursuit of inclusive communities and the provision of barrier-free access . . . a good time was had by all.
While lamenting my ample bottom and taking a piece of lovely chocolate cake, one gentleman smoothie said to me, "You have to be the size you are, Robby. You simply have far too many good qualities to fit into a mere size ten body!"
From memory, I think I briefly considered a holiday romance at about that time . . .
Norm kindly drove us to shop for fresh stone fruit and then meet our train.
The twin bunks of the first class Sunlander looked inviting as we put our feet up and relaxed for the 24 hours it took us to amble our way home. Fed very well by the friendly staff in the dining car and gently rocked to sleep by the soothing clickety-clack, we were to eventually arrive home rejuvenated.
You've heard about saving the best for last! Stopping off in Townsville we enjoyed a few days on Magnetic Island. The access was surprisingly good!
A "must do" on Magnetic Island is the Tropicana Eco Tour. To experience a day of good-old-fashioned Aussie fun there is no better day out. Our guide, Garry, was a real larrikin and he soon relaxed, seeing that we could take a joke.
It was stinking hot so when we were issued with squirter bottles full of cool water we enjoyed spraying each other and being sprayed. As we were in a stretch jeep and we were able to access intrepid areas in this vehicle, we passed many backpackers on foot who were considered fair game. They laughed and welcomed the water jets as we sprayed them, accompanied by a trumpeted charge played loudly over our speakers. One Pommie backpacker, hearing our approach and determined not to be outdone, dropped his tweeds and offered his bottom, yelling "Here! Wet this!" So, we did . . . talk about having a crack up!
It was a terrific day and we didn't want it to end, even though our ribs ached from laughing and we were hoarse from singing all of the golden oldies at the top of our lungs.
As promised, upon our return home
I wrote my report for Queensland Rail (QR).
In my opinion, QR has been trying hard to provide access within the confines of their new rollingstock and the narrow gauge of the Queensland rail.
The Tilt Train was quiet, relaxing and easily as comfortable (and equally accessible) as a 747 jet, with the added advantage of a much larger loo!
There will always be some people with disabilities for whom a particular mode of travel will be difficult, if not impossible.
However, given that the Queensland railway system and some of the trains are quite old - built when disability access was not yet an issue, much less a priority - I feel QR is displaying a dedicated effort in their provision of physical access . . . and I'm not easy to please!
I have urged them to embrace all complaints, as these are a very valuable resource. There's still a lot QR can do, but I feel they have the right attitude and they are listening.
This little story serves to uphold my belief that:
there's more than one way to fulfil your dreams.
Who was it who said, "If life presents you with lemons, grab them and make lemonade!"
What's next on the agenda?
I want to go and have a look at "disability access provision" across Australia.
If you'd like to invite me to your neck of the woods, please don't hesitate to ask. E-mail me on email@example.com
While in your area I'll deliver disability access info to businesses who are interested in becoming more accessible, provide some staff training, talk with your Council, groups and individuals and write a disability travel article about my experiences in your region upon my return.
I do not charge for my time and knowledge, nor do I expect it to cost me anything.
This trip across Australia is in preparation for when I apply for a Churchill Fellowship to go overseas - this way I'll really be able to talk knowledgably about access conditions in Oz.
Picture it: When I'm in Canada, Scotland, the UK and Denmark looking at the way the different Governments of the world provide access, I'll need to be a good ambassador for my country, won't I? I'll also be busy promoting the best areas I've seen in Australia.
I would certainly welcome them if you have any overseas contacts you could send my way.
I'd be pleased to deliver this knowledge to your group/organisation upon my return.
Robyn Gobert firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul Gobert email@example.com
Ph: 07 4096 5684 Fax: 07 4095 1184
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