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Holidaying in Western Australia in my wheelchair

by Robyn Perham

A sequel - see also Part 1: To WA on the Indian Pacific with my wheelchair.

It was unusually cool for an October day, so the blaring heaters of the riverside café had lured us in.

"There it is again!" the lady at the next table called excitedly, pointing into the water 5 metres in front of us.

We were all straining at the railing to see the dolphin and its baby as they fed and played in the Swan River.

Our meals eventually arrived and I made the mistake of asking for some salad dressing in a small jug. The jug was soon unceremoniously banged onto the table with a directive to come and pay (the now outstanding) $2 at the cash register! It was then we realised that the staff shortage in Perth was critical, thus the abundant signage out the front of almost all of the eating establishments that encouraged prospective staff to apply for a job.

After a couple more sightings of the dolphins, we headed south on three weeks holiday.

First stop Fremantle. It was gorgeous! But it was closing time so we pushed on.

The first thing we really struggled with in WA was finding accommodation. We were sure that we'd soon happen upon a motel as we drove towards Rockingham. Nope. Nothing obvious along the approaches to the towns as one might expect in the rest of Australia.

We drove around and around the town looking for something, but had no luck finding anything. We couldn't even get any tourist information as their centre had shut at 4pm.

Eventually, around 8pm, after asking a taxi driver and a service station owner for their advice, we apparently managed to get the last available room in Rockingham at a place tucked away down the back of a street.

Our room was on the ground floor, but no, they didn't have any disability useable rooms. The room they did have - and we only got it because apparently the intended recipients hadn't phoned in to say they'd be late, so the motel treated it as a cancellation - was room 13. Some of the people hanging around outside looked none too salubrious, but as the alternative seemed like it was going to be a night in the car, we were so tired at this point we were past caring. Things didn't improve when we saw a dried stain on the carpet; it was also sprayed up the bed base and it looked remarkably like blood. But the shower was hot, the sheets were clean, and we slept, exhausted from our journey.

The next morning we headed back the 30 kilometres to Fremantle to have a better look around.

Fremantle offers a lot of waterfront eateries, our favourite being the fresh seafood outlets. All accessible, with adequate disability parking, and one must congratulate them on presenting an inviting, relaxing and enjoyable atmosphere. The food was quite delicious!

The whole area was highly "tourist focused", with some great undercover markets with fresh, tropical fruits and gift shops abounding. I stocked up on some seriously good bling-bling at very reasonable prices. I couldn't understand how they could do it for the price until Michael pointed out that we were probably closer to Singapore than we were to Melbourne. That would also explain the abundant multiculturalism and the Asian influence.

It was becoming obvious that WA takes disability access seriously. What a relief!

Curb cuts were, in the main, flat and accessible. There seemed to be disability parking available everywhere we went and road crossings were accessible. Of course some shops, especially in the older quarters, were not accessible, with a huge step up into them … but I found that - almost without exception - the staff were aware and would come out, apologise, and ask if there was anything they could show me. We have a policy of not shopping in places that do not provide a welcoming and accessible atmosphere for wheelchairs - be they jam-packed with goods or infrastructurally inaccessible - so unless it was a "must-have" situation and Michael could go in for me, I politely refused.

One thing that does bother me in South Australia (and it's the same in Melbourne) is the fact that wheelchairs are supposed to compete with cars when using curb cuts. There'll be a bank of disability parking bays provided, and then one has to walk along the back of the parked cars, with the traffic, to access the only curb cut up onto the footpath. This will often be the driveway into somewhere that is being used as the only access for all.

Surely if there was an accident, this practice would put their council in a bad light, or even at risk of litigation, for not providing a safer alternative?

As we'd decided to travel along the coast instead of taking the south-western freeway, Mandurah was our next destination, and then on to Bunbury to go swimming with the dolphins. Before we'd left for Western Australia, ex-patriots had suggested that we didn't bother tackling the drive to Monkey Mia to see the dolphins, as "the locals had been swimming with the dolphins for years down at Bunbury and it was a more accessible and natural experience there".

The coast between Mandurah and Bunbury was beautiful and we were enjoying the profuse wildflowers and the greenery. Victoria was (and is) in the grip of a long drought, so the sight of so much water lying around and the abundant new growth on all of the trees was wonderful to see. Everywhere we looked; trees and wildflowers were doing their spring-best and creating a feast for our eyes. There were arum lilies in profusion as far as the eye could see in one area.

As we approached Bunbury, we drove along beside the wetlands of Lake Preston. There were dozens and dozens of swans with their signets, and as we looked on the other side of the road, each house had their long, grassy front yards full of beautiful, woolly, black-faced wallabies. They were unconcerned by our attentions, and they didn't want any of our birdseed or muesli.

Accommodation wasn't hard to find along the seashore street. We soon chose an accessible room in the Lighthouse Motel overlooking all of Bunbury. It boasted a heated spa and warm pool. As is the case in so many places that claim they're accessible, actually getting to, and into, the pool proved a bit of a hike. We eventually decided to drive down and park outside the recreation area, and if anyone complained we'd deal with that on its merits. No one did and the spa was a most welcome retreat.

Late that afternoon we ventured down to the dolphin-watching information hut. "You should have been here this morning!" was the cry. We came back the next morning - early - and just in time to see the two dolphins on their third visit of the morning … and they turned up five times that day.

Excitedly we raced through to the beach-head and dodged the enthusiastic volunteers who wanted to ask us questions about where we'd come from etc etc.

Michael soon had me at the top of the beach in my chair and I stood up and struggled down through the soft sand to the water's edge. "Stand beside the volunteer in the red shirt" I was directed.

"No, no, stand over there!" Linda the tourist liaison volunteer ordered. I adjusted my weight on my poor-old-knees in the freezing water and made to move. But I wasn't quick enough for Linda. "Move OVER THERE!" I was directed, without welcome or ceremony. I thought of saluting, but then I thought that the other people's comments of annoyance at this woman's strident voice might prove to be enough to settle her down.

No such luck. The attitude seemed to be - the dolphins are marvellous and we also have to put up with you flaming people! Now … stand still and keep in line! Do not wave your hands around or swish them in the water! Don't try to touch the dolphins! Now, have a good time - and that's an order! One of us will feed the dolphins a dead fish or two to keep them interested.

Meanwhile, the dolphins swam slowly by and looked at us with what seemed to be a "Well?" expression, as if they wanted us to play. And we wanted to play!

To the credit of the Dolphin Discovery mob, and to our surprise, not only was the venue accessible, they also provided a couple of beach-friendly wheelchairs. These were aimed at kids, I think, as my big bum certainly wouldn't have fit into them, but I was so pleased to see they were aware enough to have made them available.

Assailed by Linda and the cold water and disappointed at the lack of interaction allowed between us and the dolphins, we withdrew for hot coffee at the café and wrote a complaint in the visitors book.

A scientist attached to the unit there soon approached us and asked us what had happened. We were pleased to share our views, as coming to Bunbury to swim with the dolphins was to be the highlight of the trip. Tony explained that yes, the locals used to swim with the dolphins, and feed them. But apparently it wasn't good for the dolphins, to be coming in for handouts. Then a tourist was accidentally grazed by a dolphin chasing a live fish, and so they'd had to organise everyone out of their brains because of the demands of public liability insurance and so on. The volunteers were well aware of these problems and some of them took it to heart, as everyone was focused on doing the best they could to protect the dolphins. However, thankfully, Linda was to be spoken with.

Michael went down and stood with the dolphins a couple more times, and five turned up on their last visit for the day, one with a baby at her side, which was exciting to see.

Two nights in the Lighthouse motel gave us time to rest and relax and enjoy the delights of Bunbury and we were ready for anything when we set off in the direction of Pemberton.

By this time we'd found a tourist information place while it was open and had armed ourselves with adequate literature covering the area between us and our destination, Albany. We soon worked out that the way to get accommodation was to choose something out of the book that looked inviting, phone and make a booking, and then try to find them!

Pemberton, up in the mountains, had once been a big logging town. Its now quaint and interesting, with their main claim to fame their marron (a fresh water lobster), the climbable tingle trees and their steam railway journey.

We really enjoyed the marron in all forms and recipes in the local restaurants, but the railway proved to be another matter.

Other than a couple of disability parking bays, the idea of disability access had not made it to Pemberton Railway. The train was far from accessible, with only a steep set of narrow stairs, which didn't even sport a hand rail. They were still subscribing to the idea that "a couple of burly blokes will give you a hand, missus". Obviously THEY hadn't heard of the idea of public liability insurance and its vagaries.

There was a tram that went in the other direction and had a shorter run that was touted to be "more accessible", but other than being lower to the ground, I couldn't see anything provided that resembled disability access.

Once on-board (with great difficulty, I assure you) we were told by the train driver that we were "at liberty to stick our heads out the window - just watch the bushes close to the train".

A few minutes into the journey, we were sitting with our arms resting on the window sill, when "CLAP!" Down came a window behind us, and "CLAP!" down came another one, right onto Michael's forearm. A few minutes later, "Clap! Clap!", and done came a couple more, one of which got another gentleman on the arm and finger. While these injuries left scrapes and bruises and were bad enough, we were glad that a child had not had their head out the window at the time.

The steam train trip was pleasant enough, but when we tried to tell the train staff about the lack of disability access and, more importantly, our accident, everyone seemed bored and no one seemed the least bit interested. We'd done our own investigating while on the train and found that many of the catches were only holding by one screw instead of two, and were therefore crooked - the motion of the train being enough to shake the heavy windows loose.

Back in Pemberton township, we attended the CWA markets and indignantly talked of our experiences to some of the local ladies. "Go to the Tourist Information Centre and fill out an accident report!" we were urged. We did this, and in a few days we heard back from someone who said they'd follow it up. Be interesting to find out if they did or not, or if people are still having nerves jangled, with fingers and arms skinned and bruised for their trouble.

The motel we stayed at in Pemberton didn't help to sooth our ravaged nerves. The paper-thin walls did nothing to keep out the general chatter of the hen's party next door. I drifted off at around 4.30am but was awoken again at 6.30am by the people on the other side preparing to leave. It was at that time that I decided that I needed a hot shower and I took the opportunity to sing a self-composed song, very loudly, about knowing that people who liked to talk and carouse until 4 o'clock in the morning would not mind being awoken by people who'd pretty well had enough of them and their nonsense! The room with the "hens" in it emptied immediately and it was bliss to go back to bed and get another couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep before we had to set off again.

At Busselton we enjoyed lunch on the deck at an accessible restaurant right beside the jetty and enjoyed watching the black cormorants diving for their dinner in the azure waters.

The seagulls had taken over another little, unused jetty and it was comical to see the squabbles between the two camps if one dared to try to land on the other's jetty. It seems multiculturalism hasn't made it into the animal kingdom yet, either!

We visited the many jewellery, art, ceramics, lollies, chocolates and bits-and-bobs shops we came upon on our way to Walpole. One of our most enjoyable stops was watching the glass blowing. We bought two beautiful little hand blown blue wrens for our mantelpiece, as these tiny birds were dazzlingly prolific throughout the undergrowth and were like little, flitting jewels in the bush.

We found even more abundant wildflowers throughout the highlands on our way to Walpole and delighted in spotting anything different to what we were used to. Some luminous blue flowers were so bright it hurt ones eyes to look at them! At Cape Leeuwin we bought a calendar of wildflowers as there was no adequate way of explaining their abundant beauty to those at home who were eagerly awaiting our daily call recounting our day's adventures.

Over the next few days, as we meandered about, we found a lot of towns who's names ended in "up". Apparently this is an Aboriginal custom and means "a place of".

A week into the holiday, all of the travelling on unfamiliar roads had taken its toll on us and we were ready for some R&R, so we looked for somewhere to stop for a few days. We wanted "disability access, wildlife and peace and quiet" we told their tourist information man. "Oh well then!" he replied. "You need a few days out at the Riverside Retreat cottages."

He was right. The whole of the three bedroom chalet had been built completely accessible and useable, and the kangaroos, ducks and so on came to within feet of our front door. We threw some unsalted peanuts and a whole bag of muesli around the lawns to try to encourage them - but while they seemed to enjoy the hand-outs, they didn't need that much encouragement. The roos were stunning. A few of the females had a Joey in their pouch, and one Joey was of an age where he loved to hop out and try out his two spring-loaded, wobbly legs. We laughed!

Outstanding among our many adventures were three things I'll recount: We came upon some accessible caves, run by the Department of Natural Resources. It was quite wonderful to find these in the forests, and even more wonderful to see that they'd been made partly wheelchair accessible and useable. We put on the headphones and enjoyed the stories and information as we passed by each prompter, secreted behind a rock.

Likewise for the Skywalk and Tingle Trees at Walpole and Nornalup. What joy to be included. Almost everything was accessible and added up to quite a terrific experience.

The WOW Eco Wilderness Cruise was also an enjoyable day out, made even more memorable by two things. The boat and landing were all accessible, and our guide, Garry, was a star. As we set off across the Nornalup Inlet, he was so animated and enthusiastic; he was like Steve Erwin on speed! Garry gave us one hell of a lesson in all things eco oriented, even diversifying into historical things German and Belgium when he discovered that some of our fellow tourists were from those countries.

I personally learned two things of interest to me … A Thylacine had a pouch (I didn't actually believe him until I looked it up on the web when I got home) and that arsenic comes from the seeds of the many beautiful, orange flowering bushes we'd been seeing everywhere.

It was no news, however, that the whole area is prolific with snakes and everyone had to be very careful during the bush walk before smoko, as we'd seen more snakes on the road in our travels than on any other holiday. Apparently one tourist, walking in the forests during that week, had been bitten more than 30 times before she could back away from one of these beasties! At our destination I was actually quite pleased to just sit and enjoy watching the birds and wildlife around the little jetty until everyone else had tramped the sand-dunes and returned. The home-made orange and poppy seed cake with a cuppa was well worth doing the trip for - moist and buttery, still warm, it was simply delicious!

From Walpole we headed toward Denmark, and then picked up the freeway back up through the middle towards Perth and back to Fremantle. Comparatively, there wasn't a lot to see along this road and we suspected that it was mainly used for quick access travel as we were doing.

Five hours later we'd arrived back in Fremantle, and to our surprise, there were bombs going off!

We'd arrived just in time for the blessing of the fleet. The "bombs" were meant to scare away any "bad vibes" that might prove to be a bad omen for the upcoming fishing season. From previous experience at St Alfio's Day up in El Arish, North Queensland, I also knew that these bone-jarring, loud explosions, let off some 300ft in the air, also shattered the clouds and kept the drizzle at bay. This ensured that the dignitary from the Vatican, Rome, was kept dry during the colourful and noisy procession to the bay.

We strode along with the wheelchair, taking part, joining in the fun and waving at the crowds, being filmed for the local TV, as if we too were part of the show.

We helped them bless the fleet and then kicked back on the balcony of one of the eateries to enjoy far too many fresh lobsters, dressed in one guise of cheese sauce or another, at the local restaurant. We were fascinated by the sight as many of the pleasure boats, laden with well lubricated locals, cruised right up to the marina and hopped ashore to grab their fish and chip orders. Some boats tied up and partied and others sailed away, soon to be replaced by others with the same idea in mind.

Back in Perth, we took a bay-side apartment at Hillarie's Beach and again took a few days to relax, enjoying the zoo and other sightseeing within the delights of Perth before booking into one of the disability rooms at the Duxton, Perth City.

For a five star establishment, the disability room we were in offered anything BUT a five star experience. Each time one of us turned the shower on in the "wet room", it certainly lived up to its name! Water went everywhere and threatened to spill out onto the carpet in the hall. In fact, a few moments after Michael had stepped into the shower for the first time, a member of staff arrived at the door with five extra towels which, he explained, were for the floor. He was right. Not only did we have to build a little wall of towels to contain our shower water, we also had to spread them out over the floor to avoid slipping.

In any case, we were there for the Red Hats Convention - the first of its kind for Australia.

Sixteen months beforehand I had started a chapter of the Red Hat Society in Ballarat. Beginning with just 15 members on the first day, we'd grown to 115 within a few months. Most chapters are made up of about 20 to 30 members, so our chapter was one of the biggest in Australia, and even in America where it had all began 6 years ago.

My efforts seemed to have impressed everyone, including the mayor. With the news of our exploits being covered by the regional newspapers, and as stories of our fun and frivolity began spreading, I responded to emails and went on to help other ladies to form five other chapters across rural Victoria.

The Ballarat chapter had been given a Mayoral Reception High Tea for these efforts.

Mayor David Vendy was kind enough to have said that I was obviously providing a much-needed social outlet for ladies "of a certain age" in the communities across rural Victoria.

He also congratulated me on my civic work, disability wise (for the extra disability parking and access to shops, theatre and venues throughout the city) that I'd achieved in the 12 months I'd been living in Victoria. Mayor Vendy ended by presenting me with an inscribed gold medal to commemorate my efforts. It is made from the same gold from which the Olympic medals are forged and came from an ingot of first-mined gold from the new gold mine in Ballarat.

The three day conference was a hoot. Being a Red Hatter, one wears purple clothing and a big red hat. The more ostentatious the better! If it's your birthday month (which October was for me) one is encouraged to reverse the colours - with a red outfit and a purple hat.

Being Her Red Hat, Queen Pippie Longstockings, The Empress of Excess of the Red Hat Golden Girls - Ballarat, this regalia is always accompanied by far too many feathers, furs, gloves and jewellery. In fact, the more over the top and "bling bling" the better. Being pseudo-royal and overdressing, wearing ostentatious outfits in public, laughing together and having outrageous fun. Being a Queen - one is a Queen if one starts a chapter - I had to make the effort to out-crown and out-bling everyone else, of course! After all, that's part of what it's all about.

Even Michael got into the spirit and was resplendent in his purple suit, red tie and his feathered hat. His sash bearing the glittered message "Husband in Waiting" never failed to get a good belly laugh.

Robyn in reverse colours celebrating her birthday with husband Michael in purple suit and feathered hat The Red Hat parade in Perth

On the second day the 450 ladies collectively blew Perth away by parading down the main streets, feather boas flying, creating a sea of Red and Purple. Welcomed by the Mayor of Perth, we were a noisy sight and a half.

However, upon my arrival back in Ballarat, somewhat exhausted, I knew I was finally over it. As an ex-Queenslander, I'd met so many wonderful women across Victoria. Yet I'd "been there, done that" as far as Red Hats was concerned, and I decided to abdicate.

Happily, I'd found a replacement "Queen", and so a few weeks later, my "subjects" had organised an abdication luncheon and I "succeeded" to the position of Founding Queen Mother of Red Hats in Ballarat. This makes me less active in the week to week Red Hats activities, but available to attend coronations and cut ribbons and such things that Queen Mum's undertake. It was one hell of a ride and I'm glad I did it, but it was a lot of work and I'm pleased to have my life back, leaving me the freedom to get on with other pursuits.

WA was all and more that I'd imagined. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and we were somewhat relieved that the disability access message seems to have gotten through over there. They have had a wonderfully dedicated and active disability information awareness movement operating for many years, I know, and it was a blessing to see the results of their hard work over so many years.

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