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Have wheelchair will travel - Part 1 Asia to Europe

by Donna Goodacre

We are a family of four - Donna and Neil (parents), Chelsea (14) and Richie (18). Richie has cerebral palsy which restricts his mobility. He can communicate normally but cannot walk unaided. His chair is a manual one which he can operate, but he usually depended on us during this "trip of a lifetime". Below are some excerpts from the blog I put together after the four of us travelled around the world for five weeks from Christmas 2006.

Brisbane-Singapore

After a couple of calls to Yellow Cabs, the maxi taxi finally turned up and we set off to Brisbane International Airport on our big adventure. I should say at this point that even though I normally book flights on-line, I booked these through Flight Centre as I found a cheap round-the-world fare on Bestflights.com which I persuaded them to match. Parts of our trip were a bit complicated so I preferred to let someone else take responsibility this time. This One World fare stipulated that one leg had to be on Finnair, thus going through Helsinki to London. Everything else I did myself, including the seating on the planes. You can do this yourself on-line. We needed seats close to toilets for Richie and lots of leg-room for Neil. Another point to note is that you now have to give the dimensions of your wheelchair as restrictions on cargo size can make it difficult for people with larger, non-collapsible chairs on some airlines.

Anyway, for us everything went according to plan and eight hours later we arrived in Singapore. We were a bit worried about customs and made sure we had prescriptions for all medication. Our fears, however, were unfounded. We sailed through, probably because of the wheelchair (it comes in handy sometimes). We were outside Changi airport with the airport attendant flagging down a taxi in record time.

We stayed at Changi Village Hotel, not far from the airport, as it advertises itself as being wheelchair friendly, and it will store your luggage (as most places do) after you check out until you need to catch your ongoing flight. As far as accessibility goes, the room and getting to it was no problem. The dining room, on the other hand, had steps leading up to it. Fortunately Neil is able to haul a wheelchair with a person in it up stairs without too much hassle (depending on the number of stairs), but I certainly could not have managed it, and anyone on their own would be eating in the lobby! (It became evident on our travels that while much of the western world pays lip service to making things easier for people with disabilities, sometimes they haven't thought the whole thing through).

Neil and Richie at the Changi Food Market

The area around Changi Village Hotel is interesting in that you can eat authentic Asian cuisine along with the local population without feeling like a tourist. We shared the outdoor food area a couple of times while watching the soccer on tv with the locals. Good for the kids to experience, and only a couple of kerbs to negotiate.

To get to and from Orchard Road we used both taxis and trains. Taxis would take you no matter how bulky the baggage, but the trains, while modern, did not always have accessible stations. Here again the chair had to be pulled up a couple of steps. (On a number of occasions on our trip we were naughty and put the chair on an escalator - not to be condoned, but saved a lot of grief!)

Orchard Road shops were not particularly easy to access. There are some elevators, but they are often hidden around the back. Other places just had steps and we avoided those. It did not stop Richie enjoying his one day in Singapore however, as the most important shop, HMV, had three accessible floors!

We would have liked to have spent a bit more time in Singapore and gone to the zoo and cultural places, but we were on a strict schedule, so this time the one day had to do us. We went back to the hotel, collected our bags and took a shuttle to the airport to await our flight to Helsinki, leaving at 10.30pm.

England

After stopping at Bangkok to pick up passengers, then spending the next twelve hours or so crossing Asia and Europe, we arrived at Helsinki with ten minutes to transfer to our British Airways flight to London. The Finnair crew could be described in one word - efficient. The wheelchair was no problem, and our transfer was done in record time, with no bags mislaid on the way.

Landing at Heathrow, on the other hand, was not as easy, with a gale blowing the aircraft like a cork on the ocean! I'm sure it was nothing out of the ordinary for Heathrow, but I heaved a sigh of relief when we pulled up at the terminal.

Customs was easy again, and in no time we were in our taxi heading towards our accommodation. We phoned one of the many taxi van companies on the free phones at the terminal and met them outside Terminal 4. It cost around thirty pounds, which was quite competitive and well worth it for ease of access. This company was called Heathrow Car Services Ltd.

Our accommodation was at the London Thameside Youth Hostel at Rotherhithe. I booked this because it looked relatively modern, was advertised as wheelchair friendly and was a lot cheaper than a motel, especially so close to attractions. It is literally at the side of the Thames, and our first dinner was across the road at a quaint old pub looking towards Tower Bridge.

The room was a family room with our own bathroom, and we accessed this by one of two lifts. We had a double bed and bunks - Richie of course took the bottom bunk and got around pretty easily.

Getting around on the buses was easy, especially as they stopped just across the road from the hostel. Most have the hydraulic step, and after a day or two we were using them quite confidently. The tube, on the other hand, is not so accessible, and you need to find out beforehand which stations you can use.

Family photo London Dungeon, Neil and Donna with their head on the stocks and the kids holding an axe.

During our stay in London we managed to squeeze in a number of attractions, including the London Dungeon, Harrods, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, the London Eye, and lots of window shopping. All of these were wheelchair friendly.

On the 14th we left Rotherhithe to pick up our rental car from London City Airport. The train was accessible, although we had to change lines a couple of times. There were lifts, luckily. One thing I should point out is that we travelled with three large backpacks and a bag on the wheelchair. That way the person pushing the wheelchair had hands free. It was much easier getting on and off public transport as well, although by the end of the holiday they were rather heavy!

London City Airport, compared to Heathrow, is tiny, clean and modern-looking. We did the paper-work and picked up our Skoda (diesel) in no time. We managed to fit all bags, people and wheelchair inside and headed off in the direction of Manchester.

One of the highlights of our stay up north was a visit to the Beatles Museum in Liverpool - something I have always wanted to do. There is a bell to ring for someone to come and operate the open lift, as the museum is downstairs. The lift is not an all-weather lift, and this day was the only day it rained on our whole trip! All survived. Once inside everything is wheelchair-friendly and it cannot fail to impress, whatever your age.

The final destination of our stay in England was at Summercourt, near Newquay, in Cornwall. We stayed at Carvynick Cottages, a timeshare resort which we had organised from Australia. We have owned a timeshare unit in Mogo, NSW, for about 15 years, and during this time we have exchanged it for many different locations in Australia, New Zealand and the USA. We used to stipulate that we needed a wheelchair accessible room, but found that we got a lot more choice if we said nothing, and in most cases the rooms are accessible anyway. However on this trip, both times we used Timeshare the access to the bedrooms was up stairs with no elevator! Richie managed by sliding up and down on his bottom, so it was not a problem. Not recommended for electric wheelchairs.

This part of England, while very beautiful, does not have the disabled facilities of the big cities. A car is essential, plus careful booking of accommodation. We visited Newquay, Land's End, Penzance, Truro, Redruth and Falmouth. Neil and I toured Pendennis Castle, once owned by Henry V111, and definitely not wheelchair accessible. Richie still enjoyed his stay in Cornwall, however, as they had reality television!

On the 21st December we left Summercourt for Portsmouth, on our way to France.

France

We boarded the Mont St Michel ferry at 22.30 for a 23.15 sailing to Ouistreham. We had booked one normal and one disabled cabin on-line from Australia, and they were quite adequate for the six hour journey. It was much cheaper than the Eurostar train, and the kids could see that we were actually going to another country, even though it was dark. Getting on and off was no problem, and we managed to board a bus without a platform for the half hour trip to Caen, as Neil and the female bus driver helped Richie up the steps. There are plenty of taxis available at the port, however, and if you don't mind a bit of expense, they would be a much easier way to go if you have a collapsible chair.

Once in Caen we bought 4 tickets to Paris. We could not organise this from Australia, but it was no problem (being able to speak French helped me on this trip more than I had anticipated).

When we arrived at St Lazare station, however, we were told that the RER train from here to Noisiel, where our motel was, was not easy to access, so we were taken on an unofficial tour of the bowels of the Paris SNCF system, going past pipes, dirt and concrete, emerging at a bus stop where we caught a bus to the Gare de Lyon. The French porter was wonderful, carrying Neil's ginormous pack all the way, even though he was only knee-high to a grasshopper. You can say what you like about the French, and I have encountered a few things in my travels on my own, but as far as looking after us with the wheelchair goes, they were extremely accommodating.

Not so accommodating, however, was the Gare de Lyon. This would be the most frustrating railway station I have ever encountered, and my French did not help at all. Admittedly it is an old station, but even its one wheelchair ascenseur (lift) was out of action. To cut a long story short, we ended up getting to the platform we needed in a goods lift! From there everything was easy, getting the RER train to Noisiel, then to the hotel (l'Hotel des Deux Parcs) by accessible bus.

We had only three full days to explore Paris, and that included visiting friends, so the first thing we did for the kids was visit Disney (formerly Eurodisney), which was only a couple of accessible train stops away, at Marne-la-Vallee (Disney Station). Richie got a discount and we got one free carer, as you do here on the Gold Coast theme parks. Everything we needed was accessible, as in all Disney parks, and although it was freezing cold, we had a good day, topped off by dinner at one of the few remaining Planet Hollywoods.

The next day we visited friends in St Remy Les Chevreuse, on the outskirts of Paris. Once again the train trips were uneventful in that there were no problems with accessibility, and we had to change once at Chatelet. It took two hours each way.

Christmas day infront of the Eiffel Tower

Christmas day dawned bleak and cold, but it didn't matter because it was Paris! We spent the day in the city, catching the RER Line A to Chatelet, then Line C to Notre Dame and the Metro to the Eiffel Tower. I would not recommend the Metro for wheelchairs unless you have someone big and strong to lift the chair up the stairs!

We spent an hour or so there, and Neil and Richie went up to the second level using the lift, which does cater for wheelchairs. It cost 8,40 Euros for the two. After that we decided to visit the Louvre, but after investigating the Bateaux Mouches we decided not to go on the river, as the departure point was difficult to get to and it is better used for long sightseeing trips (rather pricey). We ended up going by bus which was not accessible, but a friendly tourist helped us with the chair.

Once at the Louvre we discovered that Christmas Day is the only day it is closed, so we walked through the Tuileries Gardens and then the whole way via the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, which was a great experience, and took us all afternoon. Chelsea and I walked underground through the tunnel which comes up under the arch, but it is not accessible to wheelchairs. Just on dark (around 4 pm) we found an entrance to the RER line and made our way back to Noisiel. I should point out here that the owners and staff at Les Deux Parcs Hotel were very helpful, the rooms were clean and accessible by lift, and the bar/restaurant was good value. A small hotel, but highly recommended.

On Boxing Day we left Noisiel and made our way via Chatelet-Les-Halles (Line A) to Charles de Gaulle airport (Line B), on our way to New York, via London. The trip took an hour with connections, which was good, but we had a bit of trouble finding the right terminal (2B). Quite confusing if you haven't done it before.

The flight was only half an hour, but because of the usual overcrowding at Heathrow we had to park in the middle of nowhere, and everybody except us could get off down the stairs! They ordered a high-lift, which didn't arrive, and after an hour of tea and bikkies and embarrassed apologies from the cabin crew, we got off the way we had initially suggested, down the stairs (Richie slid on his backside!)

At around 5.50pm, with no time to look around, we flew out from Terminal 4 at Heathrow on our eight hour trip to JFK in New York, New York. To be continued …

For more trip information and photos visit the Have Wheelchair Will Travel blog

Continue: Have wheelchair will travel - Part 2 London to USA

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