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  • Dougie

It's been 6 long years

Updated: Jul 3, 2022

And so it begins. After six long years ... a new job (which is not so new now) and bush fires and more than two years of a pandemic that took us all by surprise and changed so much ,,, I'm going 'home' to visit my mum, and Spike's grannie; to chew the fat with old friends and once again solve the problems of the world over boozy dinners (although not this tea-totaller) then, after Rome, sit with my brother Joe and his wife Steph at their tiny olive grove Trullo in Puglia.

So I have nothing to complain about. I've had more difficult days over recent years than these next six weeks. We all have.

But this is how it starts. In the Canberra rain.

And then the train ... to Sydney. Masks on (of course) with Spike in charge of everything.

Here we sit (or kneel upon a seat) just north of Bungendore in New South Wales. 10,000 miles to Paris. What's that in kilometres?

Je ne sais pas. Although I do.

34 years ago, my first intercity wheelchair train trip was in a British Rail guard's van between Gatwick Airport and Worthing, West Sussex. Not one of the great rail journeys of the world. But a guard's van is a guard's van. So a designated wheelchair space (one of two) even in the slowest train in Australia (which was half an hour late in arriving -- comme d'habitude as we say in France) is progress. But there is still much work to do to achieve our full equal rights.

But that's a story for another day. Our never ending story, so to speak.

Today is about the journey -- not the destination. And for us -- flying Qatar Airways -- the next part of the journey (its longest leg with over fourteen hours flying time) begins at check-in aisle K at Sydney airport. I've flown back and forth between other continents in the world and Australia quite a few times since I made my first visit in 1988. But I've never checked-in at aisle K before. I now know why.

Check-in aisle K is so far from the entrance to the departure hall it is actually darker than the rest of the building. The orcs of Khazad-dum could be lurking in the twisting lines of check-in hopefuls that we joined.

There are several hundred of us squeezed between the exterior wall of the building and the check-in counter; snaking backwards and forwards through the tight space, fretting about the time it takes, mildly sceptical about our COVID vaccination papers, asking unnecessary questions of each other, "do you have the passports or do I?", "where are the tickets?", "did you unplug the fridge?"

All too late, of course, as we reach the check-in counter. At which point we're invited not to check-in but to go to the service desk to speak with "the gentleman" about the lithium-ion batteries that drive my power-assisted Alber E.motion wheelchair wheels.

I gird my lions. I prepare to put on the armour of a seasoned wheelchair traveller because -- although I've never waited in line at check-in aisle K in all my life -- I have been this way many times before. There are "gentlemen" at "service desks" like this in each of the five continents it has been my good fortune to visit.

Discriminatory questions and requests await:

  • we require you to check-in your wheelchair at the desk and transfer to an airport chair to travel to the boarding gate ... not happening.

  • you cannot travel with these batteries on the aircraft because they are a risk to passengers and crew ... no they are not.

  • we have no record of your request for special assistance ... oh yes you do ... and I am not special.

The countdown has started, difficult Dougie is preparing to come out for all to see and I am ready for anything (if the "gentleman" at the "service desk" wants a fight). But the one thing I am not prepared for is this: the gentleman at the service desk is -- in fact -- a gentleman. He confirms that Qatar received my advance notification of my support needs to board the flights. He confirms the type of batteries in my wheel hubs and checks the dimensions and weight of my wheelchair.

And that's it.

Then the gentleman asks if there is any other assistance we require?

And I say, "no thank you."

And he says, "Enjoy your flights with Qatar Airways."

And with no more fuss, it seems, we are on our way to Paris.

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