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  • Dougie

Mountain or mole hill?

Updated: May 26, 2022

I am a comparatively experienced wheelchair traveller.

I broke my neck in June1984. I was discharged from hospital ten months later in April 1985. I was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship in1988 (the Australian Bi-Centenary year) and made my first long haul journey -- Edinburgh - London - Hong Kong - Perth, to spend three months in Oz.

I was thirty-one years old, a poor helpless cripple (it's ok -- I'm allowed to take the piss out of myself) and discovered I liked going places -- in part simply to find out how hard or easy it might be. And maybe to road-test this new me -- disabled Dougie.

I do not want to over-state the 'thrill-seeking, explorer man in a wheelchair myth'. 'Cos that's not me. But I do like to travel. And unless someone tells me I am not allowed to do a, b, or c or I cannot afford x, y, or z (which is more often the case) I like to try 'stuff' -- which is a technical term used only by the most experienced travellers.

This sort of 'stuff'.

  • Me and my friend Barbara took The Ghan from Alice Springs to Adelaide in 1988 which was fun -- long and not very wheelchair accessible but I was Scottish and there were lots of kangaroos to watch, bounding away from the train in the Red Centre.

  • Susi (to whom I was married at the time) and I stayed in the Trailfinder Wilderness Lodge once, north of the Daintree River. We saw a six-metre python under the bedroom next to ours. A couple of days later the crew of the ketch Big Mamma transferred me from a rubber dinghy bobbing up and down in the Pacific onto the ketch to then sail across Weary Bay to snorkel in warm reef water off Hope Island. I come from Glasgow where that's not something you do every day.

  • My brother Joe and I sat in the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro to see Germany beat Argentina in the Final of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. You'd burn a long time in Hell to see Scotland versus Australia in that match!

  • Me and Spike travelled to Belfast in 2016 to see our friend Trevor (a semi-professional actor / director) play Bottom in a performance by The Royal Shakespeare Company of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Then a week later, Spike got herself locked in the tower of the the 12th Century Bishop's Palace in Kirkwall, Orkney and had to escape by dropping down to the ground from a ruined window 4 metres above. Talk about a dramatic holiday?

But sometimes, 'stuff' goes wrong.

  • My friend Barbara and I were crossing the road at Circular Quay, near the Toaster. Neither of us saw the drain in our path. The front castor went down the drain. I tipped out of my chair onto the road. You get a very interesting view of the Cahill Expressway lying on your back at a bus stop.

  • And on the theme of buses, a guy helping me down backwards from the platform of a New York city tour bus without a ramp let go of my chair when my rear wheels touched ground. Gravity took over. You get a very interesting view of the Manhattan skyline lying on your back at a bus stop.

  • Once upon a time, the Cairns to Kuranda narrow gauge railway broke an axle when I travelled on it. Halfway up the mountain. Me and Barbara were in a carriage on our own -- the 'wheelchair carriage' like I was infectious. After half an hour a young woman with the company stuck her head through the window, said, "you guys must be thirsty" and handed a bottle of cheap champagne to Barbara. Then she disappeared. I don't drink alcohol. This was also in 1988, the same year Barbara tipped me onto the road at Circular Quay. It's been a while now ... but I'm beginning to think my friend Barbara was trying to tell me something.

  • Last whinge (from the POHM). On our way from Manchester to Cairns (to go on to the lodge north of the Daintree) Cathay Pacific took my wheelchair off the plane in Amsterdam for reasons known only to them. There were five or six ensuing days when 'difficult Dougie' came out to express himself. But I mustn't complain. They flew us home Business Class and gave us two tickets to anywhere in the world. We returned to Australia the next year.

My point is this. Sometimes 'stuff' goes wrong. So, when you're a wheelchair-using traveller you must research and prepare to avoid problems that are not likely for people who do not use a wheelchair.

Access is a given. Right? If it doesn't have level access, a ramp or elevator (in that order of preference) there is no point in me thinking ... ooh, that eat as much as you please 5-star breakfast buffet photo looks fab.

Number 1 top priority after getting in is a level access, roll-in, wet floor shower for me and my collapsible shower chair. No sunken bath. No shower hob. No shower cabinet. Seamless transition from dry Dougie to wet Dougie. It's a deal-maker / deal-breaker.

So ...

I find our hotel in London. It's central. Near an accessible Tube station. Close to buses. Web site says it has wheelchair access. Photos indicate they have a room with an en-suite roll-in shower.

I am excited.

An email correspondence ensues. I am assured they have wheelchair access and a lift. Photos of the en-suite roll-in shower room -- from three different angles -- are attached.

I book seven nights in London.

Some weeks later, a niggling doubt persists. The principal entrance of the hotel faces St. Vincent Square in Westminster. It is rather grand in what I think may be the Georgian style. I see no lift so another correspondence begins with what I think (erroneously as it transpires) is an adequate question: "Where is your lift access?"

To which question comes back the answer, "at the hotel's rear entrance on Rochester Row." And that turns out to be not exactly, 100% correct.

Which brings us to our arrival yesterday and the minor drama this morning.

There is no rear entrance to the Wellington Hotel by Blue Orchard on Rochester Row. In fact, there is no visible public sign that the building in which I now sit typing is a hotel at all. One small door -- which I now know is marked "Goods Entrance'" -- opens on to stairs down to the kitchen. I know this only because, as I sat on Rochester Row wondering where the hotel might be, two men dressed as chefs came out from their dungeon for a cigarette break.

We crossed the road. Spike, with our cases, made her way round the block to climb the impressive Georgian staircase at the front of the hotel ... to ask questions. I searched along the length of the building at which point I found an unmarked door (in need of a coat of paint) with a broken electronic buzzer switch but no identifying marks. And there I parked my smouldering doubts.

Ten minutes later Spike appeared round the corner with a man who dressed as if he worked at an hotel. He approached like a somewhat diffident, previously estranged old friend. As he arrived, the unmarked door -- which everyone now agrees is a fire exit not an hotel entrance -- swung open. The two other hotel staff were as surprised to see the Scottish guy as the Scottish guy was disappointed by the sight of the dozen steps up to the ground floor and the clearly old, notoriously fickle key-driven platform stair lift.

It took three of them -- somewhat resistant to my greater experience of such modes of transport -- to nurse it up the staircase. It stopped and stuttered and re-started. It wheezed like an old man climbing one last hill before death. And then we reached the top.

The hotel staff were exuberant. I was rather more inclined to think the poor old thing would never move again. As we say in Scotland ... Ah hae ma doots.

Today did not prove me wrong. But sometimes it is better not to be right.

Forty minutes we sat at the top of the fire escape staircase watching a bunch of men who knew nothing about platform stair lifts concede that fact. As each new recruit arrived (some gave up in exasperation and left) each one confirmed they knew as little or even less than everyone else. They guessed quite a lot. Wrongly. as it turned out.

Eventually we all agreed they would carry me down the steps at the front of the hotel.

As we departed the grounds they waived farewell cheerily, promising to call out the lift engineer. "You better," I thought, then rolled on into my day with Spike in London.

Day 6 update. We've identified the problem and agreed a work around. A broken safety rail needs to be held in a precise position or a sensor will not be triggered to permit movement. Today is the first day we have gone down and come back up without having to call the in-house 'handyman'. Correspondence will be entered into when the travelling is over.

I appreciate all the assistance I received from hotel staff who did everything they could on site to solve the access problems quickly. Every day. Thank you.

The hotel group, however, have a lot of thinking to do. And improvements to make.

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