Travel Comment

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Sightseeing for the blind

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Initially nervous, Julie Woods absolutely loved her trip to the Middle East. Photo / NZ Herald
Initially nervous, Julie Woods absolutely loved her trip to the Middle East. Photo / NZ Herald

When Julie Woods visited the Middle East last year she was overcome with the thought that she was actually running her fingers over 4000-year-old engravings in the great stone edifices at Abu Simbel.

"It was an unbelievable experience touching ancient history like that."

The experience was all the more moving because Julie is blind and, as a result, had never thought she would be able to tour places like the red stone city of Petra in Jordan or the great temples at Luxor in Egypt.

Indeed, when partner Ron Esplin first suggested making a Middle East visit on the way back from attending the 200th birthday celebrations for Louis Braille in Paris, she was not keen.

"I was very unsure. My immediate thoughts were, How safe is it?"

But the trip turned out to be "absolutely fantastic".

Julie savoured the "feel and smell" of the pyramids, soaked up the historical information from the guides, adored the Egyptian people "who were really vivacious and great fun" and "just loved the Dead Sea.

The floating sensation was amazing and something I'll never forget. I wish every blind person could experience being buoyant like that".

In fact so moving was the experience that she is now working with The Innovative Travel Company to organise a 21-day tour of the Middle East specifically for blind or visually impaired people.

"The big part about travelling as a blind person," says Julie, "is it's very important that the tour is interactive. So we need good guides and lots of audio descriptions ... and Innovative Travel are hoping to organise some information in braille because there aren't a lot of guidebooks in braille.

"We also need to include lots of activities that blind people can experience. So going to the perfumery will be a must-do for us, whereas it mightn't be for someone who's sighted. We'll definitely be going inside the pyramids, so we can smell the atmosphere, as opposed to going to the lookout which is not much use to a blind person. And we'll be organising camel rides which will provide lots of opportunities for touch and smell.

"We'll also need to ensure there are enough hands on deck, though it's amazing the support that comes out when you need it if you're a blind person. And blind people travelling together really support each other. A partially sighted person may be able to support a blind person - in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and all that sort of thing - and that can be really empowering for the partially sighted person.

"It's really all about ensuring that the people on the tour get to see the Middle East ... only not with their eyes."

Julie Woods has her own website at thatblindwoman.co.nz and Innovative Travel is on the web at innovativetravel.co.nz.

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