On November 13, 2015, Pierre Cabon was injured in the Bataclan attacks in Paris. The bullet hit his spine, and he lost the use of his legs. Five years later, he and his partner Myriam took on the Tongariro Crossing - and the world
March 2020. We are at the foot of Tongariro. Before our eyes, the first section of the Alpine Crossing winds between rocks and wild grasses. There are 19km ahead of us that we dream of conquering. We take a last glance, then we set off: we'll go as far as we can. We can't contain this need to try, this urge to take up this great challenge.
November 2015. In Pierre's hospital room. The doctors are clear: he won't walk again. The bullet he received during the first few minutes of the terrorist attacks at the Bataclan, Paris, punctured his lung, hit his spine and damaged his spinal cord. He knew straight away that he wouldn't walk again and now the doctor confirms: paraplegic. From now on, we'll have to learn to live differently.
We are Myriam and Pierre, a young French couple passionate about adventure and discovery. Our lives have changed a lot since November 2015, but one thing remains: our love for exploration and the great outdoors.
As soon as we could after the events of that night, we started travelling again. First in France, and then Canada, the United States . . . Little by little, going further and further.
But during our travels, we met very few disabled people, and we understand why. Beyond the obvious physical limits, there are many psychological limits to travelling in a wheelchair: a lack of information about accessible facilities, or a lack of understanding from tourism operators about what this type of traveller needs.
September 2019. We have decided to embark on a worldwide journey: 14 months, four continents. South America, Oceania, Africa and Asia. We have no idea how accessible these destinations are, but we intend to find out. We are convinced that nothing is impossible if you have the right equipment, the right teammates, and the right information.
Three months in South America go by at breakneck speed. We live a succession of adventures, each more exceptional than the last. We climb Machu Picchu, explore Uyuni's salt flats, sandboard in the Ica desert, discover the Moai in Easter Island and kayak at the foot of the Perito Moreno glacier.
We learn that a lack of infrastructure can make travel difficult for us, but thanks to people's kindness, our trip goes quite smoothly. In South America, the first question from locals is not whether we can, but how they can help.
Our next step was Australia. Over six weeks, we travelled through the expanse of this vast continent, from the beaches to the rainforest, from the red earth of the outback to the turquoise waters of the Pacific.
And now here we are in New Zealand - the embodiment of unspoilt nature. We start in Auckland, then to Tongariro, and finally a cycle the length of the South Island all the way to Bluff. We are determined to explore the wild spaces of this country.
We know already what makes New Zealand different.
First of all, almost every accommodation we book has an accessible room. A real accessible room, with everything we need.
Why is this important?
Because just like everyone else, we wake up in the morning with a certain dose of energy for the day. Let's call it energy capital. You need this energy capital to be as big as possible when you leave your place in the morning - even more when you are in a wheelchair - so that all your physical and mental capacities are focused towards your main objective.
Struggling to get out of bed, go to the bathroom or take a shower in a non-accessible accommodation eats up a lot of that energy, and therefore has a real impact on how your travelling days go.
Second, in most parts of the world, accessibility data is desperately missing on visitor information websites. But New Zealand offers a goldmine of detailed information on what can be done with a wheelchair. It is so useful for planning purposes - we know exactly which trails are wheelchair accessible and which aren't, and it's a real time-saver.
In New Zealand, even in the national parks, wheelchair users are welcomed, from the trails to the accessible bathrooms at the park entrances. Although some trails are steep, only steps have stood in our way (and these have been clearly identified in advance). In hiking New Zealand trails, we have been able to return to the pleasure of a simple walk in the deep forest and the comforting sound of a flowing river nearby; experiences we wouldn't have thought possible a few years ago.
In the end, we cover six kilometres of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Facing rocks and rain-soaked steps we choose to turn back for safety reasons, after three hours of intense effort to overcome the obstacles. We knew we would not make it to the end, but we felt alive, thanks to the shared effort, our common will to give everything we have to reach our limits. We know what we could have done if things had been different, and we do not regret a thing.
Pierre and Myriam were finishing their NZ journey tandem cycling around the South Island but are now spending lockdown in Christchurch.
Wheeled World is a non-profit that aims to encourage everyone to travel. Follow Pierre and Myriam's adventures at wheeledworld.org and on Instagram @wheeled_world
Tips for disabled travelers
Traveling in a wheelchair can be a lot of things: scary, frustrating, exhausting. And an amazing experience, too. What is quite certain is that traveling in a wheelchair eats up a lot of energy. For us, planning your trip to optimise your energy capital is key, especially if you are planning to be away for a while. Here are a few things that help us achieve our 14-month world tour:
Choose a destination that makes you dream
When Pierre was first in a wheelchair, we chose our destinations according to our expectations of accessibility. Now, we choose our destinations without putting too much weight into their "wheelchair friendliness". We have learnt that accessibility is often very different from what we expected.
Make a list of your essential needs, prioritise and build your trip around them
To maximise your energy capital, identify what you need the most and plan accordingly.
For us, having a "roughly" accessible place to stay every day and a fully accessible bathroom every few days is a must. We book all of our accommodations a few months in advance to secure this. This takes significant planning and a certain lack of flexibility on our itinerary, but a safe and restful space at night is our priority.
As much as possible, travel with teammates. And do not hesitate to ask for help!
Traveling alone in a wheelchair can be done, but traveling with teammates will always take you further. You can climb larger stairs, take a steeper hike, explore longer paths. Having one, two or three people with you can change the entire face of an adventure. And make it a collective achievement.
Communicate clearly on your needs and ask questions
Everyone is unique, and every disability comes with different symptoms, constraints and possibilities according to the person that lives with it. Only you can know what you need most, so communicate clearly on your specific needs and the ways that people can help you. People are more than happy to help - let them know how!
Give yourself time to rest
Every effort you make in a wheelchair is concentrated in the top half of your body. While some people can go kayaking in the morning and hiking in the afternoon, a significant break could be necessary between the two activities if you are in a wheelchair. Giving your arms and shoulders some time to rest between two major efforts is a good way to make sure that you don't get hurt and that your trip lasts longer.