A three-part overseas trip as a newly disabled holidaymaker is enjoyable and inclusive, largely due to extensive planning, writes Sarah Wale.
Having recently become disabled, I embarked on this trip with some trepidation. Before, we never gave a thought to practicalities like getting on and off planes but this time it was different.
Our trip was in three parts: a family vacation in Port Douglas, Queensland, a cruise to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands and then a few days in Cairns.
We flew with Air New Zealand from Auckland to Cairns. We had checked their regulations around flying with mobility equipment (a lightweight mobility scooter, walker and crutches). I rode the scooter to the door of the plane; my husband removed the battery and carried it into the cabin while the scooter was put in the hold. Rules required the lithium-ion battery to be sized less than 300 kilowatt hours (mine is 274.4kWh). Not all airlines have the same rules and some countries do not allow such batteries to be carried at all — check each time you fly. There was no excess baggage charge for the extra equipment.
The scooter was waiting for me at the door of the plane at Cairns and we were escorted quickly through all the formalities.
The car rental company had been alerted to my circumstances and the courtesy bus was equipped to handle my paraphernalia. We had ordered a Mitsubishi Outlander — the same as our own — so we knew that everything would fit comfortably.
We were disappointed, upon arrival at our resort hotel in Port Douglas, to find that the apartment had four steps up to the front door. I was able to manage with my crutches but it would not have been suitable for anyone who was wheel chair bound. I was also unable to use the pool as the steps were vertical with very narrow treads and the bottom rung was only just below the surface of the water.
It is important to check and stress accessibility (room and pool) and parking location when booking and, if possible, get confirmation in writing.
Port Douglas is a fun town and we had no problem accessing most of the attractions. Wildlife Habitat was particularly impressive with complete accessibility.
The town itself is a mix of shops, bars, cafes and restaurants, almost all of which were easily accessed, and those that weren't, went out of their way to accommodate us. Top marks for that.
We also took a river trip on the Lady Douglas paddle steamer which was able to accommodate my scooter on board.
The next part of our trip was a cruise on P&O's Pacific Eden from Cairns to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands and back to Cairns. We had arranged assistance with boarding and the shore staff could not have been more helpful. We were processed and boarded with minimal fuss or delay, with trained helpers given the task of getting wheelchairs and scooters safely on board up the alarmingly steep gangway. We had checked in advance that our cabin's doorway would allow my scooter to pass through and were pleased to find that even our budget cabin had room to park it out of our way.
This ship is mostly very wheelchair friendly and I had no difficulty getting around. The only place I encountered any problem was in the informal dining area, The Pantry, which is cafeteria-style. There were no trays and it was also quite hard to see the food properly from a sitting position. I was travelling with my husband so he was able to help me but it meant that we often ate in relays. On other cruises, stewards in the self-service restaurants were happy to assist passengers — but not this time. The main dining room was a better option, except for days in port when it is closed for lunch. I was also unable to use either pool due to access problems.
Getting ashore at ports of call was the next concern. There were two tender ports on this cruise, where the ship anchors offshore. I did not get ashore at either. The first was because the weather was wet and it was too risky with the slippery steps. At the other, the sea swells were high and the crew were having difficulty with the tenders and the pontoon.
When the ship docked, it was very easy and the handlers helped us off and back on board. We enjoyed shore excursions, both arranged by the ship and privately organised in advance. The key is planning and absolute honesty when assessing and disclosing exactly what one can and cannot do. The tour companies always provided suitable vehicles and the guides went out of their way to ensure that I saw as much as possible. At the very few places which were not accessible to me, I stayed in the vehicle.
Disembarkation back in Cairns was as seamless as embarkation had been and the porter helped us out to the taxi rank in no time; but there are no dropped kerbs or ramps there.
I was able to get off my scooter and step down but the wheelchair-bound would have had difficulty. Fortunately, mobility and "Maxi" taxis are available throughout Cairns.
The city is well planned and I had no difficulties anywhere.
A trip to Kuranda on the Scenic Railway up and Skyrail down is a must but we were concerned about steep steps on the former and difficulties hopping on a moving gondola of the latter. We checked with Skyrail in advance and booked the round trip with them. We had mobility-equipped transfers to and from the stations at Cairns. On the train we travelled in the mobility carriage, with me being hoisted into the carriage on my scooter by means of a special lift. The scooter was then secured to the carriage floor while we sat in comfortable seats.
The hoisting process was reversed at Kuranda and we were soon on our way into the colourful village at the top of a rather steep climb. My scooter managed it fine, as did my husband. The village itself and its attractions were all very accessible and we spent an enjoyable hour or two wandering through the craft markets and art galleries before having a delicious lunch in the Heritage Market where, again, the scooter was accommodated without fuss.
Our return via Skyrail was accomplished easily, with the gondolas being brought to a halt so my scooter (into its own gondola) and I could be loaded. It all went smoothly and I highly recommend anyone, whether handicapped or fit, to take the trip.
Our return to Auckland next day was accomplished as smoothly as the outward journey.
We returned from our first trip since I became disabled with all our anxieties assuaged and our worries wiped away.
Now, where to next?