Adventures Down Under

(I think this blog should sufficiently explain my absence over the last two months)

 

When I was sixteen and in Transition Year, our class acquired a new student. Her name was Melissah and she was Australian. As we got to know each other better, she told me more and more about Oz. My imagination went into overdrive as she spoke about diving in the Coral Reef and hanging out on the sunkissed beaches. It sounded like an extended episode of Home and Away and I knew that before I lay on my deathbed that I would have to see it for myself.

Melissah (‘Missy’) invited me and a few of the other girls I was friends with in school back to Australia with her, to partake in an exchange programme, but when I asked my parents, they looked at me as if I’d asked to remortgage the house. Possibly the same look I would give my own darling daughter if she randomly came home one day, at the age of sixteen, and said she was going to Australia for the summer with her pals. Sure, hun, whatever you think yourself! Get smashing that piggy-bank!

There would always be an excuse/reason for me not to go to Australia. First I had college, then I got a job straightaway with Offaly CIL, then I got married and had our beautiful daughter. I had become resigned to the idea that Australia would only ever be a pipe dream when on the 11 December 2018, as I was en route to a meeting in Carmichael House in Dublin, my husband rang to say that the flights had been booked for the second of July 2019 and to check my email to see if my Visa had come through. I don’t remember much about that meeting as I spent the entire two hours trying to be professional and not burst from uncontrollable excitement!

Having the trip of a lifetime to look forward to certainly helped me through what has been a hectic year so far. On top of trying to keep my writing going, I somehow completed the Certificate in Disability Studies in NUI Maynooth and gave two presentations about motherhood and disability in NUI Galway. I’m glad I was so busy this year because it meant that I felt like I earned the break. Before leaving, there was much deliberation over whether I should bring my electric wheelchair on the flight. To clarify for those who don’t know me as a person: my wheelchair is like a car to me because I cannot drive. It is a crucial piece of equipment in maximising my independence. Ultimately, however, we decided it was safer to leave it at home in one piece after reading several horror stories about mishandled electric wheelchairs in various airports.

Of course, a massive part of our decision to go over to Australia – and Perth specifically – was because my darling sister Alexandra has lived there for the last eight years. Alex moved to Oz two weeks after I discovered I was pregnant with Ali. When Alex heard we were coming, she was delighted and she generously offered for us to stay with her in her ‘little’ house for five weeks. This made the trip much more affordable for us and we got on without any major rows; at least we’re still speaking! I have to say she treated us really well – cooked us yummy dinners, drove us here, there and everywhere and brought Alison on days out when we were too wrecked to parent, or go anywhere. I am indebted to her and her partner Colm for these reasons alone.

The first thing I learned about Australia on our arrival on 4 July is that everything is so spread out. What I mean by that is that unless you are wealthy enough to live bang in the middle of Perth, you will need a car. Alex lives in Heathridge and while the nearest shop is five minutes’ drive away, it would probably take about forty-five minutes to walk. However, having seen the M50 of late, driving in Oz is relatively simple: people still drive on the left hand side and the roads are in excellent condition with few windy, unkempt roads. You can even cut across dual carriageways at designated points to turn around if necessary, or to cut to your destination.

Our first port of call was to the Joonalup shopping centre and the arcade, as we were unfit to do much else. On the Friday, we ventured into Perth to see Scitech, which was fully wheelchair accessible. It has interesting experiments and equipment and Ali loved it. After that, we went for an evening stroll in King’s Park, where we were overwhelmed by the magnificent view of Perth city touching the winter skyline. We saw the war memorial and picked up a nice parking fine for parking in an accessible parking space without a permit. Afterwards we applied for a wheelchair parking permit which was granted and issued within a few days. That wouldn’t happen in Ireland!

On the Saturday we went to Caversham Wildlife Park where we saw the kangaroos up close.  Their legs move as if operated by springs! We also saw koalas, parrots and llamas. There was a cowboy show and Alison and her new friend Charlie got to milk the cows. We got our photo taken with a wombat (who clearly hadn’t taken a shower in some time) and a koala. Those koalas have sharp claws, and are much heavier than they look! Still, it was an absolute honour to get so close to one.

The following day, we took it easy and watched the sunset on Burns’ Beach, a five minute drive from Alex’s house. The beach itself was spectacular and there was even a little playground for Ali and Charlie to play in. I noticed throughout our holiday that there was always a playground nearby, and not only were they clean and well-maintained, they tended to be physically challenging too: as well as the usual slides and swings, many of the parks we went to including in Mullaloo, Fremantle, Hillarys and especially the parks along Scarborough beach also had climbing walls, monkeybars and obstacle courses. Great for keeping the kids fit!

Our day out in Fremantle was extremely enjoyable. We went on a tour to Fremantle prison, which was open up until the 1980s. We saw where prisoners were hanged and as a disability activist I was pleased to hear that even wheelchair using offenders were accommodated in receiving this gruesome punishment! (Equality for all and all that). Afterwards Ali enjoyed her first taste of ice-skating in Fremantle’s ‘Winter Wonderland’. It took a few minutes but she eventually got the hang of it, with a little help from auntie Alex!

The highlight of the holiday was undoubtedly the road trip to Albany. Five hour drive down south through the bush, us three and Alex in the car. ‘Not much to see’ said Alex, and she was right: miles and miles of blackening trees, some of them with the bark burned off, and the occasional kangaroo corpse on the side of the road, which was devastating to see. Albany is a breathtaking place. After you see it, Bundoran and Kerry don’t seem to measure up! We stayed in a motel beside Middleton Beach, within walking distance of a beachside restaurant and another well-maintained playground. In the evenings we could have our dinner and chill out while we watched Alison play. The atmosphere was so relaxed out in comparison with Perth.

playground on middleton beach

Ali on Middleton Beach

From Albany we headed back north to Denmark, a quaint little town. We had booked a cabin to stay in called “The Green Leaves Cabin”. I won’t lie: when I heard cabin, I had visions of something akin to a treehouse: damp, airy and cold. From the outside, it seemed rather quaint but on the inside… I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that in many ways, it’s nicer than my own house. The living area was enormous, with a wood-burning stove and bookshelves stacked with contemporary books and board games. I cheated on the second night in Denmark by initiating a game of Scrabble and taking advantage by knowing where on the board to place my tiles to get the highest points (thank you, mum). There was also a plentiful DVD collection and the beds even had electric blankets! In the morning time, the birds congregated impatiently on the balcony, adamant that they wouldn’t leave until they were fed. The magpies were the most aggressive! The more we fed them, the more birds appeared. It was surreal. On the coffee table there was a little diary where people who had stayed there before wrote about their experiences. It seemed that everyone who had stayed there found it to be a truly magical place.

In Denmark, we did the Tree Top Walk in the Valley of the Giants. If you’re squeamish with heights, or walking on rickety steel bridges, then perhaps this is not for you as this attraction incorporates both. The Tree Top  Walk was wheelchair accessible, although I did find myself wondering how safe it would’ve been in my normal everyday Storm powerchair as opposed to the fold-up one I was using in Australia; the bridges buckled a little under the weight of my skimpy powerchair and the bridge itself was narrow – little wider than the wheelchair . As you walk up the bridge, you can see the magnificent trees below you. Some of them are enormous. One thing I noticed, as I observed in the John Forrest National Park, that in winter many trees lose their bark as well as their leaves. Some of the trees were also black, scorched from the hot sun during the previous summer.

me in valley of giants

Me in the Valley of Giants. Note how narrow the bridge is!

To complete our road trip, on the Friday night we stayed in Margaret River. The accommodation was not as nice as the Green Leaves (and after staying there, I don’t think that any accommodation will measure up ever again). It was a long three hour drive from Denmark, so to break up the journey we simply had to stop in to a cheese factory, a toffee factory, the Margaret River Chocolate Factory (imagine me a la Homer Simpson in The Land of Chocolate) and various little wineries (only samples, mind: Alex was driving. Takeaway was bought, however, in some places!). We didn’t get to explore much of the outdoors that evening as it was lashing rain but still it seemed a nice little place. The next morning we saw massive swells in the sea. Not exactly safe for surfing!

One thing I I had been looking forward to that ended up being a massive disappointment was the Bus Tour of Perth. It was ridiculously expensive for what it was ($150 or approximately €100 for three adults and two kids). When I looked at it online, I had visions of it being somewhat interactive like the Dublin City tours. I’ve never been on one but I’ve seen them whizzing past Trinity College, with an animated tour guide giving live commentary. On the Perth tour bus, however, the commentary is delivered via headphones, which makes for an interesting yet solitary experience. We sat on the top deck so that we could see everything but were absolutely freezing by the end of the two hour tour. For the last section of the tour, we sat downstairs. When I was sitting in my wheelchair in the designated space, I noticed that the slot for my headphones was located approximately fifty centimetres above my head – not accessible unless you’re Stretch Armstrong or you have somebody with you (perhaps disabled people in Australia don’t travel alone? I don’t know).

I can honestly say that I got to see everything I wanted to see, including the truly beautiful Rottnest Island. What was not so beautiful, alas, was the ferry ride on the way over and back. I felt truly pathetic, as the ride only lasted forty-five minutes each way, but I can now say that I know the real meaning of ‘choppy’. At one stage it felt like I was being thrashed around in an oversized washing machine. Blood-y hell. Reader, I am not ashamed to say that I puked, and dry-heaved, quite a lot in those forty-five minutes. You would need a stomach of steel not to feel a little unwell. It was worthwhile, thankfully. It is such a beautiful, laid-back place, dissimilar to any of the other places we visited. The main mode of transport is the humble bicycle and my heart swelled with pride watching little and big Ali cycle approximately fifteen kilometres together, side by side. On the island, I saw my first ever live quokka. They rambled all over the islands, waiting for you to take selfies with them.

alex and ali on rottnest

Two Alis on Rottnest Island

We packed so much into our five and a half weeks that even still, my body is still trying to regulate itself. From going to the ‘Gold Class’ cinema in Joonalup to bowling, we were rarely sitting around doing nothing. One evening we took a boat tour around the Perth basin and Ali even got to ‘drive’ the boat for a few minutes. Quad-biking across the sand dunes in Lancelin was a particularly exhilarating experience. It was tremendous fun. We were guided across the dunes by professional guides who led us down a couple of particularly steep slopes (the first one came rather by surprise and I’d say you could hear me screaming back here in Ireland!)  I wouldn’t say it’s a wheelchair accessible activity though, which is why I sat in the car while the others went sandboarding. It was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.

jay and me on quad in lancelin

Quadding at Lancelin Sand Dunes

Even as I write this, I still can’t believe that I’m home from the dream holiday that I’d been mentally planning for nearly twenty years. Although I missed home (specifically, the people at home) it was still hard to say goodbye to Alex and the country which will always have a piece my heart. Now, although I love the bright evenings here (it got dark at six in the evening in Oz as it was winter) I find myself missing the sound of busy crickets, the sweet smell of eucalyptus and the open highways (freeways? Not sure what the difference is?) If this is something that’s on your bucket list, do it. You know the way that sometimes reality doesn’t live up to your dreams? Yes? This isn’t like that at all. It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will never forget.

Finally ( and I write this paragraph specifically for my wobbly tribe) what worried me most prior to the trip was how we’d manage in the airports, especially in Dubai where our stopover was only two-and-a-half hours. I chickened out of taking my own electric chair, so I was in a manual chair in the airport. The service we got when we landed in Dubai both times was excellent. Really top class. The staff were amazing, pleasant and brought us to our connecting flight promptly, even offering to stop in duty-free on the way. I was searched in security by a female guard in a little private booth. When we arrived back into Dublin after our trip, I was helped off the plane and brought into arrivals by a member of staff in an airport chair. It took forty minutes for my own wheelchair to come out on the oversized luggage belt (it came out upside down). This is why many of us are nervous of flying with our wheelchairs!)

And now, back to writing and to reality… and to continuing the job hunt….

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