By Ian Popay

In June this year I set off on one of those trips that you dread before you go, love while you’re away, and spend the rest of your life wondering why you didn’t stay longer. Dread? Well, as a T3 paraplegic who’s been around a bit, I know too well that the promised ‘accessible’ or ‘disabled’ facilities in overseas countries, are often nothing of the kind, and finding out just what those facilities offer is often impossible. This time, though, the trip was to South Africa-the New South Africa-ten years after Nelson Mandela and his black majority government came to power. The Australian government’s travel advisory is not encouraging:

‘While the South African government is actively tackling criminal activity, there are ongoing incidences of carjackings, muggings, theft and pickpocketing, and the risk of violent crime (including robbery and armed assault) is high.’

The British and U.S. travel advisories were marginally more encouraging:

‘Although the vast majority of visitors complete their travels in South Africa without incident, visitors should be aware that criminal activity, sometimes violent, occurs routinely.’

Despite these dreadful warnings, I was determined to go. My excuse was the 4th International Weed Science Congress in June 2004 and I’d been invited to present a paper there. Furthermore, I had visited South Africa 30 years ago, when it was still firmly in the grip of apartheid and was keen to see the differences that black majority rule had made. I was also enthusiastic about visiting game parks and seeing elephant and rhino on their home turf.

South Africa is half a world away, and involves long flights whichever way you go. We travelled in the luxury of Singapore Airlines – two 10 hour flights – and stopped over for a day and a half in Singapore. Finding suitable accommodation in Singapore isn’t easy. Many of the hotels there proclaim themselves ‘Wheelchair-accessible,’ but other travellers’ comments say ‘Not so.’ I asked the Allan Bean Centre at Burwood Spinal Injuries Unit and got a prompt answer, courtesy of Parafed, that three hotels there did have suitable facilities. I booked into the Copthorne Orchid which turned out to be acceptably accessible, although not perfect.

Singapore Airlines’ staff were obligingly eager to help in transferring me from wheelchair to aisle chair, but had to be trained as we went. The flights were comfortable, and one toilet on the plane was big enough to accommodate a reasonably nimble wheelchair passenger. Particularly impressive was the way in which my own wheelchair was always waiting at the door when we disembarked, just as Air New Zealand used to do when I still flew with them. Singapore Airlines’ ground staff were extremely helpful in Auckland, Singapore and Johannesburg, which is where we landed in South Africa. In Johannesburg we wheeled from international to national terminal for our connecting flight to Durban with South African Airlines. South African Airlines have a wonderful system in place for handling disabled passengers. I was wheeled by ground staff into a cabin in a special vehicle and there two highly trained staff lifted me from my chair into an aisle chair. They did not need to be told how to do it! Then the cabin was lifted to plane door height and I was wheeled to my seat. So easy, so efficient, so comfortable. The reception at Durban airport was equally efficient.

Durban has no wheelchair taxis, and when I needed to, I used ordinary cars or taxis. The hotel we stayed in was the City Lodge, within wheeling distance of the International Convention Centre, the location for our conference. Unfortunately conference delegates here have been targeted, and at our conference of 400 delegates six were involved in ‘incidents’ and one spent his conference in intensive care, having been stabbed when someone tried to steal his wife’s handbag and she resisted. For security reasons the conference organisers provided buses between hotels and Convention Centre, but these could not take wheelchairs. We therefore wheeled and walked between the two, but in the company of either a large group, or Joseph from the local travel company, and he carried a concealed pistol. Both hotel and convention centre were well equipped for wheelchairs, although the thick pile carpets in the latter helped the resistance training! Most street crossings in the central city were well ramped and traffic lights (robots as they are called there) took care of pedestrians as well as traffic. A couple of restaurants we visited in the city were upstairs, with no lifts. However, South Africa is well provided with big burly men, and I had no problem at all getting in and out of these places.

After the conference two of us set off on safari. Before we left New Zealand I’d ordered a Budget Rentals Chrysler PT Cruiser fitted with hand controls. This was delivered to our hotel, and turned out to be ideal for our requirements, being rather higher off the ground than most saloons. However, getting used to the hand controls, which operated differently from my own back home, took a day or two. I found out, eventually, that I was sometimes operating the brake at the same time as trying to accelerate up hills, without realising it. Having solved that little problem, I still found that the hand controls would stick sometimes, leading to unnecessary revving when coming to a standstill. Some CRC equivalent solved that problem as well, but not until just before we left.

We boldly set off northwards, aiming for Hluhluwe (pronounced Shush-luwee), a game reserve about 3 hours north of Durban. Our start had been delayed and we found ourselves driving along the fast, straight, toll road in the dark. In South Africa, in mid-winter, darkness falls at about 5 in the evening, and the sun rises again about 7. At 8 minutes past 6 we pulled up at the entrance gate. It was locked! As we puzzled over what to do next, a car pulled up next to us and a young African said he’d seen us drive past, and he’d come to let us in. This was just one of the many acts of kindness we found that all South Africans, regardless of race, did for us. The gate swung open and we went on, along the narrow tarmac road, into wildest, darkest Africa.

Small haystacks of elephant dung, some of them still steaming, showed up in the headlights. Before long we saw our first elephant – a grey giant – standing in the road. He moved off into the bushes, and we waited a respectable time before passing where he’d been, in case he was coming back again. Then we saw another, and another. Eventually we reached the splendid thatched Hilltop Camp and again we were shown to, our quarters. The room was well appointed, and very accessible, but there was a very grunty steep hill between reception and room. The restaurant and other facilities were great for the wheelchair-bound. Game-spotting in Hluhluwe was marvellous, and we saw giraffe, rhinos, elephant, buffalo, nyala, bushbuck, and zebra everywhere. The greatest coup for me though was a whole pack of Cape hunting dogs crossing the road right in front of us. We were sorry to have to leave, but we were heading next for Kruger National Park.

To get to Kruger, we drove through Swaziland, independent of, but completely surrounded by South Africa. We spent one night there, and accommodation was not at all satisfactory. I don’t think the hotel knew what ‘accessible’ meant. Next day we moved on and soon found ourselves at the Malelane Gate to the Park. A nonchalant elephant grazed nearby. We drove in and followed the well sign-posted roads towards Lukimbi, the luxurious private game lodge that afforded our next accommodation. Lukimbi is a privately-owned reserve, a 15,000 hectare concession from the 2 million hectare Kruger. We were at Lukimbi because they have excellent accessible accommodation. There were no wall bars next to the toilet when I arrived, but when I enquired, they appeared as if by magic. Food and facilities were first-class, although one or two ramps were on the steep side. Lukimbi was expensive for us but an exchange rate of 4 South African Rand to a New Zealand dollar made it just bearable, and the touch of luxury was, I admit, very pleasant, and very well done.

Included in the price were game drives at dawn and dusk in one of their Land Rovers. I sat in the front passenger seat, lifted in and out by our white South African Field Guide Dave and our Shangani tracker, nicknamed Doctor. We gathered for coffee at 6.30 before setting off in the early light along the formed but rough tracks through the bush, with Dave driving and Doctor perched on a small seat high up at the front of the car’s bonnet. It was cool in the early morning and we were glad of sweaters and jackets, even though I had the benefit, in the front, of the car’s heater. We spotted elephant, white rhino, zebra, impala, and many truly exotic birds – beautifully coloured starlings, hornbills, francolin, and, on one occasion, a large number of vultures sitting in trees waiting for the sun to warm the thermal air currents on which they could soar. Occasionally Dave and Doctor would leave us in the Rover and set off on foot, Dave with his rifle and Doctor with his panga, a very big knife, to look for signs of lion. At one stage during each drive, we stopped in a clearing and out came the little folding table, the table cloth and the coffee and cookies. Delicious!

We learned the collective names of some of the animals: a journey of giraffe, a dazzle of zebra, a crash of rhino. One night we experienced a dramatic thunder storm over the escarpment, accompanied by hail that turned the ground white. On one of the dusk drives, after darkness had fallen, Dave spotted, through the bush, the tip of a tail, and the Land Rover crashed off through the bush in pursuit. There he was, a young male leopard with a big gash on his leg from when, as Dave told us, he’d been seen off by an older male defending his territory. A few minutes later we caught him in the headlights and he stood there for some time before walking off, disdainfully, into the undergrowth.

We were sorry to have to leave Kruger, but the flight home beckoned. We drove to Pilgrim’s Rest, a small tourist town where gold had once been found and mined, and spent two nights there. Then on to Johannesburg, the big smoke. South Africa’s roads are excellent, well-surfaced and fairly straight, with a top speed limit of 120kph. Many of the main roads are toll roads, but we didn’t find the tolls exorbitant. Johannesburg is a huge city, and we’d heard bad stories of violent crime there. But our hotel was in a good area, and we visited a big nearby shopping mall and experienced no problems at all. The next morning we succeeded in driving to the aiport, handing our rental car over to the agents, and catching our plane home. Almost the final touch of generosity from the very friendly and generous people of South Africa came as we left the car on our way to the terminal. The Budget car rental man ran after us. ‘You left this in the car door!’ he said, handing over my wallet.

My travel was supported, in part, by the New Zealand Department of Conservation, the Wellington Paraplegic and Physically Disabled Trust Board and by the Lottery Grants Board. TitchTours of Cape Town organised our itinerary, accommodation, and car rental.