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Wheeling into the wilderness

Flourish 07 Jan 2017

The TrailRider is blazing a new path for wheelchair-bound bush lovers.

David Stratton is a wilderness addict who is determined that being in a wheelchair doesn’t have to mean missing out on exploring Australia’s rugged terrain.

David and his wife Ros Hart, who are based in Newstead in central Victoria, have always been avid walkers but David feared his days in the wilderness were coming to an end when, at 45, he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.

David knew there were bushwalking tracks that could be accessed by wheelchair, but they weren’t the ones he wanted to use. “They have very heavy traffic and are quite tame,” he says. “There’s 500 metres here and 700 metres there and, while there are great views, it’s not wilderness.”

Years later when David was on a holiday in Canada, a friend told him she was going to take him into the bush on a TrailRider.

“I looked at this contraption and was horrified,” David says. “All I could see was helplessness and I couldn’t imagine surrendering that much. But Ros said to give it a try and that was all I needed.”

David was so impressed with the all-terrain wheelchair, which allowed him to get into previously inaccessible parts of the bush, that he was determined that others share his experience.

On his return to Australia, David laminated photos of the TrailRider, which he affectionately describes as a cross between a wheelbarrow and a rickshaw, and showed them to David Roberts, the Chief Ranger of Parks Victoria’s Grampians National Park.

“He really got it almost immediately and said he’d take it further for us. He contacted John Kenwright (Parks Victoria’s Acting Manager of Visitor Engagement and Conservation) who bought the first two chairs in Australia.”

David says the conceptually brilliant aspect of the TrailRider is that it has just one wheel.

“Any other contraption that has two wheels or more just doesn’t work because of the possibility of getting stuck. So this chair gives you what nothing else can – access to wilderness.”

John says the chair was a perfect fit with the Parks Victoria “Healthy Parks, Healthy People” philosophy. “We want to improve access to nature for people with mobility limitations, and this enables people to do that,” he says.

“We were really driven by David’s experiences and the design because it allowed people to go on rugged trails and so it ticks a lot of boxes for us. It has adjustments to suit all abilities, because some wheelchairs only suit some people, but these suit adults and children.

“We’re looking at getting more, but they need to be used on appropriate trails. We’d eventually like to make them available across all parks in Victoria,” John says.

David demonstrated the TrailRider to a group of park rangers in Tasmania. “It was pouring with rain and not one face was lighting up. I said ‘look let’s just give it a try’ and I was put in it. You could see their faces change. They could see how these could be used for mountain rescue too,” he says.

There are 10 TrailRiders in Victoria, four in New South Wales and one each in the Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania and Western Australia. David says soon there will be one in the Northern Territory too.

Julie Jones, whose son BJ was born with cerebral palsy, says David’s work in promoting the TrailRider has been inspirational. “He’s a prime example of one person being able to make change and he has my admiration.”

Julie has a blog (havewheelchairwilltravel.net)nthat promotes increased accessibility for people with disability. BJ, now 20, has become reliant on his wheelchair, but enjoys getting outdoors.

“We’d done hiking and gone places you couldn’t go with a wheelchair, but at the age of seven BJ became too heavy for my husband to carry,” Julie says.

“Then our daughter, AJ, was born and we couldn’t do bushwalks because we had to stick to wheelchair-accessible paths. Because we couldn’t take BJ off the beaten track, she missed out too.”

Two years ago they tried the TrailRider.

“BJ was so unsure to start with because it’s like someone putting you off balance. So for the first time there was a sense of it not being quite right,” Julie says.

“But as soon as he got used to it he loved it. He was beaming and we knew we’d get to access bush and see things we hadn’t seen.

“We didn’t anticipate the social aspect to that too; people pass and say hello because they are so excited for you,” Julie says.

“You need those good things that come from being out in nature and not to feel limited. That’s the most important thing; the TrailRider makes you feel as though you can still do things. It makes a big difference mentally and physically.”

It’s not surprising that when David isn’t working on getting more TrailRiders around Australia, he’s using them.

“I get out once every three or four months,” David says. “My 65th birthday is coming up and my children will be taking me out in the Grampians on a TrailRider.”

In typical style, David will be using the milestone to push the boundaries. “We’ll be doing a greater distance and doing something more exciting,” he says.

words Kirstie Bedford

images Fairfax Syndication (Craig Stilltoe); courtesy Julie Jones (HaveWheelchairWillTravel.net); Trailrider

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Information

For more on accessible national parks see nationalparks.nsw.gov.au



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