Africa in a Wheelchair

If you’re on the Africa Exclusive website, then you probably take an interest in safaris. You might just wonder if wheelchair users can enjoy the same experiences as able-bodied people. The answer is, in many cases, they can. I’ve done them!

It started in 1997, the first time we travelled with Africa Exclusive. I didn’t need a wheelchair that time. We were going to spend a few days at an elephant camp in Zimbabwe, where we would ride elephants, help train and look after them, and generally participate in their world.

But the day before we were due to go to the camp, I had a massive stroke. Our guides threw me into the Land Rover, as I couldn’t walk a single step. It was before the days of mobile phones, so they drove to a nearby house with a telephone, and called a doctor about an hour away. The doctor kept his surgery open till we arrived, and sent me straight to the local hospital. I was sent by ambulance the next day 400km to a hospital in Bulawayo, a larger town, which had a neurosurgeon. Africa Exclusive contacts in Bulawayo provided somewhere for my wife, Sue, to stay while I spent several weeks in hospital before returning home for a few months in more hospitals a rehabilitation units.

The kindness of staff at both Africa Exclusive and their local affiliates was incredible. Sue always knew the importance of having a first-rate travel agent looking after us and organising things invisibly. We didn’t know that they would have to pull the stops out in the way they did. I certainly didn’t realise what a wonderful job they did; I was somewhere in a different galaxy!

When, six months later I had learned to walk again (I can do up to about 30-40 yards), Sue decided that we needed to go back to ride elephants. Africa Exclusive set it all up, with special attention to my mobility issues. I did ride my elephant, but only once. I was happy, the elephant was happy, but the guide was cured of constipation! He thought that if we’d needed to dismount in the bush, it would be too difficult to get me out again, but he agreed I had to ride once, just to show that it could be done. It’s a wonderful experience to ride an elephant; I recommend it to everyone, disabled or able-bodied.

From then on, we’ve re-visited Africa, been to Central and South America, and Australia and New Zealand, all with Africa Exclusive. They know what they need to organise with airlines, (the less said about those, the better), hotels, local guides, and excursion operators. Our needs are so specific; we sometimes wonder how Africa Exclusive staff have any hair left!

We’ve found that on all our travels people can be so helpful we are moved close to tears. Sue was wheeling me across a bridge over the Zambezi River, when there was a break in the pavement. She looked as if she was struggling. A man walking just behind us simply stepped up, took the wheelchair handles, let me down onto the road, up onto the pavement where it had resumed, smiled and waved, and disappeared.

On another occasion, my wheelchair had a puncture. Our driver took us to a garage, where we were told most of the staff were at lunch, but that we should leave the wheelchair and come back for it an hour later. On our return, as we drew up, the repaired wheelchair was being pushed out towards us. We asked what we owed for the repair, and were told, “The price list is on the wall over there. There is no mention of wheelchairs on the price list, so there can be no charge!” We were quite overcome.

In Africa, anything is possible. In Botswana, we were due to go for a trip in a mokoro (dug-out canoe). I took one look and said, “It’s absolutely impossible for me to get into that. So, how will we do it?” the guides were just about to pick me up bodily when I worked out how, with a little help, it was slightly less impossible than I’d thought. On the trip we had tiny frogs leaping in and out of the mokoro, and were rewarded by the sight of a newly hatched moorhen breaking out of its shell. This was a new life in big wide Africa. After recovering from my stroke, I reckon I knew just how that moorhen felt.

Getting on to boats is always an interesting exercise. In Zanzibar, we were due to go on a boat trip, and arrived at the beach, wondering what would happen next. Our guide looked around, called to some men nearby, who just lifted the wheelchair and me up in the air, walked through the surf to the boat, where crew members were passed the parcel of chair and me. I was then deposited neatly on deck, to the vast amusement of other passengers, and handed a much-needed drink!

On another trip, in Kenya, there were actually planks leading to the boat on the lake, and crew members held the wheelchair in position while others pushed me on board. I was sitting a few feet from the edge, just looking at the water when, about four feet away, a rather large hippo opened its mouth for an enormous yawn! I could see all its nose-hairs. Sue tells me I jumped several inches into the air, just managing to avoid joining my rather large friend for a swim.

I won’t go into all the pleasures of safaris; I’ll leave that to others. However, if you use a wheelchair, you might think that safaris in particular and Africa in general are too difficult, and that you’d miss too many of the activities open to able-bodied travellers. True, you may not manage bush-walks. But with so much possible in a vehicle, you can still experience the magic of Africa, its landscape, its flora and fauna, and perhaps most of all, its delightful people. You’ll get help in ways you never thought possible. But do yourselves a favour – go with a travel agent who really understands what you need and how to organise it. Africa Exclusive is great. Poor things learnt how to do it, the hard way! If they can cope with me….

David Epstein

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