My name is Jasmine. I’m 21 years old and I’m from Portsmouth, England. In October 2010, I was diagnosed with Friedreich’s ataxia, a degenerative neurological disorder (which means that I can’t walk at all). As a side effect of this condition I have metal rods fused to my spine to correct scoliosis. My wheelchair is a Quickie Helium and has a rigid frame, though the wheels do come off and the back folds down flat to the seat.
Despite the obvious difficulties, I’ve always loved travelling and have just returned from the trip of a lifetime—three weeks exploring the North Island of New Zealand. As a massive Tolkien fan, and an environmental scientist, this trip was a dream come true.
Flying to New Zealand
We (myself, my friend Julia and my carer, Steph) flew out of Heathrow with Air New Zealand. This was a direct flight to Auckland, with only a two-hour break in Los Angeles. We chose this particular flight because I was told that the plane (a Boeing 777-300) had a disabled toilet on board.
However, the toilet wasn’t a very good one. It was bigger than the usual airplane toilets, meaning there was room to get the aisle chair adjacent to the toilet but not much else. The handrails were too small and not really in the right place (the steward
had to lift me onto the toilet because I couldn’t reach). And, of course, they were only on one side. It’s the law in the UK that there have to be handrails on both sides, but I don’t think that is the case elsewhere.
In addition to the issue with the toilet, the aisles on the plane were ridiculously narrow. The aisle chair on its own was horrible (again ridiculously narrow, and I felt very unsteady when I was sat in it), but when combined with the width of the aisles—my knees, shoulders and hips hit every chair—moving around the plane was terrible.
Apart from these issues, Air New Zealand was brilliant. We were upgraded to Skycouch (similar to economy-plus) and the staff were very helpful and friendly.
Renting an accessible car
I’d rented a van (a Toyota Noah) from Freedom Mobility before we left England, and a member of staff met us at the airport. He showed us how to use the car, which had an electronic swivel chair, told us about New Zealand road law and gave us a sat-nav, which was invaluable. The car was great and the boot was big enough to comfortably fit three big suitcases, my wheelchair and our rented equipment. I’d already bought a New Zealand disabled badge for our stay
($35 from CCS Disability Action). Then we set off.
Accessible equipment and accommodation
Our first stop was Invacare, where I’d rented a shower chair and toilet frame. The frame was fine, but the back of the shower chair had the annoying habit of tipping forward when I put any weight on the arms—not helpful at all!
We didn’t do much of anything on the first day (we were very jet-lagged), so once we had picked everything up we checked straight into our motel, The Best Western Auckland, and went to sleep. The room was lovely and quite quiet (we were on the end of the terrace). The bathroom was a wet room (but it dried quite slowly as there was only one small window) and the sink could fit a wheelchair underneath.
On our second day, we went whale and dolphin watching from Auckland with the Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari from Explore NZ. They helped me get to the wharf (backwards down a very steep ramp) and lifted me onto the back of the boat. It was a great spot as the waves didn’t hit us and dolphins like swimming in the wake of a boat, so we saw loads of dolphins and even a Bryde’s whale. The rest of the boat, however, wasn’t accessible, including the toilet.
Next we went to Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium. It was completely accessible, even the shark tunnel—the path and conveyor were quite narrow, but my wheelchair is 22 inches wide wheel to wheel and I fit on both. The extra tours (swimming with sharks and walking with penguins) were understandably not accessible, but I did join the majority of the behind-the-scenes tour. The only exception was that I couldn’t feed the fish, but they let us feed one of their “hospitalized” turtles instead!
On our last day in Auckland we went up the Sky Tower, which was also entirely accessible. I’m not too keen on heights so we didn’t stay long. After that, we drove to Parnell Road and went shopping. It’s quite a steep road, and some of the shops were a bit tight to get in and around.
The next day was spent driving down to Hamilton (about an hour) and then relaxing. We stayed at the Albert Court Motor Lodge for three nights, and it was beautiful. The hosts were lovely and very helpful. The room was spacious, and the kitchen was all at wheelchair height so I could reach to cook (there was a hob, microwave and kettle). The bathroom was a wetroom again, but the sink was very low—I certainly couldn’t fit underneath and I doubt anyone could.
From Hamilton, we first went down to Waitomo and to the Ruakuri cave. This is the only wheelchair-accessible cave in the southern hemisphere (as such it’s always quite busy, so we had to book in advance) and although some of the paths were quite steep (combined with semi-darkness), I managed to get everywhere the able-bodied people could go.
The next day was the one I had been waiting for ever since deciding to go to New Zealand—we went to Hobbiton, where they filmed some of The Lord of the Rings films. The car park and path to the ticket office were gravelly and a bit uneven, but then it is still a working farm. It’s worth noting that there is a ticket discount for wheelchair users. We had to follow the tour bus in our van up to the set, as there were a few steps to get on. The paths at the site are quite steep and narrow, but I got around perfectly well with help on the steeper bits. However, I couldn’t get up to Bag End—the hill is very steep and I wasn’t brave enough to attempt it. There is a cobbled bridge and the paths are a little bit uneven in places, but that’s to be expected—it’s meant to look and feel rural.
We drove down to Taupo after Hamilton and stayed at the Karaka Tree Motel for four nights. The room was a bit tight in some areas and the bathroom wasn’t very good. It was split into two rooms, with a large sink in one and the toilet and shower in the other. This meant the toilet room was quite small—there was only just room for me to put my wheelchair adjacent to the toilet. The handrails were also initially badly placed, but one of the hosts was kind enough to drill a new handrail in the right place. The shower room was also too small for a shower. The carpet was thick, making pushing on it quite hard. I don’t think I would recommend this motel for a stay of more than one night.
After our first night in Taupo, we drove to Rotoruaand visited Te Puia, which is a geothermal valley and a centre of Maori arts and crafts. There’s also a kiwi house here, with two of New Zealand’s national birds. Nearly all of the geothermal park was accessible, although one or two of the paths were a bit steep.
We also saw a Maori cultural performance. The room was accessible by a ramp and chairs were very quickly moved so that I could sit at the front. I’ll just say now, the haka, a traditional ancestral war dance, is much more intimidating in person than on the television! We also went to the carving school. There were steps and a bridge to see the carvers, but as I couldn’t get up they let me enter the workshop through a side door. The people were so kind and even showed us a piece that was being sent to the UN!
The next day, we went on the Riverjet up the Waikato River. I had emailed the company previously and was told that we could do the Scenic Safari Tour (all of the others involved walking at some point). Two men carried me and my chair down to the boat, and then lifted me in. We were on a big boat, called The Beast, so my wheelchair could fit in the space next to the engine and I could then slide along the seats. We stopped by a geothermal park on the opposite bank but it was not accessible, and instead I stayed in the café in my wheelchair, which the staff lifted me back into.
Our last day in Taupo was spent just wandering around the town and lake. The paths through the town were generally good, but some of the crossings had quite substantial kerbs.
After our first week in New Zealand we drove from Taupo to Taihape, which is a very rural farming village. The drive was long but stunning. Part of The Lord of the Rings (the Black Gates of Mordor—you’ll know what I mean if you’re a fan of the films) was filmed around the Desert Road (State Highway 1) and it’s very easy to imagine the characters here.
I’d planned a helicopter flight around the three mountains along the way (Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe) with Heliview, who were very willing to accommodate a wheelchair user—they were planning to help carry/lift me onto the helicopter and even to remove the front seats so that I had more room. But sadly the weather was too wet and windy for a flight. We went to the National Army Museum instead, which was accessible.
We then headed to Ohakune, where we stayed for one night at the excellent Aspen Court Motel. The room was massive and quite luxurious (the bed was the comfiest I slept in all holiday) and the bathroom (another wetroom) was definitely big enough for a shower. I could just about get under the sink, but I don’t think bigger wheelchairs could.
After this we drove the three hours down to Wellington, where we stayed at the Best Western Wellington for six nights. The room itself was beautiful, and it was the only motel we stayed in that had an oven (as well as a hob, kettle and microwave). The double bed, however, was exceptionally narrow and while the bathroom (wetroom) was quite large, there wasn’t a window and I think the extractor fan was broken, meaning the bathroom dried very slowly. The shower was plenty big enough and there was just enough room for me to fit under the sink.
On our first day in Wellington we visited the Te Papa national museum. It’s a modern building so is nearly entirely accessible. The only exceptions are some partsof the exhibits, such as the earthquake simulator.
We spent the next day at Wellington Zoo. Many of the exhibits and animals were amazing (including Sumatran tigers, cotton-top tamarins and Malayan sun bears) but the entire compound was so hilly as to occasionally be dangerous.
On our third day in Wellington we visited the Weta Cave and the Weta mini-museum and shop. Parking was a bit awkward (it’s free on-street parking, but it’s not exactly flat) and there was a curb to navigate. But trust me, it’s worth it.
The best thing here, apart from all of the beautiful merchandise, was the Window into Workshop tour (now called the Weta Cave Workshop Tour). The tour was entirely accessible, and the guide was very careful to ensure I could see everything. We then visited the famous Chocolate Fish Café (technically it’s called Scorch-o-Rama), which was also entirely accessible.
We went into Wellington city centre on our fourth day. We parked in a multi-storey car park but couldn’t find a disabled space anywhere. My wheelchair just fit in the gap between our van and the next car, and transferring was quite tight.
However, the city centre was nearly entirely accessible and although some streets (Cuba Street especially) were slightly steep, there weren’t too many big curbs or steps. We also went to Fidel’s Café (a favourite of Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan), and while it was not spacious and very busy, the front of the café was accessible—if you can get over the one or two steps at the door, that is.
Our last day in Wellington was spent wandering around Johnsonville, the suburb where our motel was. It was largely accessible, although a few of the paths were quite steep and some pavements were a bit uneven. We had initially planned to visit Kaitoke Regional Park, which is where the scenes of Rivendell were filmed, but the weather turned too wet and windy to risk the paths. I was advised that some of the paths were quite steep, but accessible.
Our last stop before we flew home was New Plymouth. The drive from Wellington was horrendous—about five hours—but worth it. We stayed at the beautiful Landmark Manor Motel. The hosts were lovely and the room was big enough to get around comfortably, as was the bathroom.
Our one day in New Plymouth was spent wandering along the coastal walkway, which was largely accessible although very steep in places. The pathway did, however, cross train tracks at multiple points. The crossings were fairly easy, but you wouldn’t want to get stuck in the gaps between tracks! We stopped at a café called the Bach (pronounced batch) on the Breakwater, which was styled very rustically but was completely accessible.
Our flight home wasn’t until late and the airport was only three or four hours away, so we had to find something to do. While researching the drive to the airport I stumbled across the Hairy Feet Scenic Film Location Tour in Piopio, where they filmed scenes from The Lord of the Rings.
As this tour is on a working farm, I automatically assumed it wouldn’t be accessible. We rang the farm anyway as we were desperate for something to do, and I’m so glad we did. Suzie, one of the guides, told us that the tour might be achievable. She explained that all of the pathways were gravel and that there would be a few hills and steps, but that she and Warrick (the other guide) were willing to help me get around.
The tour itself was amazing and the scenery breathtaking. Suzie and Warrick were so kind, knowledgeable and helpful—they pushed up hills and through tight paths, and even carried me down stairs. This was, quite possibly, my favourite trip of the entire holiday.
If you have any questions about this article or my trip, please don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reposted with permission from Disability Horizons.