It’s 10am and the fog is still heavy. We’re waiting under a large steel-roofed shelter, surrounded by tall mountain ash. Half of us are in wheelchairs; all of us are dressed in an embarrassment of polyfleece. A boiling urn clicks on and off as we warm our hands around hot drinks and nibble homemade cake.
We’re at a YMCA recreation camp in Mount Evelyn, at the foot of the Dandenong Ranges, for an accessible outdoors day. It’s a chance to try adapted equipment and for some, including me, an opportunity to get re-acquainted with the great outdoors.
We meet Jason Ellery, program co-ordinator from the YMCA, who arranged the day. He wears a heavy jacket over a hoodie and dark jeans. We scan the off-road wheelchairs, wheelchair attachments and recumbent handcycles parked nearby and speculate about the weather.
Hot drinks drained, our group of about 30 wheelies, carers, family, volunteers and park staff file in to the main room of a wood-panelled hall. A choir is practising next door. Jason takes the floor, and it’s clear he’s more than qualified to lead today. High-octane, adrenalin sports such as wakeboarding, downhill mountain-biking and snowboarding dominated his calendar until a snowboarding accident in Canada six years ago. Since then, he’s got his rush other ways, playing wheelchair rugby at an international level, skiing and off-road hand-cycling.
In 2015, after a stint of work experience at YMCA Camp Manyung, he started discussions with camp manager, Maree Feutrill, eventually coming on-board in 2017.
In the hall, there are introductions and an outline of what’s ahead. We watch a short video by Parks Victoria, which encourages those with mobility issues to enjoy the state’s natural wonders. It advocates using a ‘Trailrider’—an off-road Sherpa-driven wheelchair. The video shows riders and helpers enjoying bush tracks under blue skies, and sunny vistas of the Grampians and Wilsons Prom. Outside the hall, rain runs down the window.
We head out into the wet and survey the machines. I’ve tried the Trailrider before—a few months ago. Today, I’m keen to try a handcycle. I look them up and down—or rather, from side to side: they’re low, and longer than I expected. A handful have been released from clean showrooms into the wild for us to try. There are three-wheeled and four-wheeled bikes, ones you kneel into and ones with fancy racing gears.
A sporty orange number sitting low to the ground takes my fancy. The XCR has three 26-inch wheels, one at the front and two at the back. The chain and crank drive the front wheel. Gripping the handles and rolling them forward in a circle turns the front wheel and propels the bike—you pedal with your hands. Without much of an invitation, I transfer into the low-lying beast and, sitting reclined, slowly start out on the gravel carpark.
I have to immediately disengage the part of my brain that judges what terrain I can tackle. Unlike my day chair, this bike easily rolls over uneven ground. A cross-country handcycle, the XCR is at home off-road. The green and red lights that go off in my head are now all lit green.
That’s not to say it’s easy. The hand cranks are stubborn from a standing start and right now the gears are beyond my grasp—the goal is to just get moving. I cautiously head from the carpark out onto the grassed area.
There are a few of us in this sodden paddock, trying out the equipment and dirtying up some expensive-looking toys from GMS, MagicMobility, Adaptive Concepts, Alter Technology and ParksVic. A favourite gadget among the group is a power-assist wheel that clamps to the front of a wheelchair, transforming it into a motorised three-wheel scooter. (Batteries can last up to 50 kilometres, so they’re particularly handy if you have limited arm function or you’re tackling long distances. Once you get where you’re going you can uncouple it and have your day chair back. There aren’t many wheelies that wouldn’t find that useful.)
Rolling through puddles and over clumps of grass on my XCR feels like an appetiser: this thing could devour mountains—it seems unbreakable. I wonder what it could do with someone experienced at the helm.
Unfortunately, it has the turning circle of a road-train. I need about 10 metres to about-face. I do a few gigantic circles and snake around before pointing it back to base. Riding in I ease on the hand controlled brakes. I want a trade-in for something a little more … compact.
My second bike, Jason’s GreenSpeed ‘Hand Magnum’, has two wheels at the front and one at the back—a kind of reverse tricycle or ‘tadpole’ design. The rider sits higher and the wheels are mostly under rather than alongside you. It’s also shorter, making the turning circle much tighter. I’m sitting more upright in this bike and it allows me to see the surrounds a bit better. Pushing the hand controls away from me, the bike pushes forward and I’m off again.
The drizzle has turned to rain, but it doesn’t seem to slow the bike. It easily rolls across tufts of wet grass and deepening mud patches. Jason makes his way out to see how I’m getting on (or maybe to check I’ve not disappeared with his baby!). Test-driving a motorised upright wheelchair, he joins me in the drizzle—giving me the run-down on the gears.
Unlike the XCR, the brakes aren’t on the hand controls but down near the seat. ‘Hard to get to in an emergency?’ I ask. ‘Not if you’re prepared,’ Jason replies. I’m uncertain about this feature: surely if you’re prepared, it’s not an emergency?
The drizzle is easing off as I steer the Magnum back across the tufts of grass. I’m mindful not to take any paint off the parked cars and ease on the brakes as the bike glides under cover.
Clambering across into my day chair, I can feel a slight weariness in my shoulders and stomach. I know tomorrow I’ll feel it twofold, even though it was just a half-hour ride.
I chat to Jason while downing more hot tea, cake and a few sausage rolls that have appeared. They’re calories I’ve definitely earned.
The sky is clearing and we head inside for another short video presentation—this time it’s about paraplegic adventurer Dave Jacka. Dave’s experiences are the kind most of us can only dream of. He’s best known for flying a light plane, adapted with hand-controls, around Australia.
Does he have resources most of us don’t? Yes. But it’s still one hell of an undertaking.
His next self-initiated challenge was rowing the entire 2500 kilometres of the Murray River. Not bad for a bloke who can’t grip a paddle and has little to no core strength.
On the video, Dave explains that all his adventures are exercises in risk mitigation and relationships. Be prepared, he says, and maintain a great crew of positive problems-solvers.
It’s a great message to take home. Jason wraps up the day by thanking everyone, and by the time I roll outside the gear has gone and sun is trying to break through. The fire is still burning and there’s some cake left, but the crowd has vanished.
Waiting by the fire for my ride, I meet Bruce, the caretaker. It’s dead quiet, other than the occasional bird call—which he identifies. We talk about Tasmania, feral cats and being outdoors—I could talk to Bruce for hours. I look at my phone—the first time I’ve done so all day, mercifully. But it’s time to go, the taxi is arriving. Today is a reminder, with its hands on my shoulders: ‘You’re away from the city in this serene, healing environment. Beautiful, isn’t it?’