… The SmartDrive (update)

I’m glad I invested in this kit. It gets me up slopes, it helps me walk the dog and keep up with grown-ups. It’s reliable and the lithium battery lasts long enough for me (the Bluetooth wristband controller, without which the whole thing is dead-weight, does not). The only real problem is, the thing has a life of its own.

My home is surrounded by a path of fake york-stone flags, laid when I were a lad and a lot more mobile. Most times I negotiate these safely but, every so often, I time it wrong and bounce off an edge. It’s the same with kerbs and unexpected stones. The front castors stop abruptly and so do I. But no matter the obstacle, unless you stop it by tapping the wristband, the SmartDrive will power on at the selected speed. It will soon overcome the clamp and push itself through the vertical to cut out in a facing forward position.

And then, basically, you’re shafted. The only way to reset the device, back to the facing aft condition, is to get out of the chair. If there’s a seat nearby it’s a 30-second job but if not, all you can do is shuffle your sorry ass to the ground. It takes but a moment to reset but then, of course, you have to get back in the chair, a manoeuvre that I find increasingly difficult in me old age.

Dramatic reconstruction

If you spend your life cruising through airport terminals and exhibition halls, you have nothing to worry about. But if you live in the real world, this can be a real issue. You need to keep the clamp tight but there is a limit to the torque you can apply with the Allen key supplied.

This condition can be avoided by coupling a FreeWheel to the front of the chair. It lifts the front casters off the ground and makes life, with and without a SmartDrive, a lot smoother. Leaning backwards helps as well.

Finally, it’s a good idea to turn the device off when you don’t need it. Several times I have patted the dog and immediately run him over.

… To nowhere

Surprisingly cold at 0400

It was shaping up so well. We climbed the gangway, signed on, made up our bunks and drew foul-weather clothing. Unexpectedly, Jock volunteered us for an 04-0600 harbour watch. But after breakfast the next day, we learned that the Trust had failed a safety audit and we weren’t going anywhere soon.

The ship systems were fine but the MCA found fault at Head Office. We were hoping to sail on Saturday but when this was extended to Monday, Jock and I (with plenty of experience of weekends stuck alongside) pulled the plug. We could no longer make Oban on time and would have to head straight for the less-salubrious port of Campbeltown.

It is such a shame. We were settling in with a great bunch of able-bodied and disabled crewmembers, plus volunteer watchleaders and permanent crew with exactly the right attitude. The weather was set fair. What could be better?

We were promised expenses and offered refunds or a substitute voyage. We will try again so friends who supported my own effort can rest assured their contributions will not be in vain. As we used to say, it’s just life in a blue suit; a shipmate told me she had sailed with the Trust 20 times and this had never happened before.

I note the Lord Nelson will spend much of next January and February sailing from Antigua. Just a thought …

… The SmartDrive MX2+

This battery-powered clip-on doo-hicky may not extend your mobility horizons, but it should make your existing ones easier to handle.

I have been struggling up the uneven slope to my office lately, and searching for a little oomph to avoid my shoulders becoming any more knackered thatn they already are. The choice was between a hand-bike attachment at the front of my wheelchair and a SmartDrive underneath.

This kit from Cyclone Mobility mounts to the chair front

The former option — several makes are on the market — effectively upgrades the chair into an electric trike. Another term for it could be mobility scooter. I make the comparison only because your hands move from the push-rims to handlebars and all the power then comes from the front wheel. You just steer it. I once tried out my Dad’s mobility scooter and froze half to death after half an hour excercising only my right thumb. That said, the combo does look and perform much better than a scooter. It also lifts the front castors of the ground so you can try it out OFF ROAD!

With a SmartDrive, your hands must stay in contact with the wheels, if only because the thing will push when you start it and only stop when you tell it to. If you come up against a stone or tree-root and fail to avoid it, stop or lift the front castors manually, it will keep on pushing until, in a worst-case secanario, it tips you onto the ground and runs you over. Your own chair. Oh the indignity. But at least the blood keeps flowing around (and potentially out of) the body.

Safely at the office door

You control a SmartDrive through a Fitbit-style wristband with a Bluetooth connection. This feaures an accelerometer that reacts to taps on the push rim. Two taps to go, one to stop accelerating and two more to stop. After a couple of near disasters pushing/driving up my uneven slope, I have the hang of it. It helps if you (counterintuitively) lean backwards. I will now trial it at the local beauty spot where I exercise the dog; if that works, which it should, everything else will be a bonus.

I will also use it in conjunction with my FreeWheel, which will get round the castor problem. That should make for quite a nifty combo. More later.

… to the Amalfi Coast.

The Vertical Coast, more like. L arranged this trip and, if I had seen in advance photos of towns like Positano, Maiori or (our base) Minori, I would have whinged like a sailor denied shore leave in Rio. Our flights were to Naples so I thought I had only Visuvius to worry about.

Imagine my surprise, then, as the autostrada dipped down between two cliffs and transformed itself into the first of numerous hairpin bends. Truth be told, it was somewhat hilly. How hilly was it? It was so hilly that, whenever the Croche Rossa ambulance sped past our hotel, sirens blaring, we would get the Doppler effect two or three times as it zig-zagged up or down the main street. In fact it wasn’t hilly at all. It was edge-of-the-cliffy.

This gangway was a tight squeeze for the chair

But we managed, as always. Our hotel had a decent accessible room. The boats linking many of the neighbouring towns were do-able, if you were prepared to be manhandled up and down the gangways. Many of the restaurants have outside seating at street level. Most of the village piazzas are at least on the level. And of course for every uphill, there’s a downhill.

Just don’t expect much in the way of lifts, ramps or loos. We depended on taxis for every journey, and even then they insisted on sending vans. Easy for the wheelchair, not so much for Andy. Linda’s informal scouting revealed two, count’em two, accessible loos along the entire coastline — one in Ravello (doubling as a storeroom) and another up several steep steps at the Blue Bar on Positano beach. As for ramps, the Villa Rufalo in Ravello boasts the steepest, longest one I have ever been expected to negotiate. Definitely a group effort required but, if you can muster the support, the gardens and the views are stunning.

A whole ‘nother challenge in Ravello

We ate well. Most meals started with an amuse-bouche, the food revolved around seafood and lemons, the coffee was wonderful and, to finish with, there was often a free tot of home-made limoncello. Orchards lined every road, many protected by netting and some of that, so we were told, concealing illegal building projects.

We were about 90 minutes from Pompeii and that is a sight to behold. Our visit concentrated on the structure of Roman society and the precarious nature of one’s position as patrician, pleb or what-not. Our guide led us from the Coliseum entrance, avoiding the smutty mosaics that had been the focus of my first visit, back in the day. We got in free, by the way.

Traffic calming, Roman style

So I guess the point of this entry is to encourage any fellow wheelchair user who might feel intimidated by the obvious obstacles lying in wait along this dramatic coast, to have no fear. We spend our entire bloody lives improvising so it would be a shame not to take it up just one more notch, if you want to experience some of the most spettacolare scenery Europe has to offer.

… the GTM Mustang!

Mustang

Mustang; my new mount.

It’s a wheelchair folks, not a wild horse, but as I decide whether to buy it, you can tell it’s the sort of chair Johnny ought to have. He was measured up for one the other day, the way one might be for a decent suit. But instead of polite enquiries about the number of cuff buttons or whether or not to go for pocket flaps, I was offered titanium push-rims (+ 200 quid) or red-leather upholstery (another 140). No to both of those. As long as I don’t get friction burns on my palms, I don’t mind. And frankly, the more nondescript the bloody thing, the better.

I calculate this will be my seventh chair in, what, 33 years of life as a paraplegic? I don’t forget noticing from my bed at Stoke Mandeville, one of a small stack of brand-new black/chrome government-issue devices, with HEALEY scrawled in black felt-tip on a brown tag. I remember feeling depressed for a while but what did I expect?

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Quadra, a design classic

My second chair was a heavy blue Quickie (yes, really) Quadra, currently resident in my garage. Once I have replaced a missing spacer I shall donate it to a worthy cause.

No.3 was a red XLT (Extra-Light Titanium) that really was light; I sold it after shorter wheelbases became the norm. Four came from Bromakin, a supplier from Loughborough that for a while built its own and was run by folks who I preferred to my local bunch of sharks. It’s also titanium, unpainted, and I keep the frame as a spare.

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Not so Quickie, these days.

And five, another Quickie, is now nearly knackered. Ten years of bouncing down kerbs and jamming castors into ruts have taken their toll. I also depend on it far more than I used to, I think it’s been through three sets of tyres (kevlar-lined so zero punctures), but several sets of tubes as said tyres are a bitch to put on. One stat I do know for sure is that, in 32 years of navigating the world in one of these chairs, I have rolled through exactly one pile of dog-poo.

I thought about replacing my Quickie with the Tigra but have decided that weight, or lack of it, is everything. By dispensing with the folding forks I can save at least 2kg and 600 notes. The Mustang fits the bill so if I can find the dosh, I may well go for it. I have gone for the unpainted look, since you ask.

Look at me, not the fucking chair.

… to Victoria, by Sikorsky

If you need to travel from the commercial centre of BC (Vancouver) to its administrative centre in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, you could catch a ferry. it’s a 95 minute journey. Trouble is, the ferry doesn’t leave from Vancouver and it doesn’t arrive in Victoria. Or, you could nip down to the West Waterfront and fly from there straight to Victoria’s harbour heliport. Point-to-point, 35 minutes. Works for me.

Helijet operates one of the few scheduled helicopter services in the world, and has done so since 1986. I believe it has depended on the Sikorsky S-76 for all that time and, bearing in mind that the aircraft fly all day and shut down after every flight, the better to load and unload passengers, the record speaks well of its reliability. Just so you know.

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Johnny learns he can’t sit up front with the driver

We flew to Victoria in the morning. As a PLM (Passenger with Limited Mobility) I was loaded first and kept well away from the doors. Since I must have been the only passenger to have completed dunker training (albeit in the olden days), this affronted me somewhat. So I leaned over and noted the door-release routine.

Needless to say. the others never got to know what good hands they had been in.

20180810_125911Victoria appears more formal than its free-wheeling counterpart across the Georgia Strait. It boasts lots of statues and, in season, beautiful flower gardens bordering lush green parks. We hung around the elegant Empress Hotel until politely asked to leave; Juanita then visited the province’s parliament building while Johnny sat in the sunshine with a rug over his knees.

The Royal BC Museum is well worth a visit. We headed for the First Peoples gallery and walked through some really imaginative displays. Ceremonial masks and totem poles, and even some historic film-clips of early encounters with white settlers.

We wandered along the inner harbour wall, which is lined with plaques commemorating business, family and individual contributors to Victoria’s maritime heritage. Then, what with an extended lunch (we weren’t driving) and everything, it was soon time to head back to the heliport. Talk about scratching the surface.

Blog totem

 

… to Vancouver

Within two minutes of leaving our undamaged hire car on Granville Street, we picked up some groceries from (what I imagined to be) a store typifying the Vancouver vibe. Fresh fruit and vegetables, artisan coffee and a commitment to LGBT rights. The Grizzly Claw coffee was roasted by Kicking Horse. “From the heart of the mountains, a strong spirit roars … headed for a mug near you.” Now that’s Johnny’s kinda coffee..

We had rented a condo in Yaletown for the week and Ryan came round immediately, to show us around a city that he has plainly fallen in love with. We headed to Kitsilano for a rendezvous with his other love, Cheryl, then ate sushi and bought a shower stool.

On our first morning we headed downhill (always the preferred option in a wheelchair) towards the False Creek waterfront, to catch a SeaBus across to Granville Island Market. With the tide at low ebb, the ramp down to the pontoon was steep, and I would not have been able to get back up it on my own. However, 1) Juanita is a sturdy lass and 2) By the time we returned, as if by magic, the tide had come in a bit. How does that even happen?

20180808_103753There are two types of SeaBus catamarans; one for grown-ups and a second, larger craft with a ramp. Both chug around the harbour to what I am sure is a plan, and I loved the tendency for the skippers to chuck existing passengers off their boats, if new ones better suited their particular route. “There’ll be another one along in a minute folks!” Once aboard, it was a treat to view the downtown area on either side of the creek, as we mingled with kayaks, paddleboards and the odd gin-palace.

One more note on the ramps. Passengers to Granville Island and some other landings can use a series of shallower slopes that are much easier to negotiate. One of these is dedicated to former BC lieutenant-governor David Lam who, I was told, championed many access improvements to Vancouver’s complicated public transport network.

20180904_110745Granville Island hosts a number of public markets selling fantastic varieties of food, arts & crafts. We spent several hours sniffing around, at one point trying to eat an ice-cream as it melted onto my wrist and shorts, and listening to the buskers. I also bought, I can now reveal, this ceramic bird for Juanita’s birthday. Oh, and some maple-leaf ear studs acquired earlier, while in panic mode.

Ryan’s partner Cheryl is something of a whizz at ‘hahkey’ and we spent an evening watching her play an off-season match, at an eight-rink complex in Burnaby. Outside the NHL the opportunities for fighting are few-and-far between, so we were better able to appreciate her undoubted skill. She contributed one goal and two assists.

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¬°Fiesta Juanita!

On Juanita’s actual birthday the sky was cloudy (and somewhat smoky) and the wind strong enough for our whale-watching trip to be cancelled. So we consumed the traditional Healey Birthday Breakfast in the apartment and a picnic lunch in Stanley Park. Dinner was taken as planned, at the Seasons restaurant in Queen Elizabeth Park to the south of the city. Even with the reduced viz, the views over the city were dramatic and the meal was memorable. Close by the restaurant is the Bloedel Conservatory, a mini-Eden Project dome stuffed with exotic plants and free-flying birds. The big parrots like to perch under their own umbrellas.

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Lunch at Chamber

And we met up with Gordon, my old friend from No.179 Royal Navy flying training course. We went through the mill together for over a year, first at survival school and subsequently on Bulldog aeroplanes, then Gazelle and Sea King helicopters. Gordon progressed to become a fairly heavy-duty instructor on Sea Kings, before settling in British Columbia. He now trains crews with one of the biggest helicopter operators in the world.

Gordon and Lupita gave us lunch in Yaletown and had us round to their place in Burnaby for some excellent barbeque. My first-ever tot of Johnny Walker Blue Label may have been a mistake but getting up the steps to the front door, with Linda and Ryan to the rear, lifting my feet in turn to my command, required a level of coordination that would have been unlikely if attempted while sober. Gordy has yet to take that particular course.

It’s a cliche to vow to revisit the site of a memorable holiday, but in our case we have little choice. I can’t see Ryan returning to his tiny flat in Liphook any time soon. And we still have that whale-watching trip to do.

… the Okanagan Valley

To the west of the Rockies and south-east of Vancouver lies a fertile strip of land that’s home to British Columbia’s burgeoning wine industry and its longer-established fruit orchards. The many lakes also provide a popular vacation playground for thousands of Canadians with their RVs and trucks and boats. In August, the shorelines and better known wineries are packed with citizens of the world, but we also found a couple of quieter spots for a refuel and the odd glass or two.

20180804_113917Driving north-west from Revelstoke, we left the Trans-Canada for Highway 97A and soon came across the small town of Armstrong. By sheer chance we also came across the Brown Derby Cafe, a bustling diner along Pleasant Valley Road. What drew us in, though, was a chalk-board advertising ‘Full Breakfasts for $2.99’. $2.99? After days of overpriced hotel food we had to do that and we weren’t even hungry.

Clearly a local favourite, we sat in the front yard and swapped banter with the proprietor as we waited for our food. Afterwards I took the wide ramp inside and snuck into the bathroom which, while clearly a multi-purpose facility, was perfectly useable. The winters there are said to be not too harsh so, I believe I shall retire to Armstrong in due course and eat a full breakfast every day.

Not much to say about Kelowna; our hotel was in an unlovely spot off busy Harvey Avenue. Like true Brits, we left the car and hiked a mile west along it to the City Park, where we ate an ice-cream by the lakeside. For our return however, we offset ourselves a mere block to the north, parallel to Harvey, and discovered an entirely different town. Leon Avenue was quiet and leafy, lined with small parks and period timber houses. It seemed surreal that, 100 metres to the south, eight lanes of traffic continued to thunder by.

20180805_111813Our first Okanagan winery (how did that even become a proper word?) was Mission Hill Estate, a swanky place with obelisks, statues and even a bleeding amphitheatre. The setting is stupendous, however. The tasting rooms were packed with tourists who clearly were not aficianados like wot we were. We bought a bottle of their sparkling Exhilaration Brut (more of a mousseuse, IMHO) to celebrate Juanita’s imminent birthday.

We felt more at home at the Crush Pad Winery, off a proper winding country lane near Summerland. They specialise in raising organic grapes and wines, and take pride in storing the latter in concrete tanks for both making their own wines and selling to other estates. Being a bit further away from the Rockies, they have a little more flexibility over grape varieties than Mission Hill, say, during the short, intense growing season. Linda bought a bottle of white to go with the salmon that Ryan had just caught off Vancouver Island. He’s in bloody heaven, that boy.

20180805_171715Our sole AirBnB stay turned out to be at the St Andrews-by-the-Lake golf club, which rents out a row of rooms beneath the club house. Heather looked after us well, but beware the steep slope conecting one to t’other; I couldn’t do it on my oen. Beautiful setting though, I think you’ll agree.

The final winery stop was at Hester Creek, which is temperate enough to help them make a decent fist of reds. We tried their Character Red with cheese and olives on the patio, and bought a bottle of it to take to my friend Gordon’s for dinner in Vancouver. More of him later.

The closer we got to our final destination, the more nervous I felt about damaging the Terrain — especially when we took a wrong turning off the highway while in search for top-up fuel. I still didn’t understand the four-way crossing protocol. Stay cool, Johnny.

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… the Rocky Mountains trail

Call me a sentimental old fool but, as you join the Trans-Canada Highway out of Calgary, you can’t help feeling you’re blazing a trail into a strange new land. Imagine it. Just me and you, and maybe a dog named Blue, steering our trusty Conestoga wagon and team of four from the bountiful Alberta prairies, through the tempting temperate foothills, into a forbidding landscape of ice and rock. In the vague hope that somewhere wonderful just might lie beyond the horizon. Somewhere we might, one day, call home.

Luckily, today’s teamsters don’t have to take all the wrong turns, nor be fooled by every box canyon. Johnny drove his GMC Terrain hard from the get-go; hard enough at any rate to stay in the slow lane, along with some bloody big trucks. Juanita made the first of over 100 helpful commments about his driving.

Canmore was the first stop, a smaller town with more reasonably-priced accommodation than its more touristy neighbour Banff. The winter skiing resort has year-round gondola access to the 2,400 metre-high Sulphur Mountain. I was dubious of parting with the $64 fare (plus tax, annoyingly, like in the US), since the visibility was not great and, in peak season, it seemed suspiciously easy to book a slot.

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But I am glad Linda talked me into it. Sure, the visibility was affected by cloud, and smoke from the British Columbia forest fires. Yet you could see the peaks and, as the sun lowered, the cloud lifted to reveal more detail. There’s some fun stuff to do at the top; the ‘interpretive centre’ is actually quite good, the guides are helpful and we stayed for pretzels and beer with a man and his guitar.

There was a storm in the air and some lightning flashed nearby. One lady claimed she’d been struck by it, but only to the extent that her left foot tingled. Dicing with death, I tells ya.

20180802_110006From Canmore on to Golden, but not before a diversion to some of the most wonderful scenery I have ever clapped eyes on. The pictures speak for themselves. Lake Louise is hugely popular, both with pioneers like us and guests of the enormous Fairmont Hotel that borders it.

I had brought my blue badge from the UK and, over the whole trip, it must have saved us hours of tramping through car parks. They are signposted ‘full’ from about 10am and, by lunchtime, the roads to views like this are lined with parked cars. But where there were attendants, they always seemed to find space for us.

We also bought a National Park pass in advance, here. During our own trip we only had to flash it once so, probably, could have saved a few quid without it. Yet it is manifestly selfish not to make any contributiont to the upkeep of such wonders.

20180802_133411Emerald Lake is marginally less popular than Louise, probably because there just isn’t the same amouunt of viewing space. Yet it’s busy enough for tail-backs so, again, just keep driving. I wanted to hire a canoe but Juanita has depressingly little faith in my skippering skills. I used to navigate an aircraft carrier, I’ll have you know. The colours of the water in these images, by the way, barely do the true hues justice.

Do take care crossing the traffic flow on the Trans Canada. After stopping for gas near Emerald Lake, we spent ten minutes wating for a clear left turn onto the four-lane highway (those trucks travel deceptively fast). Later that day, someone died at the very same spot.

Golden was OK for a stopover but we were particularly taken with Revelstoke, which has much more of a small-town feel about it. It caters very much to the activity crowd so there are lots of purposeful young folk in hiking boots; many of the stores are also given over to the outdoor life. Lots of restaurants too and, since it was August, free music in the evenings from the town bandstand.

20180803_105459Midway between Golden and Revelstoke by the way, just off the Trans-Canada, lies the Hemlock Grove Interpretive Trail, a 350 metre, wheelchair-accessible boardwalk that explores an ancient forest of immense giant cedars and hemlocks. It’s a fascinating diversion that also makes for a useful lunchtime picnic spot.

As we left Revelstoke, Juanita announced we were also leaving the Rockies. I felt mortified that we hadn’t done nearly enough pioneering. But if we were done with the National Park, there were still lots of stupidly big stony hills ahead of us.