I didn't do much overseas travel when I was younger — I focused on my career, buying a house, and then raising my family.
But a few years ago I came to a realisation: if I wanted to see the world, it was now or never.
My mobility was slowly (but surely) getting worse. So I set about planning how I was going to travel.
I learned having a disability doesn't mean you can't travel — you just need to plan more. A lot more!
A life-changing condition with no answers
I have an undiagnosed spinal cord problem.
Basically I have idiopathic progressive spastic paraplegia, which means I'm slowly being paralysed from the legs up.
It was first noticed in 2000, but despite all the specialists and tests over the years, I'm no closer to a diagnosis or a cure.
I'm fortunate to still be able to mobilise to some degree on my crutches.
But I was forced to give up work in 2013 due to a slow recovery from some exploratory surgery and debilitating chronic pain.
Initially my focus was to try and secure my financial future — I had not intended retiring at 51.
Then I started to future-proof my home, in case I'm forced permanently into a wheelchair.
Then came that now or never travel moment.
A trial run, and then another trial run
My initial practice run was a two-week trip to Perth in late 2016 with the family.
It all went well. People everywhere were extra helpful — more than I'd expected.
We saw a concert at the Perth Arena, went swimming with dolphins at Rockingham, hired a car and drove some 2,500km around the south west region of WA, exploring the beaches, forests and other attractions.
Another "trial run" was done the next year: my wife and I went to Cairns and Port Douglas. Again, we had no issues despite just my wife accompanying me.
I found many attractions catered for wheelchair users including the Kuranda Railway and the Skyway Rainforest Cableway.
We even went to the outer Barrier Reef on a large catamaran for a day of snorkelling and swimming.
Confident that my wife and I could handle an overseas trip, we decided a 13-week European trip was in order, with me doing the planning.
I used a travel agent for the critical phases like flights and cruises, which made up eight weeks of the trip.
The rest — accommodation, car hire, what to see — I did myself.
I take everything with me: a wheelchair, electric drive, free wheels, spare parts, loads of medication.
There was the occasional "challenge".
Finding accessible accommodation is tricky, and something as simple as booking a hotel room can be a long process.
Even with lots of research, you don't always get it right.
For example, the online photos for an Airbnb in Lichtenstein didn't show the house was perched on the side of a mountain with an external spiral staircase down to the living area and the bedrooms on the bottom level.
Fantastic views though — and lots of exercise for my shoulders.
There was no ramp to board the fast train from Venice to Milan ... but an improvised fork lift did the job just as good.
Some of the other character-building incidents had nothing to do with my disability — blowing a tyre in rural Italy; getting most of our luggage stolen in France.
Being on strong medication for my chronic pain was another "challenge" to overcome.
I had to take 13 weeks' supply with me, plus some spare, just in case.
Some countries have strict laws in place for drug control, even prescription drugs, so I had to do my homework well in advance.
Enjoying the ride
Alaska and Canada was our next choice in 2019, and again we did a lot of cruising (it was, after all, before COVID-19).
This time the "challenges" were considerably less — now we were "experienced" world travellers!
My highlight was a helicopter flight and then dog sledding on a glacier in Juneau — a once-in-a-lifetime experience made even more memorable as my whole family was with me.
We also toured through Denali National Park and saw several bears, moose and other deer. We had a Dungeness crab feast in Ketchikan, swam with rays and sharks at Bora Bora, snorkelled the reefs in American Samoa, and spent four weeks driving through British Columbia.
Overall, holidays on cruise ships have been the most relaxing and the easiest for me, as:
- Most of the ship is accessible, and you don't have to leave for entertainment
- You travel to various ports without having to pack and unpack, or carry luggage
- Shore tours are rated for accessibility and most cater for people with disabilities
- There's an on-board medical doctor and staff — a big plus if things go wrong
Now COVID has basically killed the cruising industry for 2020 and probably much of 2021, I believe there will be a real pent-up demand for cruising holidays.
Though I believe the ships will have strict safety guidelines in place, I'd be nervous going on a cruise for a few more years yet, until there was a proven track record of limited or no infections.
Chances are that I'd initially return to cruising on Australian based cruises like around the Kimberley in WA or a round-Australia trip.
Overseas travel can wait for a bit longer.
Despite a few hurdles which every traveller comes across in one form or another, travelling with a disability is very much a do-able activity.
Across the 31 countries I've visited, and the 100,000 kilometres I've travelled so far, the vast majority of people were helpful.
Whilst travel in developing countries is generally more difficult due to the lack of infrastructure and facilities, it's exciting, eye-opening and manageable — with a bit of planning, perseverance and plain muscle power.
You just need to roll with the unexpected and enjoy the ride.
You can also listen to the piece Wil produced for ABC RN's Life Matters about travelling with a disability, and how the tourism industry can make travel more accessible.
The ABC partnered with International Day of People with Disability to celebrate the 4.4 million Australians with disability.