A Column by Hilton Purvis & Loretta Jakubiec
February - March 2000
wife and I have returned from a 6 week tour through Singapore and Australia
and thought you might be interested in some feedback. I am permanently
confined to a wheelchair through spinal muscular atrophy. For the purposes
of travel evaluations please bear in mind that I am lightweight, my folding
manual wheelchair is narrow (22 inches), and that we enjoy “walking” as
much as possible, often covering over 12 miles per day. We generally “hit
the streets” at around 09h30, and return to our accommodation after 21h00.
The “access” discussed here is obviously from a wheelchair
was warm, sometimes wet, clean, beautiful and personally hospitable, but not
very wheelchair friendly. We visited the Jurong Bird Park, the Zoo, the
Night Safari, Boat Quay, the business district, Orchard Road, Chinatown,
Little India, and Sentoza Island.
and pieces of Singapore are wheelchair accessible. They've got ramped
pavements, and some disabled toilets, but none of it really hangs together,
and their public transport systems are complete no-no's (i.e. MRT and
buses). We used cabs, but if you haven't got someone to lift you in and out
then they won't work. What I mean by "hang together" is that, for
example on Sentoza Island, the ground floor cable station level has a ramped
entrance and disabled toilets, and the 1st floor cable car station is ramped
and accessible, but there is no way of getting between the ground floor and
the 1st floor, other than up a long flight of stairs. The hotels seem to
think an accessible room means a spacious room, and therefore have no
concept of hand rails, roll-in showers, leg access under handbasins, etc. I
can’t comment on 5-star establishments. Singaporeans appear to believe
that one uses a wheelchair much like a skateboard or bicycle, i.e. to get
from A to B and then you get out of it and go the last couple of yards on
foot. They really don't seem to understand the circumstance of “permanent
confinement to a wheelchair”. This is most noticeable when one books a
day-trip. They will happily sit with you and discuss the days events, take
your money, issue the tickets, etc, and then express amazement when you
don’t leap out your wheelchair to climb the stairs into the tour bus! This
is no big deal to me, but it is worth bearing in mind when planning a trip,
or dealing with hotels, transport, etc. It is important to understand that
their culture pressurises them to never say “no”, regardless of whether
it is correct or not, they will always say “yes” to a question. If you
ask whether a room is accessible the answer will always be “yes”, even
if there are stairs at the front door!
This phenomenon is well documented, and is not intended as a
criticism, but rather a pointer for first-time visitors.
Bird Park is mostly accessible (including the mono-rail), as is the Zoo, and
the Night Safari (only one of the trams is accessible). Boat Quay, the
business district, Chinatown, and Little India offer limited access even if
you have assistance. Modern developments like the huge SunTec City
(with its 4-storey high “Fountain of Wealth”) are fully accessible, with
modern toilets and inter-level lifts. Other attractions, depending on your
tastes and size of wallet can include the Raffles Hotel, LamPaSat food court
in the downtown business district (almost 100 stalls offering a wonderful
selection of meals), the Satay Club, and Mustafa Centre (where else in the
world could you buy food, toothpaste and a wig from the same kerbside
vendor?!). The Indian Quarter is not wheelchair accessible, and the Chinese
Quarter offers very limited access.
Island, a type of seaside-resort-cum-Disney-experience, can be OK on a good
day, but hugely frustrating on a bad one. We hit a bad one . . . with the
mono-rail out of action, no accessible buses, no accessible trams, no
accessible paths or trails, and construction on the beaches. We were left
with only the roads as an option, and they can be very steep. We met a
middle-aged couple on Sentoza where the husband was also wheelchair bound
and they called it quits after an hour and headed back for the
“mainland”. Our feeling was that our time on Sentoza could have been
better spent elsewhere.
against this we found the people to be very friendly and generally quite
willing to assist here and there when needed. Singapore is
wonderfully green and lush (it’s not very far from the equator), with
beautiful roads and parkways covered in blooming flowers and creepers.
Service in stores and restaurants is excellent. Be
ready to become something of a local attraction. On more than one occasion a
food vendor would serve us a delicious meal and then sit down nearby and
watch us eat every morsel. Singapore comes in for a lot of criticism
regarding its laws governing social behavior, i.e. no spitting in the
streets, no littering, no jay-walking, etc.
Coming from South Africa where so many people seem to treat the
country as a rubbish tip we found this to be somewhat unfair on
Singaporeans, and found the clean and orderly state of their nation to be a
be go back to Singapore? . . . It was worth the first-time visiting
experience, and the food was good, but getting around was a real mission.
is an entirely different kettle of fish for a disabled person, and is by far
the most wheelchair accessible country we have visited to date (USA and UK,
wake up guys! you're lagging
behind). No matter where you go, from the smallest country town, to the
largest of the cities you will find ramps, accessible toilets, and
accessible transport. Don't get me wrong, it's not wheelchair paradise, but
it is a pleasure to travel in.
toured, in order, . . . Melbourne, Tasmania, the Great Ocean Road, the Snowy
Mountains, Canberra, the Blue Mountains, Sydney, Cairns, and Brisbane. We
used Ansett Airlines for the main legs, four Hertz hire cars, ferrys,
jetcats, cabs, and a train for
was warm and very walkable in terms of its topography and size. The Rialto
Towers provide great city views by day or night (plus a pretty good movie on
Melbourne). The SouthBank area (on the Yarra river) is a good place for
eating and strolling, with a great vibe on a balmy summers evenings as city
workers hold informal parties on the banks and watch friends rowing or
cycling by. The SouthBank development extends a long way down into the Crown
Casino complex for those seeking late night entertainment. Shoppers or
bargain hunters might enjoy the daytime Victoria Street Market, a huge
undercover collection of stalls selling clothing, gifts, food, and household
items. Sportspersons will also appreciate, as we did, the Melbourne Cricket
Ground, and the Tennis stadium (home of the Australian Open). The Chinese
(some great restaurants) and Greek Quarters are also worth a visit although
they can be tricky in places with a wheelchair. Melbourne pitches itself as
the “cultural” centre of Australia, and we would probably agree with
was simple and relatively unspoilt, giving the impression of being one big
rural community. We based ourselves in Hobart (only a one hour flight from
Melbourne) for three days, taking day trips down to the Port Arthur penal
colony museum, the Huon Valley and Hastings Forest, and Bonerong Animal
Park. Mt.Wellington offers very good views over Hobart and its
surrounds (lots of bays and inlets), and on a summers evening the Elizabeth
Pier down in the harbour is a great place to stroll and try some local fish
and chips. We then drove west to Russell Falls and Lake St.Claire, and on to
Strahan / Queenstown for the all day Gordon River Cruise through the
protected World Heritage Area which was a highlight. Then it was on to
Cradle Mountain and Launceston (Cataract Gorge) in the north. We covered
over 1000 miles in the hire car, it is not a small island!
Although Tasmania obviously forms part of Australia, it really is a
world apart . . . it has a farming community feel, there is no desire for
designer brand clothing, and the only people talking on cellphones are the
tourists. Their down-to-earth lifestyle is best demonstrated for us by the
“honesty box” system which we saw in the Huon Valley. These are
un-manned stalls, on the roadside, stocked with local fruit where one
deposits your money in a tin can, and take your bag of apples, relying
entirely on you to transact the deal honestly. It’s a throwback to times
gone by and incredibly refreshing to see.
on the mainland, the Great Ocean Road (west of Melbourne) rivals the USA's
Highway 1 and hugs a stunning and jagged coastline for 100-odd miles. The
Twelve Apostles is arguably its most well known rock formation, but don’t
miss out on London Bridge, The Grotto, and The Arch. Americans touring this
part of the world might find it strange to see so many places named after
their home country. We found it odd and wondered why the Australians felt a
need to use names like “Bel Air”, or “Monterey” when they quite
clearly will never be related back to Aussie!
We felt they needn’t have outsourced the naming of the district,
and should rather have used local naming conventions.
inland and east the we drove inland to the Snowy Mountains, using the little
town of Khancoban as our base. The weather turned wet and misty on us but we
did manage the Yarrangobilly Caves (wheelchair accessible). One of the
accessible caves has been kept in pristine condition (other than the mods
for access) and this was quite a breath-taking sight with some of the most
delicate and beautiful stalactite and stalactite formations imaginable. The
guide, who can assist with the wheelchair, was excellent.
east . . . Canberra was spacious, pretty and interesting, with an excellent
war memorial and museums. The Telstra Tower offers good elevated views of
the city and surrounds, and the large Lake Burley-Griffin
has accessible paths and walking trails in every direction. The city seems
to be styled on WashingtonDC with the parliamentary building at one
end of a long and wide pedestrian mall, and the war memorial at the other.
Blue Mountains (Katoomba) were misty and rainy during our time but this
seems to be perfectly normal weather conditions. We tried the SkyWay
cablecar and the Zig-Zag Railway (both partially accessible). The Zig-Zag
station is ramped and they’ve got a folding ramp onto the train but it is
a bit narrow. The Three Sisters is the main attraction in Katoomba,
and if its misty then the local iMAX theatre and its feature on the region
is a good option.
had high expectations of Sydney but it let us down slightly, providing us
with the worst accommodation of the trip (the YWCA) and some conflicting
railway access. The 2000 Olympics are being held very far away from Sydney
(you can't see the stadium from the Centrepoint AMP Tower), thank heavens,
because the city is a traffic nightmare. We quickly learned that portions of
the city are wheelchair no-go areas (terrible pavements and badly ramped),
but others such as Circular Quay, Darling Harbour, Chinatown, the the
botanical gardens are perfect. George and MacQuarie streets are
“wheelchair” access routes running north-south down either side of the
CBD, most of the other streets are probably best avoided unless you’ve got
a good pusher! The state
ferries in and around the harbor are accessible (some of the private ones
are not), as are those out to Manly and they’re great fun too. It is
quicker, far easier, and more scenic to catch a ferry from Darling Harbour
to Circular Quay than it is to try and “walk” it. One can enjoy a walk
under the famous Harbour Bridge, through the beautifully restored
“Rocks” district with its street markets and stores, across the front of
Circular Quay, then around the even more famous Opera House, on around the
seaward portion of the botanical gardens, past the well known Mrs
MacQuarie’s chair and end up passing the naval dockyard. If old buildings
are your thing then try the Queen Victoria Building (the QVB) and of course
the Rocks. One aspect of Sydney which was first-class was the choice of
eating establishments . . . most notably yum-cha (dim sum) and sushi. Kam
Sook’s Shark Fin Restaurant at the entrance to Chinatown seats approx. 800
diners and is an experience not to be missed, but don’t pass by an
opportunity to stroll around the sprawling Paddy's Market two floors
below at street level. We wanted to take in one of Sydney’s famous
beaches, and Manly won. We took the state ferry out, and the jetcat back,
and did a whole lot of walking and relaxing in open air coffee bars in
was our springboard to the Kurunda tropical rain forests, and the Great
Barrier Reef. Sunlover Cruises helped us achieve the goal to get out to the
GBR and a genuinely helpful crew went out of their way to make it an
enjoyable trip. Their jetcat has an onboard wheelchair toilet and accessible
tables inside, though we preferred the feel of wind in our hair on the outer
deck. Their semi-submersable sub and reef-based pontoon is accessible. The
little town of Kurunda can be accessed via a SkyRail (7.5km accessible cable
way, 70cm limit on wheelchair widths), or steam rail, each traversing the
beautiful tropical rain forests and the spectacular Barron Falls. A
brilliant route and well worth the whole day we gave it. The town of Cairns
does not have much to it, it’s really just a tourist base, but the
sidewalk café’s offer great places to relax after a hot day on the reef
or in the forest!
is another river based city and was our base for doing the usual Aussie
tourist activities of koala hugging, kangaroo feeding, and watching sheep
shearing which we did at both the the Lone Pine Reserve and the Australian
Woolshed Reserve. Brisbane's
SouthBank development combining restaurants, swimming / walking / running /
cycling facilities, open air auditoriums, the National Gallery, university,
an inner-city beach!, open-air markets, etc is a great place to visit by day
or night. The whole area is very accessible. The Brisbane River winds
very lazily through the city and suburbs and hitching a ride on one of the
commuter jetcat's and riding it to the end of its route, and back, proved to
be a great way of seeing the area. They've also got a very nice botanical
garden in the city (accessed by the jetcat if you wish) with a huge Banyan
Vine (quite a sight). We also took a day out to enjoy Buderim and the
seaside town of Maracoochydore (an hour north of Brisbane), all close to the
Glass House Mountains.
Our blood pressure rose ever
so slightly on departure from Brisbane when the airport staff expected me to
part company with my wheelchair in the arrivals hall over an hour before
boarding and sit in one of their ghastly creations. It's a crazy system,
which completely breaches their security (the wheelchair collection point is
only 10 yards from an exterior door and they undergo no explosive or drug
checks). It's also unacceptable for a wheelchair user. This was “rather
clearly” explained to them, and they left me in my wheelchair until
Aussies are a genuinely friendly nation and really live up to their favorite
saying of "no worries mate!". Nothing is ever a worry and we were
offered assistance by young and old alike. They are incredibly law abiding
(they even leave disabled parking bays open for disabled people!) and the
town and cities are clean and free of litter. Many of their public toilets
looked more like doctor's surgery's they were so spotless!
We could get used to living in a country where there seems to
be no litter, where people are courteous, where the speed limit is followed,
where people are trusting (we usually only paid for the accommodation on the
mornings we left), and where the older generation seems to be able to afford
to enjoy their retirement (there are a large number of retired Austalians
Would we go back to Aussie?
. . . you bet! . . . we’re already planning the next trip to take in the
west, central and north of the country . . . watch this space!
: There appear to be
fairly strict guidelines in Australia with respect to hotel’s / motel’s
being able to advertise themselves as having wheelchair accessible rooms.
This has its pro’s and con’s. The pro’s are that if an establishment
says it is accessible then one can expect a high standard and good
facilities (i.e. no surprises). The con’s are that not many establishments
are able to offer this level of access, and those that do are expensive.
Sydney’s YWCA does disprove this point, but then it seems to be an
exception in more ways than one!
The flight from Cape Town to
Singapore was a rather deadly 14 hours!
(the flight back went a full 15.5 hours thanks to us having to skirt
a cyclone). The airline took care of us, but didn’t do anything special.
Their provision of individual tv screens (and the choice of approx 20
channels) for each seat is something of a bonus and helps pass the time when
the discomfort gets bad. Watch out for Singapore Air’s “package
deals”. They will tell you a hotel is accessible when it is not
(e.g. the Peninsula, and
the Excelsior), and they will sell you bus trips which you cannot get on to.
Rather do the land arrangements yourself.
Ansett were our
“domestic” carriers around Australia and did a good job. Again, nothing
special, but also no hassles.
It’s no reflection on the
airlines (because it is not directly under their control), but passenger
handling from airport to aircraft and visa versa is where we encountered the
most problems. The airport wheelchairs are literally “wheelchairs from
hell”, but more importantly they don’t work. I can’t believe that
airport companies have not managed to come up with a decent aisle-chair.
Their current models have no upper-back, or neck support, the armrests are
too low to provide lateral support (and they remove them anyway when going
down the aisles). Singapore Airline’s chairs use a solid board for the
seat which is incredibly painful. Come on guys . . . a fixed frame chair,
sling seat, high-back sling backrest, lap belt, chest belt . . . simple,
easy, safe and cheap . . . it’s not rocket science?!
No hassles with Hertz at all
. . . we used them in Tasmania (Toyota Seca), along the Great Ocean Road
(Nissan Pulsar), in Cairns (Nissan Pulsar), and in Brisbane (Mazda Metro).
All bookings were done on the Internet. Enough room in the cars for the two
of us, the luggage in the trunk, and the wheelchair on the back seat. We
always arranged to collect, and return, the car from the airport building.
We used cabs in Singapore,
Melbourne and Sydney without any problems. The drivers were both willing to
stop for the wheelchair, and to assist in loading if needed. Indeed in
Singapore, if one is able to transfer into a cab, this is the best bet to
These were a hassle in
Singapore because they are not accessible at all. At best one can try a
mini-bus but transfers might prove difficult. At worst one an be faced with
a double-decker coach accessible only via narrow, winding, and steep metal
stairs. Didn’t see any accessible buses in Australia although they are
supposed to be there.
We used ferries and jetcats
often during the trip, both for harbor cruises (in Sydney, Brisbane), scenic
cruises (Tasmania, Sydney), and for general day-to-day commuting. Strange as
it may seem the ferries provided us with the easiest form of transport, with
no hiccups at all.
We used the public train
system only once in Australia, in Sydney, to get to an outlying suburb.
Whilst we did manage it (thanks to some willing strongmen) was not really
practical since the suburban destination station could only be exited up a
flight of stairs.
This network of information
centres is a real bonus for travelers, and once we had cottoned on to
looking out for the famous “i” it made arriving in new destinations a
pleasure. They are usually positioned near the entry point of the town and
are a valuable source of info on accommodation, things to do, notable
sights, transport, dining, etc. Many of them offer an accommodation booking
service, i.e. they will phone, book, and confirm accommodation right then
and there while you wait. In Australia the “i’s” are staffed by
volunteers and they are doing an excellent job.
For us, part of the whole traveling
experience is to try the local foods wherever possible. In Singapore this
was a source of great pleasure since we enjoy the Asian style of cooking
(dim sim, wontons, laksa, mee, stir-fry, etc). We also like the fact that
most of the Chinese-style foods are cooked on-the-spot thereby providing a
degree of freshness. Food courts (found in the basements of most large
shopping complexes) are the way to go for sheer variety, but some of them
can be inaccessible in the evenings.
In Melbourne we ate a lot of
interesting and affordable Chinese meals as they have a strong and active
community in the city. In Tasmania and along the Great Ocean Road we ate a
lot of fish, inland we turned to local fare, in Canberra it was Asian again
(a seriously big choice in the suburb of Dixons), Sydney was a veritable
feast of Chinese and Japanese!, and Cairns was a mixture of fish and
Chinese. Brisbane was pretty disappointing foodwise, with our choice of
restaurants serving very old, very frozen, very fried, and very tasteless
food for very high prices. The Australian food courts seem to only cater for
the daytime traffic and close down in the later afternoon.
In Australia we
“discovered” the phenomenon known as “the club”. These are the
Retired Servicmen’s League (RSL) clubs located in virtually every town, no
matter how big or small, offering dining, sporting and gambling facilities.
If one is looking for a simple, hearty meal one need look no further. For
AUS$25 a couple can expect to enjoy a meat-and-3-vegetable meal, washed down
with a glass of house wine. Sometimes they can even surprise you and come up
with a gem of a meal as they did for us in the little town of Seymour.
For those who enjoy eating
outdoors, or picnic-ing, there is the Australian “institution” of the
"barbie" (or barbeque). It seems almost impossible to drive 5
miles without coming across a neat, clean, and fully functioning barbie
alongside the road, or even in the town. You will also find them in the
national parks, game parks, public parks, and usually outside visitor
Based on past tour review feedback some folks find our comments a bit forthright, but we say it the way we see it. We have repeatedly proved that traveling in a wheelchair is neither daunting, nor limiting, and hope our experiences will be of benefit to anyone who is may be planning a tour of Singapore or Australia. Please do not hesitate to contact us should you require any additional information.
Hilton PUrvis & Loretta Jakubiec