Ports, Pineapples, Pies and Paradise – The story of my adventurous road trip to the Sunshine coast, during Autumn of 2017

The funny thing about going on holiday is that no matter how old I get, the feeling of anticipation leading up to the day of departure is exactly the same. Like an overzealous child, I had been counting down the weeks and days that led up to the trip with much enthusiasm. The excitement finally reached its pinnacle when the car was eventually packed and we were rolling out of the mother city, Cape Town. It was Easter Friday and we were on our way at last.

Although I had made many short trips and enjoyed a few weekends away with my wife, Tamlyn, this would be the first proper holiday as such that I would have since going blind. The months leading up to the trip had proved to be both busy and exhausting, so the holiday was really something that I looked forward to.

We would drive a distance of over two thousand kilometers over a period of just over two weeks. Our travels led us from Cape Town, along the famous Garden Route, where we would spend the first long weekend. Then on to the Eastern Cape for a one night stop in the Algoa Bay city of Port Elizabeth, where we would get to meet up with some old friends. The furthest point we would reach was the little seaside town of Port Alfred. There we would spend a little over a week before turning back towards the Western Cape. Our route home would be somewhat different though. We would skirt the northern part of the Garden route this time. Veering away from the coast and heading through the mountains. We would touch the famous Baviaanskloof area before meandering through the semi-arid area known as the Klein Karoo, then home.

As we drove away from home, leaving behind our confused looking furry kids in the care of my mother, I popped a cd into the car’s player and sat back to enjoy the trip. I grew up listening to music from the 80s through my childhood and teenage years, the collection of music I carried for this trip was therefore predominantly from that era. The first album I blindly pulled out and slid into the radio was the greatest hits from Alphaville. The first track on the album was ‘Forever Young’ and I could not resist turning up the volume as loud as the car’s sound system could go.

As I sat there singing out the lyrics I felt the car swing left. My good wife had taken the wrong turn and although I could not see this, I knew that there should be no left turns just yet on our route.

I turned down the music and enquired, “Tamlyn, where are you going?”

After realising her mistake and putting us on the wrong freeway, we both laughed. This road would have taken us in the opposite direction that we needed to travel. The blind man would have to be the navigator again. My lovely wife was obviously already feeling relaxed and just going to sit back and drive wherever the road led. I would have loved to be the one behind the wheel. I really miss driving, even though I did not really much care for long distance roads behind the wheel of a car during my sighted years. My choice of travel was always that of two wheels rather than four. Somehow, when you cannot have something, you want it more. But alas, they have not brought out a 50 meter long white mobility stick for automobiles yet. I would have to accept being the passenger. At least I was playing shotgun. And yes, I would be the navigator.

Now you may ask yourself how a blind man can navigate. I guess it’s partly because of my good memory. This is tested when roads change and new buildings and developments arise, but generally I get it right. A couple of years ago. I went away for a weekend with another blind friend and when one of my sighted mates heard where we were going, he decided to ride out on his motorcycle and join us for a BBQ one afternoon. On arrival, he commented that he had not felt very confident about finding us. He had been given directions by me, a blind man, who had originally gotten those directions from another blind man. The irony of it all is that we as blind people always need to make sure to get and give the best directions. Needless to say, our friend found his way no problem.
As we left the city in our rear view mirror and wound our way up Sir Lowry’s Pass on the N2, my good wife gave me a continued audio description of the scenes we were passing. Table Mountain towered far behind us, through some fog. Being a long weekend, there were many cars navigating the same road as us. The Steenbras Dam on top of the pass was frighteningly low. We had been having a terrible drought in the Western Cape. The farm lands were a dull faun colour rather than their usual lush and moist green that would have been expected for this time of year.

Our first stop was at the famous farmstall called Houw Hoek. This place is a regular favourite of ours. The crowds were there in full swing and the line to get to the bakery proved something of a gauntlet. Everyone was looking for a cup of coffee and a freshly baked pie. By the time we made it to the front of the queue, all the sausage rolls were sold out, to my dismay. We settled for a couple of pepper steak pies, a chocolate brownie for me and a slice of granadilla cheese cake for Tamlyn. As we stepped out of the busy little shop and started to make our way to the little concrete tables under the trees, the rain began to fall. Our brunch would have to be enjoyed road house style in the comfort of the car. We sat and ate our hot pies while the rain fell hard around us. The windows misted up. Alphaville blared out the speakers. It felt great to be on holiday at last.

Our first overnight stop was for three nights over the Easter weekend in Knysna. The little apartment we rented through Air BnB proved to be excellent. Our hosts were very kind. They had supplied the apartment with fresh fruit, yogurt, bacon and eggs as well as some fresh orange juice. Tamlyn even got a bottle of red wine.  The place was perfect for our city weary bodies and minds. The deck overlooked the Knysna Lagoon. Positioned high-up on the hill, the home was surrounded by indigenous forest filled with wildlife. The apartment was so tranquil, that for the first day of our holiday, we did not even leave the place. We lounged in front of the MacBook and played some old episodes of Boston Legal while the rain passed.

On the Sunday, we finally went to explore the town. The crowds were still thick and most of the tourist hot spots were very crowded. We did not mind and rather went and strolled around the town centre. It was pretty deserted with it been a Sunday and most of the shops closed. I could smell the lagoon in the distance and felt the shade and sun variation as we walked under the big trees that lined the streets.

We bought some groceries and headed back to the apartment, with its fantastic gas barbeque grill, to cook up a feast.  We lounged on the deck watching the sun set and listening to birds. Best of all. There were no crowds.

Knysna is one of my favorite little towns in South Africa. It is built along the banks of a lagoon that leads out to the hidden ocean beyond the Knysna Heads that stand sentinel at the entrance to the lagoon. Trees grow thick, mountains tower on both sides of the valley and forests lap at the back of the village centre. The best part of being in Knysna, is the friendly people. The residents are made up of artists and hippies that love the outdoors and let their lives overflow into nature. Everyone is happy and while walking around the town, many people greet and stop for a chat. In Knysna, nobody is a stranger for long.

Our next stop, early on the Monday morning was the famous Knysna Elephant Park. This sanctuary primarily cares for orphaned and abused elephants situated between the town of Knysna and the next place, called Plettenburg Bay. I had been corresponding with the marketing manager of the sanctuary for some time. He had tasked me with writing an article about the park and its mighty Ndlovu and giving them something of a report on how accessible a blind man’s visit would be. You can read the article here if you like:

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/blindscooterguy.wordpress.com

The visit was excellent. One of the coolest things that have happened to me in my blind years. I was in fact the first known blind visitor to the park. Standing and experiencing an elephant without sight was exhilarating. Read the article and you will see what I mean.

After spending a few hours at the park, we drove through to the next big city, a few hours further down the road. Port Elizabeth is a city built along the seaside of the Algoa Bay. I had lived there many years earlier, but had not been back without my eyes. I was quiet alarmed to realise how things had changed. New roads and many more businesses set up. The town was a hive of activity when we arrived. I was grateful for the assistance that the navigation App Waze offered us. I could certainly not have found my way to our accommodation.

The place we stayed at was tiny and had something of a strange smell, but we were only going to sleep there for the one night so we were not too worried. We were happy that there was a parking garage for the car. This meant that most of our stuff could just stay in the car through the night. We walked down to the beach front where we met some friends for sundowners.

Our rendezvous point was a beach side restaurant at Shark Rock Pier. Although it had excellent views of the beach and ocean, the place turned out to be a bit of a dive. The staff seemed exhausted after the crazy Easter weekend. I knew the feeling well. Owning and operating a restaurant over Easter weekend is really tough. The difference between the Easter peak and the other holiday times is that although both are equally busy, the other holidays come in steps. Over December for example, schools break up. This brings the first crowds. Then businesses close and the next wave descends. By Christmas day you have gradually gotten used to the masses and the juggling seems somewhat manageable. Then, over the following week or so, the masses depart in stages. Easter is different though. One day you are dead and then a tsunami of holiday makers flood in. From a couple of tables a night to a long line of patrons all fighting for a meal. It is chaos. I certainly don’t miss the years that I spent sweating in front of a kitchen grill.

The first friend to come and meet us is an old mate from my scuba diving days. David lives and works in PE now and sat telling us all about his work challenges and frustrations. He works for the city as the person who travels around and tests the drinking water. He was finding work tough and had begun counting down the years and months until he reached his retirement. He dreamed about settling down in Cape Town, where his home actually is. He would dive and enjoy what Cape Town could give him. PE had not proved to be his favourite place. It is a city that is very clicky and unless you get out and join a club or something, you could easily be excluded. I had  however found the years that I had lived in PE to be great. I had found a place at the local yacht club. Sailing had filled every spare minute I had. I do imagine that if not for me been a part of that click, life would not have been as friendly in PE. Ironically called the friendly city.

The next guests to arrive were something of a treat. Thanks to a reconnection on Facebook, I got to spend some time with a friend from primary school that I had not seen in over thirty years.

While attending primary school in the Gauteng city of Johannesburg, I had lived in the suburb of Randburg for some time. My school was called Bordeaux Primary. Given that my folks did a lot of moving around during my school going years, I had to move schools too. Although I only attended Bordeaux Primary school for two years, my fourth (standard 2) and seventh (standard 5), it is undoubtedly the school that I most fondly remember. The people were great and the scholars all had such school pride. There is nothing French about the school other than its name, given by the suburb that it is located in. It’s a pity really, I am sure that the pupils would have loved fancy French patisserie at the tuck shop rather than cheap hotdogs.

My primary school friend, Claudia, had lived about half way between the school and where our home was. I had often walked her home and probably would have pulled on her pigtails if she had had any. Claudia was, in those years, sporting a trendy mohawk-style-brush-cut-mullet ‘do, or at least I remember something like that. Of course she is no longer the little girl and the 80s hair do is long gone. Her cheerful and bubbly personality is still in full swing though. We immediately hit it off and got into a couple hours of remembering names and taking a walk down memory lane. Claudia and her husband Ty are warm, friendly, energetic and positive couple and we had a great evening out. Many laughs were shared and I am sure that after ten minutes in my company she forgot that I could not see.

On arrival back at our little room. I got a text from my friend Sven, also of Bordeaux primary. He had unfortunately forgotten the rendezvous, thinking it was scheduled for the following night. Sven is a good friend who has connected with me a few times in the recent years in both PE during my 2013 trip there and at our home more recently. I even have had the pleasure of cooking lunch for him and his father when they were down visiting in Cape Town. Yes, the blind scooter guy is sometimes also the blind chef guy.

We left Port Elizabeth very early the following morning, choosing the fresh air rather than the strange smelling little room. Our breakfast stop was the famous Nanaga farmstall.

I had been regaling Tamlyn with stories of their legendary pies, but I don’t think she really got it until we stopped outside. It was just a few minutes before 8am, their opening time, and already there was a parking lot full of cars all carrying hungry people with meat pies on their minds.

Nanaga is really something special. Originally a small roadside stall, it became famous for making the best meat pies and Roosterkoek. That is a roasted bread prepared on an open flame. It is delicious. Traditionally it is served with butter and apricot jam, but today you can get pretty much anything on it. We chose to sit in the restaurant while most of the line rushed the opening doors and headed straight for the little deli, and the pie counter to be precise.

Our breakfast was one of the best I have ever eaten. Served with a fresh roosterkoek and a jug of local pineapple juice. The area is most famous for pineapple farming and man oh man do they make a great juice. It is so thick and chunky. Imagine the best, juiciest and freshest large pineapple crushed and served ice cold in a beer-style mug. You need to eat the juice with a spoon it is so thick. It is like a dessert rather than a drink. I was fine with that.

After our impressive breakfast, we popped into the deli and stocked up on some pies and take away roosterbrood for later that day. My favourite meat pie they do is most probably the lamb and mint one, but they carry such a wide range that it is actually hard to choose a favourite, not for lack of trying them all. The list is endless: Cheese and bacon, chicken, steak, pepper steak, spinach and feta, sausage roll, lamb and mint, venison, wild boar, Cornish, lamb curry. My mouth waters just thinking about the smorgasbord of flavours encased in a buttery flaky golden pastry crust. We left Nanaga reluctantly, armed with koeksisters, pecan nuts, pies and roosterkoek. We almost made enquiries about nearby accommodation so we could rather eat there every day of our holiday. But sanity prevailed (as well as our waste lines) and we hopped back onto the N2.

We stopped off in the villages of Bushman’s river mouth and Kenton-On-Sea next. Both are neighboring holiday towns, each located at the mouth of a river right along the beach. Everything smelled so fresh and green. Trees grew thick and the beaches thick misty scent smacked of the ocean. This area had very obviously not been suffering the same lack of rain as Cape Town.

Tamlyn excitedly described the scenes to me as we drove down to the beach and strolled along the river banks. She was really impressed by the fact that there was little or no litter and that the air smelled so fresh. I commented to her describing what I could smell, the ocean, the green grass that led from the car park up the dunes, the sweet smell from one of the houses bougainvillea bramble bush and yes, the clean fresh ocean breeze. I remember also telling her what sounds I could distinguish. Bird life everywhere, kids playing in the sand on the beach, excited teenagers somewhere on the opposite side of the parking lot getting ready to go surfing, in the distance a dog barking as its owner threw a ball or stick along the beach for it to play fetch, fishermen working on their small boats anchored in the river estuary and then I even picked up the sound of an old couple strolling down the road and coming to rest on a bench not far beyond the one we had claimed. It is really amazing how much a blind man can see when the other senses are used.

Port Alfred has long been one of my favourite small towns. It reminds me a little of Knysna, but remains unspoilt by crowds of tourists and overpriced eateries. The area is lovingly known as the sunshine coast. This is a fitting name given that it is the place in South Africa that gets the most sunshine days each year. The beaches are clean and never swamped by masses of visitors. The restaurants are good, the air is super clean and the people are the friendliest that I have ever met in South Africa. Life is good for the locals and they enjoy living every moment. Having not been to my favourite little seaside village in a few years, I was thrilled to find out that not much had changed. I had been raving about the place to Tamlyn for many years and she too was looking forward to checking it out.

Our accommodation for the 8 nights we stayed was at a place called Bretton Beach Crest. Our little cottage was situated right in the middle of a forest that is nestled between sand dunes just meters away from the beach. The prefabricated beach shack has spectacular sea views and comes well appointed. There is a patio with a barbeque area, some chairs and a table, all under the shade of the stoop. Two benches sit along the wall from where you can enjoy the views over the ocean. Inside the place is a lounge with two single beds that double as sofas, a large wooden dining room table and even a small television with some basic channels – which did not even get turned on during our stay. The kitchen is well equipped with everything you need to make great meals during your stay. A fridge freezer, all cutlery and crockery. A gas stove and plenty of packing and working space. There is a bathroom with a shower over the bath and a separate toilet. The main room has a very comfortable queen sized bed with a pretty good mattress and the second room has a set of bunk beds. There are plenty of warm blankets and a large bucket of drinking water was provided. The tap water is a bit salty to drink. The cost of hiring this place was just R275 a night. That equates to around $20US per night for the place. A bargain if you ask me.

Our stay was so comfortable that a couple of our days were wasted at the cottage just sitting around doing nothing more than chatting, sleeping, eating and staring at the sea. Yes, I know I cannot see it with my eyes, but rest assured, I knew it was there and enjoyed experiencing it with my other senses.

Port Alfred has a population of around 26000 people and has a rich history. Established in the early 1820’s by British settlers, it was primarilt a colony that acted as a buffer between the Cape and the Xhosa people. Originally two towns, in 1860, when Queen Victoria’s son Prince Alfred visited, the name was changed in his honour. Port Alfred is famous for its man-made canals. By 1841 South Africa’s first man-made harbour was opened after completion of the stone lined channel between the ocean and the Kowie River. This allowed high-masted sailing ships with their heavy cargo to dock at the wharf. In my scuba diving days, I had done a number of dives in the Kowie River and many times I found treasures on the river bed from the many ships that once docked in the river.

In the village not much has changed over the years since my younger days. There are a few new shops and restaurants, a new shopping mall and some roads have been widened. The river still flows through the heart of the town and this seems to remain the hub of activity. Boats ploughed through the water carrying fishermen and families just out enjoying the fresh air and view. The river is actually navigable for 22 kilometers from the mouth. It leads right through the valley and is at times edged by towering cliffs, farm lands and natural forest. Needless to say, it is a fisherman’s paradise.

One day we went to visit the small town centre museum. I had a particular interest in this museum because many of the relics from the Briseis shipwreck are displayed there. I had the privilege of diving on the wreck many years earlier with the salvage permit holder an interesting man of the sea called Dennis Croukamp. Dennis was a tall strong man who resembled an old drawing of Hercules. He sported a long grey beard and when not in a wetsuit, he showed off his old salty sea dog skin, scorched from way to many days in the sun. His boat was a buttcat called Lady GoDiver. I took groups of scuba diving students down to dive there on a few occasions. The water off Port Alfred is often much cleaner than that of East London to the north and where I lived.

Our dives would depart from his home on the river bank. We would idle down the river past the Halyards, a fancy marina, before heading out the river mouth. Our journey would then take the best part of an hour until we reached a reef outcrop called the Fountain Rocks. Dennis had discovered the wreck there by chance one day just at the end of a dive. He always used to recount the tale by stating that he knew it was there and he would one day find it.

Info on the wreck is sketchy at best, but the museum houses a replica of the bell from the wreck as well as a few trinkets such as a dead eye and some small items belonging to the crew. The fountain rocks are a favourite haunting ground of the ragged tooth shark who can normally be spotted there in large numbers.

At the museum we were met at the door by a very enthusiastic museum curator. When she heard that I had dived the wreck with Dennis, who had long retired and moved away, she was intent on chatting. The lady eventually ended up giving us a personal tour of the museum. She was proud of the town she called home and relished in the opportunity to share its history with us.

During our week long stay, we did eat at our beach shack a good few times, but were pleasantly surprised to find such a good assortment of restaurants in and around the village.

Guidos has been there for as long as I can recall and remains a popular eatery. Located right at the river mouth with views from both its wooden decks over the Kowie River and the ocean beyond the river mouth, Guidos is most famous for pizza. The menu is varied though and even if just popping in there to have a drink and a garlic pita bread, it is well worth a visit. We sat and had a sundowner drink on the river side deck and devoured a pita bread while entertained by eavesdropping on the many conversations that the locals were having. It was nice to see a place frequented by both the residents and locals.

‘Graze by the River’ saw us enjoying a breakfast in their garden one morning. Under the heavy fruited granadilla vines at the back of a small curio shop is this trendy little bistro. There menu is all about the freshest local ingredients with daily specials being dictated by what is available. I enjoyed a hot buttermilk scone that had just been taken out the oven. It was served with a helping of local clotted cream and a homemade raspberry jam. It was delicious and I almost ordered another.

The Wharfside Grill turned out to be our favourite restaurant though. It was recommended by the owners of the cottages and we decided to give it a go. Located right on the wharfside where ships would moor in days gone by. There is a local brewery right next door that makes a trendy craft style beer, the good type that only micro-breweries get right. Our first meal there was a shared assortment. The starter was a double crumbed and deep fried camembert cheese served with melba toast and a dollop of homemade sweet pepper relish. Our main was a massive helping of sweet BBQ basted and grilled pork belly ribs, served with chunky potato wedges and a garden salad. For dessert, we devoured a slice of their house speciality, or one of the specialities, a slice of squire’s porter cake. It is a heavy cake made with dark chocolate and some of the local ale. The cake is topped with a delicious icing made with Amarula liqueur laced cream. To finish the cake off is a scoop of berry coulis. It was freaking amazing.

Our second visit was done with much enthusiasm a couple of days later. No starter this time as we each had our own meals. Tamlyn went for the grilled fresh fish of the day. A fillet of local Carpenter with salad while I chose the steak. It was a mature rump, sliced to order, flame grilled with brandy and served with a Madagascan green pepper corn and cream sauce. On the side was a portion of the crispiest and perhaps best potato chips I have ever eaten. Dessert could not be missed despite us both being stuffed, but hey, we were on holiday. My good wife got stuck into a crème brûlée which was laced with rosemary. This sounded interesting and proved to be something very special indeed. I went again for the chef’s recommendation. Chocolate crepes, flambéed at the table with caramel vodka, served with homemade butterscotch sauce and some thick cream on the side. I am not easily impressed by restaurants who go over the top to show off, but this place is really something special. I just wished it was in the mother city.

All in all, our meals out each came in at about half of the cost they would be back home. How they make money, is a mystery to me.

On the sunshine coast is a scattering of farms that are bisected by little seaside villages. These settlements are not only used by holiday makers though. Many people choose to retire to the area. With the affordable cost of living and the great weather, this actually makes a lot of sense. It may not be an area where one can earn a lot of money but it can be considered easy living, if you have already provided for your golden years, I cannot think of a better place to spend them. There is an excellent new hospital offering state of the art health care, good shops and restaurants and super white beaches to walk on. The larger towns of Port Elizabeth and East London are each just 150km away to the east and west respectfully. In these larger cities, there are airports and bigger shopping centres. Most of the residents of Port Alfred end up making a trip to PE every few months, but in general everything you need is available locally. From a couple branches of the supermarket Spar, one of which is one of the best I have ever frequented, to a Pick n Pay and even a Woolworths food store.

The new mall built just on the outskirts of the town is modern and extremely accessible. It is all built on one level with plenty of parking and a nice assortment of shops. From Clicks where there is an in-house pharmacy to a small cinema. If shops and malls are your thing, then your retail therapy requirements can be met without travelling more than five minutes.

I must take a moment to mention some of my favourite things found in the area. As I said, it is largely a farming area. Many dairy farms provide great local fresh milk and the assortment of butcheries will make stocking up your freezer a breeze. Some of these farms are game farms. This means that an assortment of good venison is also always on offer. Kudu biltong with heaps of black pepper powder is addictive. Most of the farms in the area are however fruit and vegetable farms. A selection of fresh and ridiculously cheap fruit and veg is found everywhere. From pineapples, which we purchased straight from the fields for R6 each, to avocado pears, macadamia nuts and butternut squash, just to mention a few.

There is a factory that makes and sells juice appropriately called Sunshine Juice. Right next to the large factory is a shop that retails this juice to the public. I was so excited to take Tamlyn there and stock our fridge up. She too was blown away by the choice and ridiculously low prices. My favourite is a tie between the pineapple juice, which is so thick and delicious, almost as if an entire giant pineapple has been crushed and shoved into a bottle and their house special mix named Sunshine juice after both the area and the factory. This blend is made from a variety of fruits including pineapple, lychee, mango, citrus and apple. During our short break on the sunshine coast, I put away a couple of litres of fresh fruit juice every day.

Now as I mentioned before, the area has something of a meat pie fetish. From my years living in East London, I recalled the famous brand manufactured there, the Shamrock Pie. I was thrilled to find that they are also available in Port Alfred now and when Tamlyn spied them in the warmer at a small gas station store, I could not resist grabbing a couple. They had shrunken a bit in my memory, but were still ridiculously good.
In South Africa, we have taken the traditionally British meat pie to new heights. Where the United States sticks to sweet pies that are really round tarts with fruity and sweet fillings, we make ours savoury. The pies are small miniature versions that can easily be hand held in a little paper bag and eaten. They resemble a small calzone pizza and are available from good and crap bakeries. The bad being terrible and bad enough to put you off eating pies for the rest of your life, while the good are really excellent. The puff pastry should be buttery and have a little crisp to the outside. The fillings are ladled with gravy and meats that have been stewed and packed full of flavour. I normally choose a steak and onion or pepper steak pie, but have also been known to attack a couple of sausage rolls from time to time. A sausage roll is a piece of that same butter pastry rolled around a sausage shaped tube of meat. Basically sausage filling rather than meat stew. Other favourites are cornish pasties, with their meat and vegetable filling, chicken pies that sometimes get spiced up with peri-peri or married with mushrooms. All that I can say is, If you are a foreigner visiting South Africa, try a couple of pies and remember, you get good and bad ones (ask a local if you are not sure). This area is in my opinion, where the best selection is found. I guess the meat pie is to convenience food in South Africa what the hotdog is to American junk food addicts.

Another day of our holiday, we went for a day trip to visit the small even more rural village of Bathurst. Situated just a fifteen minute drive inland on the road towards the larger town of Grahamstown is this picturesque little hamlet.

The place reeks of history and has become a place where hippies and artists love to visit. Although, somewhat ironically to its current artist residents, its chief claim to fame is that it was the early administrative centre established by the British Government for the 1820 British Settlers. Once a year they have a massive festival called the Bathurst Ox Braai. This unfortunately fell a week outside of our visit and would be missed.
We rode through the town along a deserted road where acacia trees lap at the sides of the dirt track and staggering views over the valleys towards the ocean can be found. Farm animals stood under the little shade offered by thorn trees and tended to their young. Cows, antelope, sheep, goats, pigs and even a couple emu are always to be found.

In the village we strolled between the eclectic mix of shops. Art galleries, pottery studios and antique shops shared the pavement with quaint little bed and breakfasts and sidewalk cafes.

After buying some avos from an old Xhosa lady who carried her wares on her head, we sat down for a snack and drink on the stoop of the famous Pig and Whistle restaurant at the town’s main hotel and in the heart of the village. The patio was bustling with visitors who all were tucking into their meals. Motorcycle clubs lined up there steel steeds along the pavement while the members feasted in view of their bikes. Tamlyn took some time to describe the bikes to me and see if I could recognise what they were from her description. I got most, but was stumped by the Ural and sidecar. I really did not expect this to have found its way there.

The Pig and Whistle is reputedly the oldest surviving pub in the country. It was built in 1821 by Thomas Hartley, a blacksmith who came from Nottinghamshire with the Settlers. Later accommodation was added and it became known as the Bathurst Inn. Legend has it that it was nicknamed “The Pig & Whistle” by the men at the nearby 43 Air School in World War II.

After a lunch of a drunken camembert cheese and crispy Melba toasted ciabatta bread, we sat and indulged in a couple of double thick lime milkshakes. One of the tables nearby was occupied by a family of tourists from Greece. I listened and picked up on a few words from their conversation. They were fascinated by the way we ate chips with vinegar. Chips to us is what American’s would call fries. A favourite way to eat them is thick cut and loaded with salt and vinegar. This too is a tradition we have stolen from the British. The smells of salt and vinegar chips from the other table proved too hard to resist and we called over our waitress and ordered a plate for ourselves. The plate of crispy thick cut potato chips that came was so massive that we were forced to sit for another thirty minutes while we picked at it. We did not really mind. The sun was shining and the air was fresh. Watching people stroll around the place was fun. Tamlyn described everything so well that I forgot that my eyes did not work. Her comment that she saw more tie dyed clothing than she had ever seen in her life brought me to tears. Having seen Bathurst during my sighted years, I knew she was not exaggerating.
Just outside the village we stopped to purchase pineapples from a farm. This is a hard to miss place because their little store is housed in a massive structure built in the shape of a pineapple. Yes, they really take pineapples seriously there.

The Big Pineapple is, literally, the biggest man-made pineapple in the world. The fiberglass, steel and concrete structure stands 16.5m high – it is hard to miss from the road. At the shop we chatted to a friendly lady who sold everything from dried pineapple slices to pineapple sauce and jelly. As we left the store with a back seat loaded up with boxes of pineapples, I commented to Tamlyn that I was surprised that someone had not built a giant meat pie. She just laughed and chirped that she was all pied out for the holiday. I knew that she would not mind if I still enjoyed a couple more on the way home though.

On the day we left Port Alfred, the rain fell lightly. It almost felt like the place was as sad to see us go as we were to depart. The village and ocean were cloaked in a heavy morning mist. We left quietly and very early in the morning. We could just make out the sunrise far across the horizon. Shimmers of light cracked the mist. The sky turned from charcoal grey to silver, then at last shimmers of light blue started to show.
Driving along the same road but in reverse this time, we sat mostly in silence. Through the town of Alexandria where the shop staff were just arriving at work. Past fields of lush green thick grass, no cows in sight this time. When Tamlyn mentioned that they seemed to be missing, I commented that they were most likely still standing in the milking sheds been milked.

We stopped again at the Nanaga farm stall, this time arriving a few minutes after it had already opened. The carpark was already filling up fast. In the restaurant, the waitress greeted us as she would long lost friends. I was surprised that she remembered us. I am sure it was because of the good tip Tamlyn had left at our last settling of the bill. That said, I don’t think many blind people frequent the place or area for that matter. I guess the sightless man with his beautiful ginger haired wife were hard to forget.

The food was again excellent. After satisfying our appetites, we popped into the deli. This time, the fresh sausage rolls had just come out the oven and proved too hard to resist for Tamlyn, even though she had forbidden any more pies. We purchased a couple for later that day and bid the place farewell. As we left, I commented that we should not say good bye as it is so final, but a greeting of see you soon would be better and make me feel more comfortable.

Our drive this time had us swing right past the city of Port Elizabeth, cruise through the Tsitsikamma and then veer off to the mountains. As we skirted the Baviaanskloof, where we intended to stop for a walk, the rain started to belt down. Our sausage rolls were enjoyed from the comfort of the car, parked in a small road siding as the skies opened up. The gravel around us turned from dust to mud and small streams of water flowed down in the streetside drainage trenches. There was not much walking possible and given that we were really in the middle of nowhere, we decided to push on to our next overnight stop.

As we came into the small town of De Rust, the rain lightened-up a bit. We rode around searching for our Air BnB with no luck. It turned out that we had copied the wrong house number from the booking confirmation email.

We stopped and called our host Karen, explaining that we were earlier than we had informed her due to the weather and could not find the place anyway. She said that she was out and would be back at the house in thirty minutes or so. We told her not to rush as we were going to go and get a slice of cake at a coffee shop we had spotted at the entrance to town.

The place was an interesting little haunt. Loud 1950s music blared out of the speakers as we arrived. The owner was super friendly and showed us to a table where we sat and shared a slice of carrot cake. Tamlyn got her coffee fix and we chatted. I heard a conversation from a table to our side. My hearing is fine-tuned. I thought the lady had said that she needed to get home as her guests had arrived earlier than expected. I mentioned this to Tamlyn and she agreed that this may be the Karen who was hosting us. We left her to go and enjoyed a few more tracks, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and just as some Chuck Berry started to play, we settled our bill and went in search of our accommodation again. Karen was the lady from the coffee shop as I had suspected and we all laughed at this.

Karen told me that she does aromatherapy and runs a small but very active yoga class. She was something of an artist and Tamlyn mentioned that her home was beautiful and full of colour. Her dog took an immediate liking to me. She said that it was unusual because she was not really ever interested in strangers. My new canine friend was a cross breed of a Border collie and a Saint Bernard. Yes, I know this is an unusual cocktail, but Siria was a very beautiful girl.

I walked with Tamlyn for a couple of blocks as evening fell. My legs were aching after a long beach walk the day before. Walking on the soft sand had worked muscles that were not used to the strain, and my shins ached. Tamlyn chose to go for a jog around the village while I sat and petted the beautiful new furry pal I had made. Karen commented that she thought that Siria knew that I could not see as she really took to me in an unexpected way. I love dogs and really did not mind at all.

Mosquitoes started to buzz around, so we chose to sit inside and dosed ourselves with repellent lotion. It was so quiet that night. Without the constant roar of the waves, everything seemed to be extra calm. I slept incredibly well.

The following morning, we bid Karen and Siria farewell and headed out to cross the Klein Karoo. Our first stop was in the town of Oudtshoorn. Famous for the Cango Caves and the massive mountain range that towered behind the town. We stopped at a grocery store for some supplies, unsure if the stores would remain open all day or not. It was a public holiday after all.

At a small farm stall along the route 62 road, somewhere between Oudtshoorn and the next town Calitzdorp, we stopped at another favorite little gem. We had found the Bella de Karoo on a previous visit to the area and knew that the lady made exceptionally good baked cheese cake. We were on holiday after all, so decided to stop and if the delight was still on offer, we would indulge. It was and we sat and made pigs of ourselves. The Bella de Karoo farmstall makes the best baked Cheese cake anywhere in South Africa. I challenge you to go and try prove me wrong.

The road then crept on passing the Warmwaterberg hot water springs and resort where holiday makers could spend some time in the hot mineral baths. We did not stop this time.

Another famous tourist trap came into sight. It is a little roadside eatery and pub called Ronnies Sex shop. The owner had at first bought the old remote building and intended on opening a fruit stall for passing traffic. He had gone and painted a big red sign on the white washed walls that read Ronnie’s Shop, one word on top of the other. His naughty friends had gone out that night and added the word Sex beside his name. The famous Ronnie’s Sex Shop stuck. Everyone wanted to stop for a photo opportunity and Ronnie had chosen to leave the sign as it was and rather change his businesses name.
Today, Ronnie’s Sex shop is more of a bar run by the original owner’s son. Popular with motorcycle clubs as a stop off during their out rides, today there is a small charming restaurant and curio store. The old bar is a shambles of business cards and writings from everyone adorning the walls. When the barman hands you your beer, he also puts a marker pen in your hand and invites you to play Picasso.

We rushed through the town of Barrydale and pushed on to Montague, where our friends were waiting to meet us.

Gerrie and Rietta are old mates from Port Nolloth who relocated there so that their son, Eduard, could get better schooling than was available on the Northern extreme of the West coast. Rietta worked as a sister at the local clinic while Gerrie is the local snake catcher. He is so passionate about the reptiles and was keen to tell us all about his new career.

We had offered to cook for our friends who had put us up at their place for the night. Dinner was a braai consisting of delicious lamb chops, pork rashers, steak, spicy sausage, some Roosterbrood that we had brought from Nanaga and the piece de resistance was a dauphinoise potato bake, one of my specialties.

An evening of chatting and reminiscing about the good old days on the west coast was great fun. It was so nice to see how happy they were with their decision to move to the town of Montague and how they had managed to find a place amongst the tight knit community there.

Montague is such a quaint little town. It is not uncommon to see vintage cars in the streets and their Saturday market is a real treat. In the morning, we popped into the dried fruit factory and stocked up on all sorts of goodies that they sell for a fraction of the price back in the city.

Before leaving Montague, we ate breakfast at a little eatery called the Padstal, which means road stall translated. Our breakfast was delicious and filling. We were ready to leave and drive on home now, although with a sad heart.

Stopping in the town of Bonnievale we visited the town centre butchery and stocked up our cooler boxes. The area is famous for having great lamb and the opportunity to grab some meat could not be missed. The Parmalat dairy factory shop was also worth visiting. Great deals on cheese and dairy products were purchased and yes, even some more camembert cheese for the fridge back home.

With the car loaded up, we rode towards Cape Town and home. Ok, we did stop at Houw Hoek on the way for one last pie, the last one for the year I promise.

Back home our dogs went wild when they saw us. The spaniel Scooter ran around in search of his ball and put on such a show of barking at the birds to welcome us home. His girlfriend aka enemy Isabella, the other spaniel sang loudly and would not leave our side for hours. The little old lady dog, Quigley, some sort of a mix breed, fifty percent dachshund, twenty five percent Jack Russell and twenty five percent Gremlin, sang her welcome in her signature loud opera style.

I have already started counting down the days until our next adventure. Now, hmmm, I feel like eating another pie.

#BlindManCan #BlindScooterGuy #Blind #VisuallyImpaired #GardenRoute #SouthAfrica #BlindAdventurer #SharingSightlessStories

pies and roesterkoek
The famous pies and roosterkoek at Nanaga Farmstall in the Eastern Cape
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Early morning view from our beach shack
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Beautiful view of rainbows after the storm from the beach shack patio
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The famous Wharfside home brew
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An interior view of the Wharfside Grill restaurant. The walls have images of early settlers and ships docked at the wharf
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Chris standing outside the entrance to the Giant Pineapple in Bathurst
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Chris at the River in Kenton-On-Sea
3 elephants
Chris and guide surrounded by 3 elephants at the Knysna elephant sanctuary

 

 

Close encounters of the Elephant kind

The journalist, Herb Caen, said: “I have a memory like an elephant. I remember every elephant I’ve ever met.”

 

It started with an invitation to visit the Knysna Elephant Park. I had contacted Dave, the Marketing Manager, to find out how accessible the park would be to a blind visitor. After a few brief emails, Dave too became intrigued by this challenge. The question we both wanted an answer to was, “Could a blind person experience and enjoy an encounter with the mighty Ndlovu?”

 

The sanctuary, situated between Knysna and Plettenburg Bay on the famous South African garden route, was established 20 years ago and is a world leading facility in regards to elephant rehabilitation and research. The park is currently home to 9 elephants who have been rescued, relocated or born at the park and remain under the expert care of around 60 staff.  Seven of these elephants form part of the main herd, while the remaining two elephant bulls (Clyde and Shaka) are too old for the main herd and are kept separately.

 

My biggest fear, as I counted down the days before my visit, was what I would do if I found myself in the path of a massive unseen and unavoidable elephant foot, without being able to see how to escape. Would I be able to even enjoy the experience of the park? And really, what could a blind visitor get out of standing in the same proximity as a 3 ton elephant if I could not even see it?

 

I arrived at the park with my partner, Tamlyn, bright and early. The team welcomed us with a warm greeting and made sure that I immediately felt comfortable. Now I must be honest here and divulge the fact that this was not my first time at the park. I had visited many years ago during my sighted years. However, with the challenges of accessibility this was sure to be a very different experience. Accessibility can be described as when a service, product, device or environment is designed with the disabled in mind. I was the first blind visitor that the staff could recall visiting the park. When I was told this, I felt a little anxious but curious none the less. Due to the early hour, Tamlyn and I were treated to our own private tour of the park with our knowledgeable guide, Ndyebo.

 

The first stop, after walking around the little information centre, was in a small briefing room set up for visitors to watch a short movie about the history of the park and the elephants. After the movie, Ndyebo ushered us outdoors to begin our morning’s adventure. His high energy and enthusiasm was contagious, he really got me excited for our close encounter.

Next, we visited the enclosure where the elephants sleep at night. No, we did not get to wake up any slumbering beasts, but I at least got to admire their sleeping quarters. Large steel bars that I could easily fit in between, enclosed the giant shed-like area. I imagined the bars to be enormous bed posts and I found myself wondering what colour blankets adorned the beds and what do elephants dream about exactly? This was not the case though and I learned that the resting place was simply a bed of dust, much like a horse stables, that was cleaned regularly. Interestingly, Ndyebo explained that sometimes the elephants may sleep standing up. This did not seem too strange to me as I imagined that shifting such a large bulk in the morning to an upright position must prove challenging, especially after a day of indulging in marula fruit known to make elephants tipsy. All right, all right, I know this is a popular myth, but my imagination was running wild at this point. Tamlyn described the boudoir as having the best view in the park looking out over the rolling fields and watering hole. I could feel a cool breeze, still carrying the early morning chill, gently caressing my cheeks as we stood in the enclosure.

 

It was then time to move on to the encounter that we were eager to make. Ndyebo led us to a parked tractor that pulled along two large trailers each fitted with rows of padded seats. This would be our transport for the short trip across the field and down to where the herd were grazing.

 

The tractor rattled to life and I felt the vibrations and bounce of the dirt jeep track as we drove through the veld for about five minutes before coming to a stand-still right next to the resident elephants. Our friendly guide explained that I should step cautiously off the side of the trailer and move with him to a point away from the tractor.

 

I followed his lead listening carefully to every word he said. I wondered where on earth the elephants were. I was half expecting some form of trumpeting or stomping noise at least. But, silence. For such large creatures they made no sound at all that I could distinguish yet. I reached for a piece of fruit from the snack bucket I was holding and, with Ndyebo’s guidance, I extended my arm with the chunk of fruit in my open hand. Then, ever so gently, a coarse ended trunk took the offered fruit from my hand and started munching. This was the first sound I heard the giant make. I stood as motionless as possible to try and sense the herd. After a short time, I could tell that they were standing in front of me.

 

Sally, the Matriarch, stood less than a metre before me and for the next five minutes I held out chunks of butternut, whole apples, beetroots, carrots, pears and an assortment of treats. I listened intently and heard the soft swish of her long trunk as she batted away the trunks of her herd, along with their snorts of indignation, when they were not quick enough to snatch a treat from her grasp. Sally was one of the first resident animals at the sanctuary. She is just 24 years old but is undeniably the largest of the herd as well as its undisputed leader. Ndyebo told me that she could live anywhere between 70 and 100 years.

 

After the bucket of treats was finished, I stood to Sally’s side and following our guide’s instruction, reached out gently and touched Sally on her ear. She flapped it lightly but let me touch her without moving. The ear was a rough leather full of many nobbled lines and textures the outside. It seemed to be caked with hard crusty mud. The back of her ear was however much thinner and unusually soft and smooth. Most surprisingly it was cool behind the flap. Ndyebo explained that it was her ‘natural air conditioning’. Just like a fan, when an elephant flaps their ears, it circulates cool air over the blood vessels. In addition to this ingenious cooling system, Ndyebo explained that an elephant’s ears are uniquely shaped and are used to identify them in the wild.

 

Some of the other younger elephants, silently loped around us also looking for a treat. I remarked on how quiet they were and Ndyebo explained how the elephant’s feet act as shock absorbers and in fact they bear most of their weight on the tips of their toes. I imagined Sally quietly tip-toeing through the bush stalking an unsuspecting acacia tree.

 

Tamlyn stood feeding them while I felt along Sally’s side flank. Her skin was rough to the touch and little wiry hairs covered the leathery joins. I knew that elephants can get sunburned and use mud and dust to protect themselves but I could not imagine how her rough skin could suffer from this affliction. Her muscular trunk moved around with sharp jerks up and down as she ‘frisked’ us for more treats. I was just waiting for the trumpet to sound. This would have certainly made me run for cover. I have no idea where I would have run to though.

 

Sally behaved so well. She stood super still as I ran my hand along her trunk and felt her strong white tusks. Strangely, they did not feel as smooth to the touch as I had imagined. They felt rough like bone with little pits etched out from years of use. Nyebo guided me to Sally’s rump and let me feel the thick coarse hairs at the end of her tail. They reminded me of extra thick fishing line. Super strong unbreakable.

 

I have often been known to quote the adage “How do you eat an elephant?” the answer, of course, is “One bite at a time”. But after hearing that the average elephant eats up to 260 kilogrammes of vegetation a day, I think I may need to find a new saying for how to tackle challenges!

 

Once Sally had gotten tired of my affection, she allowed Thato, to come and meet me. This young calf of just 6 years old is the park’s youngest resident. I could immediately feel that the hairs on his sides were considerably finer than Sally’s hairs. His ears were also thinner and his trunk and head were much closer to my head height.

 

Ndeybo stood at my side the entire time and still commented that it was unusual for the elephants to be so inquisitive with a single guest. Perhaps they could sense that I could not see them and were determined to give me an experience through my remaining four senses.

 

The resident herd of Burchell’s Zebra also came right within spitting distance to see what the fuss was all about. This too was a first for our guide as the Zebra normally gave visitors a wide berth.

 

I could smell the pellets and fruit that the animals are fed but the elephant’s themselves did not have any strong odour that I was expecting. The audio sounds was a mix of the giants crunching away at fruit and stepping softly along the grass to come closer. My sense that was most affected was touch. I could not believe how gentle and graceful the animals were. The skin texture is so varied. From smooth to rough from hot and sun baked to icy cool and smooth.

 

Dave arrived and took us for a tour of the rest of the park. He showed us their beautifully located facilities on the edge of a kloof used to host functions such as weddings. All of this was a way to generate funds for the management of the park and its most important residents. The park even offers 5 star accommodation right next to where the giants sleep.

 

We bid farewell to Dave at the main reception area. The question had been answered. Could a blind person enjoy an elephant encounter? The answer was an undoubtable yes. In fact I think that a blind person may actually appreciate ‘seeing’ these creatures using their four remaining senses. They certainly could experience this encounter better so than with any other of the big 5.

 

As we drove away from our morning adventure, I thought about blind people who have been sightless since birth. I had been lucky enough to see for most of my life. I know what an elephant looks like and knew a little about what to expect. But for a person who has only had the creatures described to them, this would be one of the highlights of their lives. These majestic peaceful beasts deserve our respect, awe and protection. Sally, Thato, Nandi, Thandi, Keisha, Shungu and Mashudu will remain unforgettable to me.

 

Story by: Christopher Venter aka The Blind Scooter Guy

www.blindscooterguy.com

 

#BlindManCan #BlindScooterGuy #Blind #VisuallyImpaired #GardenRoute #SouthAfrica #KnysnaElephantPark #BlindAdventurer #SightlessStories Continue reading Close encounters of the Elephant kind

Mobility Mix

When I was first confronted with the idea of using a long white mobility stick, I laughed. This white cane was an accessory for the blind beggars on street corners. I struggled to conceive how it would become a part of my life.

The first time I held one it was placed in my hand by my new friend, Barry. He kindly handed me one of his old canes to try out and gave me a quick five minute lesson on how to navigate with it. This was fine with me as I have always been a fast learner. I had the attitude of, “Let me just figure it out.” I would fall and stumble, bounce off some walls and furniture, get a few cuts, scrapes and bruises and eventually just find a way to manage.

There were indeed many falls and blood shed, some black eyes and even broken fingers after a car boot lid was slammed closed onto my hand. I did ultimately get my act together. I even managed to drag myself to the local society for the blind for just one very basic but fruitful mobility lesson with a friendly instructor, Nombusa.

I had no idea how a long white cane would become such an important tool for me. It is the first thing I reach for when stepping out of my front door.

It s a great tool and invaluable to a blind person. I have a collapsible one that is made out of carbon fiber. it has a roller ball on the front that is the shape of a marshmallow, a rubber grip that has one square side, the same kind you would find on a golf club. the cane comes up to the top of my shoulder. Speedy walkers prefer longer canes. There are many options available. Some are made of fiberglass, some out of aluminum and some even sport fancy electronic devices that beep when you get close to a wall and that sort of thing. The blind community has a varied set of rules about what is right.

So, how does it work? Let me try explain as best as I can. 

The automatic response when walking with your eyes closed is to reach out in front of you and feel your way forward by waving your arms in front of you to ward off danger, kind of like a zombie. But with the stick in hand, it simply becomes an extension of your arm. It allows you to feel your path in a sweeping motion in front of you as you walk. This prevents stumbling over invisible obstacles. Well, most the time. It is not fool proof. Tree branches are my worst enemy as the cane does not calculate what is coming to get me from above. The cane gets held in front of you, more or less to your middle. You sweep the ground either by rolling the tip or tapping it from left to right. The left swing predicts where your left foot will land and vice versa.

Very important is to never ever take a persons cane in hand and point it at an obstacle. This is similar to grabbing a sighted persons arm and moving their fingers in the direction of a challenging obstacle. Remember, we can’t see the obstacle and if our cane control is taken from us, well, then we can’t feel it either. Rather use words to explain  what is happening.

I have even heard about a guy who was briskly walking along his normal daily route. His path followed a sidewalk that he had walked alone hundreds of times. On this particular day, he was moving along at his normal speed, feeling every bump and crack. Stepping over the familiar potholes and cracked pavers. Then all of a sudden he was being rushed to hospital for a set of stitches across his forehead. All complements of a builder’s scaffold that had been positioned right aver the side walk in his path. Construction men were repairing a light and by the time they realized that this poor old chap was coming, he was on the floor out cold with blood drizzling out of his crown.

My personal opinion is to use the cane and walking style that feels right for you. For example, when I walk on a trail or long hike, I have a small loop strap. I hold one side and the person guiding me holds the other. This is a lot easier than keeping your arm up and gripping onto the elbow, which can be exhausting for both the guide and guided person. There are also different canes for different applications. Ones with giant roller balls for outdoor hiking trails, etc. I have yet to play with one of these.

The most important rule is to communicate properly. If uncertain, stop and take a minute to explain the obstacle clearly.

For me, noisy crowds and windy days are the enemy. We as the blind generally see with audio and touch. When these senses are impaired in any way, it creates a debilitating environment that is very difficult to navigate successfully without assistance.

I hope that explains more about how I use my white cane, mobility stick, light saber, ninja sword, self stick, fighting stick etc. You can call it whatever you like, just know that for me, it is like an extension of my arm. Move over Inspector Gadget.

Lastly, I have a couple of spare canes and would welcome any of my sighted friends to come and let me give you a taste of how easy and hard it is and can be. Just bring your own blindfold.

#BlindManCan

 

Connecting and Communicating #BlindManCan

Not that many years ago, becoming blind meant that you were issued with a begging bowl and a blindfold. In the more recent past and present day, it means that you are taught how to weave baskets or perhaps string beads. This is all fast changing with technology advancing further than ever before and blind people putting themselves out there, showing the world that they still can play a full and fruitful part in society.

Let me be totally honest here and admit that I too was once unaware of the plights and situations that the visually impaired live with and encounter every day. That is until I become a blind man myself. I guess I would have also directed a comment or question to a blind person’s sighted companion, “What will he have to drink?”. I too would have been startled and confused by the blind person’s ability to communicate by email and social media. I perhaps would have also tried to say politically correct things like, “You are so inspirational!” and told the person how amazed I was at their ability to function with such a crippling affliction. The reality of a blind person’s world is, however, very far from what I  and most uneducated sighted people know.

So, how does a blind person communicate with technology? Let me try and explain. The most valuable tool that allows us to use computers and mobile phones is something called a screen reader. This is a little robotic voice that not only reads out and audio describes whatever icon is under our mouse as we hover around our devices. It also speaks letters, words and sentences to us as we type them. I can scroll around the home screen for example with this voice over screen reader software switched on and the voice tells me what icon I am hovering over. From my email programme to Facebook and Twitter, from YouTube to a Word Document, I navigate primarily with the arrow keys on my laptop and then hit enter to select the last read button. It’s that simple. 

On my mobile phone touch screen it works almost the same. I either slide around and listen to the labels or flip my finger from left to right or vice versa. I can open the last read icon by double tapping the screen to select.

So, let me take you through the step by step way that I would create a new Tweet. I first need to scroll to the correct app on my iPhone. The voiceover software reads the buttons as I scroll through: mail, contacts, calendar, clock, Facebook, messenger, Facetime, Skype and then Twitter. As soon as the name of the icon I want is read, I stop scrolling and give the screen a double tap and the app opens. I then flick through the top of the page until I hear the icon labelled ‘compose a new Tweet’. I double tap it and it opens a text pop up. I then have three choices by which to compose my message. I can either slowly ‘type’ my tweet on the phones screen using the same touch and double click method; I can click on the dictate button and speak my message which is transcribed as text for the Tweet, or I can pick up my bluetooth keyboard and just type. I normally choose the keyboard. 

As I type, the letters are read out to me – in this way I can be sure to check my spelling.  When the space key is pressed I hear the words. Once I have completed composing my tweet, I again touch the phones screen and move around to the ‘Tweet now’ button. A double tap here and my new message is shared with the world.

I know this may seem tedious and yes, at times it is, but it is better than nothing. Communication has a way of freeing a blind person otherwise trapped and confined to spending many hours alone waiting for a sighted guide to assist. 

Thanks to technology, I am able to use much the same system to post status updates on Facebook, skype chat with friends all around the globe, listen to audio described books, send and receive my own emails, research things on google, stream my favorite radio stations and listen to you tube clips. A blind person is able to do pretty much anything that a sighted person can, given the correct equipment and training. Unfortunately much of the world does not ever get to play with these toys and is left to the baskets and beads.

So that brings me to my point, is it really the person that is disabled or is it the environment that forces them to be disabled?

There are a few ways that you can make yourselves more accessible to the visually impaired. Some are really simple and some are a little more tricky. Let’s start with the easy. Everyone can post a description when sharing their selfies on social media. Screen readers do describe pictures somewhat, it my say ‘A man standing in nature’. Whereas a description written by the person who took the picture can be much more descriptive, ‘This is a picture of Chris standing under the shade of a massive oak tree with a cascading waterfall to his rear. This photo was taken in the wine lands region near Cape Town during a short walk I did in the forest today.’ 

Ok, that is maybe a heavy embellishment and it is not really expected unless you were sending that pic to me or posting it on my wall and tagging me in it. I would really just be happy to know who is in the picture. I really don’t have to be told what clothes they are wearing. I imagine them all naked anyway. Ha ha.

The more tricky way to help is to get the software and app developers to properly label their buttons on their programmes and websites. Imagine me wanting to stream my favorite radio station on my iPad and the button that says play is not a word but rather a picture. My little robot voice just says ‘button’ then and I have no way of knowing whether I will accidentally delete the app or hit play. Guess what, most of the time, I move on to a different station.

Another simple way to connect with a blind person is to just speak to them. Don’t be afraid, we are not demons or possessed. We don’t know that you have come into the room or left. Except for our heavy footed friends that is. Just say hello and until I recognize your voice well enough to greet you by name, tell me who you are.

Now all of this is really simple, but who am I to judge? I would have made exactly the same mistakes and bad judgement just three years ago when my eyes still worked. So let me not rant, but rather try to educate and show you that a blind person is very capable if the right circumstances exists.

Blind people have normal jobs and do all the things that sighted people do. We like good food, travel, music and nature. We just see everything in a different way jusing our remaining four senses. This is sometimes a really good way of experiencing things and can even lead to more appreciation of the situation.

So let me leave you with this, It took me going blind for me to see things more clearly than I ever had before. Remember that the number one rule when meeting a blind person is to treat them just exactly the same as any other individual. #BlindManCan

Aquarium Delirium

As a blind person it is never easy to visit a tourist attraction and enjoy it to its full. This is obviously even harder when the place is bustling with other frenzied visitors during the peak season. In my experience, the worst thing however is for staff members to have absolutely no training in how to interact with a blind visitor. This was unfortunately the case in my interaction and visit to the Two Oceans Aquarium.

I was excited to have my sister-in-law and her husband visit along with their daughter, my 2 year old niece. I set up an agenda and scheduled visits to many of the highlights and tourist hot spots that the mother city has on offer. I was well aware that during this peak and crazy holiday time, everything would be really busy and manic. I was prepared for the worst. The crazy season is not impossible, just a little more of a challenge than usual. I was up for the challenge. After all, South Africa has recently run a big advertising campaign promoting itself as an accessible destination for visually impaired visitors. I was more than willing to put it to the test.

From visiting the crowded beaches to the penguin colony at Betty’s Bay, from the shops and markets scattered around the Western Cape, I was very impressed. Staff everywhere were kind and courteous, always making me feel comfortable and safe. Then we visited the Two Oceans Aquarium at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront and everything went balls up. Not because of the selfie snapping crowds, not because of the wild children running amok, not because of the access, but because of the poorly trained and rude staff.

It is almost as if they did not prepared to deal with a blind person and would have rather been at home watching the television or sleeping. Very disappointing.

From the first contact by email asking when the best time to visit is and informing the aquarium that I would be blogging about my visit, to the actual visit, the interactions were challenging.

My email enquiry was to ask whether they charged for a blind visitor. Yes, they do. This is unusual as I obviously cannot see the exhibits. I was however told that my guide, aka wife, would not be charged. So I booked three tickets for the two visitors and myself and left the booking for my wife and niece out (children under 4 years old are free). On the 28th of December, we, informed by the recommendations in the correspondence we had had, arrived in the late afternoon.

It was crazy busy and perhaps would have been easier had we come first thing in the morning, as per my original idea. This was a question I had asked the recipient of the email, but she had said that afternoons were better. As I said, the crowds were not the problem anyway, this was expected.

At the door the staff member told me that I was misinformed and that neither my wife nor I needed to buy a ticket. Well, she actually told this to my wife as she refused to speak to me, commenting “He can’t see anything anyway”. It was as if I was not there in fact. I inquired about a refund for the one extra ticket we had paid for and she just brushed it off and ignored me while saying to my wife that there was nothing she could do as they do not refund online tickets. Like water off a ducks back she just refused to deal with us. Even leaving us standing at the counter while she disappeared for a long time to go and deal with a different issue that another client was having.

At the gate we were shoved through like cattle coming off a truck at a slaughter house. The lady that had to stamp my arm, did not speak to me but grabbed my hand and hit it a few times in the way that I imagine a cow would be branded before shoving me and my visitors through the door and turning her back on us.

Into the flow of visitors we moved feeling rattled and overwhelmed.

I asked my family to get me to a place to sit out the crowds where I could wait while they wondered around. The predator tank would be perfect. No wait, this was not open. Unusual as it is peak season? I was informed that their was a sign at the front door informing the patrons of this. But perhaps this was just a maintenance issue and not poor communication?

Eventually a sticky seat was found and I sat to catch my breath. The noises and smells were overwhelming and unpleasant, but hey I was there for my niece and would just bite my lip and chill for a couple hours while she was shown around by her folks. My wife bought me a disturbingly sweet and not very icy slushy. I folded up my white mobility stick and sat to wait. Then someone walked right into me. Guess what? It was a staff member. Sigh.

After a few minutes more we just got up and left. Not without more obstacles and rude inconsiderate staff avoiding us en route to the door that is.

My visit to the Two Oceans Aquarium was an overwhelming and disturbing low point of an otherwise great holiday with my family. The sad part is that the crowds were not the issue, the hectic traffic and tight parking was not an issue, the loud noises and overwhelming odour were not an issue either. This was all expected. The problem was the staff and their total lack of competence when dealing with a blind visitor. A little accessibility training would have gone so far to make this experience an enjoyable one. I put it down to miss management. Unfortunately, at this stage, I would not recommend the aquarium as a spot to visit for a visually impaired person. They don’t care about the business we bring (I had still paid R405 for my family to enter). Never mind the 285 million blind visitors they are inaccessible to, their families and friends coming along with them are obviously also not important.

Next time, I will try a different attraction and let’s hope that the staff are a little more aware. My recent TEDx talk is all about the challenges of sight loss and how, in a accessible world, a #BlindManCan do anything that a sighted person is able to. Well, the Two Oceans Aquarium is not part of this accessible world.

#Accessible #Blind #BlindScooterGuy #BlindManCan

Spectacular BeSpecular

 

I have not always been blind. When I lost my sight and became another statistic among the 285 million visually impaired people around the globe, I truly did not know how I would manage. The solitude and confinement was paralyzingly. It is as if you are locked in a prison cell while the world still moves around you and you are unable to do anything but sit and wait.

Slowly as my confidence improved, certain activities became manageable, like finding my way around my home. I quickly learnt about accessibility and the many people and organisations who are working hard to create inclusive environments through the correct application of accessible principles. There are however some tasks that are seemingly insurmountable – these are the real challenges that a visually impaired person faces.

The number one wish that all blind people have is to be as independent as possible in our daily tasks. Tasks that may seem simple to a sighted person can be next to impossible for a blind person without seeking help.

Reading the label on food stuffs, without unnecessarily opening and spoiling the contents, for example, can be so frustrating. No matter how many times I ‘will’ my sense of smell to tell the difference between a can of peas and a can of peaches, there is always a 50% chance I will open the wrong thing. Challenges like this have made me want to scream, swear, jump up and down and sometimes spontaneously combust into flames.

Now asking someone is an easy solution, if there is a sighted person around, but that always makes me feel like a burden and annoyance.  I am braille illiterate, so a labelling machine does not help me either.

I sometimes feel that I would rather just go without than have to ask for guidance. Other times, I like to play a game akin to Russian Roulette to see if the tin can I am about to crack open contains coke or beer.

When a new App, called BeSpecular, was launched earlier this year to bridge the gap between the blind and sighted, I must admit, I was a bit unsure. The app endeavors to pair sighted volunteers with a blind user to assist with resolving daily challenges that blind people encounter. How would it work and how easy and accessible would it be? How long would it take to get a reply, if ever?

I was surprised at how intuitive it was to send through my first request. I opened the app and followed the simple instructions to snap a picture of the onion I was about to chop. I then recorded an audio message asking if it was a red or white onion. The app told me, within seconds, that a person was responding. A short while later I had three replies and confirmation that it was in fact a red onion. Brilliant.

As a blind user, I can chose to receive more than one response. If I am not satisfied with the initial feedback, I can leave the request ‘active’ or, by a simple double tap of my finger, I can close my request. I can also rate the responses, thereby giving the most descriptive sighted volunteers the proverbial cyber high five. I was suitably impressed.

Over the following days, I challenged the app with all sorts of questions. If volunteers were willing to ‘loan’ me a moment of their eyesight, I was going to take it. It has been a life saver for me and given me back some of my independence. From checking the labels on food stuffs, or anything for that matter, to getting volunteers to read me the dosage on a medicine bottle, this app really works.

I have used it to check the reading on my tape measure and to get the wires the right way around when putting a plug on my new toaster. I am sure that if you chat to any blind people they will tell you their own stories of going out with mismatched socks or shirts that are really not a good match. I have even managed to go the entire day wearing two slightly similar but very different in color shoes. This will never happen again thanks to this amazing new app.

Being blind is always frustrating, this feeling never goes away. Having a pair of ‘on demand’ eyes readily available is what I call accessibility in action.

If you are a blind person, like me, I challenge you to download and try the BeSpecular app for yourselves. It is a free download and free to use. It can be obtained for both iOS and Android devices. Try it! You have nothing to lose and I can guarantee it will change your life.

#BlindManCan

It’s Christmas time. I am excited. I have some money to spend and a list of items burning a hole in my pocket. My family and friends are going to be so excited and proud when I surprise them with unexpected gifts. I fire up my laptop and start shopping.

I manage to find the website for a local shopping company. I know that all the items I want to purchase are available from this supplier. I sit back and start to scroll down until I hear my screen reader announce that the cursor is hovering over the search button. Then what should be a simple, fast and pleasant experience turns into a nightmare.

You see, I am blind and I struggle to navigate a store’s website that is not properly labelled. This means that it is inaccessible to me. This means that regardless of how close to the top of the google search engine this website appears, it simply does not get my money.

Wikipedia describes accessibility to mean when a product, service, software, a device or an environment is designed with the disabled in mind.

There are 285 million visually impaired, or legally blind people on the planet. If that little shopping cart on the top right hand corner of the webpage is not labelled properly as the checkout, my audio navigation system simply won’t find it. The lack of accessibility in the website design makes it impossible for me to spend my money. This means that this online store does not get to do business with me or the 285 million other blind people just like me around the globe.

As a disabled person, I always say that I do not want special treatment; I do however wish for equal treatment.

Failing to label the buttons, icons and pictures on a website, an app or a software program is an oversight that is easy to rectify. If it cost a company to make their service accessible, then perhaps I would be more forgiving. It is however nothing more than the fault of unaware developers that is to blame. When creating their platform, all that needs to happen is for the buttons to carry a written description in the template that houses them. It is that easy. No need for a fancy voice recording or special software to accommodate this functionality in the website build – just label your buttons!

Let me take a minute to explain what a picture looks like to me and what it could look like. So, lets for a minute say that one of the items on my shopping list is a collapsable camping chair. Yes, even us blind people do like to go camping, don’t be shocked.

When I reach the picture in question, my voice over reads what has been written in the label. It says, in its little robot like voice, “CHAIR”.  That’s all. I move on and don’t select it for my trolley because I don’t have a bloody clue what it really is.

So, what would a more suitable picture description read? Let me be brave and embellish a little. In a perfectly accessible world, the screen reader would say, “ DARK GREEN COLLAPSABLE CAMPING CHAIR WITH ALUMINIUM LEGS, WEIGHS 5 KILOGRAMS AND FOLDS TO A SIZE OF 80CMS X 20CMS. WHEN FULLY ERECTED IT CAN CARRY A PERSON WEIGHING UP TO 100 KILOGRAMS. IT HAS A NICE STRONG BACK SUPPORT AND A WELL CUSHIONED SEAT. IT ALSO HAS A HANDY IN ARM DRINK HOLDER.”

Did you know that search engines, like google, will prioritize your website in the search listing if it is totally accessible? In most countries, lawmakers have listed that software and devices must be accessible. Let me again remind you, there are 285 million people that you are not doing business with if your site is not accessible. And that is just the blind community. What about the rest of the disabled population of the planet?

All I want is to buy a dark green collapsable camping chair that can hold my hot sweaty bum, and my chilly ice-filled drink comfortably when I next go camping. It would be so wonderful if I could buy this chair without asking a sighted person to assist me.

Independence is something that visually impaired and blind people crave on a daily basis. Having to ask for help is something that is only done when absolutely necessary and is never easy. Blind people hate to be a burden on their family and friends. Often, the visually impaired don’t even have someone readily available to help, they are really screwed. The internet has brought so much ease and simplicity to the world’s day to day tasks. This power is perhaps even more important for the blind community. It has the potential to make the world accessible to individuals who may never had had the opportunity of this type of exposure before.

Everyone reading this article can make themselves more accessible. It is as easy as labelling your photos before publishing and sharing them on social media. It is as easy as asking the blind person if they need assistance rather than turning to their sighted companion and asking them what does he or she need? I have found myself sitting in restaurants on a dozen occasions just to have the waiter approach the table and after realizing that I am blind, turn to my good wife and ask her what I would like to eat. The number one rule is that although I am blind, I still have a voice and am able to let you know exactly what I would like to eat.

This general lack of awareness is not limited to restaurants and waitron staff. In banks as well as retail stores, I have been led to the counter where the staff member again turns to my good wife and asks her what I need. Funny at times, but mostly disappointing.

Accessibility, in most cases does not have to cost anything more than some training. It does not have to be an obstacle for companies. It should rather be considered an essential part of the core values that is integrated into the design and development of their business mission or service. It should just be a natural part of how people do business. It is however forgotten or neglected most of the time.

I guess that the fact that I had not ever met another blind person before becoming one myself would have probably made me just as guilty as most. Perhaps I would have looked to the sighted person and asked them what their blind companion wanted or needed. Perhaps I to would have been an idiot. Perhaps yes, but I certainly hope not.

So what do we as the blind community do? We get furious. We go into a rage when our sighted guide dogs are not allowed access. We swear at the top of our voices when we are not able to complete a task alone. We cry. We wait. We sit in our prison cells and wish for an easier road.

Yes, all true, but then, hopefully, we act. We educate and encourage. We stand up and speak. We plant seeds for a more accessible future. A more aware world. Some of us manage to stop, breath and think and when the obstacles are totally insurmountable, we just keep trying. Most of the time with sheer determination, we sometimes find a way over them. If we can’t, then we manage to survive by moving around them. In the perfect world, we turn our obstacles into stepping stones.

There is a Greek proverb that states “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

I want to challenge all the business owners, designers and developers of software, apps and services to plant some of these proverbial seeds.  Become more aware of these challenges. Make yourselves and your products accessible, you may just earn yourself that loyal customer base of 285 million blind and visually impaired shoppers.

Let me finish off by stating a mantra that I have come to appreciate and have strived to live by since loosing my eye sight just two and a half years ago…

“In a fully #accessible world, a #BlindManCan do anything that a sighted person is able to.”

Now don’t you want to be a part of making this world more accessible? Tell me how you are becoming more accessible: Tweet @BlindScooterGuy

Blog written for Visualise Training & Consultancy:  http://www.visualisetrainingandconsultancy.com/

Coming Back To Life

When I first lost my sight, I was in a terrible state. A state of astonishment and confusion. Days past with me not sure how I would survive. Many moments were spent wondering if I even wanted to survive. Many nights I would go to sleep and wish to never wake up again. I was alone in the dark. Trapped in a prison cell, a solitary confinement for which I had not committed any crime. My life was akin to that of a person trapped inside a bubble. I was disappearing. I was becoming an invisible man.

Not only did I struggle with the suffocation of my sight loss and find it so hard to accept, but many of the people around me could not come to terms with it either.

Please forgive my anger and frustration in writing these harsh words. Please allow me this moment to vent and wash myself of this bitter poison in my head, in my heart and encapsulating my body.

People that I had foolishly considered friends, chose to pretend that they did not know me. They chose to pretend that they were not aware of my struggles. They chose to steer a route away from that which I was on. They chose to be oblivious. Not saying anything was easier than perhaps saying the wrong thing.

I can honestly say that even if the wrong thing was said, it would have been better than nothing. I have tried to understand and even at times stopped to ponder how I myself would have reacted and behaved if the shoe was on the other foot. What would I have said? Would my choice have been to also just close my eyes to the situation and ignore another’s suffering? Would I too have walked away with no regard and no conscience? I am sure that I would have behaved differently. I would have said something, even if it was the wrong thing to say. I would have spoken and broken the silence.

When the ability to see is taken away from you, the last thing you need is silence. It is a torture that stabs into the deepest part of your soul. It is a torture that burns and aches, like every nerve ending splintering in your body. Like every bone holding you upright crumbling away. Like all the flesh on your skeleton burning and melting away.

Desertion is, in my opinion, the most unforgivable and hurtful reaction that a person can choose.

I have had to question who my friends really are and at times ask myself, ‘What makes a good friend?’ I have learnt the hard way that many people, whom I considered to be friends, were in fact just users and leaches. I know that my life is really better off with them gone, but it still burns me so much. Not so much for the loss of friendship but for my own stupidity in thinking them to be my friends in the first place.

I am ashamed to admit that I allied myself with people who are bigots, racists, thieves, conmen, alcoholics, drug addicts, sexists and traitors. These are the types of people that don’t matter and should not occupy my thoughts. They do not deserve moments in my sighted memories. And yet, here I am writing and venting about these very despicable people.

When I was sick and could not catch my breath, where were you? When I was dizzy and disoriented, you laughed. When I was vomiting blood, you walked away. When I was exhausted to the point that I could not stand up, you were gone. You bastard! You know that if you were in the same position, I would have carried you on my back and done everything in my power to make sure you were ok. You laughed at my illness. I was not faking it, I was not homesick. This illness cost me my sight.

I won’t forget, I wont forgive and I wont ever accept. I don’t need people in my life that have no character traits that I would value to have as my own. I choose consciously to move away. I choose to rather say nothing to these people and give them a taste of their own ‘silent’ treatment. I choose to leave all the vengeance up to Karma. She will deliver justice when the time comes.

To those who have not yet seen these people’s faults; who do not know the whole story; who are still suckered, conned and deceived by the ignorance; I hope that you are never let down in the same way that I have been. I hope that you are never stabbed in the back by these people that you hold in such high regard.

There is a fine line between thriving and surviving. I am tired of just surviving and am writing this angry and difficult story so that I can close the door and move forward. No, not close, fucking slam the door closed. ahhh…

When a concrete foundation gets some small hairline cracks, they can be repaired. When it gets shattered, there is no option to repair it. New concrete needs to be set and new foundations built. Nothing can make a bridge reappear after it is destroyed. When the timber framework is shouldered and the ashes blow away, there is nothing. Nothing to fix, nothing to make right.

As this year comes to a close, I am grateful that these individuals no longer occupy any part of my world. They don’t get the privilege of my friendship and respect.

To the people who have stood by me, to the individuals who held me up and allowed me to be strong, to the genuine friends who delivered orders of soggy salt and vinegar ships while I was lying in hospital, fading away, thank-you, dankie, grazie, nKosi, merci, gracias – you are the ones that deserve my memories.

In closing, some song lyrics from the incomparable Pink Floyd: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjoPWxmOCtc

Where were you when I was burned and broken

While the days slipped by from my window watching

And where were you when I was hurt and I was helpless

‘Cause the things you say and the things you do surround me

While you were hanging yourself on someone else’s words

Dying to believe in what you heard

I was staring straight into the shining sun

Lost in thought and lost in time

While the seeds of life and the seeds of change were planted

Outside the rain fell dark and slow

While I pondered on this dangerous but irresistible pastime

I took a heavenly ride through our silence

I knew the moment had arrived

For killing the past and coming back to life

I took a heavenly ride through our silence

I knew the waiting had begun

And headed straight …into the shining sun

 

#BlindManCan #BlindScooterGuy

Wondering whether I should go wandering in the winter weather

Today it is raining. A heavy waterfall of icy winter precipitation is converting my frost bitten lawn into a muddy pond. The constant downpour has created a solid wall around my working senses and has robbed me of my ability to navigate, like I normally do.  Many people ask me what some of the biggest challenges are that blind people are forced to deal with when living without sight. Heavy rain is one such challenge. Listening to the mass of water funnelling off the roof and through the branches of the bare trees, I am grateful to be warm and dry and at home. As the rain settles into a calming thrum and pitter patter, this audible backdrop has set the scene to share with you how the weather affects me and generally gets under my skin.

Right now as I am typing away with my frost bitten fingers and struggling to hear my Apple Mac’s VoiceOver software speak the letters and words to me, the infamous Cape winter continues to flex its might. Rain is beating down like nails falling on steel as it drums upon the windows and the paving that leads a pathway from my front door to my home office. The occasional sound of thunder is almost deafening and water is puddling everywhere. The dogs, although covered up and laying on top of each other in their warm bed, are upset and moaning at every loud crack of thunder as well as every gust of gale-force wind.

A visually impaired person, like me, relies heavily on sounds to navigate. I don’t use my long white mobility stick at home much, certainly not indoors. When outside, the feel and sound of my cane’s roller scrapping the ground is paramount in helping me to figure out where the bumps in my path lie ahead. This sensation is gone when the ground is little more than a flowing stream. The sounds of people in my path and echoes emitting off walls as I move about are also not so readily audible to me when navigating in a rainy haze.

Then there is smell, or lack thereof when the weather is acting up as it is today. I know this may sound crazy to a sighted person, but, yes, this is also helpful as a navigation aid for us blind people. When the rain is not pouring and the wind is asleep, I can tell when I am walking past the lavender that grows between the side gate and the deck. I can tell which way I am facing by the scent of burning incense that our neighbours love to smoulder every morning. The scent always finds its way over the wall and gets carried past my office most mornings by the prevailing breeze. This is however, not the case when the winter weather has attacked.

So right now, as I listen to the rain, I cannot hear the dogs barking across the street as people pass. Nor can I hear the rumble of homeward-bound rush hour traffic in the distance. I cannot hear the noisy kids skateboarding in the road outside our front gate, nor the pedestrians passing by with the sound of distorted music emitting from their mobile phones . I am robbed of the sounds I have become so accustomed to. I just hear water falling and the wind carrying squall after squall over from the nearby seaside.

Some sighted people have asked me from time to time if it is indeed true that when a person looses their sight that their other senses become enhanced. I don’t think they are improved as such, we sightless are just forced to put more focus on the listening, tactile and smelling abilities we still have. So, unfortunately, blindness does not come with any superhero abilities like spiderman’s enhanced 6th ‘spider sense’  or Superman’s superhuman hearing. We are just forced, out of necessity, to take the time to feel, listen and smell our way around.

When I first lost my eye sight, oh did I struggle. I had to learn to focus in a totally different way. There were fingers that got bloodies when slammed into unseen closing car doors. Black eyes, plus bruises on my knees, from falling over snoring hounds. Knocked head and bloody nose from misjudging doorways and openings. Bleeding foreheads from head-butting tree branches that hung too low over pathways. Sore bums from slipping on wet tiled floors and while stumbling to climb out of the bath. Many broken glasses and spilled drinks while trying to navigate the dinner table minefield, both at home and while out at restaurants. Yes, not all of these things could have been avoided if I could have heard better, but certainly a large amount of pain could have been evaded.

Things are different now. I listen with superman ears and gently feel my way around making sure that nothing is in my route. I smell the odours to advise me of my place, whether it is the stench of rotten kelp on the beach pointing out the direction of the sea or the toxic fumes of the petrol pumps as I pass the gas station. Most importantly, I feel my way around. Sometimes with my white graphite cane and sometimes with my hands. I guess what I am trying to say is that, yes, the other senses, are very important to a blind person.

So, with that said, bring on summer. Winter is definitely more of a challenging time for me. All I can do is stay in the safety of indoors when, on days like today, the skies are not so friendly to me.

It does not hurt to dream of my friends in the Northern Hemisphere, who are no doubt complaining about the heat at the moment. I would gladly swap a few degrees with them. It would also come with a little gift of rain and wind – be warned, before you accept the trade. And yes, the Celsius to Fahrenheit exchange rate would at last be in my favour, unlike that of the Rand to the US$ or Euro..

Perhaps a privileged few of these Northerners are at a Caribbean themed seaside bistro with a coconut filled pina colada in hand. Don’t forget the little pink umbrella of course. There will be gentle sounds of a steel drum being tapped and guitar strings plucking away as the band in the corner entertains them. The sun will be hovering over the ocean as it nears the water edge while still shining some rays over the bay and keeping everyone warm and toasty.  The smell in the air will be that of garlic-laced roasted meat with subtle Jamaican Jerk spiced seasoning. The sounds of the mellow music will only be broken by the soft chatter of the other restaurant customers and occasionally the bell from the kitchen announcing that the next meal is ready for collection. Oh well, soon the mosquitoes will get you all. At least the rain is making it impossible for them to fly here.

So, as I face the prospects of yet another wet, cold and noisy mid-winters night here at the southern tip of Africa, I am going to take some time to relax.  I now plan to  climb into my bed where my electric blanket has been warming the sheets. A quick cup of hot chocolate and a few minutes of listening to the rain before snuggling up to my gorgeous wife, Mrs Blind Scooter Guy, while avoiding her cold toes and drifting off to sleep. I will be dreaming tonight of all those mosquitoes biting away at the warm people, friends and foes around the globe. I hope you guys itch like hell.

#Blind #Accesible #Writer #VIP #BlindScooterGuy

BeSpecular App – my introduction

A skeptical spectator’s sightless senses ‘see’ the spectacular new Application called BeSpecular… and with that feeble attempt at alliterative poetry, I will get right down to what I am best at and leave the word wizardry for those literature linguists around the globe. Let me rather just be a story teller. A safer option for this keyboard tickling tale teller that has discovered a cool piece of tech to tattle on about.

What most blind people know and what most sighted individuals don’t realise, is that us visually impaired people absolutely hate having to ask for help. We would rather stumble over things and pull hairs out than have to, through grinding teeth, utter the words: “Can you please tell me what this says?” or “What colour is this?” or “Where can I find xyz?”

To my utter delight, I was recently introduced to a new Application that can assist us broken-eyed humans, regardless of where we are and what time of day, or night it is. The App was only launched this month, July 2016. Since first downloading it, I cannot stop playing, fiddling and smiling away. What an ingenious idea this is that I would like to share with all my readers.

Once a user has downloaded the app, which has a free basic version, they can either register as a volunteer or a VIP. That is a Visually Impaired Person. The person needing assistance can then, through a very easy to use and accessible platform, snap a pic and send a request to the sighted volunteers and ask for clarification of what the picture contains. This team of volunteers will help you by describing what they see i.e. Reading the label on an unknown box or selecting an outfit and helping to confirm if your socks match. This can be a great help when wondering which of the two cans you have is the corn and which is the peach slices. I have been known to try sniff a can to determine its contents, but my bloodhound senses come up negative each time and I need to rather open both cans or wait for someone to ask for help.

I know that some people can simply start a video chat with a friend and ask to loan there eyes for a second, but again, we don’t like asking for help unless we absolutely have to. And there is added frustration if there is nobody available to ask.

There are other apps out there that use computerised algorhythms to describe an image – although remarkable, these Apps have limited abilities and lack the unique ‘human’ touch that BeSpecular has. Most of the tech made available to blind people, such as screen reading software, means that much of our engagement with technology is via a highly synthesised and computerised voice. Blindies truly miss human warmth that is so clear in a photograph for sighted individuals. The BeSpecular tool provides one with a sense of comfort when asking for help from an actual volunteer – with the added bonus of feeling accomplished at the end of a task having completed it alone. Well, kind of alone that is.

The App was created by a couple of young innovators who developed and incubated the idea while attending summer school at Stanford University in the USA. The developers are an Italian, Giacomo Parmeggiani and, much to my surprise and delight, a South African – Stephanie Cowper. This made me feel so proud and patriotic for my home country. Go the Springboks.

The first thing I did after downloading BeSpecular was to position a large unpeeled onion on the table in front of me and snap away a pic. I positioned my iPhone with the lens over the tear-making vegetable, opened the application and double clicked on the ‘take a picture button’ that my voiceover guided me to. Next step was to ask a question. I simply dictated the following message “Hello there, can anyone please let me know if this is a red or white onion?”  (If you haven’t realised it yet, I spend a lot of time cooking). The application submitted my request to its online volunteer base and about twenty seconds later, I had my first reply. It was from someone called Susan. She chose to send me a voice reply that said, “Hello Chris, this is definitely a white onion. Enjoy your chopping and tears that will follow.” Seconds later another couple of replies followed confirming Susan’s assessment. I then clicked on the link that asked me if I would like more responses or not. I was super impressed and promptly gave Susan a 5 star rating.

I played away for a couple hours with this App and even tried to trick the volunteers a few times by purposefully hiding the tab labels of the soda bottles. But there was always someone who could assist and help solve the mystery for me.

At one point, I faced the camera towards my cocker spaniel, Isabella, and snapped away a photo. My message read “Is my dog cool or what?” replies flowed in, again within seconds. “Yes, Isabella is a beautiful girl.” One person even jokingly said that she was almost as beautiful as his bulldog (she growled when I told her this).

The BeSpecular application is amazing and I know that I will be using it regularly. I am already anticipating how useful it will be when travelling and needing to read a sign or a notice board. It has already helped me immensely in the kitchen as a tool to identify ingredients. As a visually impaired person, I am super impressed with how smart and easy the App is to use.

Check it out on www.bespecular.com and download it from the App store. it is available on iOS and android devices.  I think this is going to develop into a much larger tool for us VIPs and could be developed into a navigation tool as well as an assistive learning aid. I feel lucky to have discovered it in its early days and am excited about the possibilities.

Thank you Stephanie and Giacomo… I look forward to using this helpful tool when I travel from Paris to Palermo by train in 2018. I am sure that I will get myself lost a lot and am certain that BeSpecular will help me find my way, not miss trains, not eat the wrong things and maybe even see some stuff that I would have otherwise missed.

#Blind #Accessible #Travel #BeSpecular #BlindScooterGuy