Accessible Beaches Accessible Walks Auckland Region Our Travels

Travelling Off Grid with Powerchair, Great Barrier Island Style

This is isn’t one of our usual blog posts where I point out accessibility, and spend lot’s of time reviewing toilets. However, I did get my tape measure out on a few occasions. This trip was more around inclusion and working on making things possible. Since Finlay lost the ability to do a standing transfer we’ve had to rely heavily on hoisting. Travelling has become on the higher end of challenging, these days it’s more about limiting the transfers needed in a day as well as finding the right set of wheels for the terrain. Finlay’s Cerebral Palsy makes it difficult for him to regulate his body temp at times, so keeping him cool on a hot day can be another challenge. It’s all a bit of a juggling act to make the most out of each day. Like always, when I see that smile on Finlay’s face, along with his happy noises it makes all the effort worth it.

Three weeks on a remote off-grid island with a Powerchair is not everyones ‘cup of tea’. I was under no illusion that it was going to have its testing moments. We decided on going because we were tired of having the extended family bang on about how amazing and beautiful Great Barrier Island is. We needed to experience it for ourselves, our relatives would always leave weeks before Christmas and spend the entire Summer over there. We were looking forward to finally enjoying an extended family Christmas together, create some wonderful memories and discover the secrets of this remote island. Cousin Jill offered up her three-bedroom Bach for us to stay in. It’s far from accessible, but we were bent on making it work for our Finlay.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

George Herbert 1640

Getting There

Great Barrier Island Aotea is located in the Hauraki Gulf approximately 100 kilometres north east of central Auckland. It is an off-grid island running on solar power and tank water. Travelling there is either by the Sealink Passenger and Car Ferry from Wynyard Quarter, Auckland City to the port of Tryphena and Port Fitzroy, or with Barrier Air landing at Claris’s small airport.

If you are travelling with wheelchair, then logistically its easier to take your own vehicle over. There is no accessible transport on the Island for those needing to travel in own chair. We took our big high-top van with us, packed to the rafters with Finlay’s equipment. To fly by air would be challenging unless you can perform a standing transfer, sit without postural support on the small plane and have support to help you on/off. The flight-time is a mere 30-minutes with the boat crossing taking you around 4.5 hours depending on current.

Freedom Mobility, an adaptive car rental service located in Auckland, is a good place to source a vehicle to hire for the trip over. Many of the roads on the Island need 4WD and are unsealed, so be sure to mention this if using a rental car because of insurance. Our big high-top Toyota Hiace, is not a 4WD, but has rear wheel drive which works a treat around the Island. Even with the extra weight of Finlay’s powerchair it can take on hills like a work horse.

If you are considering going around peak time, between the months of December and February, you will need to be onto it when booking a vehicle onto the SeaLink Car Ferry. SeaLink doesn’t open their calendar for bookings till late and when they do they fill up fast. Once booked up they sometimes put extra ferries on closer to the time. We also found out that it’s better to make your own bookings directly to SeaLink. Generally they don’t give the local tourism operators a heads up when bookings become available. It is best to call them directly and place your name down on their list to be notified by text when bookings open.

Once the bookings are finally confirmed it’s time to do your homework. As usual when travelling with a wheelchair a lot of ground work preparation needs to happen. My first bit of research into the trip started with joining the Island’s online local’s group ‘Barrier Chit-Chat.’ Nothing like getting some real local knowledge to an area. We were welcomed with some awesome feedback with plenty of tips to check out. My first post on the forum was asking if anyone would be keen in helping support Finlay. I had an influx of interest, but one applicant in particular had just the valuable experience we needed. This came as a relief, as I need two person lifts to transfer Finlay in and out of his Powerchair comfortably into his beach wheels. He also needs company 24/7, and being a teenager he doesn’t really want this to be his Mum every day.

My second post was asking about ‘things to do’ with Finlay that would give us wheelchair access. One of the residents offered to take Finlay fishing on his boat, another to show us how accessible their beach was, there was a tour of the community gardens at Tryphena by a Mum with a young son with mild cerebral palsy. Another local wanted to show us their amazing cliff top accessible accommodation that they had recently built for their ageing Mum. This trip was looking more exciting by the day, I felt sure we’d find a whole heap to keep ourselves occupied. We even had a few who volunteered to just help us both out logistically. Many more recommended an accessible walk to visit some hot pools, this was definitely going to be on our ‘to do’ list.

Our Adaptive Equipment

The one thing that has to be decided before any trip we do, is the choice of essential adaptive equipment we take. It all comes down to space and compromise of course. We were considering not taking Finlay’s powerchair and hiring a ’tilt-in-space’ manual from Invacare Rentals. The reason for this was if anything went wrong with the electrics on the island we’d be in trouble. Unfortunately the manual chair they sent us was not ‘fit for purpose’ so we had no choice but to brave the off-grid island with the powerchair. It did turn out to be fine with regards the powerchair, no technical issues arose and it was a godsend on the hills.

We decided on the following:

  • Hippocampe All-terrain Beach Wheelchair with balloon wheels
  • Shower/toilet Commode
  • Powerchair
  • Molift Transit Hoist & Sling
  • Suit-case Ramp
  • Medical quality pressure mattress

Healthcare

We generally have to make sure we have enough medical supplies to keep us going for the entire time we are away. We make sure we locate the closest pharmacy and medical centre at our destination. There is always that chance you may forget or lose medication or just a general health challenge might arise. Our own pharmacist is fantastic in knowing what we need. They will often hold any new scripts and email them through to the pharmacy at our new location if needed.

Heading Off on The Ferry

The two vessels they use routinely for Great Barrier Island are the Island Navigator and the Sea Breeze. The Island Navigator is a catamaran ferry and the one we took.

The ferry over to Great Barrier takes approximately 4.5 hours. On arrival we had to mention we had a wheelchair user with us and that our rear entry hoist needed space behind to be let down. All vehicles have to reverse onto the ferry to make life easier departing on the other end. As we need the space behind and can’t access upstairs when on the boat we have to utilise the space where all the cars are parked. To be honest this is one of the better places anyway. It’s shaded from the sun, there are a few seats, a sink, the small food kiosk where you purchase small items like pies, sandwiches, coffee, tea, soft drinks, water. We brought our own lunch onboard as it was during the COVID period where the serving of food was shut off. There was a window either side where we could look out and hopefully spy some dolphins chasing the boat. The kids were all happy with the courtesy WIFI on the boat to click into.

Once we arrived at the Tryphena Wharf on Great Barrier Island it was like arriving to some distant place where time had stood still. Having been through lockdowns and all the craziness of the Covid Pandemic, arriving to an island with limited WIFI, with no television was a godsend. It truly felt like we’d left all the world problems behind us.

Accessible Toilets

Unfortunately the accessible toilets on the ferry we took over to Great Barrier weren’t accessible due to a shin height lip. Lips like these are common place on many vessels. However, I want to point out that it is easy to put an accessible toilet in if needed. They do exist and you just have to book onto the right ferry to find it.

A few years back we had the opportunity to do a tour of another SeaLink vessel while it was in Port. This ferry was called the Sea Master, this vessel is only used for Great Barrier when they have an over demand on their regular crossings. I think its regular service is between Waiheke Island and Auckland City. This one has an accessible toilet that would suit the independent wheelchair user.

What should we take in terms of food?

The freezer and fridge at the Bach has a small capacity, so we had to be careful not to bring too many perishable food items that needed to stay cool.

We were advised to pack the following:

  • Yoghurt sachets for yoghurt machine
  • Flour and yeast for resident bread maker
  • Milk powder
  • Matches or lighter fuel for gas stove
  • Wine, beer (as it’s over Christmas and New Year)
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Don’t forget the roast!
  • Rice, Pasta and canned items.

We were also told that there were no supermarkets on the Island, instead a few small convenience stores. You will find them in places like Port Fitzroy, Claris and Tryphena, well stocked up with just about everything you’d need. The costs tend to be up there though as freighting everything to the Island has to be factored in.

All stores have lip-free thresholds, including the one laundromat, and liquor store on the island at Claris.

Next to the laundromat and convenience store is the post office, aptly named Pigeon Post, from the days when pigeons would fly communications around the island. Just around the corner is a great place to eat or grab a takeaway coffee at My Fat Paku. Another good option is the Island’s Sports & Social Club (open Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays), full bar facilities, delicious food and accessible. Opening times of many of the eateries can be infrequent, so pays to give them a call or find out if they are open before venturing out. You will also find that they run out of items off the menu pretty fast.

Locals TipKiwi Passion

Local, Freshly Harvested and Naturally Grown Vegetables – Fruit, Herbs, Sensational Salad – Order Online HERE

The Island Pharmacy

Claris seems to be the central place for most things. We tried to pop into the pharmacy, but discovered it was only open on certain days of the week and the hours restricted to half days. Welcome to Great Barrier Island time, once you unwind and get into the rhythm of island life, it becomes a great place to get away and leave your troubles behind.

The Medical Centre

As we were still in the heightened New Zealand COVID alert system, we didn’t get the chance to just peak inside the Medical Centre. We’d heard good things about it, so we felt in safe hands in case we ever needed it. It is called Aotea Health with a ramp from the side to gain entry, we noticed a little gravel washout before the ramp creating a bit of a lip to negotiate. I’m sure with a little Barrier ingenuity this could be rectified easily.

Lunch Stop on Arrival

We arrived on The Barrier around lunch time and were keen to find some food and a nice cup of coffee. We had left Auckland bright and early to catch the ferry and hadn’t been able to purchase anything onboard because of COVID. Driving through the small settlement of Tryphena we discovered a few amenities along the way including the Mulberry Grove Bistro & Bar. We found ample space to park out front and a lovely view out to the beach waterfront. The entry into the place a little uneven, but manageable with a powerchair as it is lip-fee, step-free with a minimum 800ml door width. It was a welcome stopping point to Awana, our home for the next three weeks.

Tip: If you see a Great Barrier Island hat, then buy it, they are perfect for keeping the sun off your head and out of your eyes.

Attached to the cafe/bistro is a little shop with postcards, bit’s and pieces and food items. Amazing how you can pack everything but the kitchen sink and still forget things. Bread and peanut butter was what some members of our family were calling for. We were advised that there was a bread maker in the Bach, I had come prepared with flour and yeast, but Nana and Pop didn’t want to risk the bread maker not working. Creatures of habit and the ‘must haves’ like jam, butter and bread they stocked up with just in case.

The Galleries

Just in case you were wondering whether the Island had anything other than fishing, swimming and walking on the itinerary. I’ll let you know they have museums and art galleries too. This was just what Nana was delighted to check out. In Claris you will find the galleries all welcome you with wheelchair access via ramps. The parking is directly out front, flat terrain with loose gravel. Within the same area you will find the Museum, normally it is open and a real favourite to visitors, but on our visit it was unfortunately closed, Nana was a little disappointed as she’s a real history lover. Like everything we find these days, it was probably the result of COVID.

Arriving at our not so accessible accommodation

We had stayed at our cousins Bach many years ago, even before Finlay had a wheelchair. He was still in an adapted buggy then and I was lifting him without the need for equipment. We had a rough idea of how accessible or inaccessible the Bach was going to be on this trip. My plan was to pitch the big tent out front and utilise the house via a makeshift ramp which we intended to build on arrival. Finlay’s Dad and Pop had already packed some timber to bring over to do the job. We were all pretty tired after the big crossing and early start. It had to be done however, so it was all hands on deck to get it built, tested, re-jigged and tested again. I looked on from time to time with a tinge of anxiety. I knew the ramp would meet the need as Cam, Finlay’s Dad, likes to build strong structures. Even so, I will be testing it a fair bit before giving Finlay a go.

While they were building the ramp I worked on pitching the tent, we put the bunk bed together to use for Finlay’s cares and put his orthopaedic pressure mattress down into one of the tent rooms.

This is a set-up we have used on several occasions whilst camping with Finlay. Most camping shops will stock the bunk bed. This is one stocked by Torpedo 7. We found the hoist worked well, and used the bottom bunk to stock personal care items. We never used this for Finlay as a bed but utilised it for personal cares.

On our first day away my back was already feeling compromised from the bending down and tending to Finlay’s cares on the floor. After using the hoist we found the uneven ground inside the tent a trial manoeuvring with Finlay’s weight in the sling. The tent was so hot inside, and the physicality of caring for Finlay brought on a sweat to us both. We lasted only one night in the tent before I had to think up another way. Sadly camping in tents has seen better days for us a family. I love camping, but it’s time I found another way to do it with Finlay. His size and length was getting too challenging to manage.

Cams first night had been in the main bedroom within the Bach. It could be accessed via the deck through double ranch sliding doors. I looked at it longingly after our first night in the tent. The floor was laminated which would allow the hoist wheels to glide around easier. The bed was on legs so it meant we could fit the legs of the hoist under it with ease. I tried it out, it was an absolute dream, I turned to poor Cam who could tell his nights in the best room were numbered. He spent the second night and the rest of our time on the Barrier sleeping in the living room on the floor on a mattress. Myself and Lachie continued to sleep in the big tent. We had a few windy wet nights in there. while yet again Finlay scored the dream room, he was happy.

Accessible Master Bedroom via Deck

Finlay had an awesome sleep and just loved waking up to the sound of the birds singing just outside his window. In the evenings his brother and sister laid in with him and talking about how their days had gone. We tied his sleep system to the mattress over a waterproof sheet and he was happy and relaxed. The sleep system keeps his posture straight when he sleeps and gives him support from any pressure points. All these things to consider when you are unable to move your body when and where you would like.

Finlay’s ‘Alfresco’ Accessible Bathroom

After we’d ditched the tent set up idea for Finlay we discovered the perfect place for Finlay to shower, right outside his room on the deck alfresco. He absolutely loved it!

This was genius, we did have to hack back a thorny bush and clean out the outside bath behind. It was full of stagnated water that had been hydrating a few plants, attracting some unwanted mosquitoes. Our suit-case ramp, always a life saver, made it possible to negotiate the lip to the bedroom with ease. We hung the solar heated shower bag purchased from a camping store onto a branch overhang, which gave Finlay a warm shower each day.

Christmas Day at the Bach, we could get Finlay just about everywhere around this Bach except the two bedrooms and the bathroom. This is because the door widths were too tight and the bathroom only has a cubicle shower. The toilet itself is separate from the bathroom and not accessible at all.

After building a ramp to get in, utilising the master bedroom access through the glass ranch sliding doors and hanging a makeshift outdoor shower things worked well. What more do you need in life, we had plenty of tank water from all the rain and the solar panels on the roof were super charged up from the sun to power the batteries. We made our own bread, filled up the yoghurt maker and milk container each day and hoped our daily foraging for food would keep us all fed.

The Local Beach

Awana Beach is just stunning and a magnet for surfers. Whenever the surfs up the place becomes so busy. Finlay had his Hippocampe beach wheelchair, and with a team of young fit bodies we managed to get Finlay right down to the beach and walk over to the estuary where the river comes down to meet the sea. This is a real safe swimming area to cool off and take a dip in. Finlay needed this because the weather was so hot and it was the only way to freshen up.

Our only barriers to getting down to the beach regularly was when beach visitors blocked the entry to the path by parking their vehicles in front of it. Parking becomes a premium when the surf is up. This only happened once when the the gap became impassable.

The Lookout

Just up from our Bach is a spot locally known as the ‘Lookout’ or ‘The Office’. Here is where people come to to check out the surf and grab a bit of WIFI. There is a small picnic bench here and it becomes quite the social hub whilst taking in incredible scenery. We spent time up here most evening drinking wine or enjoying a morning coffee.

The Awana Beach Campsite

The day after Christmas is not only Boxing Day, but Finlay’s birthday. The 10-day weather forecast didn’t look ideal for fishing, there was too much wind. Today, could be the last opportunity for a while to catch our staple diet, so most of the family headed out on the boat. Because the boat was small and lacked wheelchair access Nana, Finlay and I decided to head for a nice easy accessible estuary swim instead. We were hoping for a good haul of fish for tea and a load for the small fridge/freezer to keep us going till it was suitable to go out again.

NB: We discovered on arrival that a Rāhui had been imposed over the Island restricting access to the usual prime fishing spots. This had been put in place to replenish the crayfish and shellfish stock. It will be important to check if this is still the case if fishing is going to be your main activity and source of food.

About a 5-minute drive down from where we were staying is the the Awana Beach Campsite. This scenic spot is an awesome place to park up, transfer from wheelchair into beach wheelchair for a wheel along the shores of the estuary. The big Wheelez balloon tyres we have on Finlay’s beach wheelchair really make the push effortless. If we didn’t have them and used the double-mountain bike wheels instead we’d have sunk more into the sandy riverbed. Having the balloon wheels worked a treat.

Finlay, Nana and I checked over the facilities to see how accessible they were. Not overly built for the wheelchair user, but the outdoor shower could work for a quick shower off after a swim. The toilet itself obviously not accessible and the kitchen facilities are pretty minimal, but a place to gain shelter if necessary. You would really need to be fully self-sufficient here to spend a few nights.

As a day visit though this place is pretty special, park up on firm flat grass and wheel down to explore. It was such a hot day that I risked my lower back and pulled Finlay from his chair in for a dip. I used to do this sort of thing all the time, wish I still could but I now save it for special occasions. Today was Finlay’s 17th birthday and I was determined to make it pretty special.

More on Aotea Great Barrier Island

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