For as long as I can remember, I have been addicted to adventure. This wanderlust started when I was a snot nosed kid with perpetually grubby hands, normally from digging up the back garden to build an impenetrable fortress. Stories by writers like Enid Blyton had my mind spinning with ideas of travel and exploration. I wanted to be one of either the famous five or secret seven. Most of my free time after school and on weekends was spent with my eyes firmly glued to the pages of adventure stories, often followed by a re-enactment of some sort. If it was not Tin Tin it was a Huckleberry Finn tale. In my imagination, I roamed the globe with all the eclectic characters every moment I could.
As a teenager, I joined the boy scouts. This of course just threw fuel on the flames that already burned strongly in my mind. I wanted to explore, to discover the unknown and to then share my stories with any and everyone who would listen. The stories were out there, I just had to go out and find them.
Things don't always work out the way you plan and after my studies were wrapped up, I found myself following a somewhat normal career. Well, as normal as a chef specializing in feeding people in remote destinations could be considered a normal career. I kept the adventurous spirit alive by always taking the strangest and most off-beat work contracts available. I got to cook in places as far flung as Little Cayman Island in the Caribbean and Saint Helena Island in the South Atlantic Ocean to mention a few. My job was to set up a functioning kitchen in these remote locales. This included everything from training staff, establishing a supply chain, business development, selecting equipment and drafting a sustainable menu. I specialized in sorting out failing culinary operations and making them more manageable. While sitting alone after busy work days, I relaxed by immersing myself in the books of travel writer, Bill Bryson.
In between traversing the globe on work contracts, I got to have many micro adventures. Sailing across the Atlantic; scuba diving deep reefs, caves, shipwrecks and with sharks; bungee jumping; river rafting; hot air balloon flights and many off the wall antics helped to lay the foundations for a real and epic adventure.
By 2000, I had had enough waiting and decided to kick my dreams and ambitions into gear. It is my firm belief that the best stories come from personal experience. The plan was simple. I would travel around Southern Africa, to the most western, northern, eastern and southern points. The difference being that the expedition would take place on a little 150cc Vespa scooter. I wanted to use my trip for a good cause.
A local children's hospital agreed that I would become an ambassador for them, flying their flag and spreading their story as I traversed the country on a two month trip. The scootering element sparked the interest of the media and gave the hospital’s fundraising arm some much needed awareness and coverage. Overall, the project was a huge success with close to 2 million rand being raised for the hospital. This trip was a perfect marriage between my love for Vespa scooters and adventure.
Now you can ask this question to other adventurers and the answer will always be the same: when on a trip, you cannot help but start fantasising about the next expedition. Little did I know that my next adventure would have such a huge impact on my life.
After five years of careful planning and dreaming, at the beginning of 2013, I and three other intrepid adventure addicts, departed Cape Town for an 8 month expedition. Once, again the preferred mode of transport was a scooter. This time, we were sponsored with four 150cc LML Vespa scooters. The two stroke engines would take us all the way zig-zagging up the east coast of Africa before we would cross the Mediterranean Sea and continue through Europe. After touching 20 countries and travelling close to thirty thousand kilometres, we would finish the ride in Dublin Ireland.
The expedition started at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town and finish up at Our Ladies Children’s Hospital in Dublin on the Emerald Isle. Along the way we planned to visit many children’s hospitals and paediatric healthcare service providers. As a personal goal, I would taste my first even Guinness at the source factory, unfortunately I did not enjoy the rich dark brew, it was really not for me.
In the middle of Africa, I became very ill. Unable to get the medical attention I needed, I had to fly home for treatment. The doctors back in Cape Town pumped me full of vitamins and a couple of courses of antibiotics. I had some rest and started to feel better again.
Thinking that I was alright, I did some research and found a way to get back and join the others to complete the trip. At this stage, they were about to enter Sudan. They had had a month of delays in Ethiopia waiting for visas. This had obviously given me the time to rest and feel well again. Unfortunately my scooter was now back in Cape Town and with no chance of getting it easily to the Sudan or Egypt. I came up with a different plan. I managed to organize a loan scooter from a distributor in Paris. I flew directly to Europe. In the same time that the guys took to ride across Egypt and cross the med, I would ride south from Paris to meet them in Italy. It was kind of ironic that although I missed out on riding the top corner of Africa with the others, my solo spin south had me travelling more mileage than the others in the long run. This was all fine with me. I wanted a story to write about and my solo spin would certainly make for a couple of interesting chapters for my book. The entire time that I was riding alone in Europe, I did not feel well. Exhaustion coupled with many months on the road were the easiest suspects for the symptoms that I was experiencing. I soldiered on regardless. Surely I would be fine once home and rested. I was very wrong.
For many months after completing the expedition, I was juggled between doctors and hospitals who each tried to figure out what was wrong with me. All sorted of tests were run, from chest X-rays to lumber punctures, from an assortment of blood tests to MRI scans. The medical team could not seem to find the cause of my ailing condition.
It was only when my sight very suddenly faded and darkness ensconced my world, that I was sent to see an ophthalmologist. He took one look at the back of my eyes with special equipment and made a guess as to the issue. He sent me for specialized blood tests, which would confirm his diagnosis: a virus had attacked my retinas and although the doctors could stop the spread of the virus and save my life, my retinas were irreparably damaged and my eyesight was gone.
For months I was left in a weak and broken state, unsure how I would survive and be strong again, let alone thrive. It felt as if I was confined to a prison cell. A prison sentence for which I had committed no crime. Many days and nights I lay wishing my life away. Many times I drifted off to sleep wishing that I would not wake.
Time heals. Regaining my strength, I began exploring how to use screen readers and audio equipment to navigate the internet. Once online again, the first pages I opened where those that helped me to start planning my next adventure. There was no way that I was going to allow the loss of one of my senses stop me from living my dreams and having adventures.
Since losing my sight, just over a thousand days ago, I have travelled the world by ocean and air, by road and rail. I have cooked gourmet meals for friends and family and built a cottage to house my folks in the back garden of my home. I have become the first blind man to present on the TEDx stage in my region and most importantly, I have become the travel and adventure writer that I always aspired to be. I just never thought that I would become a blind travel and adventure writer.
A US organisation called ‘Lighthouse for the Blind’ based in San Francisco, recently launched a $25,000 prize recognising individuals, from any country, who have ‘blind ambition’. The competition is called The Holman Prize and is named for an 18th century adventurer who circumnavigated the globe solo despite being blind. With my next adventure already well into the planning stages, I submitted my video entry. At the time of writing, I have been selected as a semi-finalist for the Holman Prize. Finalists will be announced during the month of May and the winners in July. Yes, winners.
My upcoming expedition is a multifaceted Mediterranean mobility meander. At times exploring following in the footsteps of James Holman. I will visit Southern France, Spain, Italy including Sardinia and Sicily. All the time traveling by an assortment of public transport. The stranger the mode of moving the better. My Mediterranean safari will see me speaking to toastmasters clubs as well as doing presentations at sight loss support groups and schools for the blind. I will share the mantra that I have learned to live by, “In an accessible world, a #BlindManCan do anything that sighted person is able to.”
On this crazy trip I will write about the experience of travelling by off-the-wall modes of transport such as donkey carts, sea kayaks, vintage cars and scooters with side cars. Perhaps even something as extraordinary as a hot air balloon flight.
If you would like to follow my adventure and read some of my stories, my website is www.blindscooterguy.com I manage my social media accounts myself and welcome all interactions. Just search ‘blind scooter guy’ on Twitter, Facebook, etc.
Remember that when you put yourself out there and have adventures that put you in the face of danger, you risk getting hurt and having your life changed forever. Most of the time, there is little control in these situations. You can do as much as possible to circumvent dangers and obstacles but when they do happen, how you let the stumbling block affect you is also within your control. I am an adventurer and had chosen to be this before losing my sight. Besides, I now, at times see much better than I ever did before becoming blind.
Helen Keller said, “Life is either a great adventure or nothing.” I'm choosing the great adventure.
Words: Christopher Ventner
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