It's almost impossible to imagine someone would tackle the Kokoda Track
in a wheelchair, but Dermott Brereton met the man who did it: Kurt Fearnley.
Dermott travelled to Newcastle, two hours north of Sydney, and followed Kurt for a day. He is one of Australia's greatest champion sportsmen and the list of things he has achieved is simply outstanding, and it wasn't long before Dermott realised he had no chance of keeping up with him.
Kurt is inspiring and an independent and intrepid traveller. He's a marathon man and three-time Paralympian. He's won gold at the Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games and won three consecutive New York marathons. Kurt has set Australian records in the 400m, 800m, 1500m, 5000m, 10,000m, half-marathon and marathon. He has also set Paralympic records in 5000m marathon. And last year he crawled the Kokoda Track.
Originally from the country town of Carcoar, Kurt is now a Newcastle local. He realised that being in the city gave him more time to do the things he does best. He loves the beaches and spends as much time as possible surfing or swimming.
Being born without the lower portion of his spine has never stopped him. From backyard games of football to crawling along the Great Wall of China, he always has a go.
In 2009 Kurt was named NSW Young Australian of the Year. He is an ambassador of the Day of Difference Foundation and International Day of People with a Disability. He serves as a board member for the Australian Volunteers International and travels throughout New South Wales teaching high-school children as a qualified physical education teacher.
A typical day for Kurt begins with a training session at Newcastle's Fernleigh Track. It opened as a railway line in the 1880s and used for hauling coal. It is now a cycle- and walking-way from Adamstown in Newcastle, south to Belmont on Lake Macquarie.
The high-quality track runs through a range of landscapes from suburbia to dense bushland. There's even a brick-lined tunnel under the Pacific Highway. Its history has been preserved where practicable with track being left in places and removed rail and sleepers used as features.
After working up an appetite, Kurt has breakfast at the Bar Beach General Store. He's a regular there and even has a burger named after him.
His tip for accessing the beach for those in a wheelchair is to ask the lifesavers for a hand. The boys at Merewether Beach have a four-wheel drive, which they use to get Kurt across the sand and straight into the water. The ocean baths are wheelchair accessible.
After the beach Kurt sometimes heads to Darby Street for lunch at one of the selection of cafes and restaurants. In the afternoon he usually has another training session. He crawls the track at Glenrock Nature Reserve where he trained for his Kokoda Track journey.
Dermott has walked the Kokoda Track and found it the most exhausting and difficult thing he has ever done. Kurt agreed entirely. Quite apart from the rough terrain and hills, he was covered in mud for two weeks. While achieving his goal in 11 days and it being one of the highlights of his life, he said he would never do it again. His advice to anyone in a wheelchair who may be thinking of doing Kokoda: stop thinking about it immediately.
Kurt took Dermott to Fort Scratchley, which not only has fantastic vantage points but is wheelchair-accessible. The fort was built in 1876 and has views of Nobbys Beach and Lighthouse, city, harbour, ocean and coastline.
One of Kurt's favourite places for dinner is at one of the excellent restaurants at the newly developed Newcastle foreshore.
Honeysuckle Wharf, a major waterfront rejuvenation project, is transforming Newcastle. Working wharves have foreshore promenades and open squares. After eating, people mosey along to the lighthouse or pier.
Some advice from Kurt for those travelling with wheelchairs:
- Research your destination. Make sure it has accessible paths, manoeuvring areas, ramps and boarding devices and widened doorways.
- Stay on low floors in hotels and book a room with disabled facilities and is wheelchair-accessible.
- Review airline websites to make sure they have lift access and assistance if you need help into your seat. See if they have pre-flight boarding. Some airlines offer upgrades.
- Arrive early for your flight and try to book non-stop flights without transfers.
- Check with ground staff that the wheelchair was securely checked in.
- Remind the cabin crew that your chair will need to be at the gate when you have arrived.
- Most importantly, be patient.