The peripatetic paraplegic

OUT OF THE DARK: Wheelchair bound since a suicide attempt, Ken Haley has discovered an insatiable appetite for travel.
OUT OF THE DARK: Wheelchair bound since a suicide attempt, Ken Haley has discovered an insatiable appetite for travel.

Ken Haley doesn't book hotel rooms. To do so invites rejection. Far better then to wheel up to reception seeking a bed for the night, undeterred by stairs, a broken lift, or no lift at all.

Not for him those guidebooks for the disabled, pointers to safe havens where a warm welcome is assured. This is a man who climbed the Tower of Pisa "with special permission, on my bum, backwards".

A paraplegic since 1991, Haley, an Australian journalist and travel writer, has visited 131 countries and counting - 74 of them in a wheelchair. You can be sure he knows how many nations there are in the world, how many more to be conquered: "Two hundred and two is the best estimate," he says.

Seventy-one to go - and he is making plans. Meanwhile, a third book, covering his latest epic journey, from Iceland to Malta, is in the works. And while he concedes many people see the chair before they see the man, he says, "Some people appear to look at me as though they have never seen someone in a wheelchair before. What is more likely is they have not seen someone in a wheelchair barrelling down the road they are driving on before."

Random quotations plucked from his two books, including his latest, Europe @ 2.4 km/h, illustrate his can-do attitude (and the strength of his arms): "I descended the stairs to the basement," he says of the entrance to the Beatles Club in Tbilisi, Georgia.

"We are on the Berlin Walking Tour. On hearing of its existence I immediately thought, 'That's just the tour for me'. As a wheelchair user I don't go on many walking tours. How much of it will be accessible? All of it."

But for Haley, armed with an off-beat sense of humour and a willingness to be stubborn, difficult even, when he deems it necessary, travel has been, quite literally, a lifesaver.

After a failed suicide attempt in which he threw himself from the fourth floor of a Melbourne mansion breaking his spine, legs, feet and cracking his pelvis, his life felt empty and meaningless. That was, until a throwaway remark by a rehabilitation hospital staff member brought the realisation that he could continue to experience the world and the way of life of its many peoples.

Twenty years on, asked whether travel keeps his demons at bay, he says: "I am happiest when I am moving, observing, absorbing the sights, sounds, smells and colours of the world, so the answer is decidedly yes."

The events of the Gulf War during which he was working in Bahrain and which, he freely admits, led to madness, are woven into his travel tales in his first book which, like all good travel writing, is as much about the author's personal journey as what he did on his holidays.

So where to from there? For his latest book, he undertook a seven-and-a-half-month, 26,000km journey across Europe from Russia to Portugal, via the Arctic.

And while he travelled by plane, bus, train and boat, for more than 1600 of those kilometres - half the distance from Sydney to Perth - he pushed himself. And, yes, he really did measure his speed.

Keen to be recognised as an incisive travel writer, rather than on capitalising on the novelty of his wheelchair mobility, Haley's journey was in part a quest to understand the nature of contemporary Europe and its people - what does Europe mean, and does it even exist? He was there, too, to understand more of his family history - a quest which brought unsettling discoveries.

So there is a certain irony in the fact that his readers want more of the detail of his life as a wheelchair traveller. "Several people have urged me to write more about how I travel because although they understand and applaud the fact that I do, they find it hard to envisage how I do and what a day on the road involves," he says.

Every journey is unique, he says, and it will be a challenge to write his next book without technical jargon or turning it into a how-to guide. But so adventurous are his journeys, it is understandable that readers want the nitty-gritty. This is, after all, a man who has slept in train porches and hotel staffrooms because all else was inaccessible to him, but who, when invited for a fishing trip - in a row boat - in Norway doesn't hesitate. Even lengthy bus trips on coaches without a toilet are on the itinerary; he simply fasts to the limits of his endurance.

Just occasionally, the window on to his world as a paraplegic traveller opens a crack. Unsurprisingly, it is one of these instances he considers nominating when asked his worst travel experience - although losing many photographs when he drowned his camera in a German toilet runs a close second.

"I could say the great Ukrainian suitcase robbery of 2002," he says. "Except I cannot help, any time I think of that disaster, bursting out laughing on imagining the thief's face when he opened the suitcase and saw he was now the proud owner of five dozen urinals, 100 tubes of KY gel and catheters galore."

Then there was the occasion in Tajikistan when, unable to wheel down a drop from footpath to road, he sought the help of a teenager. "He grabbed the handhold of the chair and halfway to the kerb he let go and walked away. As he let it go I heard him mutter, 'Americanski". As I was lying in the gutter I was calling out, 'No, Australian, not American'."

After decades of what he calls global roaming, Haley has developed strategies to cope with the inevitable obstacles. "I offer to bum my way up to the first floor if there is no lift, or not one that can fit a chair in. The receptionist is then bidden to bring my chair, which is quite light when I am not in it, up the stairs and from the next step or two up I launch myself into the chair.

"I applied this solution in a most extreme instance when I stayed in a fourth-floor room of a hotel with no working lift in Tripoli, north Lebanon, which made it a 10-minute exercise in coming from my room to ground level. I did get a couple of odd looks from other people sharing the stairs."

But there are times when even his strategies are not enough. A pressure sore means weeks spent lying on his side until its heals; his inspection of hotel bathrooms before he negotiates a price - no point haggling if the wheelchair won't fit - and the hours of searching for a room if the bathrooms don't measure up.

But Haley doesn't want sympathy and he does not want to be seen as some sort of advocate for paraplegic travellers. He is just living his life.

For now, he is based partly in Melbourne helping his elderly parents, and partly in a small Victorian country town. A sub-editor who has won Australian journalism's highest award, a Walkley, he has worked all over the world and has no plans to apply the brakes any time soon.

"For some people, overseas travel is a rite of passage," he says. "Since I refuse to grow up and because I find long-haul journeys enable you to appreciate the lives of fellow human beings in unfamiliar locations in a way that three weeks sunbaking at Surfers ain't ever going to do, the lure of this form of travel is like a siren beckoning me on."

Europe @ 2.4 km/h, by Ken Haley. Wakefield Press, $32.95.

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