During the month of September, I’ve been clogging my Facebook timeline with photos and updates on my first visit to Australia (I did warn friends to unfollow me if it became unbearable – we all know what travel-envy feels like!).
I was invited by the Brisbane Catholic Education to be a keynote speaker at their Senior Primary Leaders’ Conference in Sea World on the Gold Coast followed by a series of talks at a few of their schools in Brisbane. Neville McDonald (Area Supervisor and one of the main conference organisers) made it all happen. I am so grateful to him and BCE for believing in me! The conference was outstanding. I was struck by the passion and drive of all the educators present. It’s a great experience to attend a full conference where you have the opportunity to connect one-on-one with the attendees throughout the programme.
I fell in love with the Australian sense of humour from the time I landed in the country. Immigration had 2 questions for me at passport control: 1. Which country were you in for the last six days? South Africa. 2. Who is going to win the rugby on Saturday? I said the Springboks and was promptly told to get back on that plane! As it turns out, the Wallabies did win (I ended up going home on the same flight as the Springbok team after their loss in New Zealand – let’s just say that a few could have used my business card!).
When visiting a new country, I’m always interested in testing out the accessibility and universal design. Australia (as I had expected) was exceptionally disabled-friendly. I made a point of using all modes of public transport: buses, trains, and ferries. The water taxis were a particular novelty and I was so impressed by the CityCat ferry in Brisbane and the Sydney ferry to Manly (among other destinations) that were so easy to navigate with flat platforms and helpful staff.
On one occasion, a lift was out of order at one of the Brisbane bus terminals for access to my platform and the staff went to great lengths to stop the traffic, whipped out a mobile ramp and ensured that my companions and I crossed the road safely. Nothing seemed a problem or inconvenience!
Most new buildings have disabled toilets and parent rooms fitted with a convenient button to open and close/lock the toilet’s sliding door (have you ever tried holding a door and pushing a wheelchair or a pram at the same time?!). Even the toilet on the Brisbane train was spacious enough for a wheelchair. Let’s just say that all airlines have a long way to go in this department!
On my last day in Brisbane, we discovered that there was even a braille trail to navigate the city.
The schools I spoke at were all wheelchair accessible (not the norm in South African schools) and the biggest surprise was to find a lift to the stage at St Martin’s Primary School (the principal was very excited that I was the first to use it!). It’s very rare that you see an accessible stage (even at conference venues) and it always feels like an indirect message that no one in a wheelchair will be on stage, only seated in the audience. I was very impressed that schools in Australia are made accessible even if there are no students with disabilities enrolled. It makes it so much easier for future inclusive needs.
Some of the highlights of my trip (besides the conference and school visits):
- Having our conference breakfast alongside the dolphin pool at Sea World and watching a show.
- The VIP grand opening of the Sea World Plaza. It was such a fun evening of entertainment, amazing food and sideshow games (we laughed until we cried packing all our fluffy toys we won into the car – I guess you had to be there!).
- Sharing baby Samuel’s christening with my beautiful friends, Katharine, Antony and their Brisbane family.
- Searching Sydney’s China Town for the famous “Emperor’s Puffs” that a patient said I had to try – they were delicious!
- Seeing my mom squeal with delight with her feet in the Pacific ocean.
- Walking a good 22 000 steps through Sydney and finding that Pancakes on The Rocks was indeed worth the effort!
- Having a koala on my lap (it took a lot more courage than I imagined – did you see those claws?!)
Thank you, Australia and every one who made this trip so meaningful – I will definitely be back!