Trail Rider in Loddon Shire puts people with a disability back on bush tracks

Like much of the terrain in central Victoria, Wedderburn’s landscape can be rocky and undulating. 

Leaves from box-ironbark forests line the ground, and relics of the town’s time as a hub for gold mining and eucalyptus oil are never far afoot.  

It is the type of environment local woman Glennys White has enjoyed exploring throughout her 67 years.

She recalled drives between Cloncurry and Mt Isa, and hikes to Western Australia’s Nature’s Window rock formation, as highlights of a life spent sightseeing outdoors. 

But since a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, the wonders of nature have become less accessible for Ms White.

Now uneven ground or sand underfoot can take its toll on her body.

”I probably had it (the arthritis) for 30 years, but its just sort of come on with a bang,” Ms White said.  

She remembered a trip to see lava tubes in Undara, Queensland, when she opted for a pit stop while other members of her travelling party carried on to inspect the natural wonder. 

“You think, ‘I’m just holding everybody else up. They've got to get me up on over these rocks and down over that valley.’,” she said. 

“So you end up saying, ‘I'll just sit here until you get back.’”

This month, Ms White was one of the first people to experience the Trail Rider, the Loddon Shire’s new form of off-road transport for people living with a physical disability.

The all-terrain wheelchair, which weighs in at just 25 kilograms, has been described as a cross between a wheelbarrow and a race car seat.

But with its long, u-shaped handles extending outwards the chair’s footrest, the Trail Rider looks more like a futuristic litter, the sort of ancient device on which kings and queens were once carried about their kingdoms.

With the help of two, three or even four “sherpas” – people enlisted to push and pull the one-person cart – someone with limited mobility can immediately begin to traverse the sort of sites that might previously have seen them sit out.  

The vehicle is the brainchild of Canadian man Sam Sullivan, who invented the Trail Rider after a skiing accident left him quadriplegic.  

But the idea for the Loddon device, for hire from the Wedderburn tourist information centre, began with an email from central Victorian academic Dr David Stratton three years ago.

Dr Stratton, a hiking fanatic who lives with multiple sclerosis, was the force behind Parks Victoria’s purchase of a Australia’s first Trail Rider in 2011. 

Since then, 14 of the all-terrain vehicles have been instituted across the state.

Another six operate nationwide. 

Parks Victoria access and inclusion co-ordinator John Kenwright had seen firsthand the Trail Rider’s transformative effect on people who might not normally be able to explore the natural world. 

“Their eyes light up at getting to the top of peaks, or getting down into valleys, and seeing amazing animals and plants,” Mr Kenwright said. 

“They can really get into some wild and beautiful parks they may never have dreamed of getting to.”

It also alleviated the sorts of mental stresses that could accumulate after time spent confined to a chair or the indoors.

He said people living with a disability often relied on a pension for financial support and did not have the sort of income to buy their own version of the Trail Rider. 

Each cart costs about $8000, but the Parks Victoria and Loddon chairs can be hired free of charge. 

However, riders have to supply their own sherpas, another dilemma Parks Victoria is working to solve. 

The organisation is recruiting volunteer guides to accompany chair users on hikes through some of the state’s parks, meaning those whose friends and family are also battling immobility can still enjoy the Trail Rider experience. 

Cara Smith, a disability and inclusion officer at both the City of Greater Bendigo and the Loddon Shire, has worked on the Trail Rider project for the past six months and said similar initiatives for people living with a disability are becoming more commonplace throughout Victoria, including in regional areas.

In Wedderburn, there is now a caravan park with a wheelchair-accessible cabin. 

Fishing spots and waterway ramps in the town had also been fitted with the sort of infrastructure that meant those experiencing mobility issues were no longer deterred from taking part, she said. 

“Everybody should be able to take advantage of these beautiful public spaces and be involved in the community equally,” Ms Smith said.

“Any point in time it could be any of us.”

She was excited by the potential of the Trail Rider to reconnect families that might have given up outdoor activities because a loved one could no longer participate.

So too was Ms White, who said she looked forward to her grandchildren accompanying her the next time she went for a roll around Wedderburn. 

The cart is easily manoeuvred by teenage sherpas, as well as adults.

"I’m sure there’s people who think they're missing out,” Ms White said. 

“This would be a way for them to get back out there again.”