Gooi-ing wheelies on the beach


Stanford recently hosted Jim Freeman, travel writer for Citizen Travel. Follows is one of his beautifully written pieces for Citizen Travel about the size of heart of one of Stanfords’ locals, Robyn Simmons.

“I can empathise with people who bemoan the fact that lockdown and social distancing stipulations have deprived them of their regular sea or forest fixes, for they know exactly what it is they are missing.

I had the opportunity to appreciate (in tiny measure) what it means to people who have been cheated by life, rather than diktat, of the opportunity to enjoy bush and beach.

Having done a bit of work for the Quad-Para Association of South Africa some years ago, I have a fair understanding to the day-to-day challenges faced by people with physical disabilities in terms of accessibility to urban facilities, such as workplaces and malls.

But it was not until I met Robyn Simmons in the arty, crafty, foodie, hippy Overberg village of Stanford – more or less midway between Hermanus and Gansbaai – that I appreciated that many mobility impaired people will never get the chance to let beach sand trickle through their fingers or smell leaf mulch in a forest.

Simmons’ calling (which she has been able to parlay into a business called Wide Open) is to provide people in wheelchairs with outdoor “adventures” most able-bodied individuals take for granted.

“I come from KwaZulu-Natal but spent a lot of time in the Western Cape when I was a child. I tried to come back a couple of times but the timing wasn’t right until five years ago.”

Simmons bought a house on the banks of Stanford’s Klein River and began renovating the garden flat with the intention of supplementing the income from her landscaping business.

“I had a call from a man from Germany who asked if the place was wheelchair-friendly. Some accommodations were made and that’s how the ball started rolling.”

The house (trading as Tranquillity Garden Suite) consists of her living quarters and two units that have been remodelled to accommodate people with physical disabilities or visual impairment.

Judith and Brunhild Strauss from Springbok in the Northern Cape stayed at Tranquillity a fortnight before I did.

Judith was newly married and had just found out she was pregnant when Brunhild was paralysed from the waist down in a vehicle accident, nearly 30 years ago. He has been in a wheelchair ever since.

“As a young man growing up in the Western Cape, I used to love hanging out at the beach with my friends. After my accident, the nearest I came to the sea was sitting in the parking lot watching people on the sand and in the water,” Brunhild told me.

“Sometime last year, I recalled an article I’d seen in the magazine Rolling Inspiration about a woman in Stanford who would take people like me right on to the beach and into the sea. If you know anything about wheelchairs, you’ll know that getting through sand is an impossible dream.

“Nevertheless, I gave Robyn a call and asked her if she could put something together.”

She could … primarily because she owns a beach wheelchair with inflated tyres and an integrated lifebelt that provides buoyancy and stability.

“Byron – the son Judith bore after my accident – pulled me into the water so that the waves were breaking over me and splashing my face. It was a really emotional moment and I wasn’t at all afraid,” Brunhild recalls.

“I picked up a handful of sand and felt something small and hard. I thought it was a shell but it was actually a crab and it nipped me!

“Robyn just laughed and said it was shaking hands … welcoming me back to the sea after all those years.”

Simmons says Stanford is the perfect destination for people with mobility or visual impairment issues because of the range of experiences on offer within a small geographical area.

Apart from culinary outings (the village and surrounding areas feature a host of magnificent restaurants

and wineries), her guests can have beach, river, forest, flower, fynbos, off-road driving and whale-watching excursions “tailored to their individual needs and abilities”.

Jim Freeman, Citizen Travel