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Beyond Barriers: the world's first wheelchair-accessible safari

Written by Sophie Morgan

The African bush and all of its delights are just waiting to linger in the memories of those who are able to experience her. Now, the world's first luxury wheelchair-accessible safari is ensuring that privilege can belong to everyone.

Defining disability has long been a contentious and polarising endeavour. For some, the word carries a heavy burden; for others, it's a source of pride. Each person's relationship with the label will be as complex, personal and nuanced as their impairments themselves.

There is no single definition, no one size fits all, but in recent years our community has agreed to move away from the medical model of defining disability and towards the social model. This new way of looking at the term outlines that disability is created by society and the environments in which we live – not by our individual impairments. Disabled people face barriers that stop us from participating in society the same way as non-disabled people. So, instead of wanting to fix us and remove our disabilities, the social model instead stipulates that we fix the barriers themselves.

When Patrick Suverein became dependent on a wheelchair due to back complications in 2017, I doubt he had any awareness of the quandaries surrounding these ever-evolving ways of thinking. Regardless, when he temporarily became disabled, his world – namely, a 6,500-hectare private game reserve in Kisumu National Park, South Africa – became inaccessible. This left him and his indomitable partner Elly to ask the very question so many wheelchair users before them had grappled with, too: “how do you do a safari in a wheelchair?”

A pragmatic problem solver, Patrick began unknowingly applying the principles of the social model to the game reserve, setting about adapting the world around him to meet his needs. It was initially for his own benefit, but soon it occurred to him and Elly that others with similar mobility impairments could benefit too. Ximuwu Lodge (pronounced Shi-mu-wu) was born, a five-star accessible lodge open to the ambulatory and non-ambulatory public. Like all things forged out of urgency, pressure and necessity, it is a precious gem just waiting to be unearthed.

Situated inside of the Greater Kruger National Park, Ximuwu is easily reached either by a short flight to Hoedspruit Airport or a four-hour drive from Johannesburg, a detail Elly explained they had considered closely. Many safaris sell themselves on remoteness, but that's a quality they deliberately replaced in favour of convenience. Besides, Elly and Patrick have other more inclusive boxes to tick, the first of which greets me on arrival: wheelchair-accessible transfers. Agasp, I watch on as Matt, the head guide and safari manager, slides open the door of a brand-new adapted green land cruiser, wrapped in Ximumu branding of a wheelchair-using lion. He lowers an adjustable swivel seat to my height for me to self-transfer onto.

If this was to be the first sighting of the accessible big five at Ximuwu, the second would be the portable pool hoist, waiting beside the infinity pool. A rare sighting indeed. This was followed quickly by an array of shower seats, commode chairs, grab rails, and – I could hardly believe my eyes – an adjustable bed in one of the two accessible suites.

Just when I thought it couldn't get any better, Patrick points to the safari Land Cruiser and an extendable seat that's waiting for me, hovering over a concrete ramp like a dragonfly over water. It's time for a safari.

As we drive into the African bush to search for the actual Big Five, dust swirling in the dusk, Matt and the eagle-eyed tracker Frank point out pawprints and clues we follow for the next few hours till the sun begins to set. The traditional obligatory sundowner calls us to a halt. Sipping on a G&T, I gaze out at this unspoilt and entirely private resort that stretches as far as the eyes can see.

The typical timetable of safari dictates our movements for the next four days. Early starts to catch the game before the heat of the day and evening drives to find them as the shadows creep in and the hunts begin. Hot water bottles, blankets and biltong bush snacks are packed along with the binoculars and night vision goggles so that no stone goes unturned. A herd of elephants a whisker away from the jeep sends adrenaline coursing through me.

When the sun is at its zenith, a lunch spread of Nobu-inspired Salmon teriyaki awaits, after which a hoist lowers me down into the pool to float like a contended hippo. The lodge overlooks a vast plain, so even when you aren't on safari, there's always a chance of spotting something. If you are lucky, positioned at the right time in the hide (accessible via wheelchair ramp), you can get as close to nature as is feasibly safe. One afternoon, after a generous helping of homemade raspberry sorbet, a loan giraffe lollops into view and takes his lunch in front of us.

Not wanting to waste a moment, a quick nap can be combined with a deep tissue massage at the spa and Elly (equipped not only with her pilot's licence but also hairdresser credentials) offers me a wash and blow-dry. Her hospitality is matched by her team, fronted by Anette, all of who are fully disability-aware and know exactly when to help and when not to.

The borders between the Klaserie Reserve and Kruger National Park are unfenced, allowing animals to move freely around both reserves. In total, I checked off over twenty-five, from hyenas, leopards, rhinos, lions and giraffes to vultures, bush babies, warthogs and more. The space is teaming with life, but the reserve itself is deserving of equal praise, sightings or otherwise.

One early morning, Elly and Patrick arrange for a helicopter ride. Matt offers to lift me into the passenger seat, and off I soar into the sunrise, a herd of dehorned rhinos to our left and buffaloe to our right. As the African sun peaks over the horizon and we wait in the sky to welcome in the new day, I find myself wondering how on earth I will ever get over this place.

Patrick is living proof that disability can happen to anyone at any time; it is not a niche existence, it's part of the circle of life. Thankfully his experience changed not only his own world, but all of our experiences, for the better and in Ximuwu, a silver-lining accessible Safari awaits.

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