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Pushing the way - How two Australians are trekking across Europe

A 250km pilgrimage across two countries would be enough to sate most people's taste for adventure. But for Helen Smith and Lisa Edmonds, mere adventure might be an understatement – they'll be making the trek entirely using manual wheelchairs. They're using the trip to show other people with disabilities that adventure still awaits, and to highlight the absurdity of the situation that accessible bushwalks in Australia are often only 100m long.

Scooters Australia talked to Helen about their upcoming trip.

When Lisa first suggested tackling the Camino de Santiago back in 2017, Helen, ever hungry for a challenge, said why the hell not. Following an enjoyable stint working for the National Parks Association of New South Wales, Helen starts at the Chief Scientist's Office later in 2018. Twenty days out in the wild seemed like the perfect way to usher in the transition. Soon, however, the pair were setting their sights a little higher.

'Once we started grappling with some of the practicalities of the trip, we realised that it could actually become something more than just a personal experience,' Helen said.

Since her injury in 2014, Helen has chafed against the limitations inherent in the system, particularly those restricting the bushwalking options in Australia. Going offroad on her mountain trike wheelchair has freed Helen from some of these restrictions and frustrations. Likewise, Lisa is no stranger to pushing boundaries, having represented Australia in wheelchair basketball on over 100 occasions. Together they realised that their trip could be used to show others what is possible, to open their eyes to the plunges that could – even should – be taken.

So came the idea of a blog. The plan is to give insights and stories about what happens each day, so that people at home can follow along. It will act as both a blueprint, full of details on how to overcome the very practical problems facing the would-be-pilgrims, and as an inspiration, showing first-hand how adventure can still be found despite adversity. You can check the blog out here.

Searching for a wider audience, Lisa and Helen applied for a grant with the Travel Play Live women's adventure magazine, under the Adventures for Change category. They won. With some extra funds and endorsement behind them, plans began to crystallise.

The Camino de Santiago is the name given to walking tracks all over Europe that lead, one way or another, to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Used by Christians since medieval times to pay their respects at the rumoured resting place of the apostle James, today it is a popular amongst the spiritual and naturalists alike. For Helen and Lisa, a trail that millions of people over the years have used for both succour and struggle seemed perfect for their goals. They will push themselves 20-25km a day for twenty days, along what is known as the Portuguese Way, starting in the city of Porto.

Helen and Lisa will spend each night at hostels along the way, bringing with them only day packs. The equipment they will be using is simple: their ordinary day-chairs, each appended with a Free-wheelTM. The Free-wheelTM is an additional wheel that can be attached to the front of a manual wheelchair, lifting the casters off the ground, allowing passage over bumpy terrain with relative ease

'In Australia, the traditional approach to wheelchair bushwalking involves transplanting urban solutions into nature – that's to say concrete footpaths. But often these bushwalks are very short, only a few hundred metres. We want to see some of those footpaths extended, but more importantly we want to show users can tackle so much more than just concrete paths. In NSW there already exist networks of firetrails, bike paths and four wheel drive tracks that can be tackled by wheelchair using simple terrain attachments such as the free-wheel. The main reason that more wheelchair users aren't out on these tracks is that they are not well-known or promoted', Helen said.

Helen is calm about the obstacles they may encounter. Staircases, hills, mud, gates, rocks. 'The fun of adventure is that you don't really know what's going to happen', Helen said. She looks forward to finding innovative solutions to whatever comes up. 'But I do expect it to be very tough!'

A trained biologist with a PhD and a track-record of successful research, Helen is a glutton for the outdoors. 'For Lisa, she really loves the cultural and communal aspect, meeting fellow travellers and sharing their stories. For me, I have always loved the outdoors. But I've also grown to relish having that community of people to share your unique experiences with', she said.

Helen and Lisa will be leaving for Europe in early October. Join us in wishing them the best of luck!

Follow along on their blog, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.