In May I discovered the Extreme X8, an off-roading electric wheelchair. I know there are various places which provide 'all terrain' scooters - but I can't use them due to arm positioning and coordination, plus lack of seating support. An electric wheelchair type positioning...that is another matter entirely!
The manufacturers commissioned me to do a logo. I said only if I get to try one out. And if they were as good as they seemed, I would attempt to get local outdoors-y places to buy one for me (...I mean: for visitors...) to use. So Mission: X8 Freedom was born.
On Monday the mission started for real with my first test drive at Whittenham Clumps - a nature reserve run by the Earth Trust.
Armed with a risk assessment and signed promise not to be a prat (being trained to enforce health and safety comes in handy sometimes) we met in the carpark. Richard from allTerrainWheelchairs.co.uk, Andy from Earth Trust and me. (If anyone would like to see the risk assessment to help with an X8 trial elsewhere, email me)
The carpark was in the middle of no-where. Fields and woods stretching into the distance on every side. Places frequented in childhood and teenage years but now out of bounds, suddenly tantalisingly close.
Then I switched from my chair to the X8. Footplates adjusted to suit, 2 minute explanation of the controls.....and the world changed forever.
For the next hour or more, while Richard and Andy followed discussing battery life, gradients, maintenance (and butterflies), I explored: rediscovering old haunts, climbing hills, admiring the view while the walkers to caught up, through wild flower meadows and long grass up to my elbows, along the unofficial woodland paths created by wandering cattle, down to the moat of the ironage fort - now filled with butterflies.
I had forgotten how magical it can be to go through summer woodland, hearing only insects and birdsong in the soft dappled shade, then suddenly find oneself in a clearing where every leaf is vivid green against a clear blue sky, the bleached dead wood of a lighting-struck tree shining in the sun.
Sometimes fast, revelling in the freedom. Sometimes slow, taking in the sights, sounds and scents.The quiet electric motor barely noticeable. It is years since I have been able to 'walk' without scanning the ground for obstacles - constantly planning the best route for my chair, but half way through I realised: I didn't need to any more. I could just go. Paying no more attention than your average healthy walker - slopes and steps warranted some attention, but standard undulations were completely irrelevant. Unless you have experienced it this is hard to explain....perhaps it is like spending years walking on tightropes where every move has to be planned and precise - then suddenly switching to solid floors, which you had forgotten even existed.
I thought it would leave me exhausted with the effort of keeping my joints in place, but it's ride is surprisingly smooth - more gentle bouncing rather than the 'ancient Jeep' style jolting I expected. The seat is supportive, and despite being 3 inches wider than I need I didn't slide about or feel insecure at all - despite the terrain! I only used a lap-belt, but there is also a harness option.
I'd been prepared to find that some areas were inaccessible - Iron age hill forts were not designed for wheelchair users! But I went up the steepest part of the hill, and down the steepest path Andy knew of - complete with makeshift wooden steps. True, I needed a bit of help from Richard in navigating them, but that was my limitations, not the chair's, and I suspect that someone nearer to the chairs top weight capacity of 28 stone (I think) might not manage the steepest side of the hill, and the actual sides of the moat round the fort which an able bodied person would probably have to bum-shuffle down were out of bounds. Otherwise I honestly think that the entire site is accessible in an X8. Without needing a single tarmac'd path.
It was beautiful.
It was freedom.
It was, in wheelchair terms: inaccessible.
In X8 terms: it was my world, to go wherever I pleased.
Earth Trust is now seriously looking into getting one (Or two? hint hint...us wheelies sometimes have wheelie friends). It is a process that will take a while, but if I can help them I will.
I am already thinking up other places to contact about having an X8.
If anyone wants more specific or technical information on the X8, contact www.allterrainwheelchairs.co.uk. If you want more information from a users point of view, especially if you are considering getting an X8 for use by visitiors to your site, do not hesitate to get in touch with me via email, facebook, twitter, or the comments section below.
If you would like to encourage somewhere to provide an X8, feel free to link/refer them to this blog.