Sunday, 26 July 2015

Riding for the Disabled Association National Championships 2015

Anyone who read my old blog will know that back in May I somehow managed to qualify for the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) National Championships - you can read about the awful time I had at the qualifiers here! Anyway, on Friday 17th, two days after returning from Iceland my mum and I made the trip to Hartpury in Gloucestershire, home of the Hartpury Equine College and host to the RDA National Championships 2015.
The venue!
The first half of the journey to Gloucestershire was fairly straightforward, and we stopped off in Burford for lunch with my brother and his wife. It was lovely to see them (and their dog!) on their way back from a short holiday, and definitely took the edge off any nerves that had been building up. The second half of the journey was less pleasant - there were lots of roadworks to get through so by the time we arrived at our B&B we were quite tired and in need of some good food! Fortunately we found an excellent pub a few miles away and Rosie was quite happy to be left with her new toy, Terry the Pterodactyl (bought in Burford). We began to realise how big a deal the Championships were when we met plenty of people at the pub who had already spent a day there and were proudly wearing their stash!
Me 'n' my stash.
On the Saturday, we had a good breakfast and met even more RDA people - it seemed as if everyone staying at the hostel was on their way to Hartpury. It was a very jolly atmosphere! We arrived in time to watch Anne in the Countryside Challenge, riding Jacko. Jacko was on good form and was ready to listen to Anne, and although he sometimes looked as if he might have his own ideas about where they should go next and what he should or should not be allowed to eat, Anne was always one step ahead and rode perfectly!
Anne in the Countryside Challenge.
Having never really seen the Countryside Challenge before, I really enjoyed having a ringside seat in my wheelchair and getting a better idea of what it was all about. A special mention must go to a young girl from Essex (my homie!) who rode flawlessly, even perfectly throwing an apple in a very small bucket on the ground - despite being completely blind. She was truly remarkable to watch, and came a very close second (by 0.25%) with a huge score of 82.5%. Next up from the Cambs College group was Anne again in her dressage test, also on Jacko. This was a walk and trot test, and it was plain that Jacko was having a good morning! Anne rode beautifully and came fourth in the dressage - a fantastic achievement.
Anne's dressage test.
After that, it was time to watch Rebecca's dressage test, having sadly missed her Countryside Challenge round first thing that morning. Rebecca is a great fan of Jacko and so Jacko had his fourth event of the day, and unfortunately by this point he was clearly beginning to feel a bit tired! Rebecca rode with really good precision and chivvied him along the whole way, even though he was beginning to plod a bit. Having gained 6th place in the Countryside Challenge, she came 3rd in the dressage. The way in which they awarded rosettes for Anne's and Rebecca's dressage tests was a little odd - in that they didn't give any rosettes, but only gave them out for the Countryside Challenge. I'm not sure why this was but it seemed a shame given how well they rode. It meant that Anne didn't get a rosette despite a fantastic dressage test, since there was a huge and very competitive entry in her Countryside Challenge class.
Rebecca's dressage test
The final competition of the day for Cambs College was Eleanor's dressage test on Rolo. I was very interested to see how she would get on, not only because I obviously care about all the people from my group, but also because she was the only other person riding Rolo apart from me and I wondered how relaxed he would be in this new environment - he has a tendency to get a bit full of himself at times! Eleanor's test was really tricky. She wasn't allowed a leader, so had to manage Rolo completely independently whilst in the ring. He seemed to be in a reasonably co-operative mood - he was moving really nicely and with a beautiful walk and trot, and (for once!) he seemed to be happy to make downward transitions as well as upward. The only thing he really did not want to do was a 5-second halt in the middle of the test, which was a shame, as this was called for... He did manage a beautiful square halt, before deciding that Eleanor had clearly got it wrong, he couldn't possibly have finished yet because he was facing the wrong way and he knew best. Eleanor valiantly attempted to get him to stand still, and really this was the only thing that went wrong in the entire test - the rest of the time he was listening to her obediently and moving beautifully.
Eleanor and Rolo looking spectacular.
We were all a little disappointed that the judge didn't give Eleanor a higher mark. I know I'm probably biased but I do think she should have scored more highly than she did, as she rode exceptionally well. Although it was a bit disappointing, nobody was annoyed at Eleanor or Rolo - just at the judges!
Rolo's response when asked for his opinion.
Apart from generally finding my way round, watching other people and having a nice time, I also went and did the Horse Care quiz. I don't fully understand how it worked or what section I entered but I know I came out with a pretty rosette and had the opportunity to remind myself how much I do already know about looking after horses, as well as learning some new things.
That evening my mum and I returned to the same pub as the previous night, this time with Rebecca and her mum in tow. The food really was very good! However, we didn't stay out too late as my test was revoltingly early the next morning - 8.28! After a pretty decent sleep my mum and I were up bright and early to make it into breakfast at 7am. We wolfed down as much as we could manage, checked out, packed the car and made the short trip through the wiggly country lanes to Hartpury College. On arrival, we were initially directed to the wrong carpark, and the resulting confusion caused a bit of a delay - not enough to matter, but enough to make me feel a bit nervous and therefore a bit grumpy. As soon as I'd found Rolo and our wonderful support crew in the stables I began to feel a bit better. I had some help with boots, hairnet and hat and after a brief panic when our lovely instructor couldn't find her hat we had soon set off for a tack check and then to warm up.
The team!
After the horrific experience of riding Rolo first thing in the morning at Oaklands, I had been dreading such an early start at Hartpury. However, to my immense surprise and even more enormous relief, he was clearly feeling much calmer this time round, and my original warm up plan (do as much cantering as possible so as to wear him out) was amended to include some canter on each leg, plenty of transitions, a bit of lateral work to wake him up, then generally just moving about to make sure I was feeling as comfortable and confident in the saddle as possible.
Walking around with Gillian.
The dressage tests were done in groups of three (there were three main arenas outside) and, being in the first group of the day, Rolo and I were called in very promptly. With Gillian, one of our brilliant instructors, I calmly walked around the edge of the arena and showed Rolo the judges' box and got him used to the general atmosphere. We even received a compliment from the judges on our turnout - clearly they hadn't spotted the big sloppy poo he'd just done in the warm up arena which had dribbled down his back legs! It was quite gratifying though, considering that I was reasonably smart and, but for the poo incident, Rolo looked immaculate.
Me and Rolo mid-test.
Soon the bell rang and the test began! This was the Grade I-V Walk, Trot and Canter Championship test. It begins with trotting down the centre line, without halting. This was where I made my first mistake - I learned afterwards that it's better not to turn into the arena, but to turn higher up and then have a straight approach. Oh well! Rolo's trot was very active but I was a bit worried about losing regularity if he started to rush. It was a very strange test in that the 'shapes' required were very basic (lots of going around the edge of the school, doing 20m circles, and only the odd long or short diagonal). I was looking forward to getting into canter, as that was usually more easy to regulate. Our first canter was pretty good and neat, but there was a lot of it (almost all the way around the edge of the school) and Rolo just broke into trot at one point - although we did manage to get the canter back. The second canter (a similar affair on the other rein) was better as I was prepared - at the corner where I felt him hesitate, I gave him a bit more of a kick and we kept the canter much better that time. His free walk felt quite relaxed and we even managed a reasonably successful trot-halt transition at the very end. In my relief at having achieved a passable halt, I briefly forgot what to do next, but remembered to salute just in time!
Looking for the final turn down the centre line in trot.
I felt that the test hadn't been perfect, that there could still be stuff for me to work on, but that we hadn't disgraced ourselves and I had at least survived it. I suppose next year I should be aiming for something rather better than mere survival but this time it felt like a sensible ambition!
Me finding out what I did wrong; Rolo posing!
After my ridiculously early test I had a bit of time to spare until watching Olivia and Jacko and in the Grade III Championship test. Olivia had qualified at Oaklands in this test and in one other (a Grade I-V test) so was doubly qualified to be in attendance at Hartpury, even though she was only allowed to ride one test at the competition. The Grade III test was definitely harder, since it involved canter as well as walk and trot and also some more complex manoeuvres. One of the more challenging was a 20m circle in canter, which Jacko tended to struggle with performing without breaking into trot. Needless to say, Olivia rode fantastically and Jacko stayed in canter all the way through his circles, as well as really coming alive in the extended strides in trot. We were all really chuffed that she achieved 6th place - which is a fantastic result in such a competitive class at national level.
Olivia and Jacko looking immaculate after their test.
During this time the results for my first class were slowly coming out. I was pleased with my score (67.6) but not my placing - 7th. Obviously, 7th out of 17 isn't bad, but when they only award rosettes down to 6th place it's pretty irritating! Fortunately, I had one more chance to win a rosette with my freestyle/dressage to music test.
An annoying scoreboard...
I was going to perform the same test as at Oaklands (except for a couple of very minor tweaks) with the same music. After giving detailed instructions to the poor chap in charge of playing the music for all these tests it was time to find Rolo, get mounted, get warmed up, and go and enjoy it. Once again, Rolo had been groomed to perfection, and once again he slightly spoiled the effect by pooing on himself. I suppose the nerves can get to us all!
Butter wouldn't melt...
The warm up for this test had quite an inauspicious start. The stables at Hartpury are located on higher ground than the arenas, so we had to go down a little sloping path to reach the arenas. Because the freestyle tests were performed indoors (to make playing the music easier), the warm up area for these tests was also indoors. It was a very bright, sunny day, and going into this big dark scary barn was already scary enough for a horse (you will remember that when I had a bad fall earlier this year it was because the horse was scared of the weather). Anyway, the last thing that was needed was for some wally sitting on a chair tucked behind the door to leap off said chair waving arms in greeting and shouting 'Hello!!!!'. But yep, that's what happened. Poor Rolo had the fright of his life and I nearly fell off. It transpired that this terrifying, shouty and colourful monster was in fact the volunteer responsible for the tack check. Fortunately he calmed down quite quickly so we did a bit of gentle work to get him focussed again. We gave Rolo a good bit of 'walk, trot, canter' and got him used to the music and let him have a little look through the passageway to the main arena. By the time he was ready for a tack check it was apparent that he still wasn't too fond of her, but he felt reasonably relaxed (if alert) when it was our turn to go in.
Weaving in and out of the dressage markers to keep Rolo listening.
Gillian had ridden Rolo round in this big, echoey space the day before and he had seemed quite calm then. The only thing he really did not like about it was the corner of the arena behind the letter 'M' - for some reason he was a complete wimp about it and we had to take him round there again to check that he wouldn't spin round again in the dressage test. To be honest, I felt a wee bit daunted by the rows of seating and the strange noises that came from in there, so I'm not surprised Rolo was a bit nervous too.
The start!
Anyway, all too soon the bell was rung and it was time to make our way in. I signalled for the music to be played (it was the right volume, so the young chap in charge of that had done his job well!) and we entered at A (turning much higher up this time) in a nice relaxed but active walk. His halt was good for the salute, and we went on in trot with an attempt at leg yield which I didn't really pull off, but never mind. The test went fairly smoothly until we had to go back to that scary M corner again. The idea was to trot to it and to go into canter just afterwards, but Rolo had other ideas. Fortunately these other ideas involved slowing down to walk past the danger instead of running away from it, and we sort of managed to make it look intentional, even though it did get us a bit out of sync with the music.
10m circle in trot.
The final halt was possibly our best bit - I'd spent a lot of time practising it in my head so as to get it completely in time with the music finishing, so I was really chuffed that it matched perfectly. Well done Rolo!
Final halt.
A small part of me wanted to take Rolo past the scary M corner on the way out to show him that there was nothing there that would hurt him, but since the judging doesn't stop until after you've left the arena I decided not to push my luck, and instead nudged him forwards before turning towards H and then turning up to exit at A. He'd been a good boy (mostly!) and I'd enjoyed myself. Now we just had to wait for the scores...
While I waited, I did this to Rosie.
Where I had been the first to go in my first test, I was one of the last to go in this one. This meant that they put almost everybody else's scores up, then waited an hour before putting mine up. It was a very tense hour and although I tried to chat to people I don't think I was very good conversation! When I finally did see my score (67.5) and the fact that I was placed (equal 4th!) I was so happy that I even cried - which is not really like me, or rather isn't like the old me, but seems to be a lot like the new, emotional me... Anyway, I felt vindicated and was so happy to be able to text our fabulous team of grooms (already towing Rolo back to Cambridge) to give them the news. Obviously I had hoped to be placed in one of my tests but being realistic I knew it would be a huge struggle - the competition is extremely fierce at the RDA Nat Champs. It comes from all over Great Britain and it was mostly a lot more experienced than me! I was over the moon with 4th place.
Being awarded my rosette :)
It was a great weekend. The Cambs College RDA group came home with a few rosettes, and we all had a good time there. I hadn't realised how huge some of these RDA groups are, and just how many horses some of them have. We have four horses and only about 12-15 regular riders. Six of us qualified for Nationals, although only five of us ended up being able to go. I don't think that's bad!
 I also finally began to realise what people have been saying to me since I joined the RDA - that some people will always do well at these competitions because they have horses that do all the work for them. There were some beautiful and very expensive-looking horses at Oaklands, and even more at Nationals! In my classes as in the others' there were very few cobs (like Jacko and Rolo), which really does make our job a lot more difficult. Riding a cob well in a dressage test is nothing like riding a fine, warmblooded dressage horse well - but it does make you a better rider. You learn to take nothing for granted from your horse, and you learn to feel what's going on better. You also learn to appreciate your horse more: none of the other riders seemed especially fussed that their horses weren't being naughty - for us it's something to celebrate! And none of those riders on posh horses fully appreciated when their horses were moving nicely - whereas for us, we know that the horses go well when they trust us and when we're being clear, not just because it's programmed in.
Finishing a dressage test on Rolo always fills me with a sense of relief - which the official photographer spotted and captured!
This isn't to say that our horses are naughty or bad or useless. They're none of those things. They're lovely, very sweet, very willing and very patient. However, these are things you associate with a Ford Fiesta, not a McLaren. But seriously, if you can drive a Ford Fiesta amidst a field of McLarens and hold your head high, you know you're doing well, you know you've been trained well, and you know you have a pretty awesome horse car too.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Going away - the evaluation

After a couple of months of worrying about how I was going to cope with travelling abroad (and even wondering whether I should be going at all) I am now home from one of the most amazing trips of my life, and it all pretty much went as well as I could have hoped!
Me in Reykjavik being me in Cambridge.
The journey out started with an uneventful trip to the airport, where I met the rest of the choir and picked up my music. I made my way to the bag drop area, where I was to meet the people who would provide my pre-booked 'Special Assistance.' I got taken to the front of a long line of people waiting to check in to their easyjet flights (one of the perks of being a wheelie!) and waited there for a member of airport staff to come and collect me. I was also given a tag to go on my wheelchair (just like the ones they put on your hold luggage) so that it could be stored in the hold during the flight then returned to me easily on arrival. The only mini drama that happened here was that my cunning method for transporting a suitcase of normal going away stuff and a big bag of medical equipment was not entirely foolproof. Basically, I'd tied my suitcase to the back of my wheelchair, and hadn't quite appreciated that this only really works in one direction (forwards). I tried to turn around by reversing a bit and the handle of the case got wedged under the back of my chair and instantly flipped it, throwing me out backwards in front of about 100 people in the easyjet queue. Falling out of my wheelchair is something that happens relatively often for me, but clearly most people in the queue had never seen someone launch themselves out of a chair before and there was what I must describe as moderate pandemonium as everyone rushed to pick me up and get me back in (usually I'd pick myself up but with my big bag on my back I'd sort of got a bit stuck, like a tortoise!). Anyway, after that the kind folk at easyjet took the suitcase off me and put it in as hold luggage for free (even though I hadn't booked any hold luggage and had intended to take it in the cabin), thereby making the next hour and a bit a lot more straightforward and certainly giving it less potential for further embarrassing moments!

This photo was taken on the way home at Belfast, where I'd finally worked out how to do this thing safely...
Another advantage of having Special Assistance is that you get to know your gate early (before they display it on the boards). On this occasion, they actually told me the wrong gate, but never mind! On arrival at the gate, I was again put to the front of the queue and I was the first to go on the aeroplane - which gave me the opportunity to check out the pilots, and to conclude that the rather young and inexperienced-looking one was probably the one responsible for our slightly stressful takeoff. I wanted to get a picture of myself in the cabin chair but unfortunately I didn't think of it until coming home, and at Belfast they'd figured out that my normal chair was actually narrow enough to make it down the plane, so on the last flight I didn't use it. However, here is a picture of the kind of chair they had - it wasn't especially glamourous and the straps were a little awkward for people to do up as they did involve basically giving me a rather prolonged bear hug...
Anyway, I got on the plane and, apart from the takeoff, the flight was very straightforward. The takeoff had just about been horrible enough for me to feel really nervous about what I was letting myself in for (I'm a slightly nervous flyer anyway, so the very wobbly start, with a fair bit of the plane wobbling from side to side and a very jerky ascent which made me black out a lot, did not help). After we'd settled into the cruising height I managed to retain consciousness throughout (score!) so that was something. Landing at Reykjavik was exciting but also slightly nerve-wracking - at this stage, I was still unsure as to how the week as a whole would unfold, and I was quite worried about it all. At the airport, I managed to hobble my way to the front of the plane so that they didn't need to bring a cabin chair down again (I was only in row 6 so it wasn't too far). Getting in my chair was interesting as the metal sides were extremely cold! I had help with my bags and then help from other choir members with picking up my case at the baggage reclaim, which I wouldn't have been able to do by myself.
Not without a repeat of this, anyway.
From Keflavik International Airport it is about a 45km drive to Reykjavik itself. Our bus booking was a little muddled so we waited for a while, during which time one of the choristers found an airport wheelchair and, of course, we started having wheelchair races. After annihilating the opposition in round one, I was gracious enough to concede that my nice light chair may have been an advantage, and swapped to the airport chair, only to win again as poor Gabriel found himself rolling away down a hill into the middle of the carpark (perpendicular to our 'racetrack'). Fortunately there was no traffic! When the bus turned up it was time for us to get our first view of Iceland that wasn't just an airport. We could already see that it was a fascinating place - the landscape between Keflavik and Reykjavik was rather barren - full of volcanic rock and some moss, and not much else. I also learned that in Iceland there is basically no railway, so the most common form of public transport is the bus/coach. The drivers are good and were happy to help put my wheelchair in the luggage spaces, and to help me climb up into the coach. I imagine, though, that if you were completely unable to move outside your wheelchair then it would all be a lot more difficult, as although the buses can be wheelchair accessible a lot of the coaches (most commonly used by tourists) are not.
To be fair, they are pretty hardcore buses.
On arrival at the hostel, we had some more bad news on the booking front - apparently our booking had been cancelled in May. Fortunately, we have a particularly tenacious Senior Organ Scholar, who managed to get it all sorted, although we were rather more scattered than we would have liked. My single room was in a completely different building to anyone else's from the choir, which at first made me a little bit anxious but actually turned out quite well, as it meant that I was really close to Reception, the breakfast room, and the immediate outside area of the hostel where buses would stop and where we would meet before going out together. I also quite liked having my own room as it meant that I could do everything at my own pace and I didn't have to worry about keeping people up if I were sick in the night. It was a bit scary knowing that if I fell no-one would be able to help me up, but fortunately the few times I did stack it really badly I just waited a while and was able to get up after half an hour or so.
On the first night we decided to order takeway pizza (seeing as how the restaurants were closed by the time we arrived at the hostel) and whilst we were waiting for it to arrive, a few of us decided to go down the hill to look at some Icelandic sea (Reykjavik being a coastal capital). I have a feeling that it was at this point that I started to realise that I really quite liked Reykjavik, even if things were going to be difficult. It was about 11pm by now but the sun was only vaguely skimming the horizon.
In fact, we quickly realised that sunset was just not something that was going to happen to us for the next week - although the picture above makes it look as though things should be getting dark, the picture below was taken immediately afterwards and demonstrates the kind of lighting that we had throughout the night:
After that there was a bit of a heave up the hill back to where the hostel was, but I had a bit of a shove from friends which helped. The hill did prove to be quite tricky a lot of the time, but with a bit of help it was always manageable. Under normal circumstances I'd probably have been OK on my own, but my shoulder is very bad at the moment and I didn't want to ruin it further. The first night passed without much of interest except for our oft-repeated astonishment at how light it was throughout the night. I was grateful for my eye mask, but I decided not to use the blackout blinds as well - I actually really liked the light that was pouring in through the window the whole time. It made me feel really energised and positive, and I didn't want to block it out.
This is Reykjavik's famous Hallgrímskirkja, taken at 12.01...in the middle of the night!
We did some amazing trips and saw some wonderful things. It wasn't always easy to get the chair around but we managed it! Here is me with a geyser (called 'Strokkur', which I think would make a pretty good boat name)...
And here I am at a very big and noisy waterfall...
This is at Þingvellir National Park (site of Iceland's first Parliament, in 930 AD) - an amazing place, but what is missing in this picture is the very steep hill down to this point, which was slightly terrifying in a wheelchair!
Of course, I had lots of willing helpers, which turned out to be very helpful at times when there was no alternative but to get out and haul myself along on my own two feet...
Thank you Jake for carrying my chair!
During those moments of tour where we did actually have to sing, I mostly stayed sitting in my chair. This makes singing a bit more challenging but not as challenging as having to stand up throughout with nothing to lean on!
This is us just before Evensong at the Hallgrímskirkja - a truly beautiful building inside and out.
In terms of being ill, which I had feared, I was lucky that my medication came through for me and kept me going most of the time. I had a couple of nights of being sick but as only a few weeks ago it had been every night I was very glad that that had improved. There were also a couple of points where I had to be careful about going into shops/restaurants that looked as if they would send me into sensory overload. Fortunately I stayed sensible (for once!) and everyone travelling with me understood that sometimes my reasons for not going into a certain building might not have made as perfect sense to them as it did to me. As well as these day to day things, I managed to achieve going to the Blue Lagoon with only my walking stick to get around with (chosen over crutch because of folding powers!). This probably did make me look a bit odd, but given that we spent half the time covered in white mud I don't think I really worried too much about the stick.
This is definitely the least flattering photo of me (at the back!) that I will ever share, but it's worth it for the fact that I look like a cabaret troll about to beat up a beautiful advert for how the Blue Lagoon *should* be done...
The Blue Lagoon, as one might expect, was quite well set up for wheelchair users. There was a separate changing area complete with lockers, shower and loo, but it was slightly worrying that the loo opened directly into the main reception area - I was very worried that I would be caught in the nude! It is also a bit annoying that there was only one, since there were quite a few disabled people there and obviously being disabled means that you tend to take longer to do 'simple' things like washing and getting dressed, so I had quite a long wait to get back into the room. Anyway, I showered and got changed in time to get something to eat and have a few more pictures taken. We went on quite a dull, cold and rainy day, but the water was beautiful - both to look at and to relax in! The rain was actually really refreshing when paired with the warm water. My favourite thing about the Blue Lagoon was how easy it felt for me to move about - we were wading a lot, which obviously isn't very fast, but it just felt incredible for me to feel so supported. I can't remember the last time I felt so confident about walking around - I felt that I was being held up and that if I fell (/when, because it did happen several times!) I wouldn't hurt myself falling on the floor. It felt absolutely wonderful to feel so secure and I really feel that I should try and do some more wading in every day life, just to get that lovely feeling back!
As well as the Blue Lagoon, I obviously wanted to go riding. Ever since I was tiny I had been aware of the Icelandic horse and it's own special gait, called the tölt. On our trip to go riding, I also learned that some Icelandic horses have another extra gait, called the flying pace, in which they move their legs in the same way that camels do - i.e., both left legs together, then both right legs. It looked fantastic in the pictures but as it can get very, very fast and is quite advanced we weren't allowed to give it a go - shame! Fortunately we did do a lot of tölt though, which was as amazing as I'd hoped. This is the horse I rode, Máni (meaning 'moon'):
Our excellent guides at the Islenski Hesturinn centre were completely OK with me doing things in a weird way (e.g. holding the reins differently) and helped me to get around without my chair. Obviously I'm a horse geek so I'm biased but riding around the volcanoes on these gorgeous horses was one of the best experiences of my life! The horses were clearly very close to each other and got on with each other very well. They were very sure-footed and extremely kind, gentle horses - though not to the extent that they weren't keen to get going! I really wished I could take some back to England with me to use in RDA events...
Máni and I liked to be near the front!
Of course you get the idea about riding but I'm going to share just two more pictures to give you an idea of how incredible these guys are:
In full tölt, with me semi-achieving a fist for my thumbs up...
LOVE!
Another thing we did was puffin watching from an old fishing boat, which was another opportunity for my chair to be stowed away downstairs whilst I limped about above. Puffins are a big deal in Iceland:
...as is evidenced by this remarkable hat, which sadly I could not afford to buy...
...so it was really fun to don bright orange jackets and go and meet them for ourselves. At the end I was upright for long enough to get this picture of nearly an entire choir on a boat!
This is a big deal - half the choir is made up of boaties; the other half is strongly opposed...
One of the most wheelchair-friendly places we went was the Harpa concert hall, near the harbour. This amazing building was completed in 2011. Unfortunately we did not get to sing there, but it was such a wonderful place that it was nice just to explore it and spend some time there relaxing.
I also enjoyed wheeling along the sea front - in a city where most places have to be accessed by going up or down a hill, there was a certain luxury to wheeling along a flat bit! It gave us the chance to see this lovely sculpture too...
Another nice flat bit for wheelchair users to enjoy is the artificial lake, southwest of the Harpa concert hall. There were lots of birds (and some teeny tiny ducklings!) and some interesting statues too, as well as the 'Ráðhús Reykjavíkur' which was fully accessible and contained an amazing giant relief map of the entire country.
Here's me enjoying the lake while Sam had a spin in my chair!
All in all, it was an amazing week away. I loved all of it - if I had to name highlights, I'd just be renaming all the things that I'd done. The Hallgrímskirkja is one of the most astonishing sacred buildings I have ever seen. I was lucky enough to spot it one night when the sun was pretending to set, and captured this photo (which doesn't really do justice to the amazing colour it was, but should give you an idea!)...
I loved the Blue Lagoon for the independence I felt, and the riding for the same reason (and the horses - honestly the most lovely horses I've ever met in my entire life). I loved the city and I loved the countryside that we saw. The geological features were so impressive and the geysers were really fun! The people were all fantastic and put up with me only knowing a few short words of Icelandic. I came away wanting more - much more. There was so much even in Reykjavik that I didn't have time to do, and there's so much more of the country that I'd like to explore. I know now that I can travel by myself - on the way home I got two flights (one to Belfast, then another to Stansted) and although I had 'Special Assistance' I was coping well anyway. I was scared of feeling ill whilst abroad, and although that did inevitably happen, and there were my standard subluxes, there was nothing I couldn't cope with. Instead of worrying about my health, I was able to enjoy the experiences I was having. Iceland continually took my breath away - it sounds cheesy but it's actually true; everything was genuinely breathtaking! As I wheeled around the Hallgrímskirkja, or gasped at the geysers, or laughed on the horses, or gazed at a beautiful view, I fell in love with the place. I cannot wait to go back - and now I know that I can, I also know that I will. Sure, it's expensive, so it probably won't be immediately - but I *will* make it!
I've only done one tiny corner of this amazing country - how could I not want to come back?
The only thing of note on the journey home was that, having completely embarrassed myself by accidentally evacuating my chair at Gatwick, I embarrassed myself at Belfast as well by a) having a nosebleed suddenly during my dinner and b) being in floods of tears thanks to the film I was watching on my tablet. There were literally not enough tissues in the Belfast departures lounge to stem my flood of facial bodily fluid...
On the coach tour we had on the first day (which took us to the geysers, the waterfalls, volcanoes and Þingvellir), we had a really lovely guide. She knew so much about her fantastic country, and she was very kind too. At the end of the trip - which was a long one (7 hours) - she helped me into my wheelchair for the last time that day, then bent down, held my hands and said, 'you inspire me.' To be honest, I think she should have said this to the multitude of people helping me cart my chair around Iceland's Golden Circle, rather than just to me, but I hope you will forgive me for sharing that comment because if you don't forgive me for that then you'll never forgive me for the cheese that's coming next! If I inspire her, it's as nothing compared to the inspiration she gave me that day. That was our first full day in Iceland, and throughout the entire trip I was transfixed. We got off the bus plenty of times, but there was also a lot of driving to do, but I was never bored. I simply gazed out of the window all the time and drank it all in. What an amazing, inspiring country! It wasn't easy to get around it in a wheelchair, but with the help of friends and friendly strangers, it was manageable. This trip has given me so much confidence to be able to travel more and more.
Iceland, I will be back!