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The Zoos of Europe by Scooter 2011
(A Polar Bear Quest)
By Diane Brown

Diane Brown at the Blijdorp Zoo, outside Rotterdam

Diane Brown at the Blijdorp Zoo, outside Rotterdam

Diane Brown, of Victoria, B.C. recently went on a polar bear quest by scooter through multiple European zoos. She visited Dierenrijk, outside Eindhoven, in the Netherlands; the Monde Sauvage in Aywaille, Belgium; GaiaPark Kerkrade Zoo, also in the Netherlands; the Ouwehands Zoo, at Rhenen, NL; Zoom Erlebniswelt at Gelsenkirchen in Germany; the Aachen Zoo; the Blijdorp Zoo, outside Rotterdam; and finally the Cologne Zoo.

Looking back, I can't believe that I had such high expectations, and then to find I did better than that was gratifying. First up is to explain is that my passion in life is SAVE THE POLAR BEAR! It's a unique little corner of our world, and it has led me to some interesting experiences all over the place. Also I travel in the company of a Shoprider travel scooter. It has never – well, seldom – let me down.

I started off in London, meaning I had to come through Heathrow, synonymous in my mind with "nightmare". I'd been flying all night, when I arrived at midday. There was the usual crush of assorted souls, all hurrying down the sterile corridors toward … somewhere. I got special treatment both at Customs and Immigration, which is always helpful. This time I'd examined the Step-Free Tube Guide (http://www.tfl.gov.uk/assets/downloads/step-free-tube-guide-map.pdf) and had determined I'd conquer the Tube. I couldn't get onto the platform at Terminals 1-2-3, but a rather crabby lady directed me back to the platform for Terminals 4-5, which the guide rated A. That was a breeze. I and my backpack and my suitcase and my travel scooter hurtled on with no problems. I was heading for Hammersmith. There things went a bit wrong. It was a B-rated stop, and when the doors opened I was horrified to find a 7" step up. I was wondering if I could possibly bump up, then it was beginning to dawn on me that perhaps I couldn't get off at all, when an army of men leaped up and lifted the scooter up over the step. At first they wanted to lift ME and the scooter up, but I insisted on standing up. Away I went, my life touched by some big British angels.

I stayed at the Premier Inn Hammersmith, in a large part because they had a ramp. By the time I got here the scooter was about dry, but I nursed it along and made it safely. There were about five steps down to reception, which is something I could manage. I did notice, however, that there was a lift attached to this little stairway. I had booked a disabled room, but told them on arrival that I didn't need anything special except room to keep the scooter and charge it. I had quite a small standard room, but it was manageable. The price was £343 for four nights. They had prepared meals you could book, but I'm a fan of snacking in my room, so I visited the local Tesco and was all set up.

Recharged, the scooter again served me well although, except for the stop at Westminster, I really couldn't get further into the West End without getting a taxi and paying a large fare. I settled for sleeping off jetlag and puttering around Hammersmith and the King Street Mall.

On the fifth morning, I had to leave from Paddington Station. I've been there before, with mixed results, but like an old soldier, I faced the battle. I got a taxi and away we went. It's very useful to know that so-called "black taxis" can always accommodate a wheelchair or scooter. They may not be the cheapest solution, but mostly they're the best. At Paddington I found my train and bothered the conductor about getting me aboard. His endeavors produced a grumpy station guard with a ramp, who lectured me how I should have pre-booked (0800 197 1329). I'd pre-booked before, to no special result, so just agreed and went my own way. Generally I find that just turning up with heavy expectations of assistance works the best.

We made it to Oxford quite routinely, where they had called ahead to warn(?) the station there I was coming. There I got another lecture on how they didn't carry scooters – Neanderthals! – but I got off handily and again, away I went. Unfortunately the guy I was supposed to meet in Oxford didn't show up, and I was stranded, with no hotel booked and not enough money. I got a taxi – nothing special – and through laterooms.com, managed to find myself at Rewley House, connected to the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education. There was a dither about whether they had a room available, when it occurred to the receptionist that their handicapped room was not in use. I'd already been impressed by the fact that Rewley House had a ramp out front; now I found they had a largish room, with all the necessary facilities in the bathroom. I don't really need anything special in the bathroom, but I did appreciate having space to house the scooter easily. And I never did master the shower. I think you had to turn a switch somewhere, but with two cavernous sinks available, I settled for a wash there.

Oxford isn't really constructed for scooters, but cobblestones and all, I got around quite a bit, mostly in the region of Wellington Square, where the pavement could be quite uneven. It was a little adventure. The next day I talked the National Express Bus into taking the scooter on board, so getting back to my favorite airport was a breeze. I was headed for Germany.

Getting back to the polar bears, I'd made friends over the internet with Ulli and Gerhard, who keep tabs on polar bears in European Zoos and who were keen to show me. It was a risk for us all, but turned out to be quite easy. First thing I showed Gerhard how to dismantle the scooter and fit it into the trunk of his car, so away we went. It was late and I was tired.

Making a long story short, we visited Dierenrijk, outside Eindhoven, in the Netherlands; the Monde Sauvage in Aywaille, Belgium; GaiaPark Kerkrade Zoo, also in the Netherlands; the Ouwehands Zoo, at Rhenen, NL; Zoom Erlebniswelt at Gelsenkirchen in Germany; the Aachen Zoo; the Blijdorp Zoo, outside Rotterdam; and finally the Cologne Zoo. Not every one had polar bears, but the bears I saw were great. You can check out my photostream at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/14599003@N06/

With Ulli and Gerhard's help, we managed the scooter quite easily in and out of the car. And except for the occasional short, steep grade, I got around okay. The scooter hasn't a great range or a powerful motor, so occasionally when it got too steep, I'd just jump off and escort it a few feet. Some of the gift shops were a bit cramped, and I'm afraid I didn't visit any restrooms. For sure, they do appear to have disabled washrooms at Zoom Erlebniswelt and the Owehands Zoo, and I e-mailed the others and got a variety of responses: Gaia Park Kerkrade replied that they had four disabled washrooms, also wheelchairs for loan, and at Aachen they said "selfverstandlich" … "of course, we do". Although they never answered me, I'm fairly sure you could also find them in Cologne and at Blijdorp.

Coming back, I had no trouble at the Cologne Airport, and I actually spent the night at Heathrow. It was in reality rather a dull, if slightly eerie, experience.

The scooter was running low on juice, and by the time I made it to Vancouver, it was to the sputtering stage. They suggested taking me separately in a golf cart through the airport, and while well-meant, this got me into a lot of trouble. There were Immigration and Customs to deal with, not really a problem. The problem was, however, that they would not pass me out without my having the scooter with me. I couldn't say who actually caused this mess to happen, but in the hands of the people who do these things at the airport, I was delayed nearly three hours before being able to continue on home. I saw seven helpers, multiple wheelchairs and golf carts, and not a lot of sensitivity. By the end of it, I was really upset, angry, exhausted, and in pain. I'd told everyone about the scooter not having much charge; even so, they acted perturbed when they had to deal with the problem. I'd also asked for some water for at least an hour and never got any. My back had become so unstable that I could hardly shuffle, I was light-headed, nauseous, and nearly in tears. They were still joking about it all, when I lost my temper and gave it to one of them. They did deliver me to the airplane, but by then I thought I'd never make it home. I'd booked the local wheelchair bus service but had missed that because of their confusion so had no way home. The local taxi company did come up with a suitable vehicle, but it cost around $75, and I was further angry about that. The bus fare would have been $2.25.

I guess the resolution to this whole tale is that I conquered a lot of territory with my scooter and saw a lot of lovely animals and some British angels. My friends in Germany deserve several gold stars for all they helped me with. But don't depend on any kind of decent or sensitive help at the Vancouver Airport. Take your scooter "door-to-door", have a good charge, then do it all independently.

And last, but certainly not least, do remember to: SAVE THE POLAR BEAR!

"Reprinted courtesy of Global Access News, a Network for Disabled Travelers" at http://www.globalaccessnews.com/

http://www.globalaccessnews.com/Touring%20Zoos%20by%20Scooter%20Brown%202011.htm