The ability to walk in the forests and along the beaches of New Zealand is a given for most people but for a few, it is an exciting new sensory experience.
On the third Wednesday of each month, trampers and walkers on the many scenic tracks in the South Otago district may bump into a group of friendly, happy-go-lucky people working their way along the same trail.
Getting past the excited chatter as the group makes its way along the track, one might notice that most are walking very close together. Nothing untoward, it is just that they are members of the South Otago Community Committee for Blind Low Vision New Zealand, or as they like to be known, the blind mice.
“We have been walking as a group since 2016 and we are a very social group of blind and low-vision people who just want to get out and walk the trails and tracks of South Otago,” the group’s organiser, Doug Keen, of Milton, said.
“Along the way, we always have a few laughs and it is nothing for us all to walk up to 16km a day on some trails,” he said.
Over the years, the group has walked sections of the Clutha Gold Trail in Central Otago, completed overnight tramping trips, and walked onjust about every marked trail in the South Otago district.
“Distance isn’t a problem, but we do have tochange from the marked trails to the back roads and forest roads around Milton when winter arrives, because most of the trails become very slippery, making it too hard for us to walk on safely,” Mr Keen said.
The blind and low-vision walkers in the group have sight guides leading them.
“Their job isvery important,” said Susy Dinkelaar.
“They tell us constantly about what is coming up ahead, branches, tree roots, soft ground, sand or mud, so you don’t walk into things, plus they tell us about the views around us.” “It gives us all something to do. We love walking and I find it very refreshing to be able to get out and walk each day.” She experiences the outdoors through her other senses. “We hear a lot of sounds as we walk along.’’ Les Freeman, of Balclutha, said working as a sight guide was very rewarding.
“It’s a nice social outing for everyone. We are there to guide them along safely, we have to be very aware of potholes, puddles and spot all the things in our way as we walk along.”
Maree Dodds, of Kaitangata, said that she loved getting out and walking.
“I have slight vision, but my ears come in quite handy as I walk solo along tracks. I’m self propelled so all I do is grab my stick and walk,” she said.
Leeanne Melvin, of Balclutha, uses all her senses to discover what is around her as she walks.
“I listen to nature and to my guide, who explains the scenery and what is happening around me,” she said.
The group is looking forward to the new Clutha Gold Trail extensions under construction near Milton and through the Manuka Gorge.
“We can’t wait to walk it. It will be an adventure,” MrKeen said.
Those interested in joining the walking group can contact Doug Keen on (03) 417-8587.