Blind hikers defy the odds

NORMAN MCFARLANE

If you’ve ever tried to find your way around in the pitch dark, even in your own home which you know well, you’ll know just how difficult it is to do so without barking your shins, walking into a wall, or falling over a piece of furniture.

Now imagine tackling the Fish River Canyon in Namibia with your eyes closed, from the time you make the hazardous and precipitous descent to the canyon floor, all the way down the 89 km canyon to Ai-Ais, and you’ll know what Strand resident Zelda Oosthuizen will be doing in June, but she won’t have to close her eyes to do it in darkness: Zelda is blind.

Zelda lost her sight in 2012 in a shooting accident, and her experiences since then have brought home with great force just how difficult it is for blind people to get a job, how sighted people battle to communicate with blind people, and how the disability seems to disqualify blind people from being useful members of society.

“Sighted people struggle to communicate with blind people, because they can’t make eye contact,” says Zelda, recounting a recent experience where during a visit to the bank, the attendant insisted on speaking to the person who accompanied Zelda, rather than to Zelda herself. “Because they can’t look you in the eye, they rather look at – and talk to – the person next to you.”

“You can speak to me; I’m blind, not brain dead,” she says. “There is still a person behind these eyes that cannot see.”

Zelda will be accompanied on her arduous journey by Corrie Brits, who lost his sight due to glaucoma at an early age. The two intrepid adventurers will be lead by a team of sighted hikers, which includes Sharon Goosen of the Worcester Institute for the Blind, but each of them will carry their own backpacks, approximately 20% of bodyweight, with everything they need.

Tyger Valley resident Johan Kruger, who has hiked the Fish River Canyon many times, is the expedition leader – and he conceptualised the idea of making the expedition a blind awareness campaign, when he heard Zelda speaking about the plight of blind people on Radio Sonder Grense (RSG). “I got Zelda’s telephone number, and we met and chatted,” says Johan, “and we came up with idea of hiking the Fish as a means of raising public awareness about the plight of blind people.”

“I’ve spoken to many blind people, and they all tell me that it is very difficult to get a job,” says Zelda. “We’re doing this to show people, if you give a blind person a challenge to surmount they will go ahead with full force because they do not want to disappoint. If a blind person can do this, what’s stopping a company from giving a blind person a desk, a chair, a computer and a meaningful job to do?”

The group of 12 hikers includes Zelda, Corrie, Sharon Goosen, Johan, and eight sighted hikers. Each member of the expedient is responsible for their own costs, but for Zelda and Corrie, a fundraising initiative was launched to help them with transport and the camping and hiking gear they require.

Zelda’s previous employer, Imperial Holdings, has sponsored the 12 seater mini-bus needed for the expedition, as well as all her camping and hiking gear. “The funds raised will only be used for the blind members of the expedition, and Sharon Gooosen of the Worcester Institute for the Blind,” says Johan. “The other expedition members pay all their own costs, including fuel for the trip, and hiking permits.”

“If there are funds left over after the trip,” says Zelda, “I want to use some of that money to take children from the Worcester Institute for the Blind out for a day outing.”

The severe drought in Southern Africa might pose a challenge to the expedition, according to Johan, but there is a Plan B. “The authorities might not allow the hike to go ahead if the water level in the Fish is too low, but we’ll only know that closer to the time (June 25 is departure date). If the Canyon is closed, we will do a hike in the Orange river Valley, starting at Onseetkans, down the river for about 40km to the mission station at Pella near Pofadder, then back up to Onseetkans. The route follows a figure of eight, is about 76km long, and the terrain is similar to the Fish,” says Johan.

* To contribute towards Zelda’s expedition costs, contact her at 021 853 1003.