When did you go on your first adventure?
I lost my sight at 18 due to an eye condition. By the third year of my maths and stats degree, I’d decided that enough was enough — I wasn’t going to tiptoe through life wrapped up in cotton wool. Against the wishes of my lecturers and parents, I headed off to Canada to study in Kingston. I went there alone — just me and my blindness. That taught me your world becomes bigger when you push your limits.
How do you put that lesson into practice?
In 2005, I took part in a 220-mile trek across Nicaragua alongside 10 other people with disabilities for a BBC Two documentary series called Beyond Boundaries. We had to work as a team to go across tropical rainforests and a shark-infested lake, as well as up a 5,000ft volcano. I was pushing a wheelchair through dense jungle; no amount of exercise could have prepared me for it — it became all about mental resilience. Each time you push yourself, it helps you get ready for your next challenge. You begin to crave that feeling of uneasiness; when it’s tough, when it feels awkward — that’s when you know you’re growing.
How do you experience a new place?
With all my senses. As a blind person, I feel the sun and the smells, seeking out exciting sensory adventures. In Egypt, I’ll touch 3,000-year-old temples, feeling the hieroglyphics — the Egyptians must have been really cool, they made accessible language! In Italy, I’ll go to traditional Tuscan farmhouses and cook pasta, feeling the aromas of basil and tomato in the air. Of course, I also want to know what a place looks like. I’ll ask my sighted guide to describe it and build vivid pictures in my mind.
How are sighted guides encouraged to describe things?
Often, people who are sighted think they need to be wordsmiths, but they can just describe what they see like a normal conversation. I love it when people give me the overview first; when you look at a picture, you don’t glance at the little details straight away. As words go into my ears, they translate into beautiful pictures. Then, kerching! I’ll keep the imagery and mix it with other sensory details. If I’m at Victoria Falls, I’ll have the falls described to me — the sheer grandeur of them — then feel the spray on my face, the sunshine. I hear the thunderous falls, aware of their smell. They’re all inputs that add up to an incredible experience.
In 2004, you set up Traveleyes, the first tour operator providing independent travel for blind and low-sighted people. Why did you think it was necessary?
After being an accountant for seven years, I felt something was missing. That something was the travel bug I’d caught in Canada. When I approached mainstream tour operators, I faced rejection; they said that, even with a carer, I couldn’t do adventures like skiing or sailing. This restriction left me feeling powerless, my world was closing in. Then, I realised I’ve only got one life. If I wanted something that didn’t exist, I’d have to build it myself. I’d developed what we Scottish people call a stubborn mindset; I wasn’t going to stop.
What impact has Traveleyes had?
The blind travellers who join Traveleyes trips spend their lives with restrictions. In the past, a lot of blind people didn’t travel, and when they did, it wasn’t on their own terms. When they join these experiences, grouped with sighted guides, they want to say yes to everything, and that’s infectious. Trips build confidence because travelling opens your mind, and many blind travellers can take that confidence back to their lives at home.
You may think that blind people get more out of these trips than sighted travellers [who are asked to describe sights and whose trips are subsidised up to 50%], but I’d say that sighted travellers come away totally transformed and inspired. Blind travellers are halfway around the world, jumping out of planes and horse-riding across sugarcane plantations. It really makes guides look at their lives differently.
As part of Travelling Blind, a 2019 BBC documentary that saw you explore Turkey with comedian Sara Pascoe, you attended a Turkish oil wrestling festival. What was that like?
I was really interested to have Sara describe this to me. The aim is to get your opponent onto their back, but it’s hard because the wrestlers lube themselves up with oil. I wanted to use my senses to see just how big these guys are. I went up to the national champion and said, “Look, because I can’t see, do you mind if touch you?” Blindness has helped me push doors open. If I’m in the markets, I want to smell, touch and taste. Sighted people can often feel a little hesitant to do that, but that’s how I get a better idea of a place.
What makes adventure so important to you?
I had one of my most amazing experiences on a floating island in Lake Titicaca. I took a group in 2010, and the Indigenous people had never met anybody blind before. When I took another group a few weeks later, they’d made a scale model of the island so that the VIPs (visually impaired people) could touch them. It doesn’t matter where you go, finding that connection is priceless.
What advice would you give to young people who are blind or low sighted?
It’s natural to feel that the world has closed for you, but when you have a positive mindset, obstacles become opportunities. Don’t spend time worrying, it’s a waste of time. This life is not a dress rehearsal, so get stuck in.