Shared senses: how sighted travellers are helping blind adventurers explore the world

Traveleyes’ tours challenge sighted travellers to guide blind fellow holidaymakers. We hear from sighted guide Joan Stead and visually impaired traveller James Barratt as they experience an African safari together

Sighted guide perspective, by Joan Stead

I am on a 10-day safari with a difference. Each day I will be the eyes for a blind companion, describing the sights and sounds of the African Savannah as we journey through Zimbabwe and Botswana.

It is nearing the end of November and the rains have not come. The flow of Victoria Falls is segmented with large areas of exposed rock. I walk with my companion, Jane, beside the Zambezi River describing how it contracts at Devil’s Cataract before tumbling 60m into the gorge. We listen to the roar of the water from the side of the falls and then walk in front to compare the sound. Mist rises all around us and settles on the trees, plants and passing people.

“I can smell lion,” my blind companion Marjorie says the next day as we drive through Hwange National Park. Our driver confirms their proximity. Next she describes the scent of elephant just before a family of elephants saunters past our vehicle on its way to a watering hole. Marjorie explains that a zoo keeper friend had helped her learn the odours of large animals before her trip. It’s a perfect marriage; She identifies the smells, I describe the sights and we are both hushed by the penetrating trill of the crimson-breasted shrike and the deafening songs of the cicadas in the afternoon sun.

Sometimes eyes are not required to appreciate the magic of the world

Each morning we venture out at daybreak. We see a male lion standing beside the road, marking his territory on a bush before walking confidently past jackal, kudu, impala, baboons and a giraffe, which watches tentatively from among the trees. There are submerged hippos and crocodile at a distant watering hole while zebra and elephants drink at one visible from our hotel. My partner asks for more details: “What colour are their ears? How tall are they?” Suddenly the impala start to scream, revealing a body on the ground. “Her sister fell down and she did not get up,” our guide says. The next morning we describe the sight of a dozen vultures cleaning the carcass.

Putting into words the experience around us was challenging. Spotting animals in the wild deserves more than a few words, but moving through this landscape also requires peaceful contemplation. However, there were supreme moments when the sounds or the deep silence of the bush invoked a feeling that defied verbal description. Sometimes eyes are not required to appreciate the magic of the world.

Have I succeeded in portraying a little of the travel experience? You would have to ask my blind travel companions to answer that question. Will I have another attempt? My next Traveleyes trip is already booked.
Visually impaired perspective, by James Barratt

As the engine rumbles beneath me I am treated to a free African massage on the bumpy dirt roads. Sunset has been and gone and the heat of the day is at last starting to subside. Then, as we turn a corner, our guide calls out: “Elephants!”

The truck slows and the engine is cut, leaving a second of silence while my ears adjust. And then I hear it. The sounds of an African evening overlaid by footsteps on both sides of the truck and punctuated by the snap of twigs. Elephants are surprisingly light on their feet, but they have a presence you can’t miss. Even the smell is distinctive, it reminds me a little of hay. This is my defining memory of the trip, sitting in the truck in near silence as a herd of elephants move past on either side.

This was my fifth holiday with Traveleyes. As a blind traveller it can be a leap of faith to put my trust in a complete stranger, but it’s also one of the joys of the trip: meeting new people and being a part of their interpretation of the world, hearing them voice descriptions or impressions of things that would ordinarily remain in their heads. No experience is required, in fact many of the best sighted guides I’ve had have never guided before.

Another big plus for me about Traveleyes is that it’s not a charity. I like to think of myself as a young, independent professional. To be able to travel as a paying customer in a group that understands my needs, without being totally focused on them, is priceless.

It can be a leap of faith to put my trust in a complete stranger, but it’s also one of the joys of the trip: hearing them voice descriptions that would ordinarily remain in their heads

There were many unexpected sensory delights on our trip. The smell of the landscape was very distinctive as well as the wood fires and roasting in the evening. Hearing the descriptions of the birds and the dress people wore painted a vivid picture in my mind. The noises were as varied and as riotous as the colours; the cicada serenading us from afternoon to early morning, the birds, crickets and frogs as well as the lively African drums.

Another stand out memory was the lions. Through a conservation group the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust I had the chance to actually sit with and then walk beside lions. It’s one thing to see these animals in the wild and have them described to you from afar but it’s quite another to be able to touch them and walk alongside them. I can’t describe the sensation of walking next to a lion with my hand on his back, the feel of the fur and the power of the muscles beneath, the primal unease of being so close to an animal whose ancestors ate mine.

Before I left I wasn’t sure what to expect from this trip. In the back of my mind I couldn’t help but wonder how much I would actually get from the safari if I couldn’t even see the animals, but I’m pleased to report I had nothing to worry about. Firstly, because of the range of multi-sensory experiences and secondly because of the fantastic job the sighted guides and local staff did – they brought the world to life for me.
Traveleyes offer trips for visually impaired and sighted people, including African safaris, South American adventures, European and UK breaks.
Positive Travel is edited by Aaron Millar. He writes about adventure travel, and personal development through exploring the world, at The Blue Dot Perspective.
Photo: Elephants at a watering hole, Zimbabwe. Credit: Meraj Chhaya