CREDIT: TONY GILES/CATERS
Original Article on the telegraph.co.uk by
Close your eyes, cover your ears, now go and tour Rome on your own. It’s a prospect that seems infeasible, and yet voyaging the world solo while blind and mostly deaf is exactly what Tony Giles does, and he’s almost certainly better travelled than you are.
The Devon-based author and explorer, who was diagnosed with a rare genetic visual and auditory impairment during his early childhood, has visited 127 countries thus far, all 50 of the US States, and all seven continents on the planet.
“I plan to continue travelling until I’ve visited every single country in the world, then keep travelling until I die,” he tells Telegraph Travel.
Giles will turn 40 this year. He was nine months old when the problem with his vision was discovered – cone dystrophy and photophobia. At six, he was declared partially deaf in both ears. He could see in black and white until the age of 10.
These days, he’s entirely blind and about 80 per cent deaf. A powerful hearing aid helps him to hear in certain scenarios but not others. “It’s like having a phone conversation on a broken telephone line,” he explains. “I hear some sounds and words clearly but miss others.”
Giles was educated at two schools for the visually impaired – Exhall Grange School in Coventry and later the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford – where he says he gained all the skills he needed to achieve independence; braille, mobility training and the use of special computer software among them.
So without sight, and very limited hearing, what is it actually like to navigate the world alone – a task daunting enough to most people in and of itself?
“I experience monuments by climbing them: as I have the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty,” he explains. “I experience cities by walking them. I notice shifting gradients, detect the changes in surfaces under my feet from gravel to tarmac, cobblestones to concrete, earth to marble.
“I sense the change in space when hiking the narrow trails of a forest, as they lead out to an open field when the fresh wind hits my face.
“I visit famous churches, mosques and temples, touch their crumbling walls and feel the textures that have been layered over the centuries.
“I enjoy the aromas of a marketplace, the grilling of meat, the frying of onions and garlic, the zesty spices, ginger and herbs.
“It’s the hussle and bussle of somewhere like Jerusalem’s Old City, or Zanzibar’s Stone Town – alive with people, animals and sellers haggling that gives me the impression of a place.”
Best of all though, are high-adrenaline experiences, he says. “I’ve bungee jumped 16 times thus far, skydived three times, and white water rafted in Australia, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Zambia, to name a few. I love it because I can feel everything.”
The thrill of movement, he says, and the challenges of getting from A to B are what continue to motivate him – he favours the richer sensations of trains and boats over other modes of transport.
To plan his trips, Giles uses a type of software called JAWS which allows him to read his computer screen using text-to-speech output. This enables him to research destinations, book hostels, and organise his itinerary ahead of time. He often needs help booking his flights, he points out, because airline sites are notoriously clunky for the visually impaired.
He then travels with a digital device that stores his documents and research, relevant phone numbers, directions to and from airports and around public transport, as well as e-books. Also on his packing list are his hearing aids, plenty of spare batteries (they die after three weeks and replacements are hard to source abroad), and a spare cane to guide him.
“I’ve had my cane run over on several trips,” he says. As for using a smartphone, unlike most other visually impaired people, it’s a firm no.
“I don’t like swipe technology, it drives me mad,” Giles explains. “Yes, it may help me locate a specific place more quickly and independently, but I like engaging with the public to help me find places, and anyway, in places like Africa, the internet is hardly reliable.”
Asked what he does when he gets lost and doesn’t speak the native language, Giles says: “I always make sure I have an address card with the place I’m staying written on it in the local language, so if I really become stuck, I can shout ‘taxi!’, show them the card and return to my accommodation.”
Learning new languages on-the-go is a challenge, but Giles says he always attempts to memorise the basics (“hello”, “thank you”, “water”) for wherever he’s off to, and can almost always find someone who can speak a bit of English if he needs help.
Giles funds his travels partly using the private pension his father left him when he died, and partly with earnings from the two ebooks he’s written, the second of which – Seeing The World My Way – was republished last year.
He keeps to a tight budget, uses public transport wherever possible, joins free walking tours, and makes use of couch-surfing as often as he can.
“It’s great for meeting and staying with local people, an exchange of cultures,” Giles remarks. “Which is the essence of real travel. Plus, for the most part, it’s free. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s magical.”
The one place he wouldn’t re-visit? “Armenia,” he says. “I found getting about and visiting places difficult, and felt most people I encountered just wanted to make money out of me. There were only a few backpackers, so it was hard to network and get help with directions. I found a few kind people on the streets, but not many.”
And the best place he’s ever been? New Zealand – (incidentally, Telegraph Travel readers agree, having now nominated it as their favourite country in the world five times in a row) – and Antarctica.
“I turned up in Ushuaia, the world’s most southern city, found a cruise ship willing to take me at the last minute, paid slightly more for an extra guide and stepped aboard,” he recalls.
“It was nine days of magic. I touched whale bones washed up on the shore, sat on huge chunks of ice, stroked glaciers and listened to the cackles of penguins all around.”
In 2001, shortly after arriving in Melbourne having backpacked the southern hemisphere unaided, he received an email from his mother.
“It said, ‘Hi Tony, hope you’re well, you have kidney damage, you need to see a doctor, you could die – love mum’,” Giles recounts. “I did what any young, adventurous lad would do upon hearing such news – I went and got drunk.”
Teetering on the edge of alcoholism, Giles had his last drink in 2002, then in 2008 underwent a successful kidney transplant – the donor was his stepfather – and within three months, was off on his travels once more, first around the UK, then the rest of the world again.
As he prepares himself for Oman, we ask what simple things others could do should they cross his path to make his passage easier.
“Speak to me before offering to help, rather than just grabbing me,” he advises. “It’s frightening to grab someone who’s visually impaired, and can often lead to an adverse reaction.
“A gentle tap on the arm or shoulder followed by a ‘Do you need any help?’ will suffice. And please, people, don’t point when giving directions.”
- You can follow Tony Giles’ travels on his website, here.