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Tailor-Made Touring

When the cost of finding accessible accommodation proved too high, Ava and Iain Watson (#65797) discovered it’s better to bring your own.

Keeping any secret isn’t easy – let alone one that’s several metres long and requires months of restoration work – but Ava Watson managed to keep mum for almost a year and present her husband Iain with a very special Christmas gift that has changed the way the couple travel. Iain has multiple sclerosis and is a full-time wheelchair user. When he mentioned to Ava how much he missed camping and was sad at the thought he’d probably never be able to enjoy the experience again, she started to hatch a plan.

The plot only thickened as the couple planned a holiday, and were stunned at the cost of wheelchair-accessible motel units. “They charge a fortune for the rooms and some of them are pretty grim,” says Ava.

A search for accessible motorhomes turned out to be equally difficult – and expensive. That’s when Ava decided it was time to take the matter into her own hands. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we get a caravan specially designed for him so we can hit the road and do the camping he wants to do? It would be much nicer and a lot cheaper.”

The fact she had prior experience importing and renovating an Airstream Argosy gave her the confidence it could be done, and she tracked down someone who could source a suitable vintage caravan and bring it up to date, making it suitable for Iain’s specific needs.

As with nearly any renovation project, this one wasn’t without its delays and stressful moments. At one stage it looked like Ava’s Christmas deadline would be missed, but at the last minute she called on Robert Bailey and his team at Vanco in Ardmore to pull out all the stops and complete it in time to give to Iain as a Christmas surprise.

“He was absolutely rapt,” says Ava.

Have caravan, will travel

NZMCA members Ava and Iain Watson are loving the convenience of their wheelchair-accessible caravan

That was more than four years ago...

And since then, the couple have enjoyed many adventures in their distinctive black and white caravan. It has enough room inside for Iain to turn a full circle in his wheelchair and is fitted with safety bars, hand rails and a fully accessible bathroom. The couple live in Havelock North and close to home favourites include Waimarama and Cape Kidnappers. They are regulars up North, enjoying Russell and staying with family in Waipu, and have also explored all around the East Cape and the Coromandel.

“We also used to camp in it while following a horse we owned that was show jumped competitively and went to shows in the Wairarapa, Taihape, Taupo and the Hawke’s Bay,” says Ava. “It’s been a really good thing for us and it’s been terrific for my husband. It means we can go wherever we want.”

Fatigue is a major factor in life with multiple sclerosis, and having the caravan handy means

Iain can rest comfortably whenever he needs to. The caravan gives the couple the freedom to travel, and the security of knowing they don’t need to worry about their accommodation, whether they’re a long way from home or staying on a friend’s front lawn.

“We take a lot of gear with us, including a shower chair, extra grab rails and a camping shower. It is always fully stocked with medical supplies and anything else we think we might need while away from home,” says Ava.

Iain is a poet, who has published a book Words Amongst Friends, and managed to write  poem a day during lockdown. Apart from that, it gave them plenty of time to plan new adventures. A major overseas trip was on the cards for this year, but that’s been postponed for now. The next big dream is to travel around the South Island on a road trip, although the lack of insulation makes the caravan more comfortable in summer than winter.

Ava says the caravan always attracts plenty of positive attention on the road and she believes there will be a growing demands for caravans, either new or renovated, with features that accommodate their owners’ particular needs. “Us baby boomers aren’t going to give up doing the things we’ve always enjoyed.”

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