What does a guided tour look like for someone with a vision impairment?

Posted 10 months ago by David McManus
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Over 1,200 travellers have experienced 60 destinations nationwide with Cocky Guides. [Source: Supplied]
Over 1,200 travellers have experienced 60 destinations nationwide with Cocky Guides. [Source: Supplied]

The 33rd Annual Western Sydney Awards for Business Excellence has recognised guided tour operator, Cocky Guides, as a finalist for Outstanding Community Organisation. The service provider took home Silver at the New South Wales Tourism Awards in 2022, having been awarded Bronze only a year prior.

Cocky Guides gained such a significant reputation through a novel idea and a wealth of experience, with the aim of offering people who live with impaired vision the chance to see the world on guided sensory tours.

However, this isn’t a case of the blind leading the blind — James McFarlane, better known as ‘Buck,’ had been delivering experiences for travellers with G Adventures, Adventure Tours Australia, Wildlife Tours, Autopia Tours, Oz Experience, Busabout, Overseas Adventure Travel and Grand Circle Tours for more than a decade.

Talking Disability journalist David McManus Jr spoke to Buck to find out more about Cocky Guides, as the founder and owner detailed what’s involved with the tactile travel initiative.

“We’ve had a gentleman named Jack who was in Byron Bay who went kayaking […] he was lucky enough to have the kayak guide in the boat with him and he had a whale go underneath him — a 100 percent blind traveller, with no vision, which is rare, because most vision impairment is a spectrum, but he could sense and feel and hear the whale underneath the kayak” Buck said.

“I had another lady who was crying at Fraser Island, who was crying tears of — sort of, joy,” he recalled, as she told Buck she never felt that she would feel empowered to travel.

“We’ve opened up a world that they thought couldn’t exist. We’ve created social networks for people with similar needs.”

People with a plan managed or self-managed National Disability Insurance Scheme [NDIS] can access Cocky Guides through getting in touch with the non-profit operator, to receive a quote or itemised list of associated costs.

“The Western Sydney Awards for Business Excellence are a unique opportunity for us to reflect on our business, highlight our successes and recognise our failures. We’ve been able to develop effective strategies and continuous improvement,” Mr McFarlane added.

Australians with a vision impairment have been able to completely immerse themselves in engaging sensory experiences at some of Australia’s most iconic destinations, such as the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Uluru in the Northern Territory and Cradle Mountain in Tasmania, since 2018.

Across Western Sydney, Cocky Guides work with thirty local businesses in 10 local Government areas.

“If you took your favourite destination — it would be about redesigning how that experience is presented,” Buck continued.

“It would be all about getting into the neighbourhoods, it would be about talking to the locals. You’d be going to learn about people and architecture.”

The tour guide provider previously won ‘Startup Superstar’ at the Western Sydney Awards for Business Excellence in 2020 and ‘Excellence in Micro Business’ in 2021. However, Mr McFarlane remained optimistic about the likelihood of success in the 33rd annual Awards event.

“I [had] never seen a blind traveller, y’know, I’d never been anywhere where I’ve been, where I’ve worked, where I’ve travelled around the world — Eiffel Tower, New York, Great Barrier Reef, Uluru — I’ve never seen anyone with a guide dog or a white cane,” Buck said.

“I just had this idea, I reached out to Vision Australia, lots of people, one person responded — I said, ‘just let me donate a group tour for a couple of your community groups’ — that was five years ago.”

The company moved to a non-profit operating model as part of a diversification strategy that aimed to create further funding opportunities beyond its existing support charges and traveller contributions.

“We are excited to launch a destination management service in Sydney’s Blue Mountains, where we operate daily tours for other tour operators. This revenue will go towards new products and subsidised services for vision-impaired travellers,” Buck shared in a public statement online, published June 2, 2023.

You can find out about upcoming experiences and register for the newsletter online at www.cockyguides.com.au or by phone at 1300 657 640.