Tony Giles has been globetrotting for more than 20 years and has been to some of the most inaccessible places on earth. As a man who is totally blind and partially deaf, his solo adventures have captivated the world’s media.
“I started travelling in 1999 when I spent five months in Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam and Thailand. I had been studying about Australasia and the United States as a kid so I knew about the countries.”
Tony went to Exhall Grange in Coventry, a boarding school where he was taught to be confident about getting around.
“I was told I would cross roads and go to the shops and catch buses. So travelling was sort of just natural really. I was confident it’s what I enjoyed doing.”
The BBC's Travel Show has featured Tony’s story and even sent a film crew to follow him on a trip to Palestine where he appears to blend in naturally, chatting to people and getting around with ease. That’s not to say people react to a blind man in the same way in different countries.
“Some people come over to you and ask you questions while others just assist you without speaking. In England, I find people are quite worried about offending you whereas if you go to the States, Australia and New Zealand, people talk more. I find that kind of refreshing.
“On the whole, the generosity I’ve had and the kindness I’ve been shown around the world has been fantastic. It’s staggering,” Tony explained.
“People see you wandering around with a white stick on your own, and they want to help; they sort of want to protect you. At other times it can be problematic. Some people panic when they see a blind person, and don’t really know what to do. They want to help but they’re not sure if they should touch you, or if they might offend you by speaking.
“I have found the countries that have had a greater exposure to disabled and blind people have a much more interactive reaction, more confident maybe to some.
One of the main issues we can all face when in another country is accessing the local currency. But if you're blind and deaf, it can be quite a bit harder than for most.
“ATM machines have swallowed my bank card in the past,” Tony said. “It was a bit problematic the first time I was in the middle of Africa with no money and no credit card.”
In order to use a foreign cash machine, Tony relies on finding someone who he feels he can trust to help him work out how they work. If getting hold of cash wasn’t daunting enough, logistical dilemmas have also been a factor for Tony.
“The first time I was travelling in Africa, every time I took a minibus my backpack would go in a different part of the bus and I didn’t know if I would ever see it again."
But Tony likes a challenge, and as he says, the rougher, the better.
“Going to Vietnam and Thailand was completely out of my comfort zone – the foreign languages, the smells and sounds, and the humidity.
“I had to avoid open ditches and drains, broken pavements and bridges. Trying to avoid thousands of bicycles all moving at once in Vietnam was all kinds of chaos. I had to cross the streets by moving with the bicycles. It sounds a bit suicidal really,” Tony said laughing.
After flying into the National Park in Venezuela and spending a day canoeing up a river, Tony hiked up to the highest waterfall in the world, Angel Falls.
“When I got to the top, I sat on a rock listening to the sound of the waterfall. It felt like a huge achievement,” Tony explained.
The hike had involved walking through soft sandy ground, over rocks and tree roots and climbing steps over a foot high. “It was very challenging and it took most people about an hour and a half to get to the waterfall. It took me three hours,” Tony laughed.
Over the years, many people have questioned Tony about why he travels when he has such limited vision and hearing. But for Tony, seeing and hearing are only a small part of the fulfilment he gains from visiting new countries.
“To experience a country properly, you need to use all your senses. It’s about tasting different food and hearing exotic music. It’s about the culture, and walking over cobbles and up and down mountains and using your feet,” Tony explained.
“Blind people are probably much more aware of the 3D image of a place rather than a sighted person who wouldn’t notice any of that. I think that’s a much more enriching experience than just seeing something.”
“People are a country’s real culture and you don’t need to see someone to meet and talk to them.”
What are the secrets to enjoying epic adventurers around the world? Well, Tony claims it comes down to two things: good planning and confidence. Here are his tips:
"Make sure you do plenty of planning. I use my laptop with JAWS to research the places I want go to, the hotels I’ll stay in and how I can travel from A to B. Start by going to a new place in the UK for a weekend either by yourself or with a visually impaired friend to see how you get on. Then, when you feel more confident and comfortable, take gradual steps and broadened your horizons. Finally, just give it a go! Anyone can do what I’ve done. You just need the confidence to try."
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 edition of Connect Magazine.
Tony Giles is the author of the following travel EBooks: “Seeing The World My Way” (available in RNIB’s Talking Book Library) and “Seeing the Americas My Way". You can find out more about Tony and his travels on his website.