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Comfort zones are overrated

From snowmobiling in Japan to BASE jumping in Kuala Lumpur, Marlena Katene is no stranger to adventure! She shares her top 5 travel stories.

When we travel, we can summarise exactly why we do so in two words: culture and experiences. I have been blessed over the years to experience the joys of travel and all that it brings. It becomes addictive as it interrupts and challenges my everyday living at home. Being a wheelchair user and an avid traveller means that before, during and even after a trip, one becomes a great researcher. Effectively we become our own travel agents (even if we have one), googling, researching and exploring what is available at destinations all across the world.

Marlena Katene in her wheelchair wearing a helmet next to a man who is also wearing protective gear
Marlena is no stranger to the thrills and spills of adventure travel! Credit: Supplied

The idea of a wheelchair user, or people with other disabilities, exploring the space of adventure tourism may appear to be a unique concept. In some situations it may be considered an impossible task. However, over the years I’ve been lucky to have had the support to achieve some insane activities that might not spring to mind for those with disabilities. Life is an adventure, and here are the top 5 adventure experiences I’ve had. 

BASE jumping 

Where: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

BASE is an acronym for building, antenna, span and earth. As an avid skydiver, I was encouraged by a friend of mine to explore the possibility of becoming the world’s first person with cerebral palsy to BASE jump. It was after my 14th skydive that I researched some other fun things to do and I came across a guy in America who was offering tandem BASE jumps. There were only 3 people in the world who were doing such an activity, and this guy, Sean Chuma, was the best in the business. So, after some research, I contacted him and sent links to my previous jumps. To my surprise he came back with a “Yer, I can take you. Can you come to the US?”. As I had just got back from there, I told him it may be the next year. His response? “Well I’ll be in Kuala Lumpur in two weeks if you want to come there – we can jump off the KL Tower.” To cut a long story short, we scrambled together our arrangements and got there. For a wheelie, BASE jumping and even navigating around Kuala Lumpur was an adventure.

Marlena Katene BASE jumping off a building strapped to an assistant
While BASE jumping isn’t for everyone, it is certainly an adrenaline rush! Credit: Supplied

Wheelie tip: Anyone can do anything, even BASE jumping. Don’t be afraid to ask and don’t tell your mother what BASE jumping is before doing it. Show her the videos after the event – it will go down a lot easier!


Where: Hakuba, Japan

Planning for a trip to the snow can be a challenge at the best of times. I went on this adventure to Japan with my high school. It was my first time to the snow and my assistant wasn’t a competent skier, so we nutted out a plan to keep me entertained on the snow while my more able-bodied peers skied. A snowmobile was the answer and proved to provide an amazing experience. The guys at the ski resort of Hakuba 47 ensured my three days on the slope was memorable and my need for speed was well and truly catered for.

Wheelie tip: Take a manual chair (and some muscle) to the snow so you can easily jump on and off the gondolas. It allows for better access overall. Side note: The guys at Hakuba 47 will treat you like royalty.

Contiki tour

Where: Europe, Scotland and the US (other countries are available)

Like most kids finishing school, I went through a stage when my social life declined a little. Being non-verbal and a wheelchair user made it somewhat harder to just pick up the phone to go over to friends’ places, which got to me to a degree. While I made new friends in my business course, after school there was a void in my life. I enjoyed travel, so I decided to go on a Contiki tour. My first tour was through Europe with 50 other travellers who were mainly Australians. I have since done three Contiki tours and have made lifelong friends. Being stuck on a bus, you get to know people in a very social environment. When Contiki tours finish, you stay close to people – I have been to Bali with a group of 8 of my Contiki friends since, attended weddings, couch-surfed and had many Contiki friends stay at my house. Contiki tours are a must to consider, especially if you have a disability.

Wheelie tip: Be upfront about your disability prior to the trip, provide the support your disability requires and be open-minded with fellow travellers about your disability. Contiki is fast-paced and not for everyone, but the social rewards are worth every cent of these trips.

Selfie with the Pope

Where: Vatican City

This was a random experience for me. After a Contiki trip to Italy, we decided to return a few years later as we were in love with the place. If you have been to Rome, I’m sure you can relate. The second time around for us it was more relaxed, and we got to see the city at our own pace – this included a trip to Vatican City. We went on a Tuesday and, as we were leaving, we were asked if we were going to the Papal mass the next day in the Square. It wasn’t on our agenda, but as the saying goes, when in Rome… We were advised to arrive early and to position ourselves at the left barriers at the front entrance. We were told that if we got there early they could guarantee a great spot. So we arrived early and the scenes were reminiscent of a Myer stocktake sale – people were lining up waiting to get the best spot. However, for me, a wheelchair user, they ushered me in early to the very front, right near the stage. This is standard if you have a disability and ask the right question. We got the prime spot, and after the mass the Pope came down to bless us, give us some beads and even agreed to a selfie. The crowd went wild and he just laughed it off. I don’t think it was his first selfie judging by his body language. 

Marlena Katene with the Pope and people taking photographs in the background
Marlena took an unexpected selfie with the Pope on her visit to Vatican City. Credit: Marlena Katene

Wheelie tip: Do the Vatican tour the day before to get your bearings. Arrive early (7am) on the day, take lots of water (as it will be a long, hot day) and get that iPhone charged for your selfie!

Meeting penguins

Where: Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Dubai has so many activities you can do, including sand-dune buggies, desert safaris, skydiving over the Palms or simply shopping at the world’s largest shopping mall (while watching the famed Dubai fountains). In the middle of the desert, going skiing in the snow isn’t the first thing that crosses one’s mind, however it’s Dubai, and in Dubai nearly anything is possible. Dubai Ski is built within the Mall of the Emirates and gives tourists the opportunity to ski, snowboard and even have a close encounter with penguins. It’s not a cheap experience, but there are a wide range of packages to suit everyone’s interests. Not all the activities are possible – it really depends on your needs. Meeting the penguins was an incredible experience and one I never thought I would do in Dubai. The close encounters are available twice an hour throughout the day. It begins with a trainer talk about the 39 penguins that call Snow Park home and information about their conservation efforts. Of course, the part everyone waits for is the penguin encounter and having photos taken with the animals.

Marlena Katene with a man wearing cold weather gear next to a penguin on a rock
“Meeting the penguins was an incredible experience and one I never thought I would do in Dubai.” Credit: Marlena Katene

Wheelie tip: A penguin is very curious, and it’s not common for them to see a wheelchair. At first they will be a little standoffish, but they eventually come around. Contact the venue a day or two before your arrival to give them the heads-up that you’d like to visit and advise them of your needs. They will allow a carer in for free with you and do everything in their power to give you a great day out. A manual chair is a must for this ski park – it would be hard to get around without one.

This story first appeared in Travel Without Limits magazine. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

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