If she’d been wearing a seatbelt, she probably wouldn’t be blind today.
“Them’s the breaks,” says Yvonne De Winter.
It was 1975, and the seatbelt laws had just been introduced. “They weren’t enforced as strictly as they are now,” she says. “The worst would be if a cop saw you, he’d wave his finger and tell you to put it on.”
But there was no cop and no seatbelt the day Yvonne’s life changed irreparably and forever. She was 17-years-old when the car in which she was a passenger had a collision. The impact sent her careening through the windscreen.
Now her world is one of murky light and shade. “If it clouds over, I sense the contrast. But I don’t see things.” She is infectiously positive. “Life is fantastic – because other doors have opened.” And she’s fiercely independent. “I couldn’t live fulltime with someone, I wouldn’t want that. No, I need my space and my garden.” And she is an unstoppable force.
The 59-year-old Papamoa woman is off to conquer the Central Otago Rail Trail on her tandem – 150 kilometres and five days in the saddle. Fate has committed her to the back seat – she will be the stoker, the navigator or the rear admiral as they’re known - number two on the tandem.
What’s the point? She will miss the sights. Won’t she be deprived of 80 per cent of the experience? It’s an obvious and possibly insensitive question from a sighted person.
“Hang on!” says Yvonne. “You forget that I have seen - I had 17 years of seeing.” She has an enormous memory bank of images to call up, to colour in any moment, any experience. “I have seen, so I know and I can appreciate.”
So when someone talks about blackbirds, fantails, thrushes, willow trees, pohutukawas, rolling and barren Central Otago landscapes and rail trails, she can see them too. “They’re very much alive in my imagination.”
And there’s the exercise, the fresh air, the sunshine, the wind in her hair. “I love riding trails, the trees and the birds.” So it was a rude, ill-considered question.
And when Yvonne says she is going to watch TV, she says she is going to do exactly that. “I don’t say I am going to listen to TV because I am actually watching it.”
Yvonne says she has spent more time in the air than on the road. She has travelled extensively in Europe. At risk of laboring the point, it seems the most romantic and beautiful destinations are equally romantic and beautiful for a blind person.
“The village of Santorini in the Greek Islands is up on a cliff top and absolutely beautiful. You sense it, the ambience, you listen to the sounds and the people. And European food - well yeah!”
There are also the cathedrals and their beautiful marble pillars. “They’re huge, you can touch them and throw your arms around them.”
This story started out about Sport Bay of Plenty’s “ride leader” workshops. It’s a Bike Month initiative – skilling up someone to organise 30 or 40 cyclists for a fun ride. Ian Bibby is a product of the ride leader scheme. He got a group of mobility scooters and slow riders together for outings around Papamoa.
“I was also looking to include women with prams or strollers, skateboards or whatever.”
Somehow he hooked up with Yvonne - they knew people who knew people and took part in cycling time trials at Waihi Beach. Iain became Yvonne’s weekday captain, pilot or steersman – the person on the front of the tandem, Yvonne’s tandem. “You should talk to Yvonne,” Iain suggested.
That’s when the story about ride leaders was hijacked by a much more interesting blind stoker who is a full member of the Foundation for the Blind.
Doesn’t blindness create the slightest sense of frustration for her? Well, no it doesn’t. “I would rather be me than tetraplegic. And I would rather be blind than deaf. We were with a bloke who was quite deaf at a Christmas dinner table and he couldn’t join in.”
Yvonne says the only thing she can’t do is drive a car. Then she smartly corrects herself. “In fact I can drive a car although, for obvious reasons, I am no longer a qualified driver. But in fact I can drive a car, because I used to drive one.” So there’s nothing she can’t do.
“We lived on a farm as kids and were very out-doorsy. When I went blind I wondered what I could do. Can’t play soccer, can’t play netball and I can’t keep up at aerobics. That’s when I started biking.”
During the weekend Yvonne’s chucking around weights at the gym and riding with her partner Dave. “We look forward to seeing each other at the weekend, it doesn’t get boring. There’s no ‘did you put out the wheelie bin or bring in the washing?’ None of that stuff.”
But it’s the weekdays that are a problem. Iain’s overseas for a couple of months and a girl needs to go cycling. Yvonne’s looking for a back-up captain. “Just someone who is confident and competent about riding who would like to go out for a one-or-two hour romp.”
It’s that independent streak again. “I don’t really want to be totally reliant on one person. It’s the same for people who need home help. If they depend totally on one person, and for whatever reason that one person becomes unavailable, then they’re stuffed.”
And a tandem is “absolutely good for a relationship, very companionable.”
She and Dave certainly chat, “but you don’t need to be talking. You are just enjoying the moment.”
If you would like to join Yvonne’s roster of riders, give her a call on: 021 129 6885.