Josephine Matthews has led a life that would make most people feel exhausted just thinking about it. From fish farming in the Philippines to swimwear designing in Noosa, her CV also lists hairdresser, phys ed teacher, retail entrepreneur, hotelier and artist. In her youth, Josephine represented the state of Victoria in swimming and athletics. In her 20s, she became Australia’s very first female surf lifesaver.
In 1993, at age 48, she was running in her then hometown of Sanctuary Cove on the Gold Coast, when she first developed aching joints and stiffness. At first, she thought it could be Ross River virus from a mosquito bite, but three months later, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Just 12 months after that, she was completely paralysed, and spent 12 months in hospital.
Since that first episode, she’s been partially paralysed a further 13 times, with periods of remission in between.
These days, Josephine relies on a mobility scooter to go about her life. Over the past three years, she’s been campaigning for improved services and facilities for those with mobility challenges here in Port Douglas. She’s also been consulting on the launch of Spinal Life’s new app, Accessible Australia — a free online resource housing user-generated content on tourist destinations around the country.
Here’s Josephine’s personal guide for accessibility visitors to Port Douglas.
"It all starts with access — accessible pathways — not just for people with disabilities but also for cyclists and people with prams to get into Port Douglas. The council has done a great job of improving access into town with wide pathways and lowered curbs. I can get all the way from the top of Port Douglas Road at the Wildlife Habitat to Rex Smeal Park, via Crystalbrook Marina. It’s very safe.
"Macrossan Street can be challenging. The clothing racks and outdoor seating make it harder to navigate from one end to the other. I’m going to work on that next year with the council! Crystalbrook Marina is fabulous. I’d suggest it to anybody. It’s all on one level, there’s room to park, the toilets are good and the service is wonderful."
"At the Marina, there are plenty of options for lunch and dinner. Lure is wonderful for seafood with views out over the water. Hemingway’s does excellent pizzas. Barbados is the spot to go for sunset drinks. They are all easy to get into with very helpful and friendly service.
"Away from the Marina, I love Palmers Sea Reef Golf Course at Four Mile for breakfast or lunch. There’s good ramp access, the tables are spaced out so you can get around, the facilities are perfect. The Tin Shed has a lovely spot on the inlet. I’ve been there with friends in wheelchairs and there’s plenty of space. You can just roll straight to your table because it’s on one level.
"Salsa Bar & Grill (a long-standing Port Douglas favourite) has a back entrance where you can come in on one level, and it’s easy to get around. The Lighthouse coffee shop on the Esplanade is one of my favourites because the staff come out immediately if you aren’t able to walk up to the counter."
"There’s really nothing in the way of public transport in Port Douglas so you need to get around under your own steam, whether you have a disability or not. I enjoy visiting Mossman Gorge, where there’s a bus with a lift so people in a chair can get on and off. You can get along the walkway to the viewing platform to fully experience the Gorge.
"In Port Douglas, the Wildlife Habitat is one of the biggest tourism attractions and you can get in and out really easily and there’s disabled parking out the front. There are a couple of exhibits that aren’t wheelchair friendly — you can’t swim with the crocodiles (!) or visit the treetop Birdseye bridge — but that’s just a small fraction of it. The café has plenty of space to manoeuvre, and an all-important wheelchair-accessible bathroom.
"If you want to go out to the reef, Quicksilver has the best facilities. Some of the boats have boarding ramps, disabled toilets, and motorised chair lifts that can move you between decks and into the water for snorkelling. Of course it all depends on where you want to go and what the tide is doing, but the staff are really helpful so talk to them before you book."
"I do Tai Chi at Rex Smeal Park. Anyone in a wheelchair can get there through Anzac Park (the main entrance behind the police station is steep and gravelly). I also enjoy a game of pétanque at the Sports Ground. The Sports Ground is very easy to get in and around if you want to watch a game of cricket or footie. Four Mile Park is a great spot for a picnic.
"If you want to take kids or teenagers to the beach, there is a beach wheelchair stored at the Surf Club — you just have to ask one of the lifeguards on duty and they’ll bring it out for you. You just can’t take it in the water! There is roll-out matting that allows a wheelchair to get down onto the hard sand along the waterfront, although sometimes it needs a sweep."
"Toilets are the most important thing! I can get up and walk into a bathroom but I have to talk for people with spinal issues who can’t do that.
"There has to be level access and doors that open in the right way. I go to a lot of meetings with people who use wheelchairs and of all the conversations I have, it’s the thing that comes up the most often.
"There are five sets of public toilets in Port Douglas. The most accessible ones are at Rex Smeal Park; outside the Port Douglas Surf Life Saving Club (the ‘Surfie’ also has a good restaurant); and off Wharf Street near St Mary’s By the Sea."
"I often talk with my friend Del Childs from Spinal Life Australia about accommodation for visitors with mobility challenges. Our favourites include the Sheraton Grand Mirage because there’s a lift, and the onsite dining is wonderful. There are some accessible rooms that have roll-in showers and handrails.
"Oaks Resort has excellent access with wide pathways and ramps from the car park to reception and throughout the resort. You can book rooms with accessible bathrooms and roll-in showers.
"Niramaya Villas offers portable ramps, toilet and shower chairs, plus removable/adjustable handrails on request. The layout of the villas might not suit full wheelchair access needs though, so a conversation needs to be had. Access to the very good restaurant is via the side door through the gardens.
"Del loves the Pullman Sea Temple Resort and Spa. It’s easy to get in and out, and there are rooms on the ground floor that have level access to the swim-up pool — some with roll-in showers. There are also lifts if you want to stay higher up."