The first time I saw it I knew it was exactly what I’d been seeking for more than a decade – a manual wheelchair that would get me back into the mountains that were such an integral part of my life before MS robbed me of the ability to walk.

Before my diagnosis with the disease 20-odd years ago, I’d hiked all over South Africa, then in the Spanish Pyrenees, the Swiss Alps and the French Massif Central, among other mountain chains. I’ve been a keen hand cyclist for the 10 years I’ve been pretty much wheelchair-bound but, although it gave me a bit of cardiovascular exercise, it never really fed my soul as mountains had.

Enter the British-designed and manufactured Mountain Trike. A few weeks after first seeing one in action on the internet, I placed an order and my new toy arrived a few months later – a gleaming dark-blue mean machine with all-terrain mountain bike tyres, shocks on all three wheels (the little back wheel steers it), hydraulic disc brakes and geared levers invented to propel one up the steepest gradients.

Without bothering to read the instruction manual, I immediately set off down the hill we live on – and almost did myself a serious injury as the trike rocketed from one side of the road to another, with me trying desperately to control the steering joystick and the brakes, which locked under the slightest pressure and threw the whole thing none too gently onto the little anti-tip wheels at the very front. Safely back home I thumbed through the manual. Start on level ground, it sensibly advised.

But that was about a year ago and I’m now used to the sensitivity of the joystick and ferocity of the brakes. I use the trike most days to negotiate paths on the slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, Devil’s Peak and Signal Hill and, although the speed it rapidly picks up downhill is still scary, my arms are getting steadily stronger, allowing me to tackle steeper and steeper gradients. It’s great on shallow (or hard-ish) sand, grass, gravel, mud and small rocks, but it’s on the little boulders that it really comes into its own.

British inventor Tim Morgan’s masterstroke was putting the large wheels at the front instead of the back of the chair. In practice this means when you encounter a rock the size of a large pumpkin, for instance, the wheels gain instant purchase and seem to glide over the obstacle with minimum effort. And the shocks and back-hugging seat make for a fantastically comfortable ride over even the roughest terrain.

My only criticism is it could have a lower gear for those hills even a power-lifter would have difficulty climbing, but Tim says they’re planning to bring out a three-gear version of the trike later this year: one for medium gradients, one for the steep stuff and one to increase speed on the flat. And you’ll be able to retrofit the gears on the model I’ve got without too much expense.

One could use the trike as an everyday chair as it fits though most normal-size doorways and into disabled loos, but you can’t just propel yourself backwards on it because you first have to disengage the drive levers from the sprocket and chain system then wheel it backwards with your hands on the tyres. Not ideal, and I find its lack of speed on the flat makes it frustrating to use in shopping malls.

But then it is after all exactly what its name says it is: a mountain trike -- and if you’re looking for something to get you safely and comfortably off-road, this machine is the one to do it. I’m using the trike on more and more challenging terrain -- and enjoying every minute of it. It’s the closest you’re likely to get to going for a good ramble among the trees and streams using only your arms – and admittedly copious amounts of sweat.

  • John Phillips is a freelance journalist who has worked for a variety of local and overseas newspapers, general-interest, business and trade magazines for over 30 years. He has primary progressive MS and lives with his wife in Cape Town.
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