For wheelchair users, hiking trips usually end at the point where they begin for others—when the route leaves the asphalt road and turns off into the forest on bumpy trails. Fortunately, in the Neckartal-Odenwald Nature Park this point does not have to be the end, because the electric cross-country wheelchair that the nature reserve office rents out opens up new optionsfor exploring the great outdoors.

The paint gleams with immaculate green. It makes the electronic wheelchair look like a small tractor—an absolutely clean little tractor. There are no scratches and no mud and the wide tread of the four wheels is as clean as if someone had scrubbed it with a toothbrush. In a few hours this will look very different. The wheelchair with the promising name Extreme X8 is taking its maiden voyage today. It came to the Neckartal-Odenwald Nature Park office only a few days ago. What’s special about it is that it is an all-terrain vehicle and is supposed to roll effortlessly across country—over meadows, gravel and wet leaves. Raffael Lutz, who is responsible for accessibility in the reserve, has so far only tested the vehicle at the office in Eberbach. He went up and down a few steps there. “That was no problem,” says the slender man with a moustache. But will the vehicle also prove itself reliable off-road? Samir Sheik wants to find out. He can test the wheelchair today.

Feeling good in the saddle: Samir Sheik can’t wait to get going.

The young man approaches the electric wheelchair with shaky steps in a field path in Dilsbergerhof. Idyllically nestled between rolling hills, there is a hamlet, which belongs to Neckargemünd. This terrain shouldn’t be too big a challenge for the wheelchair. “The vehicle crosses the Alps in the promotional video,” says Lutz. According to the manufacturer, it is suitable for trips through the forest as well as on snow and across beaches. This is possible because of the wide low-pressure tyres. They absorb shocks and prevent the wheelchair from sliding too much. Each wheel is driven by its own engine and can move independently of the others. “It’s very unlikely that you get stuck,” Lutz explains. He has been working at the nature park since 2020 after studying geography in Heidelberg. The cost for the wheelchair was about 30,000 euros, provided by the park with funding from the Waldstrategie (forest strategy) programme, which was set up by the state of Baden-Württemberg. The funds for two more electric wheelchairs have already been approved. The nature park wants to lend out this small fleet soon. It is a pilot project that Lutz hopes will find others who want to copy it.

Raffael Lutz explains to Samir how to operate the electric wheelchair.

But today he is curious to see how the vehicle performs off-road and whether Samir feels comfortable in it. The young man with the short-shaven hair has already taken a liking to the horn. He keeps pressing the little button with the trumpet, as if to say: “Can we finally get going?” Samir had a bicycle accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury at the age of 11. Since then he has been paralysed on the left side. Then he came from Ukraine to Germany, attended the SRH Stephen-Hawking-Schule independent school that is located right behind the hill in Neckargemünd and graduated from it a while ago. His former class teacher Claudia Hanko joins today’s trip. She is the person who initiated the Camino Incluso together with her students (click here for our story about it). She immediately notices the two hooks on the back of the vehicle where Samir can hang his backpack. Many electric wheelchairs don’t have these, she says. “It’s quite exhausting otherwise for the accompanying person to carry the backpack the entire trip.”

Lutz straps Samir in. The young man smiles mischievously, honks a couple of times and darts off. After only a few metres, he has already outdistanced the others and is all delighted. The wheelchair can go at speeds of up to ten kilometres per hour and as far as 35 kilometres. The joystick, on which Samir’s right hand rests, looks like a golf ball. “There are other attachments, for example a kind of pen,” Lutz explains, while Samir crosses one pothole after another. Even with an active wheelchair, this trail would be quite a challenge. The electric wheelchair manages it effortlessly. Thanks to the wheels’ suspension, Samir hardly notices the bump of the track. The asphalt road ends at the next intersection. There is a meadow to the right, a gravel path to the left and a steep uphill ascent straight ahead. Most wheelchair users would have to turn around now. For Samir, however, the choice is completely open. All roads are accessible to him. Claudia directs him to the left, where a stony forest path leads up the slope after a few hundred metres. Lutz estimates that, depending on the surface, a twelve per cent gradient, or even more, should be easily doable with this wheelchair. He shows Samir how to tilt the seat forwards and backwards so that he remains rather upright on the seat despite the slope.

Through the forest? No longer a problem for Samir in this wheelchair.

The slope is demanding even on foot. Large stones lie loose on the path. The rain has washed furrows and depressions into the ground. None of this is a problem for the electric wheelchair. Samir quickly feels comfortable enough to let go of any shyness and steps on the gas. Lutz is impressed: “It’s amazing how obstacles are no longer obstacles with this wheelchair.” Apparently, the vehicle is still far from its limits, so Claudia sends her former student back down the hill and across the meadow, across puddles, mud and a proper cross slope. “My biggest worry is that the wheelchair will tip over,” she says. Not a pleasant thought—it weighs some 160 kilograms. Again and again it seems to tilt dangerously on the dirt road and Claudia draws in her breath anxiously. But no matter how much the wheelchair tilts, it never starts to sway or lurch—even when Samir rushes across the meadow and into the forest. He also overcomes small obstacles such as branches and steps easily.

For Lutz, the test drive is a complete success. The very next day he brings the wheelchair to Heidelberg. The city wants to lend it out as part of the Natürlich Heidelberg environmental education programme so that people who are not good on their feet can also take part in guided tours and hikes. If it were up to Lutz, more municipalities, associations and other groups would soon join in lending out or distributing one of the soon-to-be three all-terrain wheelchairs. How exactly the rental system will function and whether it will also be possible to book a wheelchair for private hikes is something he wants to try out over the next two years. The nature park wants to become more accessible apart from the electric wheelchairs as well. They are embarking on a project with inclusion hiking patrons, in which persons with and without disabilities test hiking trails that the municipalities can then—if they are suitable—designate as accessible hiking trails for people with limited mobility. “We have to identify and mark the trail network as transparently as possible to ensure that many people actually use the trails,” Lutz explains. How much of an incline does the trail have? Does it lead over meadows, gravel or asphalt? Are there steps? How does one get there? “If people know this, they can decide for themselves whether the path is feasible for them or not.”

Hiking trips (almost) without limitations thanks to the electric wheelchair.

For Samir, almost everything seems doable on this day. Again and again he gives a thumbs up, smiles and exclaims “good, very good!” Claudia says that he really blossoms in the forest and is happy that he can now have this experience more often. Obviously, it is justified that Lutz has a lot of confidence in the electric wheelchair. “There are almost no limits,” he says, “except the obvious ones: paths that are too narrow, steps that are too high and steep stairs.” However, some of the barriers are disappearing for Samir and many others now opening up new options for exploring the great outdoors.


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