Dean Dunbar had always dreamed of seeing the world. Then doctors told him a rare eye condition meant he could lose his sight at any time. So Dean and his fiancee Rhona quit their jobs, sold their homes and set out on an amazing journey around the globe, as JOHN TRIGGS reports
DEAN DUNBAR gripped the tiny float hard as he crashed through one of the most dangerous rivers in the world. The raging current swept him at terrifying speed over the 20 ft-high waterfalls and treacherous maelstroms of the Kiatuna River in northern New Zealand.
Anyone watching Dean as he tried his hand at white-water sledging – one of the most extreme sports on Earth – would have marvelled at his bravery. But how this 32-year-old from Exeter in Devon found himself in this perilous situation is an even more remarkable tale of courage and determination. Dean is going blind. He suffers from a rare condition known as rod and cone dystrophy, which causes the light-receptive cells in his eyes to die. There is no cure. Last year his eyesight began to deteriorate rapidly and he realised he didn’t have much time before it failed completely. But instead of dwelling on his misfortune, Dean and his fiance Rhona McCorkingdale, 32, a health worker, decided they would see what life had to offer while Dean still could.
Temporarily putting their wedding plans on hold until May, they gave up their jobs, sold Rhona’s home and used the money to fund a trip involving the most exhilarating experiences life had to offer.
For almost six months they travelled through Nepal, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Chile.
Dean’s sight problems began when he was nine years old. “I went to school one morning and realised I couldn’t read what was on the blackboard, ” he says. “It really did happen that fast. My eyes were bad but wearing glasses wouldn’t make any difference. “The only thing I could do was use a huge magnifying glass to help me read. To make things worse, doctors couldn’t tell me what was wrong.” In fact Dean didn’t learn what was wrong with his eyes until he was 26, when his vision took another turn for the worse. “Suddenly everything became blurry, ” he says. “I went to my doctor again and this time had even more rigorous tests. That is when they told me I had rod and cone dystrophy and that I should start to learn Braille and get myself a guide dog as I would soon be blind. “I was devastated, I didn’t know what to think.”
While the news about his eyesight was a bitter blow, other aspects of Dean’s life were going well. In 1998 he had put an advert in the lonely hearts section of his local newspaper. It was answered by Rhona. “I rang up Dean and we just clicked immediately, ” she says. “I found him so easy to talk to. We arranged to meet up for a coffee the next day. “It was then that Dean told me he had a problem with his sight and apologised for not always looking directly at me as he only had peripheral vision. That was all we said about it – we seemed to have so many more interesting things to talk about. “I knew from then on I’d met the perfect man. I was so excited I ran all the way home.”
FOURTEEN months later, on January 19, 2000, Dean proposed, but just as he and Rhona were planning for their great future together, his eyesight problems got dramatically worse. He was now registered blind and the world was becoming a blur. “The nature of my condition means my vision doesn’t fade gradually, it tends to deteriorate in short episodes, ” he says. “I knew I might keep the level of sight I had then for many years, but I also had to face the prospect of waking up one morning and not being able to see at all. “I had a long talk with Rhona and we decided that we’d tour the world while we still could.” Dean gave up his job in the records department of Exeter Prison and in April 2001 they set off.
The trip began in Nepal, where they hiked in the foothills of the Himalayas and went white water rafting. “I’ve always been keen on dangerous sports, ” says Dean. “But because of my eyesight even everyday activities are risky. In my view, I might as well do things that are fun and risky. I’d rather die white water rafting than doing something mundane like crossing the road.” Even a terrifying experience when Dean was knocked off his raft into turbulent waters didn’t put him off. “The rest of the party managed to cling on to the boat but I was swept away, ” he says. “I curled into a ball and let myself go. It helped that I couldn’t see all the rocks flashing by. They eventually picked me up 100 metres further down river.”
From Nepal, Dean and Rhona travelled to Thailand, where they trekked through the rainforest, before travelling on to Australia and then New Zealand. “New Zealand was the country we were most excited about, ” says Dean. “It’s the capital of extreme sports.” It was while there that he tried white water sledging and also did three terrifying bungee jumps, including the Nevis High – at 130 metres, the highest in the world. They then went swimming with dolphins before heading inland again to try something equally hair-raising – flying down mountains at high speed attached to a wire – before taking a breathtaking ride in a high-speed stunt plane.
The couple then moved on to the island paradise of Tahiti in the Pacific Ocean to try some deep sea diving before travelling to Chile for more trekking and finally returning home after months being away on their adventures.
Now Dean is working from home as a website designer, using a special computer that magnifies text and speaks to him if his eyes get too tired. He has also set up his own website, www.extremedreams. co. uk cataloguing his and Rhona’s world adventures. “I’d like the website to be a starting place for anyone, but especially disabled people who want to get into extreme sports, ” says Dean. “When I was looking into doing this trip, some companies refused to help me because of my sight problems. But luckily some others were interested in working out ways for peop le like me to do the things I had always dreamed of.”
Dean and Rhona have no regrets about giving up their previous lives to go on their adventure. In fact, since Dean has returned his eyesight has deteriorated further and he realises it will soon be gone. “I try not to think about going blind, even though I know it’s going to happen, ” he says. “Losing my sight scares me a lot more than any of the activities I’ve done so far. But I know I just have to get on with it. There are so many other things in my life to be grateful for.” And one of those is Rhona. “We ‘ve thought about what is going to happen when Dean goes completely blind and while we’re dreading it we are also ready for it, ” she says.
But for now Dean and Rhona are preparing for their biggest challenge yet. On May 18 this year, they’ll get married. “People think I’m always helping Dean and that he relies on me but what they don’t realise is how much I rely on him, ” says Rhona. “His memory is brilliant compared to mine and he’s much more organised than me. But most importantly, he really makes me laugh and if I’m upset about anything he’s always there. He’s going to be as much help to me in the future as I will be to him.”
2 March 2002