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Riding the rails of adventure in your own front yard

Travel

Riding the rails of adventure in your own front yard

SHIRLEY SINCLAIR gets on board a concept that is enriching the lives of seniors from Tweed Heads to Noosa and bringing the world’s most scenic rail journeys much closer to home.

A handful of seniors and their carer are presented with high tea as they move off from the station on one of the world’s most-scenic rail journeys through the Swiss Alps.

Seated in the beautifully decorated dining car, under the vintage-style platform clock and using good china atop white tablecloths, the passengers cosy up to the panoramic windows as this picturesque world flows by.

Their jaws drop, eyes sparkle and smiles widen with every snow-covered mountain and each quaint group of chalets or mirrored reflection on a lake.

Each 60-minute scenic adventure may be a virtual experience but the thrills, memories and enjoyment are very real.

It’s diversional therapy for the soul.

After its first month on the road, Olive Express Immersive Reality Vehicles is already living up to its motto of:  “No boundaries, just horizons”, enriching the lives of seniors from Tweed Heads  to Noosa.

Che Turner and Kim Chatterjee

The service is being embraced by the young at heart and their families, those with mobility issues and others whose long-haul travel days are over.

The van remains stationary in the family driveway or aged-care facility car park, yet manages to bring some of the world’s great train journeys closer to home. And never in their wildest dreams did some guests expect to ‘take the ride’.

Co-founder Che Turner – with a career spanning aged care, community service and account management – developed his innovative social enterprise idea in his spare time across 12 months.

The full-time aged care employee and his co-founder and fiancee Kim Chatterjee saw the concept as a way of combating seniors’ loneliness and social isolation by promoting social engagement.

“I worked in the aged care industry for 15 years – it is my passion,” he says.

“It’s what drives me to change the way Australians age. I just love what I do.

“I saw a gap in the market. We’re a registered social enterprise with the Queensland government, so all of our profits go back into Olive Express. Initially it was designed for aged care homes, because that’s my background and that’s where I thought the demand would be.

“The demand is exactly that, but probably about 40 per cent of our calls now are from families who want to give it to their mum or their grandma, because there’s not much you can give the 85-year-old or 95-year-old for their birthday.

“It’s so enjoyable because we have the whole family in there. We have the birthday individual, the kids, the grandkids. We had one the other day: a 95th and the great, great granddaughter was in there and she was only like seven.”

Che says that the Olive Express adventure takes about 90 minutes from the ramp going down to welcome the five passengers aboard until they are bid farewell, including an hour-long virtual rail journey. Once the passengers are comfortable, tea and coffee are served and a brief explanation of the ‘tour’ is given while still ‘at the station’. High tea is served once ‘the journey’ has begun.

“It’s actually real-live footage of the train journey itself,” Che says of what is billed as the first of its kind in Australia.

“We’ve got five computers in there that talk to one another. So, it’s not just a TV show on a screen. There’s quite a lot of programming, a lot of software engineering involved in making it as realistic as possible.

“I was working in aged care in Europe … and they put people next to the TV screen and show images of the outside of a train window. Any sort of diversional therapy is a really good idea and I support it 100 per cent. But it didn’t give that full, immersive experience.

“(The seniors) could look around and they’re still in the dining room (of the nursing home). So it was more: how do we get that essence (of reality)?”

Che sees every virtual experience as a tribute to his late Nan Olive.

The devoted grandson saw her often when he lived in England.

“She was very cheeky. She was a rebel, to be honest with you,” Che says.

“She always used to say to me: ‘Ask for forgiveness, never permission’ throughout my life growing up. And I have pretty much followed that.

“She was a woman who changed a lot of people’s lives and changed mine with her attitude on ‘anything is possible’.

“I used to visit her once a week and we’d take little train trips.

“Nan lived until she was 93. Up until her 90s, we were still going out.”

Che had an epiphany while lying in bed one night that brought about the Olive Express concept.

Happy memories of those train journeys spent with his Nan, his experience with the European aged care version of the ‘virtual’ train journey, and his desire to emulate the social enterprise success of Orange Sky Laundry for the homeless all combined in one clear idea of what he should do in the aged care space.

The feedback has only been positive, but everyone’s experience of Olive Express is different.

“We just let the passengers control their journey the way they want to navigate it,” Che says.

“The other day I was at a TriCare site and it was all guys. Literally, we sat down and they didn’t say anything for the hour. I tried. But afterwards, the reviews that we got were incredible. Every single one of them said ‘it was one of the best experiences I’ve had since moving in here. Thank you so much’.

“It’s not so much the journey that is the good thing about it, it’s afterwards – the conversations it sparks.

“What I’ve been hearing back from all these diversional therapists and lifestyle coordinators is that after we leave, when the residents go back or at the birthday party, they talk about it, and they talk about it the next day and the next day.

“So, it’s not just that one-off experience. It’s the ongoing effect it has on people’s mental health.”

Whether they’ve been fortunate enough to undertake these great rail journeys in their lifetime or have never experienced the joys of train travel, Che reckons Olive Express is the most fun seniors can have sitting down.

“People were saying the other day that it’s like a mobile amusement park for senior citizens,” Che says.

“You don’t go to Dreamworld when you’re 90 but you still want that enjoyment in your life.”

 A one-hour session for five guests – including tea, coffee and high tea – costs from a total of $295. See the full options at oliveexpress.com.au or  call 1800 318 037.

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