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Independent Living staff member Russ Hayes pictured with a group at a Gala Dinner

Russ Hayes - our intrepid adventurer explores Hamilton Gardens

Russ Hayes has a role at Independent Living in Supply Chain, Finance and EGL Support but has had a varied long career at Independent Living, including reception, admin, and covering as a support staff member at our Botany store or where needed.  

After a Car  accident in 1991  he was left with a Spinal Injury at C5, 6, & 7 level resulting in having to mobilize using a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Russ went ‘hard out’ on rehab physio at the Laura Fergusson gym for 6 years where he met Tony Howe – another valued staff member – who introduced Russ to the Independent Living family.  

I sat down with Russ to talk a bit about life, and a lot about a recent visit to Hamilton Gardens, a true gem of the Waikato that is easily accessible for users of mobility devices.  


How did your accident affect your life, Russ? 

Russ Hayes

I had always lived a very active fishing and farming life growing up on a 2000-acre playground before the accident, including training to become a Police rescue/recovery diver for the Far North. But even with my burning desire to get the use of my legs back – and countless gym and physio sessions, I couldn’t return to life as I knew it. Scuba diving, fishing and screaming around on the farm were not possible. I had to accept my limitations.  

ACC started pressuring me back to work, but finding suitable work was the hard part!  Auckland vocationally and for mobility access was more realistic than returning to the Far North and my previously planned vocation in the agricultural sector was not an option anymore, so I had to not only realign my sporting and recreational activities – I also had to reinvent my career. From Country Boy to Big City Boy. 


You recently visited Hamilton Gardens for the first time. Where was your favourite place in the Gardens? 

Russ Hayes at Hamilton Gardens

I loved everywhere! It was my first time there, and the anticipation of “what's around the next corner” lasted the whole visit. I particularly liked the Egyptian, Indian and Parapara (Māori) gardens.  Even though I thought I was familiar with Māori gardening, I still learnt a lot such as the reason for Kumara growing on mounds is to keep them above the water table.  

It was interesting to see how different cultures treated water in their garden features as well – water featured heavily in most gardens.   


What was the biggest surprise or secret find?  

Truly – every garden is a treat, so do follow the map – otherwise you will miss some hidden gems like the Chinese garden.  

Also, whilst it’s not technically part of the Gardens, do go down to the river for a lovely view and relaxing picnic spot. The footpaths back to the gardens along the streets are rather bumpy though.   


What are the Hamilton Gardens facilities like, especially from an accessibility perspective? 

Mobility parks are poorly designed as they are on a small slope, so I had to lock my wheelchair on or risk tipping backwards. Plus, there are drain dips so you could easily get caught off balance. Ironically parking on the loose metal would have been a better option – even in a wheelchair.  

The Café was lovely and highly accessible, and the wait staff were great. Even though it was a windy day, we sat outside as it was very sheltered and undercover.   

The paths are well paved and flat for the most part, and most of the theme gardens are easily accessible –although the Giants Garden (currently under construction) had a door handle too high up to reach from a wheelchair, (I guess because is made for giants 😊) and part of the Japanese Garden also was not very accessible.  


What should someone bring with them to make the most of the day?  

  • A Camera – each garden is a photographer's delight 
  • A warm coat in winter – it can get very windy and cold. 
  • Picnics in summer as there’s lots of open grassed areas – but the café was lovely too! 
  • Kids would love it – adventurous and exciting for kids of all ages.  
  • Another person who loves exploring as you’ll both be saying “wow look at that” a lot.  


Any watchouts for people in wheelchairs or using a walker at the Gardens? 

Russ Hayes at Hamilton Gardens

The Gardens paths were on the whole in good condition. I’d advise wearing comfy shoes and consider a walker with larger wheels or a larger ferrule on your walking stick as some paths are paved or with small, cobbled stones. Also, watch out for waterways inside some of the gardens – they are not edged, so don’t walk backwards taking a photo without making sure what’s behind you first – unless you’re wearing swimwear 😊   


Finally, where else do you enjoy exploring?  

Russ Hayes

I have a son living in Cooks Beach & love going out fishing with him and also a daughter and family in Whangamata. 

I love researching and exploring new mobility devices that allow access ‘off road’ to places such as beaches and forests. And new technology in general. 

Clever use of public transport coupled with a power chair makes exploring the wider Auckland region a lot easier. Devonport is a great option. The humps when boarding the ferries can be an issue, but Devonport township is wheelchair friendly and North Head is accessible by power chair - plus has great views. 

Check out Hamilton Gardens here: 


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