"I woke up one morning, opened my eyes and there was nothing - just black.

"I could hear the birds singing. I could hear the traffic on the road.

"I knew it should be daylight by the sounds I was hearing but I couldn't see a thing."

 

IT'S been more than 13 years since that morning when Robin Braidwood lost his sight.

In reality, it had been a gradual process caused by retinitis pigmentosa - a slow degeneration of the retina - but the sudden loss of his final piece of vision was still devastating.

Even as a boy growing up in Rhodesia - now Zimbabwe - Robin says he knew there was something wrong with his sight.

"I'd always noticed, even when I was a kid, that while playing cricket I'd only see the ball when it was halfway down the pitch," he says.

Robin Braidwood and guide dog
Robin Braidwood and guide dog "Siggy” walk the streets of Peregian Springs ... "There's not a day goes by I don't think about being blind and wish I wasn't.” Warren Lynam

"If I was fielding and someone hit the ball towards me, it would take me time to see the ball and sometimes I wouldn't see it until it bounced.

"But I thought that was normal.

"My peripheral vision was also bad. If I was playing rugby and someone came into tackle me from the side, I wouldn't know they were there until I got hit."

 

Robin Braidwood with his wife Marian, son Kyte, guide dog Siggy and retired guide dog Narjee.
Robin Braidwood with his wife Marian, son Kyte, guide dog Siggy and retired guide dog Narjee. Warren Lynam

His parents were aware of the problems and took him to an opthomologist who found nothing wrong.

"All my friends thought I was a bit vague - a dreamer.

"They thought my head was always in the clouds but it wasn't. It was just that I wasn't seeing what they were seeing."

Even while his eyesight was slowly degenerating, life in Rhodesia was pretty good.

That was despite the fact the country was being torn apart by a bloody civil war which led to the end of white minority rule and the creation of the Republic of Zimbabwe.

Robin was 10 years old when the war ended in 1979 but says it had surprisingly little impact on his life.

"I had a wonderful childhood. I look back on my childhood now and realise what a special time it was.

"I just loved growing up in the African bush. There is nothing quite like it.

"As a kid, I was obviously aware of the war but I was fortunate enough that it didn't have a personal impact on me."

That may have been through the efforts of his parents as Robin's dad, Martin, was a senior member of the British South African Police and was heavily involved in the war, using sniffer dogs to look for land mines and tracking enemy soldiers.

"But that was just a fact of life ... to me that was normal," Robin says.

"I was 10 years old when the war ended so all through those hard times I was just a kid, concentrating on having fun with my friends.

"My parents did an amazing job of keeping that side of life - the horrors of war - to themselves."

In hindsight, he says his father's work was dangerous.

"He spent a lot of time out in the bush. I remember I wouldn't see him for a few days. Mum would just say he was 'at work' but she must have been frantic while he was away.

"He used to come home after a few days or a week away and he'd be all smelly and dirty and covered in grime and he would just say he was out in the bush but in hindsight now, he was out there tracking and he was in very real danger."

Robin's dad passed away from cancer in 2007 but his mum Megan is "still going strong" and living in the UK near Robin's older sister.

He describes his mum as "strong" and "the type of woman you would want standing beside you".

While working as a nursery school teacher, she did her bit for the war effort like most white Rhodesian women did at that time - cooking and distributing food to help make the lives of returning soldiers as comfortable as possible.

"She was just trying to get on in a tough environment," Robin says.

"She was managing a nursery school in one of the poorer areas of Harare with lots of disadvantaged kids and went on to own her own nursery school.

"She was just one of those people who was very community orientated and liked to do her bit."

Looking back, he describes the war as "pretty nasty and horrendous".

Among his many memories is going to South Africa on holidays and having to travel in a convoy with armoured trucks at the front and rear and all the civilian cars in the middle.

"But to me that was just normal."

 

Robin with his wife Marian and son Kyte ...
Robin with his wife Marian and son Kyte ... "I've never seen them”. Warren Lynam

He became more aware of the war's impact when he went away to boarding school for his secondary years.

"The war was over but there were still some kids who'd been living on farms and were traumatised by the whole thing.

"Some of them had actually been attacked themselves; their farms had been under siege and they had to wait hours and sometimes days for help to arrive."

He says it's hard to say what impact the war had on him, although it probably made him more realistic about life.

"I tend to think whatever life throws at you, you need to look on the positive side of things and grieve when you need to grieve."

They are strengths which no doubt came in handy in later life.

Robin spent five years in an all-boy boarding school outside the capital Harare - a "tough male environment" where colonial traditions were alive and well.

"It was the old English way of private schooling, where we had to do whatever the seniors told us.

"So there was a fair amount of bullying which, nowadays, would be seen as horrendous but in those days was accepted as giving us a bit of backbone and teaching us respect for our elders.

"The school was enormous. It had rugby fields and an Olympic-sized swimming pool and squash courts and tennis courts. It even had a game reserve with rhino and giraffe in it so we could learn about conservation.

"I enjoyed it. I had a great bunch of friends who are still my friends now and are spread all over the world."

 

Robin (left) and mates  on a boys weekend away to Paris to watch a rugby match.
Robin (left) and mates on a boys weekend away to Paris to watch a rugby match. Contributed

After graduating, Robin moved to South Africa and studied mechanical engineering while working on a gold mine - another very male-dominated environment.

"They were hard, tough men - mainly Afrikaneers ...

"There was a mixing pot of cultures - there was me, the Englishman, Afrikaans, South African English, then there were four or five different tribes and they didn't much like the sight of each other.

"It was a melting pot of cultures and friction ... a real learning curve for an 18-yer-old."

It was also an interesting place for a young man who came from a very liberal background, as most of the workers were very right wing.

"It was an interesting time in South Africa - the early 1990s just before the referendum about giving coloured people the right to vote.

"The mining community is very right wing and the mine itself was in the middle of the Orange Free State, which was very Afrikaans."

Many of the miners were members of the AWB, the neo-Nazi political and paramilitary organisation led by Eugène Terre'Blanche.

"They'd dress in khaki uniforms with stylised swastikas and march up and down the main street in parades," Robin recalls.

"Back in Rhodesia I'd been involved with black kids all my life. I went to private schools all through my schooling years with black kids who I would call friends.

"So seeing that apartheid when I went to South Africa was confronting."

At the mine training centres, Robin would make a point of welcoming and befriending the young black men who were entering a frightening new environment.

"I would go up and talk to them and be friendly. The environment must have been hostile for them and they must have been very apprehensive.

"While I would call them friends, I wasn't allowed to be friends with them outside that environment.

"They would say to me 'Robin, no. We cannot come and have a meal with you in a restaurant or meet you for a drink or a coffee because we would endanger ourselves'.

"And vice-versa. If I wanted to go with them to their accommodation, I would be endangering myself."

BUt he says his attitude never made him an outcast in the predominantly white work camps.

"Most of the Afrikaners were quite willing to integrate ... they just hadn't been introduced to it at such an early age as I was.

"I was certainly never shown any hostility. No one stood up to me and said 'you can't be friends with those black guys'."

After several years living with apartheid, Robin said he was surprised to find that although he never agreed with it, he did become used to some aspects of it.

He recalls moving to London as "an impressionable 23-year-old" and and being surprised to see white men digging trenches.

"I had never seen that before and I was quite shocked.

"So while there was never an intentional acceptance of apartheid, I can say that in those small things I was used to having black Africans doing the menial tasks.

"Growing up, we had a cook, a gardener, a maid all cooking and cleaning our house, which was just part of life at the time.

"My dad paid for his domestic staffs' kids to go good schools and all their uniforms and their books ... I was always taught to respect them and never make demands on their time.

"Their kids would visit on holidays and I would be playing with them in the backyard. While they were domestic staff there was always respect. They were people doing a job, who just happened to be black.

"There is very much a cringe element when I look back and think 'how could we have done that?' but it was very normal at the time."

After five years on the gold mines, Robin graduated as an engineer and moved to London and fell in love with the multiculturalism and cosmopolitan lifestyle.

"I was 23 when I went to the UK and got a job in London and just loved the whole thing.

"I was expecting to be there for a year or two and return to South Africa or Zimbabwe but I just loved the big city, the travel, having Europe on my doorstep.

"Work was easy to come by so I worked part-time contracts - working for six months and then travelling during the European summer with friends I had made - Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, my mates from back in Zimbabwe.

"I really enjoyed myself for eight or nine years. I just loved London - the whole vibe and all the different cultures living side-by-side.

"You could jump of a plane and travel to Europe for the weekend - to Spain, to Italy or wherever - and immerse yourself in another culture.

"In the back of my mind was the fact that my eyesight was failing and I was determined to see as much as I could.

"As a result, I saw as much in that time as most people would see in their entire lives and I wouldn't change it for anything."

It was while living in London that Robin was finally diagnosed with retina pigmentosa.

"They couldn't give me a prognosis. They just said 'you might keep your sight until you're in your 70s or it could gradually decline'."

The first serious decline came at the age of 27.

"I lost the vision in one eye while I was playing a game of pool in a pub," he recalls.

"Suddenly, the sight in one eye just went murky, as if I was looking through a grimy, stained glass window.

"My initial reaction was that contact lens had smeared up with grease or had something on it so I went into the bathroom, took out my contact lens but it made no difference.

"Alarm bells were ringing so I went to the hospital the next morning and they said a little blood vessel in the back of my eye had ruptured, causing blood to mix with my vitreous gel - the fluid in the eye, which is clear.

"They said I was trying to look through a dirty, grimy lens but there was nothing they could do and the blood would eventually be absorbed by my body and my sight would clear within a few weeks or months."

They told him to return in a month but by then the sight in his eye was even worse.

"I thought there must be more bleeding but they said 'your retina is totally detached. It probably detached a week or two weeks ago and because your vision was already impaired you haven't noticed it'.

"But by that stage it was too late to do anything about it.

"At the time they were not thinking the two things were related because it wasn't part of the way RP usually happens.

"I understand now, after speaking to other specialists, there are 30 or 40 different strains of RP and I had a very fast-acting, vicious strain that took that path."

 

Robin Braidwood, lives a full life despite being blind.
Robin Braidwood, lives a full life despite being blind. Warren Lynam

Within a month Robin had lost the sight in one eye permanently and was worried what would happen to his other eye.

"In the back of my mind, alarm bells were ringing because the other eye wasn't exactly good either. I still had night blindness. I still had no peripheral vision.

"It was probably working at 20% capacity but I just carried on. I was determined to see the world while I could and to keep working as an engineer for as long as I could."

For five or six years he carried on as normal.

He stayed in London and in 1989 married Marti, a South African primary school teacher on a two-year working visa.

"We did a lot of travelling together. Life was brilliant. I just put the whole eyesight thing at the back of my mind.

"We hoped that nothing would impact on the sight in my good eye."

Then came the fateful day in January 2004 when Robin woke up with almost no sight at all.

"I realised the retina had detached but I didn't panic.

"The rushed me into emergency in Moorfields Eye Hospital - one of the best eye hospitals in the world - and they did laser attachment.

"I remember waking up in the hospital bed and looking at my hand and I could see it but it wasn't in focus. The sun was coming in the window and I could see it was shining on my hand and I could see my five fingers.

"The surgeon said that was pretty much what I would be left with and I realised at that stage that my career was finished. There was no way I could work as an engineer again.

"I call it the loss of my sight because even though my vision had been deteriorating, I was now legally blind for the first time.

"To me it was like losing a part of me. There was a sense of loss, that I would never get my sight back and that part of my life was gone forever.

"A few weeks after that surgery, the retina detached again and the little bit of sight I did have disappeared.

"I didn't even have light perception. I could stare at the sun and not be aware of it.

"I didn't even see shadows any more. I was totally and permanently blind."

Even though he had been gradually losing his sight for years, Robin says the reality of total permanent blindness was shattering.

"My time as a normal, working member of the community was gone.

"I realised I was never going to see my wife's face again.

"I was never going to see the faces of my friends.

"When I had kids, I would never see their faces.

"All those things - an avalanche that hits you and you suddenly realise even the smallest details are lost.

"My last impressions of all the movie stars and the singers of the time. All their faces were gone.

"So everyone I hear about - all the movie stars, the cars and the people, I will never be able to put a face to them.

"I will never see someone smile again. Or see someone's recognition of you when you're passing them in the street. Having eye-to-eye contact and just having a smile.

"That's all gone from my life.

"It's almost like a touch when you have that eye-to-eye contact; when you have that smile from someone. It's a touch - two people having a bond for a fleeting second.

"And no one is ever going to treat you the same as they did.

"No matter how empathetic they are or how much they've been around vision-impaired people, fundamentally you are different now.

"So all those things happen immediately.

"There was no period of adjustment or slowly immersing myself into the blind world. Even though I'd been losing my sight for a long time, I literally went blind overnight."

Ironically, Robin and Marti had just spent two years doing the paperwork required to move to Australia. Authorities knew about his diminished sight but the sudden loss of all eyesight threw a spanner in the works.

"I lost my sight three months before we were due to move to Australia," he says.

"We thought there was no way Australia was going to say we could still come."

But authorities agreed he could still be a contributing member of society and gave the move the green light.

"It as almost like 'somebody wants me'.

"Everything has just finished for me - my career, my sight - and suddenly I find Australia still thinks I'm worth something."

No sooner had they settled in Perth, than Robin returned to England to study remedial massage at the Royal National College for the Blind.

He stayed for two years, during which time he says he was "taught how to be blind".

"There were 230 people there, some with vision impairments and others totally blind.

"So there are guide dogs everywhere; there are white canes; there are people bumping into each other all over the place.

"I've never laughed so much in my life because everybody had that sense of humour.

"I don't think I've said 'sorry' so many times in my life. It was a bizarre environment.

"It was a huge college with lecture rooms all over the place and pathways and busy roads we had to cross ... it was a normal working environment.

"There were stairs and steps. They didn't make it easy. You had to learn to survive in the real world.

"It was what I needed because I wasn't sitting at home feeling sorry for myself.

"It taught me the emotional side of losing my sight because I was among other people who had also lost their sight who could be mentors to me and give me advice."

Robin graduated as a massage therapist and returned to Australia, where he and Marti moved to the Sunshine Coast.

They both found jobs and had a son, Kyte, now eight years old.

He and Marti got divorced when Kyte was two and several years later he reconnected with Marian, who he had met during his time at the blind college.

They married in 2014 and now live in Peregian Springs, where Robin runs his remedial massage business from their home and they share custody of Kyte with Marti, who lives nearby.

Also sharing their home are Robin's original guide dog - nine-year-old black labrador Narjee - and his current dog Siggy, a four-year-old golden lab.

Robin says his blindness can be frustrating but he hasn't let it hold him back and has even competed in the Tough Mudder cross-country obstacle events, for which he is now an ambassador.

"You know you can do something but everything takes longer when you're vision impaired," he says.

"You can never take your mind off where you are and what you're doing.

"Even when you're sitting down at home doing nothing, your mind is mapping and keeping you safe.

"When you're in a busy street and the traffic is tooting along beside you and you're worried about running into a lamp post and you've got people going backwards and forwards around you ... you're coping with all sorts of different input.

"You've got all these noises and sounds and words going on around you and you're just a ship sailing through it in the dark."

He trained for Tough Mudder with the help of a running coach who trained with him on bush tracks.

"I thought what a great role model it would make me for Kyte, showing him that just because I am vision impaired it doesn't stop me from having a go at things."

 

Robin's son Kyte and wife Marian greet him at tthe end of a Tough Mudder event.
Robin's son Kyte and wife Marian greet him at tthe end of a Tough Mudder event. Contributed

He says crawling under barbed wire, climbing obstacles and wading through mud pools alongside hundreds of other competitors was an exhilarating experience.

"I preferred it to running on a tarmac road for 20km. For me it was tactile - chest-deep in mud or swimming through rivers and climbing over walls and sliding down mud slopes.

"It was fantastic. I loved it.

"The amount of support I had from other participants was amazing. If I was climbing a wall, there was always a helping hand at the top to help me.

"I just loved being an ambassador for the vision-impaired and letting people know that even with a disability, there's not much we can't do."

And while Robin admits he has become accustomed to being blind, it doesn't mean he wouldn't change it in a heartbeat.

"There's not a day that goes past that I don't think about being blind and wish I wasn't.

"It's part of my life now so I've accepted it and I'm comfortable with it.

"But I've never seen my wife Marian; I've never seen my son Kyte; I've never seen my friends; I've never seen my suburb or my house.

"All those things are my word but I have never seen them.

"So if somebody said to me 'I will give you your sight back' I would grab the chance.

"I will never forget the sighted world and I am grateful for having had sight and having done so much and seen so much in my life.

"But it doesn't mean I don't want to have my sight again."


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