ACTIVE: Explorer, adventurer, acupuncturist - Robert Dowdall tells Laura Larkin that he never let blindness hinder his dreams
IT was a night of 18th birthday celebrations that went disastrously wrong.
Tallaght native Robert Dowdall was blinded in a horror car smash when his friend lost control while driving them home.
The windscreen of the car shattered in the accident, causing Robert devastating injuries.
"It was an instantaneous life-changer," Robert told the Herald.
"One day I could see and the next day I couldn't."
Despite the major setback, Robert (40) has not let his disability hold him back from serious challenges.
He was the first blind Irishman to climb the formidable Mount Kilimanjaro in 1996.
He has skied on Austrian slopes, cycled across Australia and trekked through the Amazon.
And now he is training to become Ireland's first blind acupuncturist.
Robert has just one year of training to go before he is qualified in the alternative therapy, and he will take his skills to the Vietnamese city of Hanoi to work alongside doctors there when he is fully-trained.
He will then be able to add his qualification to an impressive list of firsts.
"What drove me to take on all the adventures that I have was a need to prove that I could," said Robert.
"I wanted to show people that just because I was blind didn't mean I had no legs. I've never taken no for an answer."
In 1993 Robert decided to take on the snowy slopes of Austria with the help of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland and one very famous Dubliner.
"David Norris came along when we skied for the first time in Austria. He was sensational fun both on the slopes and off," said Robert.
"The sensation of skiing with an instructor guiding you from behind is surreal. The adrenaline kicks in when you realise how fast you are travelling."
Putting his trust in another person to guide him down the slopes is just part and parcel of adjusting to a life without sight.
"You have to learn to have confidence in others and in doing so I have been able to do some amazing things," said Robert.
He was working as a barman, with no Leaving Cert qualifications, before his accident and he truly believes that he wouldn't have had the drive to undertake the monumental tasks that he has if he had kept his sight.
In the same year that he turned his hand to skiing, the fun-loving Dub challenged himself to a cross-state cycle in Florida.
Despite the gruelling humidity, he found a passion for the sport and just two years later he cycled from Sydney to Brisbane.
"A total of 250 people cycled from Sydney Harbour Bridge to Brisbane. We stopped traffic at Sydney Harbour Bridge for our big set-off," he said.
The three-week cycle was intense, with daily treks of up to 200km.
"It was so cold leaving in the morning that we would stuff paper into our clothes and then by noon the temperatures would be almost killing us," he recalled.
Robert's biggest challenge was yet to come, however. In 1996 he decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
People often ask him what is the point of experiencing the world from such epic perspectives, but what they need to understand is that he thrives off the energy of places, he said.
"When I had completed the Kilimanjaro climb, a group of Sherpas carried me on their shoulders to celebrate," he said.
"I was so overcome that there were tears streaming down my face.
"It's your interaction with people that makes travelling the world so incredible."
The adventurer believes that his visual impairment may have actually helped him to reach the summit.
"I couldn't see what was coming next, everyone was telling me how close the clouds were and how scary the next peak was. So at least I wasn't put off by it," he joked.
Of all the amazing places he has visited, he said the Amazon was the most phenomenal.
"When the sun went down the jungle came alive with beautiful noises. I could hear everything from crocodiles in the water to the insects buzzing round," he recalled.
"I might not have been able to see, but the sounds just blew me away."
Two years ago Robert set himself a new task. He began to chronicle his life story. His memoir, Beyond the Darkness, was published this year.
Robert said that writing the book was both challenging and self-healing.
He promised that he is not done with extreme sports yet, but hasn't decided what his next adventure holds.
"I suppose I am a bit mad," he joked. "But I always just say to myself, 'Why not?'"
Beyond the Darkness is available exclusively online from the Emu Ink publishing company.