Saturday, March 6, 2010

Today was all about monkeying around, literally. The week before, I’d decided to book myself a place on the ‘Flight of the Gibbon.’ This did not mean that I intended to imitate Tarzan, by swinging from tree-to-tree, wearing nothing more than a loincloth, wrapped around my waist and cohabiting with a desperate woman called Jane, as we tested out an arboreal lifestyle.  Being the adventurous type, this activity would suit me down to a tee. I was excited about it all, but in reality, I wasn’t too sure what I was letting myself in for. If nothing else, it would allow me to get away from the blandness of Bangkok’s concrete jungle, infernal noise and toxic pollution.

The setting for this experience was in the Khao Kheow National Park, one of Thailand’s splendid, successful eco-tourist sites. It was set amid the pristine and biologically diverse ecological systems, 100km east of Bangkok and encompassing 144.7 square kilometres of rugged, mountainous terrain, blanketed in parts, by thick, dense, impenetrable, verdant rainforest, inhabited by various indigenous species.

An hour and a half from setting off, we arrived at the Chonburi site, with the reassuring sign of, ‘Welcome to the Flight of the Gibbon.’ Initially, we arrived at a menagerie with penned animals: hippos, zebras and gibbons among others. A guide led us to a welcoming party where we were introduced to the site and all of its facilities.

Hippopotamus in the menagerie

After a short briefing, we set off on an intrepid walk into the rainforest (the point of no return). I’d watched numerous nature programmes on television and marvelled at the pristine conditions and the biodiversity of the rainforest’s ecosystems, its flora and fauna in all their glory. This was no doubt a paradise for nature and wildlife lovers. It started to feel more like a virtual field trip as we entered the interior of the forest.

‘Don’t touch anything that’s growing,’ our guide advised us ‘and certainly don’t pick anything.’

The sun struggled in its attempt to break through the impenetrable leafed ceiling that had now enveloped us with its roof-top canopy, only occasionally did it manage to pierce its way through, startling us with its sparkle. Wiry looking branches stretched out, intertwining, as they grasped bunches of leaves as if they were some sort of courtship offerings.

Then there were the lianas that supported themselves with neighbouring trees, attaching themselves with a multitude of sucker roots, tendrils or by simply by twisting themselves around trunks and branches. This is what I presume Tarzan swings on.

A jungle scene, thick with trees, leaves and plants

Other plants include epiphytes that grow on other plants, namely branches where they obtain their nutrients from the air, rain and other deposits that accumulate there. Some looked like they had long grass growing along their branches.

Everything seemed to contrast exquisitely well with the pasty blue sky; when we could see it. These majestic, towering trees, some over 40m high, looked down on us.

The open expanse of the rainforest

A sweet aroma filtered through the air, offering us anything from the scent of newly sprouted leaves to the extraordinary sweetness, which came from the flowering orchids.

I felt small and insignificant, knowing that I was now sharing a space with thousands of animals and insects, not to mention the copious number of botanical species. The cathedral-like forest echoed to the eerie rhythm of the noises from creatures which we could hear, but couldn’t see. The chorus of animals teased us from all directions, only made worse by the rasping of the nearby cicadas’ crescendo.

Our eyes played tricks on us too, were there snakes, lurking around the trees, or in amongst the dense undergrowth? We hiked on, regardless, delving further into this precarious environment, into one of the world’s last remote frontiers for humans; a place most people will never experience.

Me with all my gear on

It was nine o’clock by the time we reached our first platform, which was located on a well-trodden footpath. We dressed up in our harness and safety gear, which included: plastic safety hats, zip line trolleys and two carabiners. We looked rather trendy in our fascinating outfits, looking just the part. Our group consisted of ten individuals, most of them tourists.

Once all geared up, we went on a ‘mock-up’ zip line, just to try out our groovy equipment. Everything was new, exciting and fun. Then we were hoisted up over forty metres up into the air to the first platform. You were completely helpless, as your legs just dangled there aimlessly.

Being lift up onto the first platform

Once we’d all been hoisted up, the serious fun began. We’d been advised not to look down, but we all did. I was excited, but some members of our group looked a bit queasy, being so high up.

From up there, the jungle looked somewhat different. Through the breaks in the canopy, you could tell that the jungle did not run on a flat plateau, rather, it ran on an uneven mantle. Looking out across the jungle canopy, all you could see was a great expanse of the tropical rainforest stretching out as far as the naked eye could see, looking immaculately green and virgin, as a slight breeze tickled our faces.

We had three guides; they instructed us on what to do and how to behave. The first guide attached his zip line trolley to the zip line and off he went to the second platform. We all watched him.

‘Help!’ he cried, jokingly.

Then, one-by-one, we followed. Another guide ensured that we were all securely connected up. Eventually, my turn came around. My first thought was not to look down. Well, not at first; not until I felt comfortable. My harness was attached to the zip line trolley along with a safety carabiner. Then I was all set and ready to go.

‘Hold on tight to the harness strapping,’ the guide said, reassuringly.


‘Right, go into a sitting position,’ he said, calmly.

I was right on the edge of the platform, feeling distinctly nervous with my life in his hands. Immediately below me, was a drop of 30 metres or so, with no safety net. I held on for dear life.

‘No – you have to go forward more,’ he kept telling me. Then I suddenly dropped about 20cm, which wasn’t what I’d been expecting.  My body weight instantly took up the tension of the zip line. Then, my guide just simply let go, without any gesture of good luck, or a farewell or a wave of goodbye.

Looking at the surrounding area high up in the tree canopy

I should have yelled, ‘Geronimo!’ but I didn’t. The noise from my zip line trolley rasped as it ran at speed along the steel cable. I was now suspended, looking down on the canopies of trees, with only the impetus of my body weight carrying me forward, helped by the ‘Laws of Gravity’ and the ‘Laws of Inertia.’ I headed at speed towards the second platform. Those who’d gone before me were waiting, jubilantly. I landed on the deck – feet first, to a rapturous welcome.

‘Wasn’t that fantastic?’ a member of the group said, excitedly, with knowing eyes and a large cheerful grin.

‘Yes, wasn’t it just!’ I commented, in an expansive mood.

A short zip-line run

From platform to platform we seemed to leap, now literally sliding along each cable without any hesitation. One of the zip lines stretched for over 300 metres. Being so high up in the trees allowed me to contemplate the view, sometimes you got a glimpse of the sapphire looking sea in the far distance as you zipped gracefully from tree to tree.

At one point, one of our guides decided on a bit of buffoonery by walking on the zip line upside down. We all watched him, as he clowned around in suspended madness, about forty metres above the ground. He walked back and forth in mid-air for a prank, having no fear at all. It was as if it was all second nature to him. We laughed at him, as he was quite entertaining, but we were hoping that he wasn’t expecting us to follow suit.

Enter a caption

Towards the back end of the trip, one of the guides decided to pick on one of the giddy girls. He somehow managed to slacken the zip line a little, which left her helplessly suspended, bobbing up and down on the zip line halfway between the platforms. The girl was totally powerless about what to do next as she squirmed her arms and legs in despair. The girl took it all in good part. The guide then started to bounce her up and down on the zip line, just to intensify the agony.

‘Let me go – stop it!’ she pleaded. She was definitely a good sport and eventually, the line was re-tensioned and the guide from the other platform zipped across to rescue her.

We were now at the end of the course and one-by-one, we were lowered to the ground. It had been a good, worthwhile trip; with lots of exuberant fun. We had traversed rope-suspended bridges, been on spider nets, Tarzan jumps and flying swings and we had finished just in time for lunch.

I arrived back at Khao San Road at about three o’clock and was back at my apartment by four, tired, but grateful that I’d been. I promised myself that if I ever got the chance to do it again, then I would.