Rum­bles in the jun­gle

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - Lin­ley Boyle

SOME peo­ple are adrenalin junkies. I am an adrenalin tee­to­taller. The mon­key bars at pri­mary school were for kids with no imag­i­na­tion; all I could think about was the feel of land­ing on the hard­packed earth un­der­neath.

So why am I on a 400m-long fly­ing fox zoom­ing into a tree house 50m above the ground? Be­cause the thought of see­ing gib­bons in the wilds of north­ern Laos is too tempt­ing (and a cer­tain lack of imag­i­na­tion has pre­vented me from con­ceiv­ing just how high this is go­ing to be).

I have ar­rived at Houay Xai, a sleepy town on the Mekong. We drive south on a mostly de­serted road then turn off for a dusty, bone-jar­ring ride into the Bokeo Na­ture Re­serve. We are on the Gibbon Ex­pe­ri­ence, a three-day, eco­tourism ad­ven­ture.

Our guides lead us through stub­bly brown rice pad­dies into the for­est and is­sue us with our har­nesses, all straps and clips that make no sense to me at this stage, al­though they look sus­pi­ciously like moun­taineer­ing movie cos­tumes. We climb to the top of a ridge and see the first of the tree houses. It’s a sub­limely sym­met­ri­cal tim­ber and thatch struc­ture with a mez­za­nine and a bath­room with a toi­let that re­de­fines the term long drop.

It is con­structed around the trunk of a rain­for­est gi­ant and all my Swiss Fam­ily Robin­son fan­tasies await but then I re­alise the only way in is via a cable from which I have to sus­pend in this fly­ing fox pret­zel made of rope.

My mouth is dry, my knees are trem­bling, my hus­band mut­ters he’s glad it wasn’t his idea. (He has seen me chang­ing light bulbs.) A deep well of in­ner courage, or pos­si­bly a tremen­dous fear of look­ing like an id­iot, makes me ac­cept there’s no go­ing back and I de­cide to make friends with my har­ness and trust the en­gi­neer­ing of the cable and the tree house. (Al­though, in­ter­est­ingly, two of our party are en­gi­neers and they are ter­ri­fied.)

Let­ting the har­ness take my weight, I keep my legs to­gether and look straight ahead at my des­ti­na­tion. I am­about to be­come part of the ecosys­tem of the for­est canopy. The launch is the worst bit; af­ter that, it’s wind in my hair and a singing tone like the spindryer slow­ing down, (do­ing the laun­dry now brings oddly fond mem­o­ries). The run­way into the tree house looms and with a thump I land. My hands are shak­ing so much the guide has to un­clip me.

But I feel ex­ulted and the next day, many ca­bles later, we are all sur­prised we still have lit­tle fris­sons of ter­ror be­fore each cable. It dawns on me that it’s not nec­es­sar­ily about see­ing gib­bons but act­ing like one. Our guides show off, glid­ing with­out hold­ing on, hang­ing up­side down, car­ry­ing our meals.

One even ar­rives with a mat­tress strapped to his back. They laugh­ingly make fun of our fears but then one ad­mits that he would be too scared to board a plane. They prac­tise English con­ver­sa­tion from their English for Eco Guides hand­book. Phrases such as ‘‘ Do you feel nau­seous?’’ are in­cluded.

It’s all a fan­tas­tic team-build­ing ex­er­cise; we play cha­rades in our tree house, with Fred from Ger­many try­ing to act out Humpty Dumpty , a nurs­ery rhyme he doesn’t know. If we laugh too much, the tree house shakes and then we re­mem­ber there’s only 3cm of plank be­tween us and the for­est floor. An­other small lurch of the guts.

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