Rumbles in the jungle
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.