Flying with the Gibbon
Being very afraid of heights, I was both looking forward to, and terrified of, our trip to Flight of the Gibbons and zip-lining across the canopy of the Chiang Mai, Thailand forest. My daughters were much more excited to fly through the treetops than either me or my wife. In the name of vacation fun and expanding our horizons by sharing this once in a lifetime experience, we agreed to the tour.
My oldest daughter was halfway through a six month commitment teaching English in a school outside of Bangkok. I, and the rest of the family, were spending two weeks visiting. We began with a few days on one of the resort islands to recover from the long flights, We took in many of the sights of Bangkok, including the palace and the ancient beauty of the old city. The Bangkok traffic, especially those on scooters was amazing to behold. Sometime whole families with dogs aboard a single scooter, weaved in and out of cars and trucks without seeming to consider the danger.
We then went into the center of the country and the lower mountains of Kanchanaburi where we shared the incredible experience of volunteering at an elephant preserve. This was one of the days we looked forward to the most, and it did not disappoint. We even slept on a floating inn on the river Kwai during our two days in this region. Now we had five days in Chiang Mai.
After a nice relaxing breakfast at the hotel, we were picked up by the Flight of the Gibbon van. Another couple was already aboard. We stopped at two other hotels before beginning the drive to Mae Kampong village, high in the northeast mountains. The ride took at least two hours. We exited the historic, walled city of Chiang Mai, and began driving through the countryside.
Small villages, working farms, open fields, and the roadside homes of the Thailand North Country flew past. We left the more populated area for the low forests and then the hills. Once into the hills, the villages were fewer, the roads narrowed, and the turns became tighter. Our van climbed high into the rain forest-covered mountain. All we saw out the window now were brief glimpses of houses on stilts back in the trees, and makeshift tables set up in the sun where cut bamboo or branches of tea leaves were set to dry filled much of the roadside.
The a hush filled the van the entire ride up the mountain. The nine of us who would be jumping together, were each quiet for our own reasons. I have to admit, as we got closer to our destination, my anxiety increased. Mostly, the silence was due to concentrating on the tree lines while we searched for monkeys and other wildlife. The concentration may have been an outlet for others’ anxiety as well, as it was for me.
We spotted a few exotic, long limbed birds, a few roadside goats, and many dogs making their way up the roadside. At one point the driver pulled over and pointed to where a monkey perched in a tree. The thickness of the foliage, especially the broad elongated leaves of the fig trees, kept the primate well hidden. Only a couple of our group were able to locate him.
Eventually, we came upon a number of cars parked along the side of the steep road, I assume belonging to the zip line employees. The driver slowed and began giving us instruction on what we should expect. He made it clear that we would be returning on the same van so we could leave our bags on board or use the lockers available in the building up ahead. We would get instruction from the guides, receive our zip lining gear, and most important, sign our waivers. He would then take us to the zip site and our adventure would begin.
I shouldn’t speak for my wife, but my nerves were beginning to act on my stomach, and I knew she was fighting her anxiety as well. We all began talking about being “close now!” with differing levels of excitement, but we all agreed on needing to use the bathroom. Besides the pressure on my bladder, my intestines were trying to tell me I didn’t have the guts for this. Fears were trying to take control and we were still sitting within the protection of seat-belts in the van.
We pulled up to a building reminding me of a typical log cabin ski lodge. When we reached the front, I could see that the facade was wide open with chairs lined up for our meeting with the guides. Clipboards occupied each seat and the room was lined with the purple shirts of support staff and the bright yellow shirts of our guides. Helmets, harnesses, ropes with carabiners, and of course, souvenirs for purchase, lined the walls.
All this had to wait as every one of us found the appropriate restroom.
Feeling much relieved, we found our way back to the main room and began filling out our forms with all the basic information. Our instructors gave the rundown of what we could expect, outlined the rules, and answered any questions from our group. Most of our group were doing this for the first time, but one couple was making their sixth zip line trip and their enthusiasm was infectious. They had purchased a Gopro and couldn’t wait to get video of their jumps. We were introduced to the two guides that would be leading us and we were ready to get our gear and head to the lines.
I grabbed a helmet while the guide grabbed my harness. The tangerine yellow helmet had a distinct, acrid odor, but as soon as the guide began strapping on my harness, my nose slapped by the stench of sweat and body odor. The distraction of envisioning the large sweaty guys who had coated the harness with their body odor, either unwashed, or from the stink of fear, distracted me from the fact my fear would be adding to the reek very shortly.
I was not alone! We were all draped in stinky gear. As we entered the van, our individual garment’s odor merged with the rest, creating a very aromatic atmosphere in the closed space of the air-conditioned van. The driver didn’t seem to notice, and before too long, neither did we. We were on our way to our launching spot.
Potholes filled the road and it was barely wide enough for us to clear the tribesmen and dogs walking on the roadside. The steepness of the road had to be approaching, if not exceeding, a 45 degree slope. We reached a small plateau and the van pulled into a slight clearing on the side of the road, leaving enough room for another vehicle to pass. The driver turned back over his seat and told us that this was where the adventure began.
The sun had dried the dirt beside the road to a gray-white, making a marked contrast to the green grass line under the tree’s protection. A deep brown path led from our parking area, cutting through the grass and into the trees. As we entered the shade, the glare of the sun cleared and the lushness of the rainforest enveloped us. It took a moment for our eyes to adjust from the sun and glare to the deep shade of the thick canopy.
We followed our guide down a slope, across a winding path, to a set of steps cut into the rich, hard soil. As we ascended the slope, exposed roots and rocks created makeshift stairs. The line of us climbed a series of switchbacks until we had to be at least a hundred feet above where we entered. Looking down the incline was enough to make me light-headed and queasy. The physical effects of my phobia, as much as the climb, had my pulse quickening and made it hard to draw breathes.
We approached the first platform, the spot where we would put our lives in the hands of the creators of this course. The reality that in a few minutes, I would be hanging from a steel cable almost three hundred feet above the forest floor began to rake my guts again. Yes, the stink I would be adding to the harness would definitely be fear.
Yet, either by design or by chance, we delayed our first jump because high above us in the treetops, to the right of the platform, were a pair of gibbon. The distraction of nature in all its glory made the effort of getting a good picture of the white gibbon and the larger dark mate in the next tree over, my primary focus. Fear would have to wait a few more moments.
But now it was time! For the next three hours, we would jump from tree to tree, landing on platforms built around trees well over a hundred feet above the ground, with only cables to protect us from a disastrous fall. Could I do it? Would I need to be pushed off the platform? Would my clenched sphincter keep my guts from spilling? My mind was not my friend at the moment as I waited for those in front of me to jump.
Again, the camera saved me. My daughters went first and wanted me to get good pictures and video for social media. My wife was as white as I felt, but was thrilled to watch our daughters make their jump and successfully land on the tree a few hundred feet across the wire. My wife went next, and then it was me and the rear guide.
Without going into much detail, I will say, the jump from the platform was not as hard as I thought it would be. As explained, it was a matter of grabbing the turnbuckle above my head, lifting the legs and sitting on the harness, and allowing gravity to do the rest. The grip of my fingers on the steel wheel mechanism connecting me to the line was vice-like, but the exhilaration of flight was wonderful. Fear replaced with nothing short of joy.
I watched as the platform that would be my landing got closer. I did as instructed and pulled my legs up, and once the ramp was under me, landed with bent knees, and was steadied by the guide. He clipped on the safety line, unclipped my harness from the zip line and attached me to the security wire wrapped around the tree. All the previous jumpers were tethered and ready for the next jump.
And now the terror began. Standing on what was no better than a tree house floor, hundreds of feet up, on a tree swaying with the weight of fourteen people and the natural breezes at the roof of the rain forest. The irrational, gut clenching fear of heights had me firmly in its grasp. The safety of having two ropes connected to the safety lines at all times was not enough. My arms wrapped around the tree for dear life as I inched my way around the platform to the next launch.
My daughters, having fun at our expense, were hanging by their tethers out over the edge. They kept looking down at the distance below, taking pictures of their fearlessness, and joyously mocking my and my wife’s fear. The guides made jokes to keep us loose and one by one, our group took off on our next flight. Ironically, I could not wait to make my next jump to be off the small set of boards built around the tree. Jumping and flying through the air became the easy part.
All told, we did thirty jumps. What began as once in a lifetime, became commonplace by the end. Of course, there were different types of jumps along the way. Some were Superman jumps, where you soar in a horizontal position, arms out in front, with the hook attached to the back of the harness. Near the middle we jumped what was billed as one of the longest jumps in Asia. This jump cleared the entire valley. A couple of times we made cargo net landings where you had to hit the rope net and climb the ropes up to the platform. Some jumps led to hikes along the hillside taking us to the next jump. And then there were the drops. Fifty to seventy feet straight down.
The guide knew how petrified my wife and I were and took it easy on us. The descent for us was slow and measured. Our daughters dropped hard and fast, and loved every second of it. And the guides had their own source of fun. On one flight, the setup was perfect. Before takeoff the guide told us to make sure we were ready for the landing because it was a jump where people sometimes missed. If they missed, they would end up sliding back to the center of the jump. They would have to hang there while the other guides came to help with the rescue.
I was one of the first across this jump and took my normal position, hanging onto the tree and the security line for dear life. My oldest daughter was fourth or fifth, her sister right behind. The guide hooked my daughter on the safety once she landed, and told her to make sure she caught her sister when she landed. Since my first daughter was tethered, she couldn’t reach her younger sister and the guide made as if he missed the grab. Slowly, my youngest began drifting backward, sliding down the zip line with the huge eyes of panic on her face.
The guide turned to my oldest and said, “I thought you were going to catch her? What happened?” We all stood there with slack faces as little sis stopped at the lowest part of the line, stranded in the middle.
And then the guide began laughing, pointing at us and telling us, “You should see the look on your faces.” He laughed again and attached himself to the zip line with what looked like a bicycle sprocket, and zoomed down to the rescue. By the time the guide arm-peddled my daughter back to the tree stand, they were both laughing and we knew the joke was on us.
By the time we did the last drop, finally having our feet reach the firm soil, we had added our sweat of both fear and heat to the gear. When we took off our helmets, our hair was damp with the sweat of exertion and the moist heat of the rain forest. The cool breezes that blew high in the trees, swaying us as we perched on our stands, were gone on the ground. The afternoon heat which we knew would be brutal in the sun was still not too bad in the shade of the forest.
We thanked our guide, and he volunteered to take a picture taken of the family to remember the event. We knelt behind a sign for Flight of the Gibbon and he snapped a picture. He actually took two; one of us and a second with the image reversed to capture him, making as if he did something wrong. He was a joker right up until the end. We walked up the hill to the gear house where we received a free t-shirt and tickets for what turned out to be a delicious meal cooked and served by members of the local hill tribe.
Taking off the harness to hang it on the rack, we exposed wide sweat marks on each of our shirts. The heavy cloth straps soaked our sweat right through our clothes. The gear no longer smelled like someone else’s body odor. And as we all know, our own body odor doesn’t smell too bad, right?