Guest Contributor | April 24th, 2012
Coming back to my Sydney desk from a long meeting, the link to www.gibbonexperience.org arrived in my inbox. Before I completed reading the site, all rationale for planning and research was forgotten. We had confirmation of the last two spots. Describing itself as an eco tourism forest conservation project or in my terms to my mother: ‘we trek into a remote area of jungle in Laos, sleep in open air tree houses and get about by zip cording through the trees in a harness’. Her response: ‘Is it safe?’
After an 18 hour journey from Hanoi, Huay Xai’s deserted streets in Northern West Laos, appeared by midnight. Being just a bit controlling, I had already written to BAP Guesthouse from Sydney to book a room. By this I mean pen on paper, in the mail. Having tried to call, the language barrier was too great & they had no website through which to contact them – simply their address ‘Town Centre’. I was so very grateful to be greeted in the middle of the night by our hostess, laughing at the size of my suitcase ‘you carry on back haha noooo’ and welcoming us inside.
T.G.E. briefly briefed us the following morning. All we knew is we had two nights in the jungle with six others sharing a tree house with food and water being provided. Piling into a pickup truck we bombed for two hours in four wheel drive through muddy ditches, finally being delivered to a tiny village where I was content to see phone reception dying away. Access only to the clothes in our day packs, we would have no contact with anyone but our group plus three smiling guides.
Setting off, we took a steep ascent into thick jungle. Seeing only latticed bamboo, we duly followed our nimble guides and tried to keep up. There were those with proper trekking gear and those with not. As our guides were in flip-flops & shorts, I wasn’t too worried about walking in my Sydney resident’s running kit.
An hour of uphill brought us to a cleared plateau. Three huts, lots of bananas, a ginger tom cat and a heap of damp, sweaty, harnesses were there waiting for us. Being handed a banana and a harness, we were told to check them. For what, I still don’t know as all it consisted of was two canvas roped leg hoops, a waist hoop, one safety rope and one “ZIPZIP” (one metal roller with a piece of scooter tyre roped to it, rechristened “your brake”).
Harnessed up, my legs wobbled slightly when I saw the first zip line. The guide got up onto the zip’s landing deck showed us 1) safety first – hook safety on, then 2) ZIPZIP – hook metal roller on then 3) GO. And he went. Jumping off the deck, he zoomed down the line and left us.
One by one we all followed suit. Standing up there looking out through bushes into a white haze, I couldn’t see the end of the zip line. Varying from 100m to 500m long, this first one was only 200m but nerve wracking enough.
Jumping off the deck and taking up the wire, I soon felt the pace of my zipping speed up. With one hand on the scooter tyre, the other carefully out of the way, I flew along the hillside, surrounded by foreign bird noises, then out into the great gap over the jungle floor. Looking around each way, I spied a small river below and endless jungle in every other direction. Each one of us couldn’t help but issue a loud and very Western ‘woohoo’ as we discovered we liked it / knew we’d survive it / found it was glorious fun.
After more trekking up through closely covered jungle, we continued to cross valley floors by flying into these giant views. Knowing we were destined to Tree House 5, by about 3 p.m. our guide advised the need of our brakes when landing into this particular tree house. Zipping into loading dock type deck at the lower level of the structure, we all managed to arrive in style and head upstairs to the communal sleeping area with en suite bathroom.
Foraging around, we discovered eight double mattresses, sheets, pillows and a large dark tent-like cover for each mattress. Equipped with a sink and fresh (piped in!) drinking water the kitchen area had plates, cups and an enormous fire kettle.
The bathroom was the room with the view. The loo being a porcelain bowl cut into the deck edge, had a very long drop beneath it. No need for plumbing here. The cold shower amazingly had good pressure but the sturdy wooden floorboards of the main decking area turned into thin slats for drainage purposes. Looking down forty meters to the forest floor whilst using the bathroom facilities certainly cuts down on the average water usage.
Our communal dinner arrived via zip line from the land based kitchen (hut). Simple but satisfying, we all dug in and were finished in minutes. Whiling away our last hour of daylight we played cards and enjoyed the lack of distraction that electricity normally provides.
It didn’t bode well hearing the rain start in the middle of the night and it poured continuously the next day. Unperturbed, our guides encouraged us to exit the tree house by jumping off the edge of it and zipping away into the mist that had arisen with dawn. North Face jackets were a-plenty but our guides simply folded a rice sack into a peaked cape and were drier plus far more agile.
After another day of zips and hills, we started to compete to get the ultimate video… Unbeknownst to me, my ZIPZIP was on its last legs and kept stopping short thanks to a small metal bearing coming loose. By swinging myself upside down on the wire, I could pull myself up to the landing deck, hand over hand, much to the amusement of my new friends as it covered me in oil and mud. Not being deterred I switched out my harness and then zoomed through the remaining zips landing with what I would like to call graceful aplomb.
Waking up on last day to glorious sunshine we got to experience the only 500m zip line in TGE. Deciding not to try photos on this final line, I just lapped up this view. Surrounded by vast greenery, rivers, mist, odd noises, I was flying above it all - content in a world away from the norm.
Landing on the deck, I removed the harness and we all strolled back to the village. It occurred to me the trek into the jungle gave a great impression of being remote but actually we were never that far away. Piling back into the pickup, phone reception came back on but the blackberry stayed out of sight for just a few more hours. Replying eventually: ‘Yes Mum, made it out alive. We didn’t see any actual gibbons, but we only just noticed…. Think we were them!’