When I first heard about the Gibbon Experience through the traveler grapevine, deep in the Bokeo Nature Reserve of Laos, I knew I wanted to go. Living in a treehouse for a few days going through the jungle on a zipline? Doesn’t it sound like something any five year old dreamed of doing? It was a bit pricey for Laos as a lot of the money goes toward conservation efforts in the nature reserve, but I went. It was worth it.
One thing about the Gibbon Experience is getting there is in itself a self-selecting process- getting there consists of a three hour drive crammed in the back of a pickup truck with ten other people for three hours, half of it over dirt road. Then you end up at a little village that looks like this-
and then the real trek begins. You need to hike an hour up into the Laotian jungle to reach the beginning of the zipline world, where you are given a harness that you subsequently wear nearly nonstop over the next few days as it is impossible to even get into your accommodation without a zipline. If you want an idea of the scale we were living on, here is the view of the treehouse I lived in from below-
I will admit that treehouse life in the middle of the jungle is not nessecarily the most idyllic thing you will ever do- at night there are giant spiders that show up on the roof that would freak the hell out of most girls I know, and some rats like to scurry about after everyone goes to sleep to see if anything was left out to chew on. (If you put your bags inside your mosquito netted area then it’s alright. Shoes too, or they’ll be chewed on!) And as the food was just the traditional kind eaten by the Lao in this part of the world it really wasn’t something to write home about- we only got a little meat the first night, and by the second day when we had eaten our nth cabbage and rice dish the dinner conversation was dominated by what kind of Western food we would eat upon returning into town.
This didn’t go over so well with some people understandably, but most of us understood we were in the middle of the jungle and adjusted accordingly. I never even seriously minded frankly- I mean, just look at this view!
Plus I’ve got to say, ziplining is fun. Really, really fun. I wish I could post the video I took on a 300m long zipline flying over a valley, but the Internet in Laos is too slow so that video will have to wait.
I suppose at some point I should mention that I never actually saw gibbons- this part of the reserve is the home to the black gibbon, of which there are only a few thousand left in the world, and the reserve is so huge you can’t guarantee seeing one. But hearing them is another matter- in the mornings if they’re nearby you can hear the gibbons singing to each other in the trees, and we even heard them swinging in the trees near us during the night. Very haunting and beautiful.
I mention this because after waking up at 630 for an unsuccessful short hike to see if we could find the gibbons, a few of us decided to penetrate deeper into the nature reserve to an area known for its waterfall, a two hour hike away. The waterfall itself was really nothing unique to write home about but the ziplines around it were, as they were incredible! The hike was quite nice too, though the uphills wore me out quite quickly.
A Lao bridge to traverse a creek that I thought was particularly nifty with two girls who hiked with us, Amanda and Angela. Most of the time of course there’s no bridge, you just walk across the rocks very carefully or even in the creek bed itself. I don’t want to think of what this hike must be like in the rainy season!
Most of the time, though, the jungle surrounded us looking impenetrable like it does here. The guy on the right was our guide for the trek, who confounded us all by doing the whole thing in flip-flops and thinking nothing of it, and the guy on the left is Alex from Vancouver, Canada who was the best friend I made on the Experience. We spent a lot of time arguing which one of us was the bigger geek and things like that (I won, of course) and Alex, who knows more of the Lao language than any Westerner I know, spent some time teaching me a few phrases. It’s actually a lot easier to learn than Thai for some reason, albeit I never get over how words like “cop chai lai lai do” (the formal version of “thank you very much”) sound like some sort of odd musical scale to my ears.
The second day was also interesting because we indulged in a bit of night ziplining- something you’re officially not supposed to do due to potential dangers, but in practice everyone ends up doing anyway (someone with a headlamp leads the way to light the platform for the later person). And let me tell you, night ziplining is one of the most magical things I have ever done. You are flying through the air with the mountains surrounding you, awed by the stars above that shine brighter in the jungle than nearly anywhere else on Earth. It’s an unforgettable experience.
The following is written in great detail more for my memory than anything else. That and I figure its subject material makes for more interesting reading than the average occurrence…
Not to sound too dramatic, but this is the day physics saved my life.
There were a few hours left this morning before breakfast at Treehouse 1 and the subsequent hike down to the village where the truck would be waiting, and most people spent this time doing a final circuit of the zipline network. About halfway through, however, on a 250m zipline whose end I couldn’t see, I spent a bit longer than usual adjusting my harness before pushing off.
Once I was out of the trees it was obvious that something was terribly wrong- an Australian girl had been chatting on the platform not paying attention to what she was doing, and had just taken off on the zipline marked with red tape instead of green. My zipline. There was no way about it, we were going to hit and I was going at 35mph (60 kph).
The few seconds that followed probably taught me more about my thought process than anything else I have done in my life- I knew the harness system was good enough that a hit wasn’t going to make us fall, but it was going to hurt and my job was to minimize that. Breaking wasn’t an option as I was still going downwards at full speed and the breaks weren’t designed for that and I was going too fast to grip the cable, though I noticed the Australian girl succeeded in doing so (she wasn’t on the right line so the slope obviously didn’t make her go as fast) and she was bigger than me. So then physics-mode took over in my mind- I spent the last semester teaching freshmen about elastic versus inelastic collisions, and my mind immediately focused on the problem of how to best smash into someone while transfering most of my energy to her and leaving me the most intact at the end. (Some people asked me later if the latter was also a physics thing but my answer was no, when it’s you or someone else on a zipline it’s a survival thing!) I’ve also fallen enough in skiing to know above all you protect your head, so I decided to hit feet first. Holding them as strong as possible, lest my ankle twist and break.
Once that was settled I spent a moment vaguely wondering what it would feel like to break a bone (as this is something I have never done) and promising myself I would go home early if it came down to that, and in the first moment of consideration for the other girl aimed my feet for her thighs. And I thought this all over in the course of about seven seconds.
We hit- my aim wasn’t perfect but the brunt of the force was taken by my right foot, a second by an area just below my left knee which was only a scrape. It was soon obvious that the right foot really hurt but I was fairly certain it wasn’t broken or sprained as this wasn’t a new kind of pain, just an intense version of ones I’ve experienced before. While this was registering Australia girl was apologizing profusely for her mistake and forcing me to grab her harness- she hadn’t really been hurt at all- but I wasn’t saying anything until she said “oh my God, are you in shock?!” which made me vaguely think oh yeah, maybe I should say something. I muttered something about my foot that was borderline unintelligible as she pulled us both in to the platform, where a few others were waiting who had seen the whole thing and a few people debated if I had broken my ankle. The consensus amongst the kids who had done first aid was no, just a bad hit, and I agreed. Then it became obvious that we needed to get to Treehouse 1 as a platform fifty feet above the ground is not the best place for a bunch of people to be, so I hopped on my good foot to the correct zipline across and let a guide strap me in. Let me tell you, even if you’ve just had a midair collision ziplining is still fun.
At the other side, Alex caught me. He then proceeded to be my savior by putting me on his back and carrying me down the ten minute walk to Treehouse 1 while another Canadian carried my backpack, thus solving the age-old question of what sort of person you hope will be after you on a trail when you hurt your ankle and need help. (To be fair my first choice would be a doctor, but second off I want a Canadian!) Because without Alex I am not sure what would have happened.
By the time we got to Treehouse 1 word had spread, so I got a good spot to elevate my right foot and wait for breakfast and accept various offers from people’s first aid kits. A crazy hippie girl offered to take the “bad energy” away from my foot and I agreed on the grounds that I had nothing better to do (ice would have been best but that’s a bit short in the Laotian jungle), and she proceeded to do some odd movements over my leg and was satisfied to later learn the pain had dissipated, though I suspect the aspirin offered to me some Flemish women was what really did the trick.
After a little bit I was feeling better, and it was time to head down the mountain to the village. By this point I could hobble on my foot but needed assistance only on the steeper parts, so I started the hike with a stick in my left hand and Alex’s grip on my right as needed. And I made it, in decent time too, which I am proud about. Next time someone calls me a wimp, I plan to say “oh yeah? well I trekked an hour down a steep hill in a jungle in Laos with a gimp foot!“
And that was the Gibbon Experience. Believe it or not I recommend it- what happened to me pretty much qualified in the “freak accident” category of things as the guides said it didn’t really happen, and it is unlike something you will do anywhere else. You know, next time you’re in the middle of the jungle in Laos.