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Ziplines Through The Jungle

                                                                By Diana McLeod                                                  2009

      I know that a lot of people envy me my job, but let me tell you, it comes with a price. The schedule can be punishing. On the first day of my trip, I flew to New York, and then straight on to Europe and India. Without any time to recover, I started work the next morning. After only three days working with wholesalers in India, I took a sleepless overnight flight to Bangkok. Again, I started work as soon as I arrived. After five days spent racing through the Bangkok silver shops, I flew to Chiang Mai, which is one of the most difficult places to do. It is especially tough because the work is divided between the daytime businesses and the shops that only open at night, at the world famous Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. I work from 9:30 AM to 11:30 PM, with only a short break in the afternoon. That’'s a long workday, let me tell you!

      At this point, I really, really needed a day off! I looked at my schedule, and realized that I had a Sunday available. Businesses in Thailand are closed on Sundays. There was a special Sunday street market at night, but my day was free. What could I do? I visited a local travel agent to look at options.

      Several years back, they constructed “Flight of the Gibbon ,” in the jungle near Chiang Mai. A second company, “Jungle Flight,” has sprung up since then. They were both based on a concept first done in the Costa Rican rain forest. Steel cable ziplines were strung from tree to tree, high up in the forest canopy. Each tree also had a suspended platform, for people to stand on, about four feet below each zipline. The cables started high up on the mountainside, and worked their way slightly downhill, moving from tree to tree. The brochure showed pictures of people suspended on wires, way up in the air, having the time of their lives. This really appealed to me. I also thought it would be challenging, since I have some fear of heights.

      My only reservation was that I would have to go alone. It would be just my luck to book in with a group that only spoke an unfamiliar language. That happens all too often in Thailand. I hoped to find a friend to go with. I had befriended an English speaking German couple, at my hotel, but they were both over the weight restriction for the ziplines.

      This problem was solved, to my delight, by my shipper. I have been working for years with my friend Noppakao at my cargo company. She is the very competent person who handles all of my sea cargo from Thailand. Nop is a lot of fun to work with. She has a very sunny disposition, and we have become friends. We went out to dinner together, and I told her about the jungle ride. To my delight, she wanted to go! I told her I would arrange tickets for us.

      When I got to the ticket office, I found out that “Jungle Flight” was available. I called Nop with the news. She said that she had to drop her mother off first at a Buddhist temple, but that she could make it on time.

      On Sunday morning, we piled into a minivan with about eight other foreign tourists. It must have been a bit strange for Nop, to be surrounded by “farang ” in her own country. (Farang means “foreigner” in Thai.) They took us on the highway that goes north to Chiang Rai. After about twenty minutes, we turned off and headed for the countryside, inside a national forest preserve. This is one of the last unspoiled wilderness areas left in Thailand. The mountain scenery was beautiful, with flowers, tropical vegetation and flowering trees everywhere.

      The guides met us at the mountaintop. They were a smart, well trained group, who were focused on safety. The equipment was all Swiss made, and brand new. We all got harnessed in, and we headed for the first tree. The trees in this primeval forest were gigantic. The ones they used for the zipline course were at least 150 feet tall. Luckily, the first platform was not very far off the ground. When I saw the double zipline cables, and the way the guides kept us clipped on to the safety lines at all times, I felt quite at ease. Still, that first swing off the platform was a leap of faith.

      Nop was very cute, as she went flying through the air. She was wide-eyed and shrieking as they let her go. By the time she made it safely to the next platform, there was a big grin on her face. I could tell that having an exciting day off was doing her as much good as it was for me. After that, we were like little kids for the rest of the day. We swung through the trees, zipping along at about twenty miles an hour (at the center of the zipline) sixty or seventy feet in the air, relaxed and at ease in our harnesses. After a while, I was comfortable enough to stop hanging on for dear life. I let my arms open wide as I flew.

      The platforms got higher up as the mountainside sloped downwards. The last one was over 100 feet off the ground. The view of the mountains beyond, from that platform, was beautiful. I was amazed that I could enjoy the scenery, standing with twelve other people, on a tiny ten foot platform with no railings, one hundred feet up in a single tree! But the tree was so big that our weight didn'’t affect it at all, and the platform felt solid as a rock. We were all clipped to a thick steel safety cable, so there was no chance of falling. When I looked up, I realized that the treetop was another fifty feet above our heads! The trunk was so large that my arms would only go a third of the way around it. This truly was the treehouse of my dreams.

      The course had some really interesting features. There was a two storey high winding staircase, built entirely up in a tree. It went from one landing platform, very high up, to another, twenty feet below. There was a long suspension bridge, at least sixty feet in the air, between two other trees. Three times during the journey, they dropped us, straight down, through holes in the platforms. The first drop was thirty feet, the second was sixty feet, and the last, and most spectacular, was over 100 feet, off the final platform! The guides asked me how fast I'’d like to go down. “Medium speed,” I said. Well, their idea of "“medium"” was to let me freefall for the first thirty feet! After that, they gradually slowed me down, until I gently touched the earth. I looked up and shook my fist angrily at them, and they thought that was funny. They were right - I couldn'’t keep the grin off my face. Besides, by that time, I really trusted the guides. I never felt, even when I was falling, that they would actually let me go. I had watched them drop other people, and I knew how carefully they were handling the ropes.

      The adrenalin rushes affected everyone. By the time we finished the course, our group had let down their reserve. The experience was so liberating and so different that our minds and bodies felt cleansed of tensions and worries and deadlines, at least for a few blessed hours. As we trudged back up the hill to the lunch spot, the group’'s boisterous conversation was that of old friends, not new acquaintances. We had all had a great day.

      When we got into the van to go back to Chiang Mai, Noppakao looked over at me. "“You know,”" she said impishly, "“Now we have to do something crazy every year. Next year, we could jump on my motorbike and go exploring. Or, we could go white water rafting!"”

      "“I'’ll tell Dave that he has to book a Sunday in Chiang Mai into my schedule,"” I replied with a smile.

Thanks for reading, Diana McLeod

      P.S. FOR TREEHUGGERS – “Jungleflight” has done a wonderful job of interacting with the forest environment. Their whole apparatus, including the platforms, is built using cables. They do not nail into the trees, they simply wrap them with cables, and hang everything from them. The cables are carefully shimmed and cushioned so that they do not cut into the trees. All of the trees on the course looked healthy and growing. The only environmental impact I could see (outside of new houses in the nearby village) was the simple footpath leading back to the starting point, and the noise we made, (which was considerable.)

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