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Bokeo National Reserve and The Gibbon Experience

Written on: Wednesday February 6th, 2008

A journal entry from: Around The World Without A Plane

Bidding farewell to Adrian, Lucy and Darren and enjoying the usual 50 minute wait for even the simplest of breakfasts that has come to be expected of the laidbackness of Laos, I then threw my bag on board a truck and joined 6 new companions who would accompany me over the next three days on The Gibbon Experience in Bokeo National Reserve.

One of the big reasons Dave and I went our seperate ways was that I was intent on staying to go on the Gibbon Experience which is an eco-experience in the jungles of Bokeo, where you spend time trekking through the jungle and then crossing from one area to the next over the top of the tree canopy by use of the longest and highest ziplines I've ever seen or ridden. I was glad I decided to stay.

Myself and the other 6 Gibbonaires (3 Swedes, 1 German and a French couple) had all chosen to do the Waterfall Tour, which involved more trekking than the Classic tour that was also on offer. Subsequently we started our day with a three and a half hour hike in to the midsts of the jungle, with a good proportion of this being a continual uphill slog. I was extremely grateful of the decision not to drink anything the night before. The deeper inside the jungle the larger and more illustrated the plantlife became. Single fallen leaves on the ground took up entire areas of the path, tree stumps the size of Roman pillars rose upwards as far as you could see. As we neared our destination of Treehouse 6 where we would spend our first night we began our first zip.

Our guide, Nga, was not the most capable of English speakers but got his message across nonetheless. He motioned to how we should secure our harnesses to the thick wire cord that was firmly attached to one of the trees and then stretched out through the jungle and across a ravine to, hopefully a tree on the other side. I stepped up to become the first zipper of the day, secured my harness and safety rope and flew out over the jungle to hang momentarily 100 metres above the ground. The sight was simply amazing. Gushing waterfalls, fast-flowing rivers, lush jungle vegetation and millions upon millions of bugs, insects and animals competing in a chorus as I rushed along a 500 metre wire above their tiny heads.

Thankfully the wire was attached to the other side and I made it there safely to await the arrival of the others. Helen, a French actress in her thirties seemed resolute on letting not only the jungle, but the whole of Laos know she was there by screaming manically as she hurtled across the canopy. It wasn't only this one either. This she continued for a day and a half on every zipline until it actually became somewhat annoying that we weren't going to see one single wild animal, let alone a gibbon if she kept wailing like a banshee!

Four zips later and we found ourselves in our home for the night. We arrived in a wooden treehouse expertly built at the very top of one of the tallest trees in that particular area, complete with two levels, a toilet (that distributed whatever deposits were made on the jungle below), a shower and a tiny kitchen area. The top floor was a wooden space that encircled the tree trunk, big enough to sleep us all, protected by branch-lined roof to keep any unwelcome rain off us. This was lucky too as during the night the heavens opened. Before turning in for the night though we were taken back out in to the jungle to frolick on some more ziplines and enjoy the idyllic sight of one of the waterfalls. Nga then left us to find our own way back as the sun began to descend once again where we found a much need dinner of rice, chicken and steamed vegetables waiting to fill our well worked appetites.

It was slightly weird going to bed at 7:30pm, but the night sky had reduced our living quarters to darkness, save but the two burning candles we had to illuminate the trapdoor for those needing to use the toilet during the night. Halfway through the night I woke not onyl myself up but german Thomas who was sleeping alongside me. 'What are you saying?' he angrily grunted at me, obviously pissed that I should be talking so vocally at some absurd hour. Coming to and realising what must have been going on I simply giggled away and had no response for whatever it was I must have been talking about before.

Nga rejoined us at 8am where we packed our bags ones more and began another 4 hour trek via a series of ziplines, this time to Treehouse 5. Number 5 did not have the same extent of zips around it, but the zip actually in to the treehouse was one of the most spectacular yet. Beginning in the middle of dense jungle, the line sped you through a clearing and swept you suddenyl out well over 100 metres above the ground below, before dropping you off in the middle of our new abode. By far the tallest tree in the vicinity, the views around were sublime, and this temporary accomodation also featured a penthouse suite on a third level of the treehouse offering even better views of the surrounding forest land.

As the group began to quash their hunger with the nuts that were provided I decided to save the shells so that we could use them as chips and have a big, but friendly game of poker to see who should get to sleep in the penthouse. Secretly I think I should have had it anyway as the night previous I had been lumbered with sleeping inbetween Thomas and Swedish Yan, but I was willing to be diplomatic about it. Unfortunately the same couldn't be said for all the members of our group. Just to prove that famous adage about Germans always getting down to the sunbeds at the crack of dawn to reserve them with their seaty towels, Thomas was up the stairs with his bag before anyone had even noticed, and when I went up there to have a look had emptied the entire contents of his bag all over the bed, as if he were some sort of lesser primate marking his territory by urinating all over his sleeping area. Bloody Krauts!

We played some afternoon poker nonetheless, but this didn't last too long. Sofia, another of the Swedes took both myself and Christian out in the first hand, throwing down a stronger flush then I had in my hand, then depatched Yan in the following hand, winning the next two also before annihilating Bertrand, a Parisian, in the 5th and final hand. Emphatic, but Thomas was in no mood to discuss anybody else sharing his batchelor bad. No wonder he is almost 40 and still single. Can you tell I didn't get on with this guy particularly.

Other than the one zip in and the one zip out there was only one other zipline near us. This zipline arrived in to our treehouse at the bottom level from the opposite side of the jungle, but Nga had told us it was a long trek to get over to where it began. Secretly I think he just couldn't be bothered to take us but after doing the same two a few times I was after some more variety. Instead of hiking through the jungle to the beginning of the elusive zip, I opened the trapdoor, cautiously descended and attched myself to the line and began to pull myself out over the jungle up the zipline the wrong way. I made the dreaded mistake only 10 metres away from the treehouse of looking straight down. Now when you're flying through the air on the lines it's a very different feeling to what it is just hanging there. For a start you're travelling at a fair speed, and because of this you're scanning around constantly lapping up everything in front of your eyes. You don't really have the time to comtemplate fear. Hanging completly motionless a good 120 metres above certain death was strangely a significantly more frightening experience than I had thought it would be. So much so that I rapidly pulled myself immediatley back in to the safety of the treehouse.

Pulling myself together and getting more nuts in to my stomach I was determined to give it another go, only this time without the looking down part. And that was what I did. That was until I got a good distance out from the treehouse and was sure that the other end of the zipline that began in the jungle must only now be a short distance away from me (bearing in mind I'm sort of lying supine in my harness with my arms above my head behind me pulling in the direction I'm heading). The treehouse was now about 250 metres in front of me, I turned to see the jungle at least another 250 metres behind me, and then stupidly but naturally looked straight down to my doom. The trees gazed back up hungrily at me, like savage triphids intent on gobbling me up should my faith falter and my harness suddenly give way. I began to sweat........profusely. Coming to my senses and realising I was a burly man, now of 29 years of age, not at all susceptible to the trivialities of vertigo or the fear of man eating trees I began to relax, enjoy the experience and become more determined, despite the burning in my arms from all the pulling, at getting to the other side. As I reached about 100 metres from the safety of the jungle and solid ground, the gradient of the line became even greater and the bicep burn became formidable. I can't remember how many times I had to stop to allow them to recover, I only recall it being very frequent, and every time this happened the pressure from the harness on my groin area became further painful. Thankfully, after what seemed like days I made it to the end, where I had to detach myself from the wire and lay in the jungle a good 20 minutes to allow the lactic acid build up in my now exhausted arms depleat. Hearing Bertrand, who was a flim producer attempting to film a documentary for American television whilst on this particular trip, holler from the the other end of the line I shouted back that I was on my way and grinning like a gibbon myself, satisfied with my success, zipped back in to the treehouse.

Munching on another rice and vegetable dinner we played a few more games of poker, serenely took in the waning sun over the jungle and then contemplated mischief. I mentioned to Bertrand, who is a born extrovert, constantly bantering and filming for his proposed documentary all around the treehouse, that I was going to go zipping in the night. Like a flash, Helen his equally extroverted girlfriend was confirming her approval that this was the best idea since camenbert. The rest of the group thought we were only kidding, but began to become a little anxious when using just torchlight we started to harness up, with the anticipation of flying through the forest in pitch blackness began to produce an extremely unusual amount of adrenaline in the body. Yan lent me his headlamp to wear around my forehead so that I wouldn't have to hold a torch and the three of us cautiously made our way to the edge of the platform. In the daytime this particular zip was one of the scariest ones as you immediately are above the jungle went you jump out. In the dead of night it was literally a leap of faith, as without torchlight you cannot even see the zipline overhead. Beginning without the light on I flung myself out in to the night sky, but halfway down the zip flicked the headtorch on which gave an amazing effect of the trees zooming towards and past me. The noise of the pulley zipping over the wire produced an echoing sound all over the melodious sound of the bugs beneath us. B and Helen went before me and I arrived reciprocating their monkeylike smiles, from ear to ear, feeling like we were naughty school children once more. It was then a five minute hike through the depths of the jungle, navigating over tree roots and slippery slopes as we crept through the camp where our Nga was sleeping. He was aware of us probably as we'd zipped in to the jungle and berated us as we tip-toed through the camp. 'You no zip at night! Very dangerous, you die!' I believe he was trying to warn us.

We rached the zipline that took us back in to our treehouse and propelled ourselves along it aided by the practicalities of gravity, where we excitedly relayed our stories back to the rest of the housemates. But I needed a further fix. I opened the trapdoor, crept down and hooked myself back up to the line leading upwards in to the jungle and began dragging myself out over the floor of the jungle. The experience was incredible, pulse intensifying, Nirvana in it's earthly forms. As I hung 400 foot above the jungle below the stars above eminated a glow that made thousands of them appear within my arm's reach. Only once before had I seen the sky so illuminated and only once before had I witnessed a shooting star, until now that was when one whisked across the the truly amazing landscape in front of me. The noises below me too were intensified. Having nothing but air surrounding me whatever it was that was prowling around beneath me was amplified so that it sounded as if a claw might shoot up from below and take out a kidney.

It was a very different sound I next heard, somebody was once again zipping, but they wer coming in to the treehouse instead of leaving it meaning it must be Nga. I grabbed the line above my head and hurtled myself back towards the villa. Arriving on the platform below our living quarters I heard Nga berating the others for using the ziplines at night. I decided to wait it out below until he had got it out of his system and returned back to his camp, but it wasn't to be. Within 30 seconds we had realised I was nowhere to be seen or heard and the trapdoor was lifted to see me gazing up, still harnessed to the line with a please-don't-be-pissed-at-me grin on my face. He didn't kick me out the tree which was a bonus, but he did now insist on staying the night with us because we couldn't be trusted to stay there without him. Tut tut. I was actually quite glad we was staying though, for three reasons. One he was a good guy, despite the communication problems we had with him; two, he would get us up in the morning at 5am to go on a nighthike in search of the gibbons; and three, the only place for him to sleep was an invasion of Thomas' private bourdoir above, which I was most pleased about and Thomas was evidently not.

Rising to Nga making coffee at 5am we did. We dressed, packed and fell about in the darkness trying to put out harnesses on the right way round, before hooking on and once again making a blind leap of faith in the midsts of the dense jungle. Hiking in absolute blackness with only a small torch to light your way was quite precocious at times. They were periods when we had sharp drops down to one side where the footholds beneath were not the best we could have hoped for, but after an hour or so of stumbling through the eerie forest we sat and rested in a small clearing. Here we remained for 30 minutes in complete silence, save for Helen zipping and unzipping her bag on various occasions and going in to coughing fits, so that we could hear the gibbons and anything else that might be roaming around the jungle at that unearthly time of the morning. There were sounds I'd never heard or even dreamed of hearing, and what was more they weren't all that far away.

We set off again with breakfast on the mind and arrived at Treehouse 3, then suddenly Nga just took off in to the jungle without saying a word. Within 40 seconds he flew back around the corner and beckoned to us, "Do you want to see gibbons?" Stupid question really. Without waiting for an answer though he left from the direction he arrived in and began to disappear though the dense vegetation. Only myself, Christian, Jan and Thomas managed to keep up with him and he literally sprinted through thick undergrowth down a steep hill and away deep in to the jungle. After 10 minutes of running through the jungle we stopped and looked out on a clearing in the distance where we pinpointed the sound of the gibbons singing playfully in the trees, but sadly no view of them. Happy with our short run through the jungle we walked back up to where the others still were to find Helen extremely unhappy that Nga had just run off as he did and didn't wait for her to keep up. What made it worse was that we told her we had seen seven gibbons swinging through the trees. When she got quite angry with Nga we thought it was only right to put her out of her misery and tell her the truth.

Maybe it this vicious joke leading to my bad karma, but after a quick swing in to Treehouse 3 and back, as the group began to begin hiking away through the jungle once more I realised that my camera was gone. I couldn't believe it. I'd only had the bloody thing a week or so. With only B left I told him I was intent on finding it and so he went on ahead to let the group know while I attempted to backtrack my way through thick jungle. The fact that 1) I'm in a jungle and 2) it is very thick, didn't really cross my mind at the time, but after 30 minutes of trying to recognise if I'd been on this particular route I started to think about whether I was actually going to find my own way back, let alone the camera. Giving up hope I turned back the way I had come and luckily after 5 minutes or so heard Nga shouting for me. He was pretty angry I had disappered but when I told him about the camera he understood and attempted to trek back the way we had run through the jungle earlier to catch a glimpse of the gibbons. It was no good though, there were no paths and the trees and bushes were so thick I thought there was no way he could retrace our steps and be on the same route we had taken that morning. Thankfully I was so wrong. I was almost about to say to him to forget it and that we would head back to the others, then all of a sudden he increased his pace and distance from me and raced through the jungle. He returned gleaming holding my camera. I was overjoyed. I picked him up hugging him telling him I loved him. Would have made an extremely homosexual photo! How he managed to find our path we had earlier walked I will never know but I'm extremely grateful he did.

Meeting back up with the others we passed Treehouse 2 and 1 via some of the most amazing ziplines we had yet done, and three of the group managed to spy some gibbons also. We grabbed some much needed breakfast and coffee then began the short hike out of Bokeo to our ride back to Houay Xai.

Although quite a pricey few days I would have happily paid double or even triple the price for the experience you have. It was an amazing place and made all the more memorable from the experiences that I had there. A place I will definately return to!