Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Do the Funky Gibbon

I stand ready to leap into the void, surrounded by soaring trees but with a 50 metre drop to the valley floor. In the distance I hear the hollering of excited tourists, whooping with joy as they fly through the air.

“Happy gibbons!” my guide Pon Pon jokes. Then we hear another noise, closer this time, but from higher in the canopy. This time there’s no mistaking it – the distinctive “woop woop woop” of real primates.

“Happy tourists?” I joke back. “Or a tape recording?”

“You’re lucky,” Pon Pon replies. “Looks like you’re going to see the gibbons.”

Five minutes later, there they are; first, just a rustle in the leaves, then a flash as three long-armed gibbons brachiate through the branches for a closer look at their human visitors. A creamy coloured female comes first, closely followed by an adorable baby, black with creamy facial highlights. Finally, a larger black male follows tentatively behind.

This family group of gibbons are the first of their species to dwell in this forest in 40 years. And it’s all due to the tour I’m participating in, the famed Flight of the Gibbon zipline course. Started in 2007 in the village of Mae Kompong, one hour south of Chiang Mai, this eco-tour dedicates a percentage of its proceeds to forest and primate rehabilitation, culminating three years ago in the release of two captive gibbons into the surrounding 1500-year-old rainforest. Several months later, the company was rewarded with the ultimate triumph – a baby gibbon, born in the wild to its doting parents.

We stand enthralled as the three white-handed gibbons come closer to check us out – mum Tong Lord, dad Tong Dee, and baby Mojo. It’s a moment that makes my heart soar – it’s awesome to see an eco-tourism project put their money where their mouth is, fulfilling promises and making a positive impact on the ecology.

                                  (look closely - that's mum and bubs in the branches!)

My first experience of Flight of the Gibbon was prior to the gibbons’ release in 2008, when it was still a fledgling operation. Even then, it was rapidly gaining a reputation as not only a fantastic, fun day out but also a superior eco-tourism product, beneficial to both the local community and the pristine jungle they tend so lovingly.

The experience was everything it had been hyped to be – adrenaline pumping, lots of laughs, thrilling and informative. In the wake of its success came a wave of competitors, with more zipline courses opening around Chiang Mai as well as in other popular tourist destinations. Flight of the Gibbon even opened a sister operation in Chonburi to cater to Bangkok and Pattaya tourists as well as other adventure activities including rock climbing and white water rafting.

Now established as one of Chiang Mai’s leading attractions, I was curious to see how the product had fared under the strain of competition and a tough few years economically. I was delighted to find that Flight of the Gibbon – now billed as the longest in the world (5km) -  is now even better than before, with more tree stations and longer zips, and plenty of fresh new thrills to keep return clients on their toes.

It hasn’t been a painless success story, however.  During the last wet season, the company’s office was totally wiped out in a landslide – fortunately at night, when no one was in it. The tour currently commences at Mae Kompong’s village school, complete with apologies for substandard toilet facilities and the possibility of wet gear.

After getting decked out in harness and helmets (all dry and clean), my tour group is driven back down the road to the kickoff point, where there are several short, easy zips to acclimatise you to the sensation of ziplining. Launching off a 50-metre high platform into a void, then careering along a metal line towards a looming tree can be disconcerting at first – but once you gain confidence that the equipment and lines are perfectly secure, it’s easy to relax and enjoy the thrill, squeals of terror and all.

                                           (not the most elegant of poses...)

The key to the operation’s success is its guides – young, focused and hilariously entertaining (and refreshingly, Thai, with locals leading the charge), as well as reassuring to nervous guests. They are also brilliant bi- or even multi-lingual, speaking fluently to guests in several languages.

There are now 39 treetop platforms in total in the Flight of the Gibbon Chiang Mai course, including  several ‘double’ zips where two people zip at one time, seven sky bridges, a bungy jump and two abseils (the longest drop being 45 metres, a spectacular way to end the program). The longest zipline is a staggering 850 metres, from the top of one mountain to another, across a stunningly beautiful valley lush with palms and ferns.

For me, the most terrifying experience was the ‘bungy’ jump, where you are hooked up to a flexible line, step off into the void, bounce back and then fly toward a net, which you then desperately cling onto, Spiderman style. Heart-pounding stuff indeed.

A tour with Flight of the Gibbon includes transfers from Chiang Mai, a three-hour zipline tour, a delicious lunch courtesy of the local Mae Kompong community, and a visit to the spectacular Kompong waterfall. It’s an awesome day out, and great fun for anyone aged five to 75 who is not too afraid of heights.

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