Looking down at my shoes, I can't help but notice that the wooden platform beneath them appears less than sturdy. Fine cracks run the length of a few boards. The nails attaching the platform to the tree seem ridiculously small. If anything breaks, there's a good eighty-feet between me and the forest floor.
I stay calm. I breathe. And then I jump.
I don't, of course, leap into emptiness; the cables connecting me to the zip-line hold firm, and I surrender to the feeling of free flight. The wire hums and my skin shivers with goose bumps as I zoom through the jungle canopy.
The project began in 2004 with a mandate to protect the rich biodiversity in the Bokeo Nature Reserve in western Laos. This small land-locked country in southeastern Asia lacks funds to protect its precious environment. The Gibbon Experience came about as an eco-tourism approach to the problem. With the money raised by tourists coming for a few days to live in tree houses and glide through the forest on hundred-meter-long cables, the Gibbon Experience hires forest rangers to guard the forest from poachers and works with local villagers to change their economy from a slash-and-burn agriculture to something more sustainable.
The project holds legendary status among backpackers despite continually turning down coverage in Lonely Planet guidebooks. The word of former guests has been enough to ensure that most trips are fully booked weeks or months in advance.
Because the Gibbon Experience is situated in the jungle, getting there takes stamina and a good pair of boots. Our jeep dropped us off close to the reserve boundary where we still had another hour and a half hike through thick jungle undergrowth (On our way out, we were less fortunate, hiking nearly five hours on rain-ruined roads before we met the jeep to take us the rest of the way.).
Upon reaching "base camp" (that is, the shack serving as staff quarters and kitchen), we were given harnesses and released on our first zip-line with the briefest of instructions: attach your safety line first, your harness second, and off you go! No turning back for the faint of heart"”zip-lining was the only way in and out of the tree house where we'd eat, sleep, and rest our beaten bodies.
No one complained. This, after all, was what we came for: to sail through the sky with nothing holding us but a few ropes. By the time darkness fell that first night, we had zipped our way along seven separate cables and hiked a mile's worth of connecting trails. We were muddy, smelly, and completely exhilarated.
Back in the tree house, we showered (cold, but running, water) and scarfed a meal of rice and traditional Lao curry-type-dishes that was brought by a local guide on the zip-line. The tree house slept six people over three levels, more than a hundred feet above the ground. Amenities included a drop toilet, a gas stove (on the fritz when I was there), and panoramic views of the Nature Reserve.
The next morning we were woken by a local guide at a mind-numbing 4:30am. "Gibbons," he urged, and we needed no further motivation. We were up and zipping within minutes and seeking to find the elusive apes that gives the project its name. Gibbons are endangered and hard to track. Many guests of the Gibbon Experience don't get to see them at all. Almost everyone hears them, though. Their siren calls echo in the foggy forest mornings, sounding like a wild ambulance playing Tarzan in the trees.
We were lucky. An hour into our tip-toeing through unmarked jungle paths, our guide stopped and pointed up. There, in the canopy, were gibbons. They swung away as we approached and most of what we saw was shaking branches. However, the unmistakable color of a black gibbon among the white ones and the glimpse of several babies clinging close to their mothers made the long hike back worth the burning thighs.
The rest of that day and the following morning before our trek out, we got in as much zipping as we could, stopping only for meals and to pick an occasional leech off our legs. A leech would start small, an inch of wriggling black malice that quickly swelled with blood once it had been sucking for a while. You can't feel them at all, so it's only when you remember to check that you'll discover these slimy vampires.
Though leeches ranked high on the ick factor, they were a ground-level-only hazard. In the tree house, we contended with creepy crawlies of all sizes and threat levels, from the intimidating but harmless column of ants that marched inches from our bed, to the swarms of bees that hovered cruelly around the toilet hole, waiting for our behinds to be bared. Around a candle-lit table after dark, we'd swap travel stories while slapping at mosquitoes and eyeing the plump spiders that dangled from every crevice.
Guests of the Gibbon Experience are always in for a few surprises. When I was there in June, staffers were caring for a baby black bear that had been orphaned by a poacher (the poacher was apprehended by project-trained rangers, which is how the cub came to stay in their kitchen). About the size of a dog and wielding dagger teeth and claws, this little guy went straight for my inner elbow and began to suckle. It was a proud moment: how many people in the world can say they've gotten hickeys from a bear?
For more information, the Gibbon Experience website offers details on their two programs for tourists and links to additional articles written about the project.
Written and photography by Jenny Williams