What the Heck is the Gibbon Experience?
Ok, I know what most of you are thinking…what could Shannon possibly mean by the title of this post? Surely her RTW travel adventure didn’t take her on a zip-lining adventure through the upper canopy of trees in the Laos jungle?
Well, let me assure you that I did all of that and more!
I have now lived out nearly every American boy’s (and girl’s though this seems a bit more up the boy-alley) childhood fantasy…I lived in a tree-house Swiss Family Robinson style and then clipped myself onto a zip-line, dangled in a harness from my waist and launched into the crisp open air.
I soared more than 100 meters from the ground over and through the top of the forest canopy in the Borkeo Nature Reserve in Northern Laos.
The Gibbon Experience is an eco-friendly company that was founded specifically to address the fact that the Borkeo National Forest was under threat from loggers and poachers. Gibbon developed a business that allows the poor Laos villages that were poaching the endangered animals in the jungle to instead make a profitable living year after year (whereas as logging is only profitable once) by allowing foreigners to pay money to live in tree-houses and use an extensive zip-lining network.
The entire business is designed to not only save the forest and the animals, but to also give the Laotians much needed jobs and revenue up in this poorer Northern Province. Gibbon is still in the development phase of the company; although there are six tree-houses spread throughout the outer edges of the Reserve, there is still more to be built before the Westerns that have set up the program eventually turn it completely over to be completely run by Laotians.
Part One: Getting to the Tree Houses & Learning How to Zip Line
Well, with all of that in mind I felt pretty darn good about myself as I forked out a hefty sum to secure my place on a three day zip-lining trip into the Laos jungle. Laura and I were both extremely psyched about the trip after everything that we had heard about the experience from other travelers along the way.
I heard a couple of horror stories from some people who did all of the hiking into the Reserve during the rainy season – but seeing as it’s February, I was in the clear and didn’t have to worry about the leeches and muddy hiking.
To get to Gibbon we had make our way back to the Thai/Laos border to check in at the head office in Hui Xi – from Luang Prabang that meant cruising up the Mekong River on a two day slow boat (this coincides with my horrible illness that thankfully ended the evening before Gibbon). One quick sidebar and a definite lesson learned – I will always travel with a stash of safety money – it saved my life (or at least it saved the day…).
Laura and I actually made it halfway up the river and found ourselves virtually stranded in the Podunk town of Pac Beng – no ATM and no sympathy from the locals. We had a check-in deadline with Gibbon that evening and we had to get there by 5pm. Since we hadn’t booked a ticket all the way through to the border initially, we totally got hosed. Without enough kip to buy a ticket for two of us, I dug into every cash reserve I had in every pocket of my bag. In the end, I managed to pay our fare in Thai baht, Laos kip, and a nice Jackson to seal the deal (US dollars in case you didn’t catch that ;).
All of that haggling though and stress was worth it because we made it to check-in and spent the evening scouring the town for a couple of the essentials that were recommended: flashlights (someone relieved me of my headlamp in Australia), gloves, and chocolate bars (ok, I added the last one…but it was an essential…and much to my utter delight I actually managed to locate a Snickers bar…I bought three in all of my excitement!).
The next morning dawned bright and early and we headed over to the office, stored our packs in their storage room, and watched a quick safety video before making the 2.5 hour drive to the edge of the Reserve. A small village at the edge of the Reserve houses all of the guides and their families – the van dropped us off and from that point we hiked for a bit over an hour into the edges of the jungle…and then straight up to reach the upper canopy.
I will make this disclaimer right off the bat, Gibbon is not for the out of shape – I was sick the preceding week, I nearly passed out from all of the hiking and the extreme heat. But just when I thought I was going to have to give up, we came to a little hut perched in the middle of a clearing.
The guides brought out a the harnesses and the 13 of us in the group strapped ourselves in – our harnesses are the same type that rock climbers wear so I knew the drill after the climbing fun in Vang Vieng. From that point it was just a quick hike (straight uphill again) before we were greeted by the first zip-line.
I was straight-out terrified the first time I clipped myself onto the line and then launched off the edge into the air – all you’re thinking about is whether or not the clip is going to hold you…will the line break…will my harness falter…how do I use the break on this thing…holy crap I’m about to run into that treeeeeeee – ***thump!!!***
I totally ran into the tree the first time – but that massive bruise was all it took before I learned precisely how and when to apply the rubber break. We all zipped into tree house one and the six of us living in tree house one for the night said goodbye to the others – they zipped out of the house to continue on to their own tree houses.
We immediately dropped our bags and then once again attached ourselves to the line and launched into the air to then soar over the canopy of trees – no other experience in the world will quite match that first time I felt the cool wind rushing through my hair, a bit of misty dew still in the air in the early mornings and the vista of trees and forest for as far as the eye can see.