Zipping into Big Trouble
Story & photos by Michael Buckley

In the Americas the act of ziplining across a canyon sounds more dangerous than it really is. Someone zipping to his room for the night finds that new operations in Southeast Asia might require a bit more trepidation.

Thailand travel

In dense forest in northern Thailand, I find myself nervously staring down from a tiny tree platform about 40 meters up—a perch equivalent to standing on the ledge of a 12-story building. The only way out is to soar off into the canopy, whooping and hollering at the top of my lungs as I hurtle through the treetops, riding a steel cable.

My brain has put me on notice to watch my step. In the back of my brain the word "insurance" starts flashing. Our group has already signed waivers for not holding the operator, Flight of the Gibbon, responsible for any mishaps. I have comprehensive medical insurance, but it is dubious that would cover a fall from a great height from a tree.

Constructed by canopy experts from New Zealand, Flight of the Gibbon is one of the first ziplining operations to set up shop in Asia. It's an aerial obstacle course around 5 km long, with 18 ziplines, three sky bridges—and spectacular staircases and abseils to negotiate. Our group of nine travelers from across the globe has been given a safety briefing by two "sky rangers" who will accompany us. One will be out front, and the other bringing up the rear. We don harnesses and helmets and set off.


Wooden platforms have been built 20 to 40 meters up in tall trees as relay stations for zipliners and to bear the zipline cables, which have been impossibly positioned across the canopy. All of which guarantees three hours of high-wire action, punctuated by primal screams and Tarzan-like hollering of novice zipliners as they launch into the canopy. Or when they rappel down from lofty platforms built high in strangler fig trees. The experience gives you a whole new appreciation for the majesty of trees: you connect with the canopy in ways you never thought possible.

This is the stuff of fantasy—ziplining ventures popping up across Asia have opened up new realms by letting non-scientists access the canopy. This goes a long way to preserving the forest: zipline companies work to protect the rainforest from wildlife poachers, and provide jobs for locals that make logging less attractive.

So far, so good. But there is a dark side.

Death Avoidance, for a Proper Tip

My brain has put me on notice to take extra care and I have determined the reason. It is the sky rangers, two local Thais who (luckily for them) are not named here. The potential for mishaps lies not with the ziplines, which seem to be well-maintained but with the humans.

Our main leader jokes about instant death if we do not follow his instructions, laced with requests for tips at the end of the morning because he has actually saved our lives. At first, I find this hilarious, but as he keeps repeating this ad nauseam, I find the plug for tips beyond annoying. Then we reach the scariest platform take-off of all. Whether or not you can attempt this one depends on the group, our sky ranger tells us—whether they are brave enough. For this take-off, your harness is clipped into the zipline cable from the back, not the front. That means there is no cable-attachment gear visible as you fly through the air. Face down, with arms outstretched, you lunge forward from a lofty platform, rocketing along at speeds over 60 kph. It's about as close as you'll get to feeling like Superman.

But does Superman have insurance for daredevil aerial stunts? Our ranger, apart from frequently asking for tips, executes macho maneuvers by zooming along at weird angles, even upside-down, to impress his charges.


Curious about the accident potential, I later Google the name of the operation. While the feedback is mainly positive, injuries have been reported. One zipliner slipped at a waterfall and broke bones, suffering a concussion. But that was at lunch after the ziplining. More startling was a report by a family from Taiwan. The report is written from a Chiang Mai hospital by the wife of the person injured. She reports that the lead sky ranger raised the zipline to slow the progress of her husband, who almost reached the platform he was aiming for, but because of the raised zipline, went barreling back to the middle. Where another sky ranger, not looking ahead, crashed into the man's back, causing seven broken ribs and two spinal injuries. She said it would take a year to get back to normal after air-lifting to a hospital in Taiwan. They had no specific accident insurance to cover the resulting spell of unemployment, adding insult to injury. And what would have happened if the sky ranger had smashed into a 20-kg child on the zipline instead of a 70-kg adult?

Into the Treetop Wilds of Laos

In Laos, as in a number of third-world nations, you will undoubtedly come across a 10-year-old kid without a helmet flashing by on a scooter, sometimes with two more kids riding pillion. As for the adults, they barrel around with one hand on some impossible load at the back of the motorcycle, or worse, even making a cellphone call at the same time. There is very little insurance for local drivers and motorcyclists. Things are often sorted out on the spot between accident victims—assuming they are still alive.

So there is a kind of devil-may-care attitude toward risk. Taking the zipline concept to new heights in southern Laos is Tree Top Explorer, a multi-day trip organized by Green Discovery, operating from their base in Pakse. This outfit offers two- and three-day trips into Dong Hua Sao National Park. The starting point is the village of Ban Nonluang, an hour's drive from Pakse. The village lies in a region of coffee plantations, but youth here are engaged in more unusual pursuits. They are employed as guides, cooks, porters, laborers, and maintenance workers for the extensive Green Discovery zipline operation.


Getting under way requires a long trek into the park, encountering impressive bamboo thickets: the heat of the day dissipates in the shade of giant trees. Then, rest your legs and let the zipline cables do the transporting—at lightning speeds. Ziplines criss-cross the valleys, giving access to a kind of Laotian lost world. It's a region of dense rainforest, deep ravines, and gorges with cascading waterfalls. Previously, this escarpment was extremely difficult to get into. Ziplining has provided the key to witnessing the outstanding waterfall beauty of this remote region.

Not all goes smoothly. This is the dry season, but I am still slipping and sliding when trails turn muddy deep under the canopy. I cannot imagine coming here in the monsoon season. They tell me the waterfalls have higher volume during monsoon and are thus more majestic. But the trade-off is that trails are super-slippery. Ziplining makes me feel like a bird heading for the next tree-branch far across the canopy. But birds have sophisticated "braking" systems for soft landings in trees. Our braking system is somewhat more primitive: a forked wooden stick is used to grab the cable to slow down through friction.

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