We had a super day yesterday zip-lining through tropical rainforests and yet I ended the day feeling a mixture of emotions.
I dealt with it by writing a glowing Trip Advisor review and then sending an email to the owner of the zip lining business detailing my concerns. I also reflected on why I felt unsettled when the ziplines were the best I have ever experienced and we spent the morning 65m up in the rainforest canopy looking out at magnificent vertical faced hills that would not have been out of place in the pages of National Geographic or a glossy travel agent’s brochure.
Here is some history to put my disappointment into context:
Last year we decided not to zip wire while we were in South East Asia because of a few things
- there were four activity packages we could add to our insurance of increasing price and danger. Zipline trekking was in the most expensive package along with activities such as Cave Diving, Off-piste skiing (without a guide) and Solo sky diving). We took this designation to mean that ziplining treks resulted in a high number of claims. (Donald, I’ve also just spotted the relatively gentle activity of Black Water Rafting is in activity pack 4 too!)
- Upon Googling zip lining in Vietnam, we instantly came across headlines about two tourists who had died after an unregistered guide had sent them down a zip line that he wasn’t authorised to access.
That was enough for Donald and me and we decided that we weren’t going to be ziplining during our travels and we chose to pay for package 2 instead of either 3 or 4, the more expensive activity packages. However, as these things work, we succumbed in Jodhpur, India, only 10 days into our adventure and went ziplining! We relented because the website was professional, the safety standards and equipment were Australian and it just looked soooooo cool. We were delighted by our choice and at no point did we have cause to question the safety. At £16 each we thought it quite an expensive treat for India, however it was so good we ended up paying, five days later, to do it all again.
Heading back out on the road again in January Leo and I needed new insurance and this time, I decided to add activity package 4 (including zipline trekking), just in case we discovered a location and company that we could trust again.
Based on reviews from fellow British travellers we had met, with a 10 year old, and the information we perused online we found what looked like an exciting zipline trek. It was a course that was just a few months old and the reports of quality and safety standards was high. We decided to take a break from our volunteering and head 3.5 hours north of Luang Prabang to a village nestled in the Nam Ou River Valley called Nong Khwai.
Before we even found a room for the night, we sought out the office for Ju
ngleFly to book ourselves a spot on their Zipline Trek. (They even recommended us the accommodation we ended up staying in.) I opted for the half-day rather than the full day trek because Laos is technically the cheapest country we have visited, so at £30 per person (and twice the price of our ziplining in India) I decided that we would get everything we needed from the half-day. Plus the fact that the only difference between the half-day and the full day appeared to be lunch and an additional 4-6 obstacle long high ropes assault course – I was actually quite pleased that I wasn’t going to have to traverse any obstacles. We checked that Leo was old/tall enough, he was, and what footwear we would require: Flip flops – no, trekking sandals – yes.
My internal emotional roller coaster started 20-30 minutes after we arrived comfortably on time for our requested 8:30am meet up. We were the first (as we so often are) having ensured we explained to our guesthouse that we needed our breakfast promptly because we had to be at the activity centre at 08:30. We needn’t have been concerned breakfast was cooked quickly and we ate it with time to spare. A family of 5 were the next to arrive, we introduced ourselves and then waited and waited. We were told that we were waiting for another two people and they arrived at 8:50 explaining that they had to get ‘take out’ breakfast because the service had been so slow. They then proceeded to eat their breakfast in the office where we were waiting. As they were finishing they were offered coffee and tea by the activity providers that they accepted and, courteously, drank with a cigarette on the far side of the road. It was now well past 9:00 and I was getting increasingly impatient with the wait, but this is Laos and waiting is quite normal here, so I was doing a good job of convincing myself that there was no problem.
When we finally left the team backed up a pick-up truck out of the drive way and a mini bus pulled up parallel on the other side of the road. The pick-up had four seats, there were three staff members plus a driver and because there was nine tourists I naturally assumed that the mini bus was for us and the team would travel with the climbing equipment in the pick-up. I was wrong. We were told there were four seats inside for us, we paused before jumping inside and we looked at each other doing the maths and trying to work our where everyone else would go. We quickly realized that this was the only vehicle transporting us today and that those not inside would travel on the bed of the pick-up with the staff and the equipment. An 11-year old’s dream and a mother whose anxiety levels just went up a notch. (In hindsight the pick-up was not that much safer than travelling in a tuktuk van, something that we had been using a lot in Laos, but it didn’t feel like that at the time.)
We got out of the pick-up and kitted up, I was pleased we both got helmets that fitted well, that were comfortable and that the harnesses etc was new and from a reputable brand that I had seen in England.
Setting off on the 20-minute trek, that we expected, felt good and the scenery around us and in front of us was magnificent. What I hadn’t expected was that the path was pretty rugged with steep ups and down so my walking boots would have been better on my feet than my trekking sandals.
The zip wires were everything we had hoped for and expected. We were up in the tree canopies flying from tree to tree with long and ‘fast enough’ lines that were both exhilarating and just the right amount of scary at the same time. The safety briefing had been ‘brief’ however with three guides we were assured that there would always be a guide with us to ensure that we had all the correct instruction about breaking etc. before each line.
It did concern me a little that the high quality equipment had been customised with a section of motorcycle tyre to act as a brake, but as this appeared to be an enhancement, albeit tied on with some metal wire, I let my concern subside.
Right from the start, two of the three guides took the opportunity to show off their confidence on the wires by doing tricks and whooping as they ‘flew’ between trees. As I watched one of them connecting their pulley and carabiner to the next zipline I noticed that he didn’t use both carabiner as we had been instructed, but put the second one in a inactive position instead of it being the third line of defence in case there was a problem. I didn’t believe it was unsafe, but it did make me wonder that if this guide is prepared to cut corners regarding his own safety, then what corners would he be prepared to cut with my son’s or my safety. From that point onwards I wouldn’t let Leo go on a zip wire until both I and a guide had checked his equipment. I also mentioned this to the lead guide during our break.
During the morning I also noticed there were times that two of the guides detached both their carabiners while they were still on a platform, therefore not being attached to the structure at all. It wasn’t a high platform, but it was still a platform and there was still a danger of stepping off and hurting yourself.
At the half way point we exited the course, as expected and took a breather on solid ground. Construction of overnight cabins was taking place on this site so there were a handful of workers digging holes and preparing roofing tiles out of lengths of bamboo. I went over to take a look and on my way back to the group managed to lightly snag the top of my foot on a low branch, causing me to break the skin. So now I had a small but open wound in a rainforest a few hours away from an antiseptic wipe, a minor concern knowing I had witch hazel gel and antiseptic cream back in our room. However it wouldn’t have happened if I had had my walking boots on. After this injury did happen, I became more aware of the biting insect and bugs that landed on me throughout the morning especially as, about this time, I noticed something had already bitten me near my armpit and the area was starting to swell slightly, as all bites tend to do on me.
When we returned to the zipwires we joined back at the point we left. That wasn’t right, we had been told that, on the half-day course we would walk from this point to the other side of the high ropes obstacles where we would join up with the zip wires again. After all I had specifically chosen not to do the obstacles and therefore had no idea how challenging they would be. We also couldn’t see the course because of the trees. Usually I don’t mind the odd obstacles particularly when accompanying my offspring has been the only way that they could access such a course in the UK, however I have learnt that I really don’t like climbing walls or cargo nets of either the vertical or horizontal variety.
With a gulp it quickly dawned on me that we were doing the whole course. Looking round everyone else appeared up for it and I knew Leo had really wanted to do the full course, so I said nothing and took my turn to tackle the obstacles.
Luckily most of the obstacles were easily traversed however one of the obstacles rubbed against the wound on my foot, a cargo net, which annoyed me because, again, this wouldn’t have happened if I’d had my walking boots on.
There was one obstacle that, in retrospect, I’d classify as dangerous although my adrenaline was pumping at the time and Leo was already safe at the bottom before I got to have a good look at the obstacle myself. In the moment I was preoccupied with getting down it safely and swiftly myself. The obstacle was a simple wooden and wire ladder with chunky square planks as rungs. We were required to walk down two rungs unclasp a carabiner from the wire of the ladder, reattach it two rungs below, then repeat with the other carabiner before moving down another two rungs and repeating all over again. We were not given any instruction about how to traverse this ladder, or indeed any of the obstacles, no one was supervising this obstacle directly and, because of the angle of the ladder and platforms, there was no easy way to do so. One of the other group members had a fear of heights and really struggled with this obstacle, I hate to think what would have happened if she hadn’t kept her cool and had unattached both her carabiners at the same time by mistake. (In England this sort of obstacle would have had a vertical cable alongside the ladder which your carabiners would have been attached to all the way down and so your only concern would have been climbing down and ensuring that your carabiners moved over the ‘knots’ in the cable, designed to ensure you can only fall a short distance instead of the whole length of the ladder.)
I didn’t like the fact that at least one of the guides deliberately rocked the cables of a couple of the obstacles, first for his colleague and then, when the teenage boys copied this behaviour, for our children. These actions did cause Leo to loose his footing at one point. When you are up in the air moving quickly from one obstacle to another, your son wants to be the first to tackle every obstacle and who goes next becomes randomly determined by who is standing closest to the exit point so I am sometimes several people behind Leo, complaining or making a fuss in the air was not my highest concern. I guess I was in survival mode, protecting the safety of myself and my son while all the time trying my best to stay in the moment and enjoy the experience.
Phew! Before I wrote this all down I hadn’t realised quite how many things on the day had troubled me. NOW I understand why this activity unsettled me. While traveling, particularly with children, you constantly have a radar set scanning for unexpected dangers, scams, theft and anything that could be injurious to your health, belongings or finances. When partaking in an activity that is, by its very nature, of a higher risk than every day occurrences, your radar works overtime and when it sees causes of concern your brain is working hard to mitigate and prevent any harm occurring as a result. It is exhausting!
I’ve come to the conclusion that the disappointing feelings I felt were based on expectations both not being met and being exceeded and also based on a healthy dose of caution and fear. On an activity like this you need to be able to trust the equipment and your guides 100% after all you are flinging yourself off a 65 metre platform and flying up to 400m in the air at high speeds.
It was a remarkably similar feeling to when Leo and I had gone tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos in October (see blog post here). This time however I had the opportunity to have a civil conversation with the owner. I chose not to do this face to face because I didn’t understand what I needed to say when we arrived back at the office. That evening I did detail my concerns in an email, which received a positive response within a few hours, and the owner thanked me for taking the time to write.
I can now see why Zipline trekking appears in the most dangerous category by my travel insurer. Even with new high quality equipment you are still flinging yourself off very high platforms in the middle of a rainforest in a country that has safety standards significantly lower that are required by law in the United Kingdom – don’t get me started on the lack of functioning seat belts across the region!