A tree-top canopy tour in the Tsitsikamma forests takes the concept of ‘up with the birds’ to new heights. Cathy Lanz clipped on for the ride.
“Brake, brake, brake!” Guide Ricky Jantjies’s urgent instruction reverberated through the otherwise-silent canopy temple.
At the end of a steel lifeline, a circular platform loomed into view. Powered by gravity and suspended from a pulley wheel, I was hurtling towards it.
“Just apply pressure. Don’t grab the cable or you’ll dislocate your shoulder.” Ricky’s pre-takeoff briefing hammered its way into my vertigo-numbed thoughts. I applied downward pressure with my right hand. Despite the leather protection of stout work gloves, my hand warmed, but my trajectory slowed. Almost elegantly I glided in feet first to where advance guide Robin Plaatjies was waiting.
At the ground-level, take-off platform, trussed up in climber’s harnesses with an array of silverware jangling round my waist, I’d felt invincible. Now my grin was a bit quaky. There’s nothing like a 20-metre drop to dampen bravado.
And that was just the nursery slide. In front another cable looped off higher, further, steeper. It was the same procedure at each platform: Ricky would clip our karabiners to the safety line, attach our harness to the pulley wheel. Then bend your knees, let the harness take your weight and wheeee, you’d be feet up and sliding towards the next hardwood.
And so it went, from platform to platform, hard pear (Olinia ventosa) to Outeniqua yellowwood (Podocarpus falcatus) – sliding ever deeper into bird land. Progress was a delicate balance between safety and sufficient momentum. Brake too hard and you’d come up short. Then you’d have to swing round in the harness and pull yourself hand over hand to the platform.
With each successful slide my adrenaline levels subsided, until I was confident enough to look about me and even down. From the leaf-strewn floor 30 metres below, the forest rose up all around: damp, fecund, gorgeous.
From platform three we spotted a forest buzzard’s nest; at platform five the red flash of a Knysna lourie. The raucous fishwifery of hadedas intermittently drowned out the delicate melodies of orioles and ‘skree’ of woodpeckers. Somewhere out there narina trogons were hiding their scarlet plumage under some canopy-top bushel.
If it wasn’t so scary, it would be a surreal feeling to glide through the canopy of a pristine hardwood forest. The concept of the Tsitsikamma Treetop Canopy Tour originated in Costa Rica where National Geographic researchers built a similar system of platforms and slides to study and photograph the rain-forest realm and its creatures.
South African engineer Mark Brown was involved in designing the tree-friendly Costa Rica project. He brought his know-how back to South Africa and looked around for a place and a partner for a similar activity. Stormsriver Adventures on the Garden Route had the enthusiasm. The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry had the trees and a willing workforce through their Participatory Forest Management Programme.
It took eight months to construct the system, which covers more than a kilometre of forest, and uses a non-invasive method of rubber blocks to protect the tress involved. “Climbing the trees was the hardest part,” said Robin who was involved in the project from construction phase. I’ll bet. It’s a lot easier to arrive by high wire.
After two hours of imitating monkeys, I was back on terra firma – with slightly wobbly legs and a whole lot more respect for Tarzan.
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