(with apologies to The Goodies...)
It's about 6.30am and the mist is starting to lift as dawn breaks over the jungle. Lots of birds are singing, but there's no sign of gibbons.
Yesterday our group of 11 met at the Gibbon Experience headquarters in Huay Xai at 8am. I had just finished a delicious banana pancake and fresh fruit for breakfast and was given a few packing tips from a girl who had just returned from doing the waterfall version of the trip (I'm doing the classic, but tips about leeches are always welcome).
There's four Russians, of whom two are called Natalia and Alexi (I didn't get the others' names), an English guy living in Singapore called Martin, his Taiwanese girlfriend Lan and their American mate, Art, who lives in Germany. Then there's Guy, Laura and 10-year-old Giles.
After an introductory video in English, we piled into a couple of songathews and drove south for an hour or so and then stopped for morning tea at the village of Ban Don Chai where I had to leave my backpack. Then we suddenly headed off the main road, crossing a small stream with some toddlers playing in the shallows, and up a muddy, rugged one-vehicle track, picking up people going in the same direction along the way, who sat in the open back.
After some seriously good 4x4 driving, we left the vehicles at a village of about 50 or so huts (families often have two or three huts - a sleeping area, kitchen, and toilet - so at a guess, about 60-70 people live in the village) that included a three classroom school, and started the trek into the jungle. My lack of fitness hampered my enjoyment of the two-hour trek that was predominately uphill, but we made it to our treehouse after three zips by about 3pm. Unfortunately I lost my pedometer at the lunch stop (I was right about backpacks and the pedometer not mxing well on my hip), but I well and truly did my 10,000 steps.
The first zip was the longest for the first day, and quite an experience. Once you trust the equipment it's quite an exhillarating experience, a little similar to hang gliding. I didn't give much thought to the fact that we were so far up in the air - up to 150m at some points. The view of the jungle was spectacular, and surprisingly I didn't give myself time to get nervous. The harness was a strap around my waist and each leg, which according to the explanatory video I had to "step into like a diaper". It's got two anchor points - a safety carabina and the zip line connector.
There's a maximum of eight people per treehouse, so the group was split into two, with the Russians going to treehouse number three, and the remaining seven to treehouse number one.
I was the first to arrive at our treehouse called Makhai, and the guides told me to be quiet because they had spotted a gibbon. I could see something black and hairy in the distance, but it was hard to make it out. Considering the trip definitely doesn't suggest you'll see any gibbons (it's more about living like a gibbon rather than seeing them), it was quite a nice surprise.
After some fresh fruit and sweets wrapped in banana leaf made from sticky rice and sugar, we took some time to explore our three-storey treehouse that has only been finished for three months. The treehouse reminds me of the Swiss Family Robinson movie, with mod cons such as solar electricity and running drinking water in the kitchen, a fully operational bathroom with cold shower, a big communal dining table and sleeping areas on all three levels. During the day the mattresses are piled up, and at night we make up our beds with the sheets and doonas provided and sleep under big mosquito nets.
The treehouse has balaconies rather than walls, but as the weather is so temperate, it's perfect - and the views of the jungle canopy are spectacular, with large mountains in the distance and varying shades of green in all directions. Of note, this is the second version of treehouse number one, after the original burnt down when someone forgot to blow out the candles before going to bed. Everyone escaped, and needless to say, there's now solar electricity rather than candles. Of the other treehouses we visited during my stay, ours was by far the largest and most modern, although the others had their unique features, including a wine glass holder in treehouse seven.
Our dinner arrived a bit before 4pm, but we didn't realise it was all sitting there waiting for us - I thought our guides would be back because they said dinner was at 5.30pm. Instead, when they arrived about 6 or so, they were surprised to see that we hadn't eaten yet. So we quickly dug into the now cold rice, vegetable and meat dishes that had been siting on the table in various containers cooling for the last few hours. We were also given a bottle of Laotian Malacca wine. According to the label (in its own spelling), the benefits of Malacca wine are:
1. Extand your life
2. Smoothen your throat
3. Releve stomach aches and activate your heart
4. Improve blood circulation ease intestinal transit
5. Strenthen your bones with calcium
Luckily we were eating in the dark with just basic environmental lighting, so we couldn't see the cloudy amber colour of the wine that we thought was red. It tasted a bit like burnt honey without the sweatness, but it made a change from the water and hot Lao tea.