6:00 wake-up call to the cat-calls and howls of a male and female gibbon off in the trees.
The thick mosquito net fort blocked out much of the light from the sunrise so we lay still for a half hour quietly listening to this foreign, wild sound. The whirring of the zip line snapped our attention downward in recognition of our guides bearing tea and coffee and, careful not to hit my head on the attic door, I happily greeted Boon and Poto and the strong cowboy coffee. The whistling grew louder for the next twenty minutes and we strained our eyes to try to see the elusive creatures. Crouched beside the treehouse railings, we munched on apples and peanuts while shuffling the two pairs of binoculars between the group. Any slight movement or rustle in the trees involuntarily jerked our necks in that direction and the cracking of branches and fluttering of leaves got our heart rates up just for a second.
A few moments later, a flash of white appeared in the crook of a tree just to the left of our viewpoint. The little monkey had a big furry white face and the tiny curled tail quintessential to pig-tailed macaques. We watched as he jumped from branch to branch, yawned, scratched himself, and joined his other monkey friend on a further branch. Eventually, he would make his way back to that crook in the tree and stay there while we ate breakfast and drank the coffee dry. It wasn’t a gibbon, but it was something. Something wild.
With time to kill before our hike we all gazed hopefully off the treehouse railing. Another whistle, another chirp. Movement in that tree over there. It was all just teasing us.
There was still a fine layer of mist settled over the tree canopy as we started our hike that morning but that didn’t stop me from cracking a giant smile as I jumped off the platform into the first zip line of the day. Poto and Boon led us through muddy trails as they pointed out dead snakes and insects, and in flight over treetops and for the better part of four hours.
Unclip safety from belt. Clip safety to cable. Unhook runner from belt. Wait for the three tugs from the other side. Fly.
When we returned exhausted, educated, and glowing, the lunch of steaming rice, vegetables, and wild mushrooms was a welcome discovery on our low table. When the sky opened up midway through lunch and let down a flurry of rain, we hardly noticed in between exchanging each of our favourite memories.
I was pulling my harness up around my hips at 2:00 when, in an act of divinity, the rain stopped and the sun shone proudly through the clouds. Our destination for the afternoon hike was the largest treehouse in the area and Poto told us we were taking a “shortcut” to get there. In my experience this usually means that it’s slightly shorter as the crow flies but, with trying to maintain your balance on less-than-ideal terrain, it doesn’t end up being much shorter at all.
I was right.
The real path ended about 50 meters into our hike and we found ourselves inching forward down a muddy slope. As the soles of my runners caked with mud and lost their traction I grabbed at bamboo poles for support that bent under my weight. We continued down our bushwhacked path taking care to avoid stinging nettle at our shins and leeches on our shoes. Behind me I could hear Denise cursing in my ear and her eyes boring holes in the back of Poto’s head.
10 more minutes, I kept telling her. 10 more minutes.
With or without complaints and with no falls, we got to our treehouse destination. I was admiring the view when, just off to my right, Boon pointed to the trees: “Gibbon!” Directly in front of us on a high yellow tree crouched a black male gibbon. He sat on his haunches and extended his long arms this way and that for flowers, leaves and berries. I had just finished asking Boon if there were others when Poto said, “A little one!” and a baby gibbon was seen rustling about on the branch below. We watched in silence as the older gibbon grabbed the baby and joined two others waiting on another tree. Over the course of our stay we followed those four gibbons and found two more snoozing in a tree further up the ridge. It was encouraging to know that we weren’t intruding on their space, that they came to us by chance and they are free to leave if they choose. A few minutes later they took advantage of that and we decided to take advantage of our own freedom in the air.
A junction of zip lines stands in the middle of the forest between all the tree houses. It’s a tiny platform surrounding a tree with two zip lines coming out and two coming back. Poto and Boon clipped on to the safety cable and told us we could play on these for as long as we wanted. It was like when your mom took you to the playground when you were a kid, sat on the bench with a book and told you to have fun.
So we did.
While suspended on the line, the view below your feet is a cavern of green. A dark 300 meter drop to the jungle floor and hundreds of species of trees for miles out to the rest of the country. It’s impossible to describe and even more impossible to try to appreciate within a few seconds. I pulled my body up and flat, legs crossed out in front, and chin in. Straight as an arrow. I felt the wind catch in my shirt and make my eyelids flutter and squint. Then, reaching the end, light taps on the brake for a smooth landing and a sigh with a smile spread wide across my happy face. In those seconds, you are in that rarely visited space between canopy and sky, with nothing above you and pillowy clusters of the natural world all around you. Your chest expands and your shoulders grow broad.
Colleen and I continued on those zip lines for over an hour, even after the other members of our group went back. It was like the view got clearer with every flight and you could see everything with better vision. The sun hitting the trees, the birds and butterflies as your companions, how far away you are from everything else.
We kept going in circles talking excitedly after each round until thirst set in and boredom crept into Boon’s happy face, and we decided to head back for dinner. Our guide and Colleen went ahead and I was left standing with my feet on the edge of a platform on a huge tree in the middle of the jungle. I was completely alone and felt tiny and huge all at once. It was like you could feel the place breathing and I wanted my breath to match up just so. I stood with my toes on the edge and stayed even a few moments after Colleen’s signal. Even with cable burns across my shoulder and the welts of bug bites covering my legs, it felt perfect.
That evening, Poto and Boon joined us with tea, hot chocolate, and Lao Lao–sticky rice whiskey distilled in the bathtub by Boon’s sister. Moonshine. We drank shots of the stuff out of bamboo thimbles while Boon fascinated us with stories from the early construction stages of the Gibbon Experience, his face flushed with whiskey and laughter. I was massaging the smile out of my face when they left late that night and climbed the steep steps to our bedroom in the attic with wobbly legs.
After a few moments of laying on our stomachs watching the fog take over the stars, Colleen and I happily crawled back into our fort and into bed. For the last time, I lay awake for as long as I could handle, straining to hear every note of the jungle symphony and praying that I would remember every moment from today.