Valley of a thousand thrills

2011-11-05 00:00

I HAVE very few hang-ups, but I do have a fear of heights.

Karkloof Canopy Tours is one of the premier tourism destinations in the Midlands, but to be honest, when I was offered a chance of swinging like Tarzan I was a little um … petrified. I agreed to go along to compare it to my bungee-jumping experience (never to be repeated) and conquer my fear of heights.

Tarzan can swing from tree to tree, and those leopard skin undies … I say no more. I just had to try out for the part of Jane.

I had only heard glowing accounts of this famous canopy tour. For those looking for a different way to experience nature, it is a way of seeing things from a new perspective.

At the beginning our group was given a safety lecture and we were assured that no one had ever ended up on the bottom of the forest floor, left there to be devoured by scavengers.

The harnesses that attach to the overhead steel cables are not designed to make a fashion statement; instead they can hold up to 10 tons if necessary. I felt relieved. Kitted out with harnesses, leather gloves and a hard hat we set off on our adventure.

A group of women from Durban had come along to celebrate their friend’s birthday. I was not convinced that it was the kind of birthday gift I would enjoy. But I set my misgivings aside. They looked like they were tough girls out for a jol.

Ernest Zondi told us that it was a short walk to the first platform and then we would be setting off on our new adventure. The first platform is called “The Rabbit Hole”. It is named after the place in the story about Alice in Wonderland where she falls in and discovers a whole new world.

We were all attached to the platform with our harnesses and resembled odd characters all around a maypole. It turned out the birthday group were all cyclists, fit and fun-loving.

My bravado vanished at the first platform and I watched quietly as Zondi gave us the safety briefing again. This zipline is the shortest and a chance to get the hang of things. We all went one by one over the edge and while one should not compare it to bungee jumping it does have some similarities.

The ride is fast, the adrenaline pumps and you have to have your wits about you. The second platform is aptly named the “Last Chance” platform. Here you can decide to ride in tandem with a safety guide or you can opt out altogether.

My knees were knocking and I was obviously quite pale. I did not refuse when Whitehead Magwaza offered to ride tandem with me. Whew! The pros of riding tandem is that you do not have to worry about the technical aspects of the slide; the cons are that these safety guides call themselves the taxi drivers.

They love to whizz across the suspended cables like taxi drivers with their foot to the floor. This is no gentle scenic ride, it’s a rollercoaster rush. Feeling the platform beneath my feet was always a relief.

Not quite terra firma — but almost.

From the platforms you can see the most amazing scenery. Farmland stretched into the distance where cows grazed peacefully, while below us lay the dense emerald of indigenous forest.

Each platform has its own character and unusual view, the most refreshing one being next to a rushing waterfall where you can drink fresh water from a mountain stream.

You can hear the different bird calls and you can also hear the noises of the samango monkeys in the canopy below. The forest is the best place to spot Emerald Cuckoos, Knysna Loeries, and possibly the rare Narina Trogon.

Kai Schulz, the new manager of Karkloof Canopy Tours, said he plans to open tours that are primarily focused on birding. The safety guides are trained on the wildlife in the area and can point out areas of interest from the platforms.

The ziplines range in length from 40 to 180 metres. The longest is known as the “N3” and it feels like a spin from Pietermaritzburg to Howick. While the sensation is one of cool air rushing past and green below, one can only really absorb the details of the scenery from the platforms.

It is estimated that 80 000 tourists have experienced the tour in the past 10 years. The oldest person to have gone on the canopy tour was 89 and the youngest was four.

Children can go on the tour, but it depends on how they handle heights and the experience of being suspended. They may prefer to go tandem with an adult.

Schulz says they are renovating the facilities and putting more emphasis on the eco-value of the destination.

He said: “We would like to build relationships with existing con- servation­ projects in the area. The Cape Parrot project as well as some existing butterfly breeding programmes are already on the cards. We may add some new slides and introduce some early morning birding tours.”

As we walked back to base camp through the lush indigenous forest, I felt better looking up at the trees than down on them. I’ll never be a contender for the title of Tarzan’s Jane. But the posse of women cyclists could fit the bill. They seemed quite good at swinging! They were in great shape and had lots of fun. All in all it is a stunning experience for those who can handle it.

•For more information, phone 033 330 3415 or email info@karkloofcanopytour.co.za

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