Cruising the canopy



flight of the gibbons in Thailand

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WHOOSH. There's a sudden rush of air. A small Thai man has forcibly flung me off a wooden platform. I'm more than 30 metres up in the lush rainforest canopy and I can't even see the ground.

Frozen with fear, I see my life flash before my eyes... and this all despite the fact I am securely attached by a harness to a 100-metre-long steel cable strung between platforms in the treetops.

Having dragged myself out of bed at 5:00 AM to make it on time to the tour operator's pick up point near Bangkok's bustling and grimy Khao San Road, I was still feeling decidedly groggy - but not anymore, the adrenalin has kicked in. I'm trying not to look down and am gripping the hand rest so tightly that my knuckles have gone white. It's a lot to take in before 10 AM.

A 90-minute drive east of Thailand's capital, I'm now near Chonburi at the 74,000-acre Chompoo Wildlife Sanctuary, which is home to a unique experience for visitors. The Flight of the Gibbon zip-line tour, run by Far Out Adventure Ecotours, allows you to explore more than three kilometres of tropical rainforest canopy via a network of 26 wooden platforms, treehouses, rope bridges and cables (one of which is a terrifyingly impressive 300 metres across).

With one hand gripping the hand rest above the cable and the other dangling to my side, I really do get to feel like a gibbon swinging through the treetops. Once you start to relax and become a bit more adventurous you can even ride the cable hands-free. Though, the experience is exhilarating, safety is a priority and each group of nine visitors is carefully led by two experienced guides.

The whole tour takes around three hours to complete (eight hours including lunch and the round trip to Bangkok) and is a remarkable experience that allows you to get deep into the canopy - all green vines, hooting birds and monkeys, marauding ants, and buzzing insects - in a way that few people other than conservationists and researchers ever normally get to experience.

The Chonburi site hosts giant squirrels, barking deer, macaques and storks (which I spot on the lake over lunch a few hours later) as well as gibbons, wild boar, bears and hornbills.

'Flying foxes', as these kind of ziplines are also known, have some history in Australia's outback as a way to transport goods and people across gullies and other obstacles - and in at least one remote spot in China, they are still the main form of transport across a river and are regularly used to move livestock . Zipline canopy tours are said to have begun in the dense jungles of Costa Rica and are becoming increasingly popular, with similar experiences offered as far afield as Hawaii and Jamaica.

"People from all over the world are realising the importance of the rainforests and are eager to see these complex organisms up close and personal," says Nick Shahin, general manager of Flight of the Gibbon.

Shahin tells me that the original founders of the ecotours – New Zealander and Austrian nature lovers who prefer to remain anonymous - started the project with conservation and raising awareness about the plight of Thailand's gibbons as key objectives.

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