To one side, the rainforest stretches away in folds of blue-green to the horizon. On the other, a 120m waterfall crashes down a vertical rock face, so close I can feel the spray on my face. And below? Just empty space and rushing air, between me and a canopy of the lush trees. This feels about the closest a human being can get to flying – and is certainly the closest you can get to the heart of the pristine jungle of Laos.
Zip-lines, it turns out, are an excellent way to experience this environment. I’m taking part in ‘Tree Top Explorer’, a two-day tour in the Champasak province of southern Laos, and something of a pioneer of conservation ecotourism within this still lesser-visited South East Asian country. For not only do zip-lines allow you to swing, monkey-like, through the trees, but such tourism actually helps protect the rainforest and its wildlife, previously at risk from illegal hunting and logging.
“We can be the eyes,” says Inthy Deuansavan, the Lao founder of adventure tour operator Green Discovery. “We explain [to local villagers] that tourists are coming here to see nature, so they have to protect it.” Tourism provides alternative revenue for locals – as well as incentivising them to report others who might fell trees or hunt wildlife, damaging this beautiful natural environment.
The jungle journey begins at the village of Ban Nongluang, where the tour group meets local guides, and heads into the Dong Hua Sao National Park. This region has its own tropical climate, with a longer rainy season than the rest of Laos, making it particularly lush. And soon, the evergreen rainforest plunges down alongside two stunning waterfalls, named ‘tiger falls’ and ‘monkey falls’ (although your chances of encountering the former namesake are, thankfully perhaps, slim).
Normally, such steep descents would rule out an area for tourist visits – but here, zip-lines provide a new way to get around, criss-crossing the valleys. Up to a knuckle-whitening 400m long, the cables are stretched between landing platforms around reassuringly large tree-trunks. Such apparatus is cunningly concealed amid the foliage; the landscape remains looking wonderfully wild rather than theme-park like. Even the treehouses we spend the night in, at the base of Monkey Falls, are all-wood, Swiss Family Robinson affairs.
I confess to be being pretty trepidatious at the first zip-line, stepping out into air and foliage… And I’m hardly elegant – twisting and bobbing and squeaking in my harness. Yet mid-flight, you don’t give a damn if you resemble one of Boris Johnson’s dafter stunts, for the experience is just breathtaking: quite literally, on the first few adrenaline-pumping, heart-thumping goes. But even as I learn to relax into the metallic rush and sway – we do 20 zip-lines on the first day – the vistas that open up each time I leap into the abyss never cease to make me gasp.
For you don’t so much admire the view, as plunge right into it. This is a 360° panorama of a vast spread of unspoilt rainforest; a bird’s eye view on the canopy below, trimmed with lacy cascades or bisected with rust-red river beds. And the forest we trek through or zipline into fulfils all my Fern Gully-based childhood dreams: rustling giant bamboo and splayed starbursts of banana trees, giant folded tree roots and corkscrew-curled vines as thick as my arm. The moss seems to glow green, while Saturn-like red rings of fungus stand out from tree trunks.
Tree Top Explorer is a way to see the jungle and its wildlife (if you’re lucky), without harming either. Visitors often spy gibbons drinking around the top of the waterfalls in the early morning, while the area is also home to deer, wild pigs, tigers and bears. But both the flora and fauna are at risk, in a country where hunting and logging aren’t as regulated as conservationists would like.
“There is regulation, but there’s no enforcement,” explains Deuansavan. With little funding, responsibility for protecting such areas is a buck that gets passed between the National Parks and the central government. Lack of investment means there isn’t really the man-power for preventing illegal poaching and tree-chopping, or even for monitoring it.
“Hunting would be OK just for the villagers, but there’s a big demand at the market for wildlife,” explains Deuansavan. Bears and tigers are sold for Chinese medicine, while there’s a hugely profitable, illegal trade in rosewood, and another local hardwood called khaen.
Eco-tourism provides both an alternative way to watch out for such illegal practices – and an alternative revenue stream for locals. Put simply, in the long-term tourists are more valuable than chopped trees or dead animals. Getting the nearby villagers onside seems to be working: there is still some destruction of the forest, says Deuansavan, but it is “getting much less – [people] know we’re keeping an eye on it.” Green Discovery also now employ 100 locals in running the tours, and Ban Nongluang village gets a cut of every tour member’s fee. “In exchange, they have to make sure there’s no hunting or cutting, to protect and report it.”
Tree Top Explorer tours began in 2011 – but it took two years to set up. To string each wire across the valleys demanded a descent and climb taking three days, with the longest 400m cable requiring 14 men to carry it.
It was worth it. Deuansavan had been running adventure tours in Laos for a decade, but when he found these beautiful valleys, he knew that zip-lining would be a wild way to experience a wild place. “Adventure is my life,” he says with a deceptively mild smile, as we sip coffee on my second morning, watching the morning sun turn the waterfall rose-gold.
An hour later, I find I’m leaping off the first zip-line of the day with a new-found spirit of adventure, all of my own. Natural beauty and an addictive adrenaline rush? That’s the jungle experience zipped up, then.
Tree Top Explorer costs from $240; greendiscoverylaos.com