We turned off the N2 onto the road leading down to the very quaint Storms River Village (which is not to be confused with the preceding turn-off to Storms River Mouth). This entire area is part of the Tsitsikamma National Park.
We followed the signs to the wooden building where we had to pay and register for our adventure at the Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours.
Then we met the other people in our group. Besides the two of us, there was a friendly young couple from Canada who’d been travelling all over South Africa and were flying back home three days later. And the others were a 5-member strong family of Xhosas: a corpulent father with a big friendly smile; an older teenage son who must have been the big brother of the group as he acted quite tough; his somewhat younger sister Sally, who was the pudgiest, loudest and definitely the most entertaining of the group; another young teenage daughter who was quite shy and nervous but who clearly adored her big sister; and a young boy who was probably around 12 or so.
When we signed the indemnity forms and neatly wrote down our names on a sheet of paper, as we would get a certificate afterwards, Sally turned to her father and said, with a big theatrical sigh, “Tell Mom I loved her.”
We met our two guides – easy-going Marius and the gum-chewing laid-back Mella – who strapped us into harnesses that went around the tops of the thighs, around the waist and over the shoulders. In addition, we were each given a helmet, a pair of gloves (the right glove was actually two gloves inside each other as this would be used for braking – to brake, we had to pull down on the wire with an open hand), and another strap with carabiners and an odd metallic lock or pulley that would be used to hook us up to the wire itself.
When everyone was ready (about 12h00), all of us climbed onto the back of a truck and drove into the forest, where we walked onto the first platform overlooking a densely wooded valley. For the first bit we had another guide with us who recorded the DVD – for R125 you could buy an edited and neatly packaged DVD of your tree-top adventure. I thought this was rather clever, as it was quite difficult to take photos en route – as you had to remove your thick gloves to handle the camera controls, you could only use the camera on the platform.
All in all, I think there were 10 stations. Each platform, which was about 10-20 metres above the forest floor (the highest was about 30 metres!), consisted of wooden planks that encircled a big, strong, sturdy tree. Underneath, there were wooden cross-struts holding the platform in place, and dotted at intervals all around each platform were metal pipes with a security rope acting as a further barrier. To ensure our safety on the platform, we were hooked up to the tree with two short ropes. And there were always two cables running between the trees – with the second one for additional safety.
Personally, I thought that the method of construction was a miracle of engineering, as the designers had gone to a lot of trouble to cause no harm to the tree. So there weren’t any bolts going into the tree – instead, the thick steel ropes that encircled the tree and along which we ‘flew’ to the next tree, were held in place by u-shaped blocks of wood, with some form of thick rubber padding acting as an additional buffer between the wood and the tree.
The first two were ‘easy’ ones to get us used to the sensation of flying through the air suspended by ropes from a wire that ran between the trees. Mella stressed that we should make sure our right (braking) hand was always behind the pulley when we were sliding. In case this slipped our minds, a sign on each tree reminded us too. This is a view of the tree tops…
First across would be Marius with his bag of water bottles. He would set up the brake-line if there was one. He’d be followed by the DVD-man, who effortlessly swung from side to side like a little monkey, filming backwards. He looked completely at ease up among the trees, but I guess he’s done this for years. Then the Xhosa family would zoot across one by one, to be caught by Marius, who would unclip them from the line and hook them up to the tree. I was next after the father, with Richard right behind me, and then the Canadian couple. And finally Mella would hook herself up to the line and whiz down to us with a huge smile on her face.
After the first two, there was a longish one, where we were told firmly,
“If you want lunch, you have to scream!” So we all dutifully screamed as loudly as we could – and it wasn’t hard!
Between two trees that were too close together to have a proper slide, a short plank bridge had been suspended. There were supporting wires running along the top, and additional supporting ropes on either side covered with a protective green canvas creating a side-screen of sorts. It was fun to walk across this and felt completely safe, even though it was a bit bouncy underfoot.
One of the trees they used was a 600 year old Yellowwood tree. Pretty awesome! We looked up the stem all the way to the top of the tree, which lost itself in the distance.
Mella explained that the funny stuff hanging down between some of the branches was actually a type of lichen, called Old Man’s Beard, and that this was a sign that the air here was very pure and clean, as the lichen did not grow where the air was dirty.
“So inhale deeply and give a good scream when you go down the next one – this is the cleanest air you’ll ever breathe!”
On one of the slides, we were told it was a SLOW slide and that we were NOT allowed to brake, otherwise we would not make it across. ‘Stru’s Bob, the oldest boy had almost reached the other side, when he braked too hard and came rolling back halfway. Mella giggled, and said that the young boy would have to be sent over to give him a push! We held our breath, and the youngster looked up at her with shocked eyes.
Fortunately, his brother did the only thing he could in the circumstances – he turned carefully 90° around, and started to pull himself backwards, hand-over-hand, towards the far platform. After that, we all made sure that we only braked right at the last minute, preferring a collision with our shins against the platform to the humiliation of getting stuck halfway.
Then there were three slides, which became progressively longer and faster – the longest one was over 90 metres and it happened to be the fastest one too. Although I tried not to brake too much, it was really hard not to freak out as the trees went whizzing past and the branches seemed to reach out at my feet. By the time I reached the platform, my hand was hot despite the double glove – which had a few more black ‘skidmarks’ on it!
At some stage we noticed that there were blue bins suspended underneath each platform. When we asked what these were for, Mella told us with a completely straight face that they were toilets. She said if someone needed to go, they would lift up one of the planks, open the top of the blue bin, and if we aimed right, we would win a prize. We didn’t know whether to believe her or not.
It was only when we were walking back to the truck with our gear clunking and clanketing, that she admitted that the bins in fact contained abseiling equipment so that they could quickly get someone down to the ground if there was an emergency, or if someone panicked and couldn’t continue.
The last two slides were fairly short and slow, and took us down to a lower level platform on a slope. From here, we walked about 600 metres up a gentle slope until we reached a clearing at the edge of the forest, where the truck was waiting for us.
Back at the Information Centre, we sat down in a kind of ‘cafeteria’, where we were given the lunch we had ordered before our departure. And boy, were we hungry!
Over a good solid masculine beef burger (for hubby) and a more dainty cheese and tomato roll with salad (for moi), we planned our next adventure: meeting the elephants at the Elephant Sanctuary near Plettenberg Bay.