Cape Town - One hour’s drive outside of Cape Town, in a Cape Nature reserve in the Elgin Valley, thanks to the Cape Canopy Tours you can set your inner monkey free.
I’d signed up for the zip lining experience without any thought that there might be an element of fear involved. After all, I’d previously experienced the Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour in Knysna and had pleasant, adrenaline free memories of traversing through treetops, swinging like a monkey from one platform to another, along a steel cable suspended no more than 30 meters above the ground, glimpsing Knysna Loeries and Vervet monkey through the indigenous forest.
At first, everything at the Cape Canopy Tour was reassuringly familiar: After a briefing session in a small and uninspiring room with bad decor we were decked out in a full body harness with pulleys and climbing equipment attached. Wearing hair nets under hard caps we looked ridiculous, as though undecided as to whether we worked in a bakery, or on a building site.
We were told to empty our bladders as for the next 4.5 hours we would be on the “can-no-pee tour.” Next we were invited to participate in “An African Massage” - a joint jiggling, bone rattling 30 minute 4X 4 drive into the Riviersonderend gorge. The guides were relentless with their quips: “We do shark cave driving” they joked as we passed a shark shaped rock formation.
Outside a landscape of fynbos covered mountain slopes opened up like a clenched hand unfurling to reveal secrets.
After a brief trek we stood, perched like eagles, on a platform built on a cliff face looking across a breathtaking and very high gorge. Stretched across the chasm was a thin wire that we were expected to slide across.
Faced with the magnitude of what lay before us, one couple in the group started hugging and kissing, proving that there is no greater aphrodisiac than adrenaline. Our group included a party of three English girls who were hungover from a wedding the previous day. They started off pale but standing on that platform they turned a whiter shade of pale, with a definite green tinge to their pallour.
“I shouldn’t have had that fifth glass of champagne,” one said. One by one, yell by yell, my companions slid into the void.
For myself, I stood rooted to the spot. All too soon it was my turn.
The couple behind me, locked in a deep smooch, blocked my exit.
Maybe I can just give this one a skip and wait until I feel a little - er - more confident, I suggested to the guide.
But this is the easy one, the guide replied, gesturing across a landscape that was zig zagged with ziplines, like some kind of crazy, steroid pumped spider had been unleashed on a web spinning frenzy.
Faced with an obstacle some go around it, some dig in and some, like myself, almost cry.
I’m not proud of my behaviour on that platform.
Let’s just say, eventually, assisted by a swift and almost imperceptible kick at my feet, I finally let go.
I did not go gracefully, nor did I go quietly.
Nor did I admire the view. I kept my eyes clenched for the duration of the slide.
When it comes to zip lining the vertiginous among us need to ignore the usually helpful advice to look before you leap: jumping off a platform with your eyes wide open goes against every instinct.
On the other side, I was greeted by a warm welcome of high fives and back slaps. Social barriers melted as we realised that we were, for the next four hours, in this gorge together. Having made a bit of a scene at the first post I resolved to act more stoically from there on in. At the reassuringly named Last Chance platform, we were informed gravely that we’d reached the point of no return. Once we hurtled off this platform we would be so deep into the valley that the only way out was through.
Initially I’d been tempted to participate in this zip lining lark because I wanted to enjoy an inaccessible and pristine part of the rugged Hottentots Holland Mountains in a World Heritage Site. Realising that if I was going to appreciate the scenery I’d have to unglue my eyes. During each slide, I challenged myself to remain present - to observe as much as possible as I worked my way through twelve platforms. Just when I was swinging about like Tarzan, the next challenge was a bridge crossing between a narrow sandstone Gorge high above a spectacular double waterfall.
Zip lining has its origins in Costa Rica. Biologists working in the rainforest devised it as a way of accessing the forest canopy in order to conduct research on the undiscovered ecosystem. The idea soon developed into a form of eco-tourism which enticed people to enter and experience a previously inaccessible natural environment.
Engineer Mark Brown built one of the world’s first commercial canopy tours in Costa Rica. Then, in 2001, Brown came to South Africa and built the first South African zip line in the above mentioned Tsitsikamma indigenous rainforest. In the next nine years, he constructed another five canopy tours: at Karkloof, Magaliesberg, Magoebaskloof, the Drakensberg and in Swaziland. With its longest slide 330 metres long, Cape Canopy tours is his latest and most radical offering, the Mavericks of zip lining.
There’s really only one word for the Canopy tour and that is the overused cliche - awesome. It’s easy to understand why, in 2015, the Lonely Planet listed Cape Canopy Tour as second on the list of the world’s hottest new tourism experiences.