The treehouse hurtled into full view as I sped along at nearly sixty miles an hour over the forest floor, some 131 feet below. I didn’t feel it at the time, but my camera, which had been stuffed into a cargo pocket, had been loosened when I snugged up my harness.
It bailed out and did a graceful Hail Mary all the way to the forest floor. Which is why, sadly, I have no photos of my own from the Gibbon Experience in Laos.
As I approached the landing at speed, I reached up and clasped the brakes. Slowed down, and gently dismounted.
Others weren’t so fortunate. I watched one woman burn in, mesmerized by the closing speed, and smash her ankle when she put her feet out to stop herself. She never once tried to use the brakes.
Frankly, some folks do not belong on such trips. I’m sorry she hurt herself. She got the same training the rest of us did. She never bothered to use it properly. That’s an awful way to end a vacation. Still…
Fair warning, this is an unapologetic rant.
The ziplines at the Gibbon Experience are very long(up to 1800 feet) and very high. That’s the draw. You build up one hell of a lot of speed. You’re on your own for braking and landings. I love those odds. I’m comfortable at altitude and confident in my abilities. I don’t panic. Ever. If I get in trouble I fix it. Part of that is experience. The other part is paying very close attention to the safety rules and instructions. The more challenging the adventure, the more important those guidelines are.
I understand the attraction of risk. It’s woven into my DNA.
Early on, the young guide, who was selected from the forest -dwelling tribal people, explained that sometimes you slow to a halt out on the line. It happens. The only time it happened to me, I simply did as told: I reached overhead and pulled myself in, hand over hand. Once I got my finger pinched in the pulley. Okay, so what. You hurt. You bleed. You keep going. You put a plaster on it. Next day you go out and do it again.
The next day, I saw a young woman get hung up in about the same place I did. She sat there and screamed. And screamed and screamed.
I really hate helplessness. If you do the research, understand the difficulties, and you do not have the chops, please do not bloody well sign up. One of the guides had to hand-over-hand out to her, and then pull both of them back in. Which, if you know anything about physics, was one hell of a lot harder for him, because she sat there like a lump and didn’t do a thing to help get them back to safety. She wasn’t injured in the slightest. He probably got his fingers caught in the pulley a bunch of times.
I understand. By the same token, this was not the adventure for her. There are plenty of far, far safer places to try out a zipline. The Gibbon Experience is at the high end both for thrills and for danger. Not the place to start unless you’re pretty okay with that kind of risk.
The Gibbon Experience was developed in part to provide a way of life for the locals, while also providing jobs, and protection for the endangered gibbons. It’s hard to see them, but you’re so entranced by the forest itself, as well as the remarkable, enormous tree houses where you eat and sleep, that it’s not that big a deal. When you shower, you’re looking out into the tops of the trees. When you sleep on the floor of the treehouse, you awaken to all the bird calls of heaven.
It’s worth it.
This morning I found an article that reported a tourist death back in 2017. Of course that’s horrible. For everyone involved. The family, the friends, those who were there, the guide, everyone. I have witnessed that kind of death and it has long-term ripple effects. In some ways you never get over it.
That may, in fact, be one reason I have such strong feelings about the cavalier behavior I see at such places. I’m reminded of the intense scene in Equalizer II when Denzel Washington’s character Mr. McCall is nearly screaming at young Miles,
“You don’t know what death is!”
That’s the problem. We don’t respect its finality. It can’t happen to us, until it does.
That’s not all. Broken and twisted ankles (the hiking can be rough). Most often, injuries happened because folks didn’t respect the zipline safety rules. Someone zips, stay off the line until they are off it safely at the other end. There’s a damned good reason those rules are in place. They’re there to protect you, me and everyone else. If you don’t respect them, the rules of physics will not respect you.
Look. I love being in the air. I love these kinds of sports and adventures.
But not with dumb people.
Is the person who died dumb? Not the question, nor is it relevant at this point. Terrible damage was done to his family and friends. The point is that with people who injure or die at concessions like this, it’s almost always because they were oblivious, decided they wanted to make things more spicy for the camera, or they honestly believed that the rules didn’t apply to them.
This is how we die. Doesn’t matter whether you’re 25 and at the height of your physical potential, or 66 like me. If you don’t respect the basic safety rules of these kinds of adventures, it’s an invitation for disaster. If you leapt on the line for a lark, and two of you, whose combined weight increased both gravity and speed, go hurtling headlong into one of hell of a hard board, that’s going to be ugly. Yes it’s horrible. For you, for everyone. But you didn’t respect the rules where the stakes were very, very high.
You will forgive me for pointing out that this is basic science. Mass. Gravity. Airspeed. Not a goddamned video game where some character crashes, dies, then you start the game over.
I don’t feel sorry for folks like this. People for whom a selfie or a video trumps everyone else’s safety.
Sound harsh? Not if you’ve witnessed what I have. I am past patience when others decide to break rules that can cause terrible damage and havoc to others as well as to themselves. I am past being compassionate when others’ willingness to take significant changes puts people at high risk.
If you want to do that on your own time, that’s fine. But I’ve seen foolish, self-centered behavior put folks at risk on the rapids, on high mountains, on horseback.
Often the local guides are scared to say no. Scared to control out-of-control tourists. Scared of bad feedback on TripAdvisor. Sometimes local customs mean they can’t correct you. Sometimes that means that people assume that what they’re doing is perfectly all right, when it most certainly isn’t.
I have been engaged with some pretty badass sports for years. Skydiving, scuba, horse riding in some of the world’s wildest places, climbing very high and difficult mountains. Kayaking in high seas. Cool stuff, for which I train my ever-loving butt off, pay for lessons, practice and take very, very seriously.
What I see out there shocks me to the core. People don’t prepare, they don’t think, they don’t understand or worse, respect the dangers of where they are and the conditions. They make fun of local cultures, mock people and dress in ways that horrify locals, who didn’t sign up to see your butt crack.
That’s not funny if you get dragged off to a nasty jail where you languish for years on end. A moment’s mockery in the wrong country can be very serious business.
It’s not just that. It’s this. Folks who have been elevated to Instagram celebrity basically denigrate a sacred shrine, and then lie about how “they didn’t know.” Yes, you did know. That was the whole point- desecrating someone else’s holy place, being naughty.
Don’t get me started.
It’s bad enough that you did what you did, but then to claim you didn’t know? Please. Just….please.
When people who are short on maturity but long on likes head out into the wide world, what did you think was going to happen?
Enough of this, and here’s what happens: great adventures have to close, sites are closed to tourists and travelers who really would treat them with respect, and everybody loses. You, me, the locals, the local economy, everyone.
People whose Go-Pros trump safety. People whose earbuds and playlists are more important than the guide’s safety instructions. People whose unfounded belief in their abilities leads them to monumentally stupid stunts, which can hurt or kill others, maim or kill animals, insult local customs and lead to international incidents.
What’s remarkable about that 1994 caning incident is that this kid lived in Singapore. He knew the laws.
I hope that caning hurt like hell.
I have seen it happen all over the world, in every sport I have ever done. I have watched Japanese tourists take flash photos inside Egyptian monuments, right next to a very large sign that shows a bright red line through the camera. NO photos. It damages the ruins. Oh, but that can’t apply to the almighty ME.
In 2002, I did the Sardine Run off the coast of South Africa. One member of a filming crew for the BBC leapt right into the middle of a churning bait ball to get a great shot. What he got was a massive shark bite that nearly cost him his left arm. He’d been told. He’d been warned. Others had to endanger themselves in the shark-filled waters, full of his blood, to get this fuckwit the hell out.
The 65-year-old doddering woman who showed up in the Canadian wilderness for a two-week, epic horse packing trip, totally unprepared, not in shape, saying she was terrified of horses. Promptly got injured and subjected the crew and all the other guests to two weeks of learned helplessness and whining that she missed her hubby. Go HOME.
You got a problem with the rules, Sparky? Think they don’t apply to you?
Here’s a shocker: they do. Just like the rules of physics apply to air sports and are unforgiving (gravity works!), the rules of other countries, the parameters of the adventures apply to you and me. All of them.
When I was learning to fly ultralights in 1987 in Geelong, Victoria, Australia, I was practicing go-arounds (takeoffs and landings)one afternoon. I started doing some cutesy maneuvers. The moment I landed, my instructor got in my face and reamed me another asshole. I had no business doing anything other than perfecting the basics. I was endangering myself, my aircraft and other people. I never, ever did it again, nor did I ever disrespect the safety rules of other sports after that. I’m lucky I got off with a verbal flailing. I’m very fortunate I wasn’t banned.
When an operation that benefits the tribes, like the Gibbon Exchange (which is still operating, thankfully), is shut down, the locals have to go back to hunting gibbons. They have to eat. Idiocy on our part has massive implications which most folks don’t bother to consider. You and I can fly home (if we aren’t jailed or in the hospital). They have to live with the consequences of our actions.
Which is precisely what’s happening on Everest, with all the wannabes who can barely hike around their back yards much less navigate the tallest mountain in the world. Just because you can afford it doesn’t mean you should do it.
I love seeing people do badass things. I love it even better when they do it responsibly, come home safe, with stories worth telling. When we show up responsible and respectful, everyone wins.
Do I want folks to venture forth? Try new things? Of course I do. It’s one of the great and abiding pleasures of life, to travel and see the world.
But prepare. Read up on the culture. Don’t show up ignorant of customs and prance around a Muslim majority country with half your tits hanging out and then be all huffy when a local gets justifiably offended. Grow up. How might you feel if someone visiting the Lincoln Memorial managed to shimmy to the top and shit on the man’s head? How might you feel if you saw a tourist in a hajib make like she’s wiping her ass with an American flag during a Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall?
Might not appreciate the disrespect. Help me understand how this is any different.
Kindly, if you are stupid and foolish enough to endanger others in your group, if you injure because you refused to respect the safety parameters, don’t expect pity. The animal you kill or maim might well be that villager’s sole source of income. You need to pay for it. The guide who was doing his best to help you might well lose his job, and his family can’t eat because he gets blamed for the bad press. Bad press that you caused. You need to fix that. The world isn’t some playground for us to do whatever we want, then come home and brag about it.
Wanna take chances? Do it on your dime. Wanna embarrass yourself? Do it in your own culture. We have enough challenges as it is without turning travel into yet another place where we shit on people’s sensibilities, threaten their livelihood or shutter a beloved activity because of too many dolts. Self-described badasses who are simply bad actors.
Adventure? Please, go for it. But let’s kindly bring our best selves with us on the road. We’d like to be welcomed back with open arms, not a caning or the keys to the local jail.