Monday, 22 April 2013

Day 1 of The Gibbon Experience...weeee!

I awoke and checked out for 8am, I'd already booked another room at BAP for when I got back so paid up and left my main bags and valuables here. Went to the 'I have Everything' store and got myself a ham and cheese baguette for breakie and some water, then headed across to the Gibbon Experience office.

When I arrived some of the group was already there so we introduced ourselves and started chatting. There were two girls who were doing just the one night Express experience and the rest of us (11 in total, 3 of us girls and the rest guys) were doing the Classic Experience, which is 2 nights in a treehouse in the jungle, and 3 days using the zip-lines and trekking.

For those who aren't aware of what the Gibbon Experience is, it's initially a project to help the local communities around the national park and also the endangered wildlife, the Gibbon Experience being a way of bringing in money for the project, while giving people an authentic Laos jungle experience. There is the Express Gibbon Experience, which is just one night in the Jungle, The Classic Gibbon Experience, which is what I did, which is 2 nights 3 days, with more chance of seeing Gibbons, and the Waterfall Gibbon Experience which is a lot more trekking, otherwise essentially the same as the Classic but with a visit to a waterfall. Whilst in the Jungle, you stay in a canopy level Treehouse, trek the jungle and zip-line across it at amazing heights, with amazing views. You also get to check out some of the other treehouses, and Gibbon-Scout, with free time in the afternoons. Some people don't ever get to see Gibbons but there are chances of spotting them, however because they are wild, they don't come close, which is how it should be.

So we watched a video about the project in the office; about the communities, where your money goes etc, and then a safety video regarding the Zip-line equipment, and then it was time to be on our way to the Bokeo National Protected Park. We jumped into two pickup trucks, luckily me, Lukas (Switzerland) and Bas (Holland) got seats inside as it was a long journey and didn't fancy being up on back. In the truck we got chatting - Bas had some incredible stories about his travels in Laos so far - and got to know each other. We stopped on the way at a village, before heading into the NP, to have a rest, and I got talking to some others in the group, Jo and her BF from the UK, Chris from the UK, Maaike, Jim and Rik from Holland, a guy from France, and another guy from Belgium.

Then it was back in the trucks and onward to the start village in the middle of the jungle. This meant some serious off-road truck driving and a very bumpy ride; first through a river and then 40mins into the jungle via a dirt track, with some amazing views! Along our whole journey from Huay Xai to Bokeo NP we went through some typical Laos villages (bamboo houses on stilts, chickens everywhere, piglets, naked children etc), passed the extensive rail network the Chinese were building that would go through most of Laos, connecting China to Thailand (when it's finished it really will change S.E.Asia forever), and travelled along the newly built and immaculate Chinese road to Luang Prabang, through some stunning mountainous scenery.

We arrived at the base village around midday, where we watched as they off-loaded bags of fresh fruit and veg to the village people and chatted to the group who had just finished their Gibbon Experience, who all said it was amazing, that Treehouse 1 was awesome for Gibbon watching, and not to put your hand in front of the brake cable, because a girl had accidently done it in their group and sliced off the tip of her finger! Won't be doing that then!!

We were then introduced to our guide, M.J, and his trainee who didn't speak much English but over the 3 days was the most smiley person ever! And then we popped on our backpacks and off we went! Seeya later civilisation! Our trek involved about half hour across flat fields with jungle either side, some stepping stones over little rivers and then...a HUGE climb upwards to base camp! I got chatting to Maaike, the girl in the group from Holland and we pretty much stuck together the entire 3 days, mainly because we were always stopping to catch our breath and wipe the hideous amounts of sweat from
our faces, amongst the girly bond we had going on. It took us an hour of sheer jungle trekking, after a short stop on the way for luncheon baguettes, to reach base camp, which was two bamboo huts, where they cooked the meals and the guides would sleep at. Here we were given our zip-line harnesses and shown how to put them on and use them; 'On like a Nappy' and 'Safety First' were to be used a lot over the next 3 days! We had a line that would connect us to the zipline and a line that was our 'safety line' which we always had to connect first using the AWFUL caribiners that you have to twist to open - I am not a fan of them after zip-lining for 3 days!

 It was then time to split the group, which was a shame as we'd all just gotten to know each other and were sad to be split up. There were two treehouses - number 1 and 7 and there were enough beds for 6 in 7 and 5 in 1. There was a bit of umming and arring over which group to choose but eventually Maaike made the decision for me and told me to get my arse over to Treehouse 1 (because we'd heard it was the best) and also so we could stick together as the rest of our group was guys. In the end it was me, Maaike, Tim, Rik, Lukas and Bas - the awesome Treehouse 1 gang! So the group going to treehouse 7 went first as they had a longer trek - haha. Then it was our turn to set off on the 2nd part of our our Treehouse!

This time though, we'd get to use the first lot of zip-lines - yeeeeeehaaaa! So we trekked for around 20mins until we came to the first one, then we lined up, put our zip-line gloves on and with the help of M.J our guide, we remembered our 'Safety first' and zipped across the line:
I kid you not, there is no zip-line in this jungle that is not hundreds of meters above ground and does not offer the most amazing views you will ever see in a jungle like this.

I unfortunately, didn't manage to make it all the way across (sometimes you brake without thinking or it goes upwards at the end so you stop short) so had to pull myself like a freakin' monkey to the end, which let me tell you, is NOT easy! Especially with your backpack on. And over the next few days my arms got a serious work out because I stopped short on all the ones you weren't supposed to brake at, because they were either too long and I didn't have enough power, or they went upwards. But luckily I wasn't always the only one. Maaike had the opposite problem, her brake line didn't work as well as everyone else, so she had to brake sooner on all the ones you were supposed to brake on, otherwise she'd come in at full speed and crash land!

There was then some more uphill trekking, and sometimes downhill (I'm not sure which was worse to be honest), and the guys all went full speed ahead while me, Maaike and our poor guides held up the rear, as we struggled a lot of the time - I admit, I had a cough and cold, and I am certainly not a trekker, so gimme some slack here lol. We arrived at the 2nd zip-line which was a junction line, so we zipped across the larger one, admiring yet more awesome views, attached our safety line to the line going around the tree (safety first!), walked around the tree and down some steps onto the next platform, attached ourselves to the next shorter zipline and zipped across here. It was then another 5 mins until we reached Treehouse numero uno...and what a beauty she was!! It was 3 levels of pure natural treehouse bliss - made around an actual tree, hundreds of meters in the air, with a bathroom that looked out onto the jungle, 'bedrooms' (platforms with mattresses and mosquito nets) that looked over the mountains and a living room with a kitchenette, table and soft cushions.

First things first, it was exploration and picture time, then it was coffee time! M.J zipped across to the 'kitchen' - a stove across the way - to boil us some water, zipped back across with it and we all sat around the table exhausted but happy for the coffee with sweet milk and sweets (peanut butter snap and rice cakes), he then filled our cool chest with some fruits for over the next couple of days. Then it was time for M.J and his pupil to leave us and we had free time for the rest of the afternoon (it was around 2-3pm by this point). So we all had showers using the awesome rain shower, taking pictures, as when else would we take a shower with such amazing views?! And we set up our places on 'Gibbon Watch'!

We passed the time just chatting and watching the jungle around us for about an hour before park ranger here (namely ME) spotted our first Gibbon - in fact it was not just one, but THREE! It took everyone else a couple of minutes to spot them but we watched as they jumped their way across the trees in front of our treehouse, making their sing-song cries. There were two black Gibbons and one brown, we got some good video and semi-good pictures of them, monkeying around, but they move so fast it was hard to catch a close-up! We then just sat there, or more like, jumping around in excitement, seeing which platform would offer the best views for the next half an hour while they were active. We saw one other family as well just after these three disappeared. Which is extremely lucky - to view Gibbons on our first day! We then continued to watch for another hour or so before giving up on Gibbon Watch for today. During this time dinner was zipped over to us from the kitchen by one of the girls, in silver canisters and we ate around 5pm, as dinner and sleeping habits in the jungle rely on when it gets dark or early - can't be eating in the dark!

So the sun set, the bugs crept in, and it got very very dark. We tried switching on the solar-powered light but it attracted too many bugs so we decided to just sit in darkness, plus it hid the huge scary spider on the beams above us so we forgot about it (well, I kept checking it hadn't moved with my torch). The guides had given us some beer to share back at the village, so Rik and Bas couldn't wait until our mutually-agreed-upon beer'o'clock (7pm) and cracked theirs open at 6. Tim and Lukas, in the absence of ice decided to cool theirs in water in the coffee canisters, but us four decided to wait until beer'o'clock - or now it was 6.45pm - to open ours.

Then we just chilled with our beer on our soft cushions, listening to the orchestra of jungle bugs and animals, chatting and watching the Fire-flies in our tree. We got talking about the afterlife and ghosts - as you do in the dark - swapping stories and beliefs and Lukas then, in the spirit of things, decided to tell us a scary ghost story. Which was about an old London Taxi driver (horse and cart), picking up a man from the station, who wanted to visit every graveyard - North, south, east and west, but kept coming back to the cart each time, looking like he'd been in major fights. The driver knew about the story of a graveyard vampire. Then the taxi driver eventually asked him, are you the graveyard vampire? RAAAAAAAGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

And we all must of jumped about a meter into the air, because we were not expecting the scream, especially after a particularly long, drawn out story that seemed like it was getting nowhere! I think it scared a few animals and bugs too! So we spent a good 15mins getting over this, laughing about it, and around 9pm we all  went off to bed, as we all agreed to wake up early to Gibbon Watch again as evenings and mornings are the best times to spot them. We put down our mozzie nets, which was a pain in the arse - should have done it in daylight! Secured ourselves from bugs - deet was all over the place! And settled down for the night, Maaike, Jim and Rik on the lower platform, Lukas on the middle, and me and Bas on the top platform. Seeya tomorrow for a long day of zip-lining and trekking (oh and the Gibbons of course)!

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