– By Jack Ewing
1993, the year I turned 50, I started climbing trees at Hacienda Baru. It was the beginning of a fascinating new ecological adventure. Little was known about the biology of the rainforest canopy, and a whole new field of discovery was opening up. We started offering tree climbing as an ecological tour, but lots of clients did it more for the adventure. Even after 24 years of climbing trees, a moment or two of adrenaline rush still hits me every time I do it. When you are 30 meters (100 feet) above the ground, dangling from a rope, even when absorbed in watching a sloth or a toucan, there’s always that element adventure.
The Tree Climbing tour was, and still is, popular, but we soon realized that not everybody was physically capable or mentally inclined to climb a rope to get to the top of an enormous rainforest tree in order to experience the canopy. To solve the problem we built a platform in the upper branches of a big, beautiful tree, and hoisted people up there with an electric winch. The Canopy Platform soon became Hacienda Baru’s most popular ecological adventure. People didn’t have to exert themselves to get to the canopy, the ecology and wildlife observation was great, but the fear was still there, stronger than ever. Everyone who ever did both tours said that the platform was definitely the scariest of the two. I read somewhere that fear of heights is really fear of edges. In my own case dangling from a rope is not frightening, but sitting on a branch is, even with that same rope still attached to me, and the act of slipping off the branch to dangle from that same rope again is terrifying.
The Flight of the Toucan zip line tour sounds adventurous, but most people who suffer from fear of heights, don’t have a problem with it. The focus is on the speed and where they are headed rather than how high they are. A bit of adrenaline is always there, and the experience is great, but we still think of it as ecology, not adventure. It is designed to show people birds and animals and teach them about the rainforest, not scare them to death.
The first time I heard the term “challenge course” was early 2016. It sounded like fun, but I couldn’t see an ecological angle to the activity. Our guides were enthusiastic about it, so I talked with Owen Hyams, the expert who does all of our canopy work, and the idea matured. The more we talked about it the more I liked it. We selected a perfect location in a small forest near our guide center and went to work. Four months later the Monkey Challenge was a reality.
I knew I had to do it, but learning to climb trees at 50 is one thing, and negotiating a number of tricky rope and log crossings, strung between trees and posts, 6 to 10 meters (20 to 32 feet) above the forest floor, at 73 years of age, is quite another. There were still a few more details to work out at ground level, but the aerial part of the tour was ready. Some of our guides had done the course and said it was great. Watching from the ground I determined that it required a lot of balance and a certain amount of upper body strength, two things I have less and less of with each passing year. One day I returned from my weekly trip to town and was met by two excited receptionists with photos and videos of themselves doing the Monkey Challenge. That did it. “No more dithering around,” I thought. “It’s time for action.” “Tomorrow morning at 6:00,” I told Pedro, our head guide.
There are two options for climbing up to the first platform, hand and foot holds like those on a climbing wall, or a ladder-like arrangement called a parrot scale. After thorough instructions on the use the safety device I chose the latter and made the climb to the first platform. Hooking into the safety cable was the next small challenge. The first crossing, a snake bridge, was short and not too difficult. My confidence was building. At the end of the fourth crossing, the swinging logs, I felt proud that I had made it. During a pause on the fifth platform to admire the tree top view, a rather rare bird called a “masked tityra” landed in a nearby tree at eye level. “Wow,” I thought, “I never expected to see anything like this.” The long, shaky Burma bridge was next, and, all during the nerve wracking walk, the final element was in sight. “I think I can make it to the end of this one,” I thought, “but that last one looks impossible. Maybe I should just rappel down from the next platform and forget finishing.” At the end of the Burma bridge I stood on a small platform and contemplated the last stretch. After getting this far I just couldn’t quit.
It was like crossing a piece of a Burma bridge with less to hang on to, less stability, and longer. I don’t know how, but I made it. The last three steps were murder, and then I was there on the final platform. I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. Lots of people panic when thinking about jumping from 10 meters (32 feet) in the air. To do it you have to trust the automatic belay device that lets you down slowly. My years of tree climbing and rappelling down from the canopy served me well and jumping off the platform was a piece of cake. Letting myself fall backwards I dropped less than a meter before the belay kicked in. Ten seconds later I was on the ground, tired, heart pounding, shoulders aching, and very, very proud of myself. One of the guides told me that while I was pondering that last element, a chestnut-mandibled toucan had landed in the tree right behind me. The Monkey Challenge must definitely be classified as adventure, but the ecology is always there just like it is in the rest of Hacienda Baru.