Ziplining to my (near) death

Now that my sunburn had morphed from bright, blistering red to slow-burn red, it was time for an adventure: ziplining.

The brochure boasted a ziplining excursion through the rain forests in the interior of Thailand’s Koh Samui island. “An adrenaline-filled thrill ride that you will never forget.” Indeed, but not for the reasons they’d promised.

I should have taken note of the part that said, “You’ll even have fun getting to us! That’s right, you’ll have stories to tell about the ride in the safety of our rugged 4×4 safari vehicles.” I do believe they used the word safety.

Now, let’s translate all that brochure marketing jargon. It really means, “be scared out of your pants while you flop around with nothing to hold onto in the back of an open truck, on dirt roads with potholes as big as lakes, and overhanging jungle bush that whacks you in the face indiscriminately, as your newly-minted-from-driving-school driver whips you around corners while oblivious to the use of brakes.”  Gracie could not believe I’d brought her along. I think her inclination was to call CPS.

My 6’5” brother-in-law spent most of the ride in a duck down position, hoping to spare himself from a sudden and swift beheading from a stray tree branch. And about the time I thought my butt might disengage from the rest of my body, up ahead appeared the sign, “No vehicles beyond this point.” Hurray! Our exhilarating truck ride was over, and just in time. Ahead of us was a very steep, dirt hill with deep ruts traversing it in several directions. There’s no way our vehicle could make it up that.

Or could it? Because our driver blew past that sign like it was invisible. Gracie said, “oh my gosh Mom!” and began filling out CPS paperwork. My sister Michelle bravely continued her photojournalism attempts, taking as many out-of-focus pictures as possible.

I reached for the crash bar above the truck. It’s the bar that’s supposed to save you if your truck rolls over and you are inside the truck. I thought I could use it for some Olympic style gymnastic moves when our truck tumbled down the right side of the mountain into the teeming, boulder-laden river.

Miraculously we arrived at our basecamp – a hut sporting rudimentary signs to buy homemade jewelry and gatorade, and oh yes, check-in too.

We find out that our crazy driver “Emmie” will, oh joy, be our zipline guide too. We meet Emmie’s sidekick, a 12-yr old boy (ok, he only looked 12, he was officially 18) who would help anchor the zipline ropes for us. Oh yes, now I feel much better.

Emmie felt it was just as important to christen us with nicknames as it was to fit us with harnesses. As we cinched up thick straps around our legs and torso, he laughed and joked about how old and unreliable the harnesses were right before he yelled out a nickname for us.

Gracie was up first. When he learned her name was Gracie, and she was only 13 and an American, he shouted, “You so beeeeg, you look like Russian!” And because no one in Thailand or Cambodia can hear the difference between “crazy” and “Gracie,” she became “Crazy” for the day.

He bestowed me with the name “Sexy Mama,” and really, I wasn’t about to argue with that, it’s the best nickname I’ve ever had!  He called my brother-in-law “Papa,” although we explained repeatedly he is Gracie’s uncle, not her dad. “Ok, Papa,” said Emmie.

Then began the part of the adventure that is not mentioned in the brochure – the walk up to the zipline. To prepare, Emmie passes out water bottles which we tuck into our harnesses. It is so hot, that I’ve dropped 5 pounds of water weight already at basecamp. Before our ascent, we re-apply mosquito repellent in a delusional attempt to combat the mosquitoes that swarm us in a feeding frenzy. Suddenly, a terrible sunburn seems better than this.

We hike up, the repellent and sunscreen running like rivers down my face, down my spine, down, well, down everything. My skin glistens in a frightening kind of way. How is it that my arms are sweating? Is that actually possible? I’ve never seen my forearms perspire at such a rate.

I remember the brochure boasting “You can even bring Grandma and Grandpa along as well. This is one adventure that’s safe, thrilling, and unforgettable for everyone!” And I’m thinking, this, my grandma could not do. I’m not even sure my parents could do it. But they are right about one thing, it is unforgettable.

We walk up a small, thin, dirt path laced with tree roots and some version of steps cut into the hillside every so often. At certain points of the trail there appears a rail which you think you can grab hold of to steady yourself. The minute you touch it you realize it’s purely for decoration. The thin bamboo rods marginally nailed together provide no support at all. If you lean on them, you will fall to your death. I don’t lean on them, because I decide to wait and fall to my death from the zipline.

We arrive at the first tower. We will zipline six times from tower to tower, through the lush, green overgrowth of the forest. Emmie gives us fewer tips than I think we need, and then pushes us off the platform ledge. One by one, we careen down the zipline, one hand holding the carabiner attached to the cable and the other hand on top of the cable itself, to slow ourselves down. In theory, the tighter you hold the zipline the slower you go.

I’m left-handed and decide this hand holds superior strength. I whiz down the zipline and within 20 feet it is clear that my left hand is not the strongest. I grasp the zipline above but cannot keep a hold with my two-sizes too big gloves. Now I am flailing along the rope, with Emmie on the platform behind me screaming, “brake! brake!” Well I am trying to brake! Mid-way I decide to switch hands which is much easier said than done. Now I have no brake at all and can barely get my right hand up there before I nearly crash into Platform #2 and practically take out Emmie’s sidekick.

After arriving at Platform #4 we embark on perhaps the most harrowing part of our journey – climbing down the attached winding, spindly,  staircase that resembles the toothpick structures I made in elementary school, except my structures were more sturdy. The railings are as unreliable as the railings on the trail. I’m not sure the boards have been changed out ever. Some are missing completely. Emmie stands at the top, joking that someone fell off this platform recently and was never found.

Luckily, Emmie has now commandeered all cameras and videocameras.  There is no way I’m going to try and take a picture while ziplining, and I know he doesn’t want any of us trying although he doesn’t say exactly that. Besides, he seems to know more about the camera functions than any of us camera owners. When he starts to shoot video with Gracie’s camera, we say, “You can do video with her camera?” We had no idea and we’ve had it for two years.

Emmie is the last person to arrive at Platform #6, and as he comes down the zipline he rides hands-free and upside-down while holding all of our devices and taking videos on each. It is then that he secures a place in my heart, even when he comes screaming, literally and figuratively, towards us on the platform and we all scream back in terror. He stops an inch before our faces, laughing.

I felt relief mixed with adrenaline mixed with sadness mixed with more relief when we arrived back at basecamp. I had survived ziplining with Emmie and I had the video to prove it.

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