Friday, 26 February 2016

Hair-raising Zips and Hot Spring Dips

It is a real novelty to wake up in a house whose huge bedroom windows directly overlook the still-active Arenal volcano, which erupted as recently as 2010. Prior to that, there was a huge eruption in 1968, which destroyed two entire towns. Upto this point the locals thought it was merely a mountain; that was until the top of said "mountain" blasted off and lava poured down the sides. Even now, we are told you can see what look like fireworks coming from the top of the volcano at night, when it's not obscured by cloud. The defunct towns are now covered by the man-made lake that surrounds the volcano (the biggest in Central America, providing 40% of the country's power), but when the water level is low you can still see the church spire protruding from the river.

Our driver arrives to take us back down that nightmare gravel road to our Trek-Tram-Zip excursion. Being the intrepid pro hikers that we now are (!), the early-morning hike that comes as part of our SkyTrek package is child's play, and we are mildly unimpressed by the geeky group dynamic; having been foraging in the dense forest for days now - just the three of us without a guide - this tour feels a bit formulaic by comparison. We've become trek snobs. How did that happen?

 I can tell Andy is bored when he starts subtly chucking small rocks into the forest to give the impression of animal activity and he turns away smirking as the rest of the group squint and crane their necks to try and get a look at which exotic animal is hiding nearby. The guide is less than impressed when she realises Andy has been winding everyone up.

Stifling yawns as the guide rambles on about various species of trees and shapes of leaf, we feign interest whilst craning our necks to catch a glimpse of some animal action. Nothing. The frequent zip lines buzzing past overhead have rendered the wildlife mute. After 3.5 hours of vertigo from rickety hanging bridges, waterfalls and steep hill climbs, the only bit of wildlife activity we've seen came from watching a middle-aged French tourist slipping and sliding on her backside down a wet path, coming to rest at the bottom with limbs flailing like an upturned beetle.

Now for the fun part that Mum has been bricking it about for days - the zip lining.

The SkyTram gondolas lurch from side to side as they incline steeply, taking us higher and higher above the dense canopy, to 4100ft to be exact. There are so many different species of trees and plants jostling for the sunniest spot and this is a fantastic way to view them all, my favourite being the Walking Palm, so-called because if it isn't in the optimum location, it just casually sprouts new roots and moves to a better spot. You can see the new roots sticking out of the side of the tree as it prepares to 'walk.' 

Anyway, I this point we are trussed up in harnesses, suede gloves and helmets, before being briefed on all the safety blurb. As we sign the health and safety waiver Mum's face gets increasingly pale as the heart-stopping task in hand draws closer. 

"Lean back in the harness until you're lying flat, arms straight, knees locked. When the platform draws closer, move your pulley side to side to gain traction and slow yourself down, then spread your legs to come in to land. If you get stuck out on the wire, let go of your pulley and rotate your body 180 degrees then use your hands to pull yourself along the wire until you reach the platform. Oh, and it's not one zip line, it's a series of seven wires, getting increasingly longer and further apart in length. Comprender?" asks one of the instructors. 

Everyone laughs nervously and nods their agreement, except De Mama who is looking petrified and repeating "SEVEN?!" 

Up on the platform, the fearless Andy goes first, and he leans back horizontally in the harness as the cocky instructor repeats the instructions before pushing him off. He flies above the rainforest like a bat out of hell, the whirring of the wire getting louder as he picks up speed. We can just see him hit the barrier at the other end before stepping off unsteadily. It's my turn. Gulp! 

I stand still whilst the instructor checks my harness and clicks my pulley into place, then lean back into position as he lets go of me and I fly off above the trees. It's is utterly exhilarating, and once my heart has stopped threatening to go into full cardiac arrest I manage to turn my head slightly to take in the outstanding beauty of the lush green forest, the huge lake and staggering size of the volcano. This doesn't last long however, as the instructor shakes the wire to alert me to start braking, and then I'm furiously jerking the pulley left and right in a vain attempt to reduce my speed before slamming into the safety pad on the platform. Hmmm, must remember to brake next time.

I step off the platform just in time to see De Mama in the distance as she steps off the platform and soars through the air. She is going so fast it reminds me of a human cannonball, and within 30 seconds she has traversed the 650ft-high canyon and is roaring towards me on the platform. I can just make out her bugged-eyed look of terror, top lip stuck to her teeth in a frozen rat face as she hurtles, legs akimbo, into the barrier. It's the funniest thing I've seen in ages. I'm bursting with pride in the red-faced, sweaty creature in front of me - that's my girl!

The other (mostly American) zip liners appear to be enjoying it as much as I am, so much so in fact that they insist on going in front of Mum on every wire so they can watch her come flying in to land with all the grace of a deranged pelican. 

There is one skinny woman who is so delicate and frail that she doesn't have the bodyweight to get from one side to the other, so has to do the thing we'd all been dreading happening to ourselves - she has to LET GO of the pulley, dangle from her safety harness almost 700 feet above the ground and then use her hands to pull herself the rest of the way across the wire, whilst we all watch nervously from the other side, the instructors attempting to pull the rope taut to aid her progress. Sod that! It's the first time I've been happy to be a big ol' bird. 

The longest cable of them all is called Big Daddy : 3000ft across of sheer terror-filled 'fun.'
Andy breezes across like the Milk Tray man, barely breaking a sweat, and I come roaring in with all the physical control of a crane fly, lanky limbs flailing and eyes watering, whilst attempting to maintain a cool demeanour as I'm hyper-aware of the watching crowd on the
viewing platform.

Next it's De Mama's turn. The crowd falls quiet as she reluctantly lets go of the instructor's grip and hurtles above the treetops. She is a tiny speck in the distance, but even from here I can tell she is rigid and sure enough, within 90 seconds or so she is zooming towards the platform like a rocket, eyes bulging with fear and every tooth in her head bared like a sabre-toothed tiger. The Wallace and Gromit animations spring to mind - Nick Park couldn't have made a more comical expression out of plasticine if he tried. The Americans crowd around to get a better look - they've got their money's worth out of Mum alone today.

The only person more 'mature' than Mum on the zips today is an elderly Californian gent, who looks like an ageing star of the silver screen and must be mid-seventies at least. Love that! 
After 7 zip lines, 2.5 hours and buckets of sweat and adrenaline, we are finally back on solid ground. Never ones to be ripped off buying the souvenir pictures, we are about to dismiss the idea when I catch sight of Mum's ones. The photographer has captured the moment perfectly - hair sprouting from the sides of the cannon-ball helmet, mouth so dry she's doing the perfect rat face and eyes bulging like boiled eggs in sheer terror. "We'll take them," I say.

The only time I've seen funnier photos of Mum was when she and Dad went swimming with dolphins in Antigua years ago and the souvenir snaps show them posing awkwardly with the friendly mammals, and she said by way of explanation at the cringe-worthy pics, "it was so stressful, I kept poking it in the blowhole by mistake when I tried to cuddle it." 
The only person who could describe swimming with dolphins as stressful. 

Deciding we need to relax after all that excitement, we take a taxi to Los Lagos resort for lunch, then laze in the natural hot springs which are heated by the volcano for an hour or so before heading back to the villa for a much-needed early night.

Tomorrow we're on the move again, travelling to Matapalo on the Pacific side of the country for some beach action for our final leg of what has been an amazing trip...

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