The Fear Factor
Can intensive, sweaty, pulse-pounding vertigo count towards one’s recommended 30 minutes cardio? If so, I need no more exercise for at least a week…
I blame my son. There we are, last day in Luang Prabang, beautiful World Heritage town, all geared up to mooch around and finally visit the oldest temple in Laos, when we get talking to someone who insists we should go to a waterfall. There are rare Malaysian sunbears, elephants, and, the kicker for the young master, a zipwire.
Envisaging this as a sort of one-off flying fox over a waterfall, which Z can undertake while I watch admiringly from the side, I agree. And off we set. Z clad practically in jeans, shirt and sandals. I clad rather less appropriately in a shortish frock and flipflops.
The elephants, as Z predicted, barely vaut le voyage. Understandably irritable, rescued from logging to lug tourists in howdahs on hour-long poddles to waterfalls, beach donkey style, they bear no comparison with the creatures we’ve been lucky enough to see in the wild.
Oh, yeah. And the bears, it turns out, are at the other waterfall. The one without the zipwire.
Zipwiring, to the uninitiated, is an adrenalin-fuelled rush, in safety harness, down steel cables strung, generally, between rainforest canopy trees. Z loves it.
I, well… I have vertigo.
The last time Z and I went zipwiring together — as opposed to the simpler flying fox — was in Guatemala. He was four, rising five, and I barely out of my twenties. His competence, confidence and sheer, unalloyed enjoyment has increased exponentially. My inner wuss, by contrast, grows ever more clamorous with age.
Anywise. Rather than the innocuous flying fox I had imagined, the zipwire at Tad Sae waterfall is a relatively lengthy canopy trail, leading from platform to platform through the trees, over jungle canyons, off small cliffs, down very substantial trees by rope, covering ten stages over a kilometre or so, at heights of up to 90 metres, with a maximum length of 200 metres.
As the chaps who run the thing strap me into the harness, and I tug snatches of skirt into a sort of playsuit effect in the hope of preserving some modesty, it begins to dawn on me quite how much I dislike heights.
Ascending the cliff by rope ladder does not help matters, although the awareness that my flabby backside is on display to no fewer than four Lao guys does inject a contrasting note of utter mortification, which distracts from the vertigo rather as pinching oneself in the thigh mitigates the impact of an injection in the upper arm.
Also, unlike the last time we undertook such an endeavour, I am not riven with fear for Z’s safety.
In fact, the safety standards are, I am pleased to see, really pretty good — outstanding, in fact, by Lao standards. I am fairly sure that EU safety law would require a secondary pulley as a failsafe, but their ropes, harnesses and links are in good nick, their helmets actually fit, and Z and I remain firmly attached to one or another wire at all times.
Z goes first, leaping from the platform and whirring along 70-odd metres of wire at a lethal height above the ground with whoops of satisfaction, and not the slightest hint of fear. I follow.
I think, for sufferers of vertigo, being near the edge of something high is much more scary than stepping off it in a safety harness, with a rush of adrenaline to compensate.
Being on the edge of a platform 40 metres or so up a tree, so high that it wobbles in the breeze, on the other hand, is my idea of hell. Which is, of course, what greets us on the other side.
Z is raring to go. I am running with cold sweat, hanging on to the line to which my safety harness is strapped, as my pulse approaches danger levels.
Off he shoots. The boys give him a kick by bouncing the line up and down so he flies up and down in the air.
I genuinely enjoy the race, and the bounce, and the buzz of trees whirring past, until I look down. On our next attempt, I am endeavouring to film with one hand and slam, feet first, into the tree which houses the platform.
“Look, Mum!” Z says, when he and the chaps have finished laughing. “The next one’s a vertical zipwire!”
“A vertical zipwire?” I say, eyes half-shut. I really don’t want him to catch my vertigo. “That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.”
“Don’t worry, Mum,” he says, supportively, standing far too near the edge for my liking. “I’m a bit scared of heights too.”
If one is halfway confident, or wearing appropriate clothing, or not sweating with terror, vertical drops are a pleasant abseil down a tree. If one is unconfident and sweating with terror, it is a matter of being winched down on a rope, in the manner of someone moving furniture, perhaps, to extend the metaphor, a table with an indecorous cloth.
Z whizzes down. I begin the ungainly lowering process, acutely aware that I outweigh all four of the chaps and that my dress is riding up. There are howls of laughter from 30 feet below.
“Mum!” Z yells up. “Everyone can see your bum!”
“I know, darling,” I say. “What do you want me to do about it?”
“Buy some decent shorts,” he says. “Knee length. And wear them.”
The only shorts commonly available in tourist sizes (L, XL and XXL) in Laos are on the jailbait side of hot pants. Think hot pink cheerleader-meets-Juicy-Couture-with-a-dose-of-80s-disco terry towelling. Not so much mutton dressed as lamb as mutton dressed as foetus. Especially the ones with the floral print.
On the 200-metre run, I begin to feel what Z is enjoying, and what I used to love as a kid: the breeze, the thrum of the wire, the pace of the trees and ground whizzing past, soaring, quite literally, through the tree tops.
Then I fail to utilise the forked stick the guys have given me as a brake — I am pretty sure this is not the EU standard — nearly take out two of them, and hit the padding on the tree with sufficient force to knock down twigs and branches.
Sir salvages the family honour by acquitting himself effortlessly. The guys, who probably aren’t that much older than him, are genuinely chuffed at how much fun he is having.
He is looking more sturdy, and carrying himself with much greater physical confidence, over the course of the trip. And this sort of challenge — one of fear, rather than physique — is a great thing for him to conquer.
Oh yes. And the chaps have taught him a Lao insult: sosijaya. Which means, they say, “your face looks like a bat”.