Travel

Over the trees and far away

The Blue Grotto forest is one of the many scattered remains of the three million-year-old Afromontane forest that stretches across most of the Drakensberg region.

The Blue Grotto forest is one of the many scattered remains of the three million-year-old Afromontane forest that stretches across most of the Drakensberg region.  

The Drakensberg canopy tour at Winterton, South Africa is a way to see the jungle as the African crowned eagle does — while soaring in the sky

“Shout out ‘Ayoba!’ when you are sliding,” says Junior, our guide, as he dexterously hooks my safety harness onto the zip line before I launch myself into the heart of the lush canopy of the Blue Grotto forest. I brace myself and step off the board and within seconds, am whizzing past to the other end of the line at an exhilarating speed.

All around me, ancient African Blackwoods, Yellowoods, Cape Ash trees and the indigenous Natal forest cabbage tree are engaged in a thousand-year-old duel for sunlight, creating the canopy. Engulfed by the sheer extravagance of the million-year-old jungle that surrounded me, I remembered the instructions I was given. “Ayoba...” I manage, rather weakly at first and then, “Ayoba! A-yo-ba! A-YO-baa!” I shouted into the dense green that surrounded me. Before I could contemplate the exact meaning of the word, I landed, rather clumsily, at the other end of the zip line.

The Blue Grotto forest is one of the many scattered remains of the three-million-year -old Afromontane forest that stretches across most of the Drakensberg region. Less than three hours from Durban and set against the backdrop of the Drakensberg mountain range that covers part of the Eastern Cape with its mighty embrace, this is one of the six such tours in the country.

The ride begins with a safety briefing and a short trek down to the aptly named ‘Rabbit Hole’. The descent into the damp, dark forest may have done little to abate the fears of those who were having second thoughts about zip lining through the canopy but in my case, the excitement was only mounting. Kitted up in certified safety gear — a body harness, helmet, gloves, pulleys, three carabineers to secure ourselves to the slides — and accompanied by three experienced guides, there is nothing to worry about. We are given a brief demonstration on how to balance, slow down or pull yourself to the landing should you get stuck mid-slide.

Any latent fears are put to rest after the first slide. It’s not for nothing the canopy tours are labelled a ‘soft adventure experience’.  Although you might feel like you’re heading straight for a tree at times, the zip line is engineered in a way that you make a beeline from point A to B. That you may graze a stray branch or two shows the management’s commitment to minimising the impact on the forest. Designed by a civil engineer, the facility is built so that it blends with the natural surroundings and no heavy machinery is used to transport material, and no trees are cut or damaged in the process. Steve Bolt, who owns the tour, informs me that all platforms were constructed with no drilling of the tree surface and that the system leaves room for further tree growth.

Once down the rabbit hole, it is two hours of zipping across, tree to cliff, cliff to tree. The walkway between slides two and three offers a spectacular view of the forest and is a good place to take maximum advantage of the fact that you are hooked onto a safety cable. Lean in, crane your neck, get on all fours and peer down the edge; everywhere you look you see endless expanse of jungle. If you are lucky, you’ll sight a white-starred robin or the colourful Greater double-collared sunbird; the Blue Grotto forest is home to over 150 species of birds. At 65 metres, the fourth slide is the highest of the twelve, followed by the 175-metre, longest and fastest one. The tour, which starts gently (the first slide from rabbit hole is barely 10 metres long) gathers momentum as the slides get longer and faster. Apart from being secured twice onto the main zip line, you are also hooked up to a safety line leaving you free to monkey around while still feeling safe. Just as I was getting comfortable enough to let go of the zip-cable and abandon myself to the momentum and view, I was back, rather unwillingly, on solid ground, which now seemed far less interesting. The trek uphill to base camp, wearing half your weight in safety gear, is strenuous, despite all the adrenaline-induced energy.

Post tour, we are treated to sandwiches and coffee while we watched ourselves whizz about on video (We were accompanied by a ‘camera man’ who zipped back to base camp mid way so he could edit the footage and set it to disco music). Back at the Drakensberg Sun, over a mug of hot chocolate, I looked up what exactly ‘Ayoba’ meant. ‘Ayoba’ is what South Africans say to express delight or amazement; it’s no wonder it rolled off my tongue so naturally while suspended over the South African jungle in all its vitality.

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 3:19:35 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/travel/over-the-trees-and-far-away/article6249364.ece

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