Issue 11.3: June/July 2008

High-wire Acts

story by Catharine Lo
photos by Dana Edmunds

 

Orange is the new black,” declares Rip Delisanti, trying to make us feel better about the goofy hard hats with Plexiglas eye shields we’ll be wearing for the next three hours. He’s in charge of wardrobe for the Kapalua Adventures zipline tour. In this case, that entails asking everyone to bend over and stick our backsides out to ensure our lounge-chair-style harnesses are properly adjusted. After a few minutes of wiggling and giggling, we’re all snug in ‘okole-hugging straps, and we climb aboard a biodiesel-powered Unimog (a German military vehicle repurposed for heavy-duty passenger transport) that hauls us wanna-be 007s up a dusty, red-dirt pineapple road to the Kapalua Mountain Outpost, where the adventure is to begin.

Eight cables, totaling 2 miles of distance, traverse the landscape. They pass at heights up to 200 feet above foliage-blanketed valleys, connecting a series of wooden platforms. An intricate network of knots and carabiners hanging from our harnesses tethers us to a hand-held trolley, which will carry us effortlessly along the cable—we hope. Our job is simple: We’re to hurl ourselves into oblivion and zip (hence the name) down the cable at speeds much faster than a human ought to go.

After a brief procedural explanation, we head to the first tower for our initial zip. I volunteer to be the guinea pig. I get anxious sitting there like a helpless infant dangling in a baby swing, prevented from zipping away by a closed wooden gate.

“Line one, brake check, both sides!” he calls into his radio. Roy, the guide on the receiving end 500 feet away, radios back that he’s ready. “Zipping, line one, left side!” Andrew responds. He unhooks my safety line, flings the gate open and gives a 3-2-1 countdown. I take a breath, pull my knees up, and the floor disappears.

I’m off and zipping. The cable vibrates with a soft “zzzzz” as the ground below me whizzes by. As I approach the other side, the guide awaiting me spreads his arms and legs in a jumping jack, a position they call “starfish,” which is said to slow you down. Taking the direction, I pull my own starfish, as we’ve been told to do, and enter the landing zone safely. My trolley smacks against a block that absorbs my momentum and recoils; the report sounds like a gunshot. Pretty exciting—and that was just the trainer!

With each traverse, everyone’s confidence builds; the worst part is waiting your turn. By the time we get to line five, which stretches 1,600 feet across a deep gorge where a waterfall spills into a bamboo forest, we’re finally comfortable enough to take in the view—we are pros. Well, except for me. It just so happens that the Kona winds—blowing the opposite direction of Hawai‘i’s typical trades—thwart my momentum enough that I stop short of the landing platform. So I lie back and check out the waterfall upside down, waiting as Roy locks onto the cable and maneuvers himself to me hand-over-hand, retrieving me via a process they call “pineapple picking.”

“Come here often?” he jokes, offering me a tow rope.

“Wanted to see if anyone would pick me up,” I reply.

The rescue is successful, and as my feet return to the ground, everyone applauds.

I ask Dennis, a zipper visiting from San Diego, why he signed up; he’s here for the scenery, he says. Before us, squat guava trees dot a grassy pastureland. In the distance, the royal blue of the Pacific dissolves into the horizon, and I can make out the outline of Moloka‘i. Dennis says these are views he couldn’t see otherwise. True enough. This and other mountainous regions on Maui are part of the wao akua, the place of the gods. It’s the domain of Hawaiian spirits, says Kapi‘ioho‘okalani Lyons Naone, the kahu (priest) who is the zipline tour’s cultural advisor.

Maybe this is what it’s like to be an akua, I think, endowed with the ability to fly—how beautiful, if inconsequential, everything appears below.


 


Danny Boren
opened Maui’s first zipline, Skyline Eco-Adventures, on the slopes of Haleakala in 2002. The idea came to Boren while he was traveling with his father in Costa Rica, where there are numerous zipline “canopy tours” designed to take tourists safely through a sensitive and rarely visited ecosystem. Boren, who was raised on Maui, wanted to construct
a similar eco-tour to educate visitors while simultaneously helping to preserve Hawai‘i’s delicate forest environment. In their first month, Skyline entertained only six zippers. But word of the no-sweat adrenaline sport spread quickly, and today Skyline moves hundreds of people a day through the treetops; they’ve even opened a second zipline at Ka‘anapali. Today there are three zipline operators on Maui and four on Kaua‘i.

The industry has snowballed nationally, too. The earliest ziplines were constructed as part of personal development challenge courses. In the past five years, dozens of commercial ziplines have popped up in Alaska, Colorado, California, Utah and other states. While some function purely as amusement rides, many tout their operations as eco-tours, appealing to a new breed of environmentally conscious traveler.

But why do ziplines, which require platforms fixed to trees and steel cables strung through natural areas, qualify as “eco-tours”? Is it because they’re low-impact or that they teach ecology? “It’s really both,” says Boren, who is also president of the Hawai‘i Ecotourism Association, an organization that defines ecotourism as “nature- and culture-based tourism that is ecologically sustainable and supports the well-being of local communities.” Skyline’s ziplines, for example, employ spacer blocks that keep the cables off the tree trunks and allow the trees to thrive. “It’s obviously in our best interest to keep the trees healthy,” he adds, “which is why we have a certified arborist out to inspect the trees multiple times a year.”

In Makawao, Maui, Pi‘iholo Ranch is opening a six-line zip tour on its 800-acre working range, where deer roam freely and nene geese fly overhead. “While we’re selling a ride, people will leave with a knowledge and understanding of Hawai‘i that they previously didn’t have,” says Jeff Baldwin, who runs the ranch with his brother Duke and his father, Paniolo Hall-of-Famer Peter Baldwin. Jeff Baldwin wants to educate visitors about the fragility of the ecosystem through which his zipline runs. “There’s only 7 percent of native forest left,” he says. “When you think about the fact that Hawai‘i has 50 percent of all the endangered animals and plants in the US, you realize, boy, Hawai‘i’s just a real gem.”

Between aerial traverses along the Skyline’s Haleakala zip, I appreciate the ground time as we hike through the forest of sharply aromatic (albeit invasive) eucalyptus trees. At each zip, we learn about an endangered bird. Our guide Sal points to a photo of the green-yellow kikekoa, the Maui parrotbill. Endangered by predator rats and feral pigs that destroy its habitat, it’s now one of Hawai‘i’s rarest birds, Sal says, and it’s found only in East Maui forests.

“Makes you want to jump off a cliff,” he continues, shaking his head. “Well,” he says, leading us to the edge of a ravine over which we’re about to make a screaming, 40-mph traverse, “we’ve got one for you.”


 

There’s a lot of tree-hugging going on at Kaua‘i’s Just Live, but it has more to do with saving yourself than saving the earth—specifically, saving yourself from falling to the earth. Just Live (which, in tree-hugger fashion, recycles, uses natural cleansers and has neither electricity nor running water) is Hawai‘i’s only zip course that is entirely treetop-based; that is, your feet don’t touch the ground until you disembark from the final line. The rest of the time, you’re a modern-day Tarzan, soaring from Norfolk pine to distant Norfolk pine.

To quell everyone’s fears about safety—the number one concern for most zippers—our guide Matt tells us that each of the galvanized cables can support 26,000 pounds, each pulley 19,000 pounds, and each carabiner 11,000 pounds. In other words, even those approaching the 275-pound weight limit need not worry.

Atop the platform on the first tree, I meet Jane, a 79-year-old visiting from Ohio with her two sons. “I told the girls at Jazzercise I was doing it,” Jane tells me enthusiastically. “They said, ‘Take a photo!’”

As Jane prepares for her first zip, her son Joe, who remembers zipping in Army training thirty-five years ago, offers her some words of encouragement: “Oprah did it. You can do it, too!”

Just Live, which started out as a ropes challenge course for community youth and continues to sponsor high school adventure clinics, specializes in getting people out of their comfort zones. Accompanying the six-zip course are two dangling rope bridges that, for many, are more daunting than the passive sit-and-zip traverses. The challenge sparks instant bonding among the intimidated—“team-building” is what the ropes course purveyors call it.

“Did Oprah do it?” Jane asks, gazing warily at the ground 80 feet below. But as soon as Matt secures her harness and gives her clearance, there’s no hesitation. She bounds off the platform with a cheek-to-cheek grin, crying, “Farewell!” Tarzan’s heart would have fluttered.

Education aside, the overriding aim of ziplining, of course, is fun with a capital F, which is compounded by the camaraderie of your guides and fellow high-flyers. The 15-minute van ride to Kipu Ranch, site of the Outfitters Kaua‘i Kipu Falls Zipline Trek, gives our six-person group a chance to get acquainted. We rattle off names, hometowns and, at our guide Adrian’s request, astrological signs. After he points out Mount Wai‘ale‘ale, the world’s wettest spot, Adrian tells us that he and fellow guide Carina were recently voted world’s best tour guides. They confirm this by pointing out what they say is a rare sighting of the world’s last remaining pterodactyl, which to me looks suspiciously like a cattle egret.

During this tour, I discover I am more Tom Sawyer than either James Bond or Tarzan. Besides two traditional zips, we rappel down a waterfall, romp across swinging suspension bridges and jump off a 25-foot cliff on a rope swing into a fairy tale waterfall pool. Midway through, I decide I don’t want to return to civilization.

With Outfitters Kaua‘i’s hands-free harnesses, the zipping takes on a kamikaze-like character. We learn creative take offs: the iron cross (backward with your arms in a T) and the running leap. By the time we reach the final dual lines, we’re zipping upside down and twirling with the grace of trapeze artists—well, almost.

On the way back to the van, Adrian crowns us with official “I Survived Ziplining” hats fashioned out of green elephant-ear leaves. We’re giddy enough to actually wear them. I make a mental note: Hard hat, leaf hat or no hat, zipping can turn you into a total dork. I highly recommend it anyway. HH