Swinging in the Rain(forest)

The rainforest of coastal Ghana.

Edem, KK, James, and myself get the the skinny from the Park Guide. The “swing,” as he calls it, is a third of a mile long, half a football field above the ground, and is “suspended from seven solid trees.” The “solid” part is of interest. I would hate to dangle a half a football field from something less than “solid.”

Map. Thanks to Google Earth!

We are in Kakum National Park. Here, a canopy walk was opened in 1994 to give visitors a new way to experience one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the continent of Africa. Counting birds alone, more than 250 species have been identified. This number includes parrots, hornbills, and antpeckers. It is a birdwatcher’s paradise. I am sorry I didn’t pack binoculars.

As we climb the slope to mount the swing, we experience the rainforest the old fashioned way. We walk among tree roots, vines, bamboo groves, and flowering bushes. Midday is like twilight; the canopy of foliage blocks out the sun.

An ant highway crosses the trail.

Beneath our feet is a trail of mud, decaying vegetation, and insects. Eight inch centipedes and other leggy fellows (unrecognized by me!) are our earthbound companions. I pause to photograph an ant highway crossing the path. I squat to examine the guardrails of their turnpike. Thousands of ants flow like a river between these parallel banks of dirt. James, a former student, cautions me as I seek the perfect photograph. These insects bite. He tells me they can overwhelm, kill and carry away even small animals. I retreat, sniff, scratch a little, and let the zoom lens finish the work.

We continue walking between the banks of our own trail. I break into a full sweat. The heat and humidity are suffocating. At last we reach our goal: a low-slung tree house. From this portal the canopy walk begins. The Park Guide cautions us not to try a scare others by shaking or jumping on the swing.

He needn’t worry.

KK is in a full sweat for reasons beyond biting ants or climate. In the car he told me about falling off a scaffold years ago. He has never gotten over his fear of heights. Unfortunately, this walk is a one way trip. Once you begin (and others follow in turn) there are no passing lanes, no U-turns, no ways out. There is, however, a special escape at the third tree, but, the guide warns us with a straight face:  “if you panic and exit, you’ll miss the highest part.”

He really doesn’t get it, does he?

KK screws up the courage and launches his sweaty self forward. I admire his gumption.

The boardwalk is narrow.

The boardwalk is less than a foot wide. Wooden planks ride on a series of metal ladders suspended from two steel cables. At each joint, the ladders flex and sway under the weight of the walkers.

When my turn comes, I step out of the treehouse and onto the swing. The ground tumbles away under my feet. The two steel cables stretch forward and disappear into jungle. I grip ropes that are armpit high. Netting on either side drops down and connects to the boardwalk. Fungus grows on the boards and ropes. Tears in the netting are visible here and there. The holes are large enough to put a leg through, but probably not an entire torso. Probably. For KK’s sake, I do not draw attention to my calculations.

A highway strung from the tree tops.

This canopy highway offers a different perspective on the rainforest. The sun, eclipsed on the forest floor, runs full power up here. Birds of color are everywhere. I’m told it is possible to identify primates too, including Ghana’s own endangered species: the bearded monkey (Cercopithecus roloway). I look for the little fuzzy guys but fail to spot their black, white, and orange coats among the trees. Maybe there is too much human noise. Maybe they are just gone.

The highway of imagination.

As I look for animal life, tendrils of vines drape down to meet me. They seem to offer a new possibility for travel. I blink, wipe the sweat from my eyes. Then, with a growl rising in my throat, I leap up from the boardwalk. I grab one vine and swing, vine to vine, vine to branch, branch to tree. Fingers and toes grip the greenery. I cling . . .  jump . . . fly!

From his lofty perch Tarzan leans back on his haunches, puts his hands to his mouth and issues the Jungle Cry. It is piercing, guttural, primitive:

“Ahhhhhhhhhh–ah-uh-ah-uhhhh, ah–uh-ah-uhhhhhhhhh!”

Beasts in shadow tilt their heads. The echo of the cry drifts away and is consumed by a thundering waterfall. The chatter of the bearded monkeys, hushed for the moment, returns.

I blink again and wipe the sweat from my eyes.

In truth, my arms are torn from their sockets before the swinging vine slams me into a tree trunk. I cartwheel through the canopy to the ground, some thirteen stories below. Then, in a final move of ignominy, my lifeless body is carried away by an army of ants. Somehow, as the picture dims, grins can be seen on their little toothy faces.

I grip the ropes of the swing again, this time more tightly.

Swinging in the rain(forest).