Go Ape in Devon
Follow a mother and daughter as they sample the high-wire delights of Go Ape in Devon.
Last time it was sea kayaking. We drifted out lazily enough with the tide, but on the way back we had to paddle hard against the current; I couldn't lift my arms for a week. This time Holly chose Go Ape! at Haldon Forest, near Exeter Racecourse. I'm afraid of heights, or at least, with no conscious effort on my part, my feet tingle when I near a cliff edge or ladder. The only way I could get to the start was to avoid thinking about it. Difficult with Holly's constant attempts to boost my confidence: "Lean back, it helps. Jump off, Mum! It will give you confidence."
So, suddenly I found myself signing forms which stressed that I took full responsibility for a high-risk activity. Holly watched as I stepped into the complicated harness, knowing I would put it on backwards. Luckily, she had been listening. Rich, our personal instructor, must have thought 'There's always one'... After the safety briefing, he singled me out to demonstrate.
For the first time I looked up at what we were meant to do. Attach two safety lines and climb a ladder up a tree. Next, attach a heart-shaped pulley and, therefore, ourselves to some sort of wire. Walk the tightrope to another tree. And finally, jump off attached to a zipslide, back down to ground level.
Talk about outside your comfort zone with an audience watching! "Remember to pedal with your feet as you come in to land," Rich warned. I did. I even landed upright in the pile of wood-chips. "You're a natural," encouraged Rich, and we were on our own.
Once you've passed the safety training, the guides don't do the assault course with you, although at each of the five stages one of them hovered, feet firmly on the ground, grinning at our decidedly unape-like attempts. So, it's up to you to check your safety harness at each step. Adults can look after two children between the ages of 10-16 or supervise up to five 16-17-year-olds. I had brought my own safety guide along, Izzy, my middle daughter. I went in the middle, in theory so that I could keep an eye on their ropes, but in fact they both kept an eye on me and kept me going!
As I climbed the first serious ladder, the weight of the pulley dragged down, like a tail with a heavy lead weight on the end. A reminder, if I needed one, of the laws of gravity. I was determined not to look down. The first obstacle was a relatively easy rope ladder. As long as there was something beneath my feet and something to hold on to, irrationally I felt reasonably safe. Irrational, because the wire is thin and unless you are a trained tightrope walker you wouldn't attempt it unaided. What keeps you safe, of course, is the harness attached to the ropes.
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Holly scampered across, so I had to follow. Fine, until we came to the first high zipslide. Now there was nothing beneath my feet. This time I had to jump and trust the safety ropes. Rich had done his best to instil confidence, showing us how you could let go and take a nap if you fancied, but my tingling feet were on fire. Holly had already jumped and was yelling me on. Izzy was behind, coaxing "I'll push you!"
This was 'the leap of faith' they had enthused about in the car. It reminded me of a film I'd made about guillemots. Dad jumps first from the cliffs, into the wild sea, and calls to his fledgling chick to jump, while mum sits on the cliffs giving the occasional encouraging nudge. "Come on, Mum," groaned Izzy, "you're holding everyone up."
I don't know whether it was the threat of being pushed or the embarrassment at having to be rescued, but I jumped. Holding on to the rope for dear life, and pedalling madly with my feet, the ground came up to meet me and I landed in an untidy heap. My hands were stinging because I'd gripped so tight, my jeans were filthy, but I'd done it. Then I watched Izzy. She let go with her arms, screamed with delight and flew, loving every second, of course.
The obstacles got higher and harder. Every rustic trapeze and rope ladder seemed designed to bounce or swing away alarmingly, making you do mid-air splits. A bit like the sensation when your skis tangle and you find yourself heading backwards down the slope, except that you're 40 feet in the air. At one point we were faced with putting our feet into tiny rings, which had minds of their own. The teenager in front of us swung round, arms and legs akimbo, like a stranded starfish.
Next to the rings, it said 'Extreme'. On the other side, 'Intermediate'. I chose the easy option but soon discovered this meant doing two longer sides of a triangle to catch up. The choice? Grit your teeth and tackle the extreme, or have everyone watch and wait while you struggle your way round.
Suddenly we were at the zipwire again. High above the world. The end so far away, I could barely see Holly waving at me to jump. I planned to do this one a little differently. I just hadn't realised it would be quite so high. I had no choice, so I jumped, letting go with my arms stretched out and screaming.
Then I stopped screaming, because I wanted to enjoy it. Pure exhilaration, flying through the trees, like a bird, with only the air rushing past you. Until the end. Because I wasn't holding on, I landed backwards. I didn't care. The most frightening challenge was definitely the best. I had been looking forward to that cup of coffee, but now I was sad there were only two zipslides left. So, place as many swinging bridges, net tunnels, tightropes in my path as you like. They're all do-able - at my own speed and in my own time - all for the adrenaline rush at the end.
Every now and again we would hear a scream, followed by a sickening thud, as though someone had fallen. This was the giant Tarzan swing. The scream, according to Holly, was due to the sudden stomach-churning drop when you let go. The thump was of each body hitting the net. I gave that one a miss. After all the queue was piling up behind us again.
We were nearing the final zipslide, the biggest and the best. I asked a 50-something woman from a team-building group whether she was enjoying it. She told me that they'd had the choice of a theatre visit or this, and they'd gone with the team decision. "I'm not enjoying it. I'm enduring it," she said. We both laughed. We'd got to the end. For her a victory. Me, I craved one more high wire.
If you get there and change your mind at the safety briefing, Go Ape! will give you a full refund. You can choose one of many trails: nature rambles, mountain bike tracks or bridleways. Haldon Forest really is a beautiful adventure playground. Or you can just sit and have a cup of tea and listen to the screams of delight ringing through the woods.
Go-Ape! at Haldon near Exeter is open every day throughout the October half-term, then every weekend in November. To check opening times or to book see www.goape.co.uk.
Haldon Forest Park and the many other trails are open every day throughout the winter, except Christmas Day. 01392 834251, www.forestry.gov.uk/haldonforestpark