Despite my authority on the subject of evolutionary biology extending only as far as owning (but, shameful confession, never having read) Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, I would like this week to venture a radical new theory that I’m sure will have Richard Dawkins clamouring for my admission into Oxford University. My theory being: our ape ancestors who split from the pack and evolved into a separate species – we humans – were not, as I supposition is implied, the cleverest, or the craftiest, or the most courageous of apes. They were in fact the laziest, the most cautious, and dare I even say, the most cowardly. The apes with no heads for heights, the apes who decided they would much rather while away their days lolling around on the solid earth, thank you very much, than exhausting themselves climbing trees and leaping about all over the jungle.
It is a theory based on those most respected of scientific methodologies: experience and observation. The experience of an irrational fear of falling simply because I was above the ground, despite knowing I was as safe as if I had both feet firmly planted thereon. And the observation that I was far from alone either in being thus afraid or in puzzling over why. As one of my companions indignantly demanded: “I’ve done bunjee jumping! Why am I scared of this?!”
The laboratory of these discoveries was ‘High Ropes Oxford’, a tree top adventure course consisting of over forty bridges, obstacles, swings, ladders and zip-slides made of rope, wire and wood, strung between the trees of a winter’s bare woodland.
The course is divided into three ‘zones’ of increasing length and difficulty, each beginning with a laborious haul up a ladder and ending with an exhilarating whoosh down a zip slide. The route in between is comprised mostly of different sorts of bridges – bridges of wooden slates, of swinging logs, of rubber tyres, of hooped ropes, of single, double or triple parallel wire lines. Such a remarkable diversity of bridges in fact, that if adventurers take but one thing away from their day, then surely it is a new respect for the ingenuity of bridge designers (tempered perhaps by a trepidatious curiosity as to why they have not yet hit upon the one winning formula).
How many of these replicate genuine crossings I do not know. It is romantic to suppose that those named after Burma, Malaya and other destinations highly exotic to a Westerner’s imagination are actually drawn from ‘real life’; but perhaps this is just evidence to the suggestive power of names. I was, for instance, sold on the authenticity of the ‘Jungle Crossing’ on account of the fact that it spanned a swamp, but felt uninspired and rather cheated when required to negotiate ‘Grandpa’s Crossing’ and the ‘Postman’s Walk’. I for one have never had my post delivered by a man sidling up to me on a tight-rope.
At least you know where you are with a bridge. It was the more curious crossings that were the most challenging, and that therefore hosted the most entertaining pratfalls. There was for instance the skateboard. Carried away with the novelty of discovering a skateboard in a tree, I stepped on to the vehicle with a little too much velocity, propelling it forward at such a speed that while my feet stuck to it, the rest of me trailed horizontally somewhere behind. And the Tarzan swing, whereon the exhilarating sensation of flying gaily through the trees was brought to a sudden ungraceful conclusion by being flung against a heavy rope netting. And finally there were the zip slides, our introduction to which was watching a woman rapidly descend the 110 metres of the first wire until she was obscured by some huts, from behind which we almost expected her continuous and comically high scream to be cut off by an explosion.
During our safety briefing we were informed that there are two ways of landing off a zip slide: running or crashing. This it transpires is nonsense, as unless you are uniquely fortunate in landing while facing the direction of your descent, and at a controllable speed, then you will crash. I had wondered why we were advised to wear clothes we wouldn’t mind getting grubby when we would be spending the adventure dangling many feet above the woodland dirt. It turns out however that your three hours in the air are interrupted by three brief but sharp spells on your backside, being dragged unceremoniously through piles of wood chippings.
Yes, the course did indeed take my party of five a full three hours to complete. It was a fun day, yet also one which demanded sustained concentration and a degree of physical strength I had not anticipated. By about half way through the third and final zone my enthusiasm for discovering yet another new means someone had devised to link two trees together was starting to wear thin, a sentiment shared by the whole group. We were weary, we were dirty, we were thirsty. Worst of all, we had missed lunch, and had only just started to appreciate that being stuck 40ft up a tree, there was sod all we could do about it. “These trees should have vending machines” opined one of my party.
I am proud to say we did all complete the course, despite the hunger, the tiredness, and the fear. I rationalised quite early on that the fear I felt was probably because in picking my way across unstable obstacles, I had to look down, disobeying the number one rule given to anyone with the merest hint of acrophobia: on no account look down. Nevertheless, in spite of realising this, and in spite of being at all times aware that I was at all times safely strapped in my harness, small bouts of fear did recur throughout the day.
Thus while our ancestors could swing freely on a finger from branch to branch, giving not a thought to the sticky consequences of losing their grip, I doubt that all but a few modern humans can ever totally shake off their innate respect for gravity.
Which is why humans are poor cousins to monkeys.