In Okinawa, it’s impossible to ignore that the plants have it out for us. They grow out of every available space, whether that’s the cracks in the sidewalk, the sides of buildings—wherever. The jungle is an impenetrable force so powerful it seems impossible that it’s only seventy years old; more like 700. I wanted to see it more closely, but didn’t relish the thought of a machete as my primary mode of transportation. No, I’m thinking zipline, as at Forest Adventure Park.
We pulled up to the tiny front office and went through the flurry rules, guidelines and waivers that are only expected when you’re preparing to fling yourself at high speed along a length of steel cable hundreds of feet above a jungle housing venomous snakes. We were loaded onto a van and taken up a dirt road winding through sugarcane and pineapple fields to the park itself, where we took a dirt path winding past thick greenery reminiscent of the transition from jungle to grasslands, and copious signs warning to keep an eye out for habu, the aforementioned venomous snakes. After about a quarter mile we arrived at the small park lodge.
At the lodge we were met by Bob, the sweet Hawaiian expat who owns the park, works the front desk, provides safety courses, and is generally as nice and jovial as you’d imagine a Hawaiian expat to be. He and his staff fitted us for our harnesses, similar to those used in rock climbing, tightening them around our waists and legs and making my brothers’ junk a little more obvious than I strictly wanted it to be. (Shannon’s, on the other hand, was just right.)
Harnesses secure, he led us to a ziplining course in miniature: cable, ladders, platforms; everything we’d see out on the course. Bob walked us through the safety basics, including how to engage and disengage our clips, the double clip system, how to climb the ladders safely, a demonstration of the quick-stop, how to ease onto the line rather than jumping, and Bob’s own run through during which he quizzed us. Although not complicated, the safety was so new and so vital that I felt nervous trying to remember it. Our last task before going on the course was the “final exam”: under Bob’s watchful eye, we each completed the safety course.
At the end was the first line down to the course proper. Loren went first, ever the daredevil. He dropped off the platform and cruised down the line suspended over the jungle, turning his head to look at us with the world’s shit-eatingest grin.
Jason went behind him, then it was my turn. I dutifully followed the course without mistakes and made my way to the final platform. This was the highest point of the park, the view of the sea is almost completely unobstructed. The jungle-filled chasm below me was like tufts of green cloud, fluffy and insubstantial. I could almost forget the cloud of foliage wouldn’t catch me if I fell. I looked across the expanse to Jason and Loren gazing back at me and waving their arms, then toward the sea which seemed so ridiculously close, the wind rushing over it to whip into my hair.
I rested my weight on the line and pushed off.
The speed pulled strands of hair out of my ponytail and made the warm day seem suddenly cool, the green canopy unspooling like a lush and living carpet pulled out from under my feet, all a blur. But at the same time tiny details on either side of me sprung out: a bunches of delicate white jasmine and pink hibiscus, birds rising from the trees and taking off into the sky, the sea rolling in and in and in on the horizon, the white breakers seemingly motionless.
And then I turned to see that I was mere feet from the literal end of the line and it was all I could do to get my feet in front of me to dig deep in the wood chips and stop myself, my body tossed like a sack. It was rough, though not as rough as I’d expected. I was still alive, and could still breathlessly stand. I did so, the smile on my face unstoppable.
I looked back at the platform where Shannon would come down behind me in moments and waved. He waved back and I took my clips off the line and hooked them on my belt as we’d been instructed and cleared the area and watched Shannon as he careened like an arrow into a target and landed in a burst of wood chips and smiles and rough breathing. He took to his shaking legs and we all followed the path to the next line, laughing and panting. The buildings and our fellow zipliners disappeared behind the wall of pampas grass and wild ficus.
The paths led to an unexpected and delightful set of challenges: various kinds of traditional bridges, rope ladders, cargo nets, and of course numerous “zip slides” that let you relax and enjoy the wind in your hair and display some sprezzatura on the landing. Between the rising and dipping path and the ladders to the zipping platforms we were all out of breath in a matter of minutes. After a half hour of this, we rounded a turn in the path and found a clearing with a picnic table and canopy, a cooler sitting nearby. The sign on the cooler invited us to take a drink, sit, and relax, which we gratefully did. It was good to sit, and easy to forget how challenging the course was while I sipped iced tea and laughed with the guys about our misadventures. When it came time to move along, I got up with gusto to climb the ladder to the next zipping platform, but was already winded by the time I was halfway up. So much for sprezzatura.
We zipped along above the jungle and finally came to the end of the course: a massive nest of bridges and a tarzan swing: a “stepping stone” bridge, ring stirrups, a log swing, the “half trapeze,” the “tank trap”… The bridges linked together three different platforms, including the one leading to the tarzan swing, in such a way that you could loop in and out and around the course over and over without having to touch the ground.
Somehow I let myself be the first to take the plunge on the tarzan swing. Although I’m no more afraid of heights than the average person, it took a lot of courage to do the swing. Resting on the zipline was one thing; it was possible to ease myself onto the line and feel its support before giving myself to it entirely. But the rope swing felt like nothing but slack so I couldn’t rest my weight on the rope first. On top of that—or, more appropriately, under that—the ground was perfectly visible in all its bone-crushing glory. There was no suspending disbelief; if this rope failed, winding up in traction would be the most favorable outcome I could hope for. I took several deep breaths to get up my courage, failed to get up my courage, then jumped anyway.
I fell, and it seemed like that fall lasted an eternity—the slack in the rope seemed to go on and on, to the point I was sure the rope wasn’t actually attached to anything and that I was indeed bound for the earth. I screamed and squeezed my eyes shut, and only then did the slack finally end and the rope caught me and slung me into the cargo net. As a safety precaution, my harness was clipped into the rope system, which is good because I’m sure that I would have dropped it if my weight had slammed down on my hands instead of on my thighs and butt. I grabbed the rope and tried to recollect my lost dignity by climbing like a stoic badass. I made my way to the next platform and its interesting collection of bridges.
This was significantly easier, and more fun. While Loren took to the tarzan swing over and over, I made myself the queen spider of the bridges, trying to master each crossing with grace; no hands, if possible. The rings became my specialty; something in my brain tacitly understood how to navigate them and I could traverse back and forth with such ease that the boys became convinced it was easily conquered, then were hilariously proved wrong as they each became nearly stranded in a tangle of steel rings and rope. I’d recross with ease and offer advice, but no one had the same grace that I did.
We played in this area for a long time, probably twenty minutes, before we decided we really ought to go. We zipped down to the bottom of the course, where Bob was waiting for us. He asked if we’d had a good time, which we enthusiastically admitted, then he asked if we wanted to go again. No words. He smiled. “You can go as many times as you want. Do you want to go again?”
There was nothing else that desperately needed doing that day. We nodded. He sent us off and we ran back to the course to soar again.
Address: 1525 Maeda, Onna, Kunigami, Okinawa 904-0417
Price: 3,600 yen (~$30 USD) for adults; 2,600 yen (~$20 USD) for children under 18. Family and group prices are also available.
- No one under 140cm (4’8”) tall or weighing more than 130kg (287lb) is allowed to zipline. If you have party members who fall outside these ranges and you don’t mind splitting the party, they can visit Ryukyu Mura, Cape Zampa, Cape Maeda, or Zakimi Castle Ruins instead, as they’re all a short drive away. Alternatively, they can hang out in the park and watch. When I brought my parents, my mom couldn’t zipline but she still had fun watching us, checking out the native plants, and enjoying the sunshin.
- Arrive at least 30 minutes early for your reservation so you can fill out the paperwork, pay, and ride up to the park. If you don’t get there in time for this, you visit may have to be rebooked or canceled depending on how full the reservation book is.
- Wear good-quality hiking or athletic shoes. No open-toed shoes are allowed, nor are heels, ballet flats, Crocs, and similar. Check out the park’s list of restricted footware for more info.
- Although not required, I strongly suggest bringing gloves. Your hands start to get rope burn from holding your lines and climbing the rope ladders and cargo nets. I managed to get through two rounds without gloves, but I didn’t want to try a third. Definitely bring gloves if you want to make a day of it!
- Bring lunch. Since there are lockers, you can pack in food that doesn’t need to be refrigerated and eat at the shaded picnic tables near the lodge between rounds on the course.
- The entire park is non-smoking.
Based on my diary entries from November 22, 2013.