On Top of the World
The Original Virgin Canopy Tour
Story by Jan Critchley
Photos by Daniel Mejía
So, it was with more than a little excitement that I drove along the Ridge Road with my colleague, Daniel as we were about to try for ourselves the latest activity on Tortola – The Original Virgin Canopy Tour. Based in Upper Johnson's Ghut, just a short 10 to 15 minute drive from Road Town, this increasingly popular activity, more commonly known as "zip-lining" has now arrived on island. With its spectacular, bird's-eye views of the flora and fauna of the island and incredible vistas of Road Harbor and the outer-lying islands, this new adventure attraction is already becoming a hit with visitors and residents alike.
When we arrived at the tour site we were met by Rick Graham, the owner of The Original Canopy Tour who started the company with his business associate, Darren Hreniuk back in 1992. As with most success stories, it all started with a great idea – to create a unique adventure tour that would provide people with an exotic experience while promoting environmental awareness. So they packed their bags and moved from Canada to Costa Rica in 1992 and a company was born. By 1994 the first location for the prototype was identified and then in 1997 they celebrated the opening of the very first Canopy Tour in the world. Today there are 18 different tours in Costa Rica, Belize, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and of course, now Tortola has its very own.
When I asked Rick about the differences between Tortola and the Canopy Tours in other parts of the world, he replied simply, "The spectactular views." While most of the tours in other locations skim rainforests, here in Tortola – you fly above the treetops, and have the views of the lush trees below you and the stunning views over Road Harbor – giving a great contrast of scenery.
Before we left the airy office, where there is a small gift shop selling local products, a café and lovely balcony looking over Road Harbor – we also met John Shirley, the owner and Managing Director of the Tortola operation and I asked him about environmental measures that had been taken and plans for the future. "Being environmentally friendly is a key aspect of our operation. For example, we haven't cut down any trees to create the tour – we simply use strong ropes to hold branches out of the way of the lines," he replied.
"Another way we plan to enhance the environment is to plant a lot more local fruit trees up here such as papayas, bananas and soursop which will not only add to the variety of trees along the tour, but supply our "Smoothie Bar" with a variety of freshly picked local fruits. We want to reintroduce as many indigenous fruits as we can, because many have been eradicated due to disease."
It was now time to get ready for the tour, and we were introduced to our tour guides Jeana, Sinbad, Jenaro and Kennie who helped to kit us out with harnesses, a climbing helmet for safety reasons and gloves.
As we walked towards the first platform, I asked Rick about the training for the tour guides and he said, "We currently have 18 tour guides, both full and part-time and we plan to increase that number as the business grows. The basic training takes from four to six weeks with some of the team training for longer for advanced and rescue training. We believe our training regime is the most intensive in the canopy tour/zip-lining industry."
The tour guides are personable and professional and are with you every step of the way to ensure your safety and explain the habitat around you as you go through the tour. It is clear that they enjoy and take pride in their work and are keen to answer any questions that you have. Jenaro explained that he had been working with the Canopy Tours since August last year. He said "Our training focused mainly on safety, for ourselves, our co-workers and clients – we were also taught how to deal with clients and to work in a co-operating way with our colleagues. They also taught us how to use all of the equipment and about good customer service."
He continued, "We have a safety routine that we run through every morning before the first tour – we check the platforms and lines, and make sure the knots are well tied. If we have a tour later in the day, we prepare the equipment in advance so that when the guests arrive, everything is ready to go."
As we approached the first platform, Jenaro gave us the introductory briefing including technique and safety tips plus information about how to control your speed. Basically, if you feel you are going too fast – you simply apply slight pressure with your gloved hand on the line behind you and if you want to speed up then you ease the pressure on the line. Easy, hey! Not to worry though if you forget this important piece of information, as there is a huge cushioned pad and a guide waiting to "catch" you if needed.
So this was it, the moment of truth – I stepped off the platform and started gliding down the line – soaring over the tops of the trees and the feeling is nothing short of exhilarating. I was not ready to admire the views at this point, as my full concentration was on getting to the next platform. After landing safely, the guides then led us through the trees on a short easy hike, explaining the natural habitat around us as we walked and before long we had arrived at the next platform where we were hooked up again – ready for the next ride.
By now, I was feeling more confident and was really able to enjoy the experience of flying across the tops of the trees and also take in the amazing views of the lush, green landscape around me.
After a few more runs, we were walking towards the second to last run – their "piece de resistance" and longest of the seven traversing lines at 475ft. As we approached, I asked Rick about the difference between the Canopy Tour and a Zip-Line Tour and he said, "Generally zip-line tours use steel cables, but we use a type of material that will not rust and is extremely strong, as steel cables are not safe for this type of application. So my business associate, worked with rope engineers (who had worked with NASA and the US Military), to develop the synthentic material that we use that is similar to Kevlar (often used for high specification sails) and is very strong and resilient."
This was most re-assuring as we were now ready to climb the sturdy metal ladder to reach the platform to fly the "big one" and once up there, you truly feel like you are on top of the world. You can view the beauty of the island from a unique perspective and admire the views from as far as Salt Island to St Croix (on a clear day) including fabulous vistas of Road Harbor, Sir Frances Drake Channel and the many outer-lying islands in the archipelago.
It was time to fly again, so off I went – by this time enjoying every moment of it. But like all good things, all too soon the tour was over and as we were preparing to leave, we bumped into the next group of visitors who had just arrived – a family of five from the US who were flying out later that day after their vacation here. As a surprise for their final day, the father had treated his family to an impromtu tour and the kids were clearly very excited about their adventure before their journey home.
Now fully open for guests, The Original Virgin Canopy Tour is a great way to take in the stunning beauty and spectacular views of Tortola and its surrounding islands. So if you have a sense of adventure and a love of nature then this is the tour for you. It is a truly unforgettable experience that will create memories that will last a lifetime.
For more information call (284) 494-9239 or go to www.facebook.com/ovctbvi.