As the track pulley, from which I hung by a harness, raced down the wire, steel on steel produced a high-pitched singing sound which echoed back from the brown, windswept crags and the sandstone ramparts of Mehrangarh Fort high above the city of Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Forty metres below, the green water lay placid, broken only by ripples in a cove where a darter couple swam and fished as the sun glinted off their dark, S-shaped necks.
Surrounding the emerald Ranisar—the lake dug on the wishes of a benevolent queen of Jodhpur to provide water for her subjects—was arid, rocky terrain dotted with cacti. Before launching myself on the zipline, I had spotted a family of sand grouse scurrying about in the scrub. Nearby, a macaque had paused momentarily on a boulder before bounding away, putting as much distance as possible between himself and this horde of humans rushing in to swing where no sane monkey would dare to tread.
Airborne: A zipline that runs past the ramparts of Mehrangarh Fort.
If simian disdain was an uncomfortable irony for the two-legged thrill-seekers, the contrast of ancient and modern was enthralling. The world’s second heritage zipline tour had just been launched amid the medieval environs of Mehrangarh, undisturbed since the majestic fort was built in 1459.
Zipline touring—also, weirdly, called air trekking as well as flying fox, zip wire, foefie slide, aerial ropeslide or aerial runway—is a “soft adventure” activity that caught on after the 1992 release of Medicine Man, in which Sean Connery played a scientist collecting specimens in a rainforest canopy, swinging ape-like from tree to tree. Adventure tour operators have set up zipline tours in rainforest locales ranging from South Africa to Jamaica. Tours have also been introduced in spectacular canyons and gorges. The best (ergo scariest) are said to be in Costa Rica, while the US offers the most variety in location—ranging from Alaska to Colorado to Hawaii.
Basically, you hang from 12mm galvanized steel cables wearing only a harness and flit across on a pulley. A screw-lock carabiner is clipped on for additional safety and you are taught how to lay your gloved hand on the cable to reduce speed when necessary. The average speed is only about 15m per second so everyone tucks in their elbows, knees and feet to minimize air resistance and zip faster. There is another excellent reason to maximize speed—on the longer, less steep descents you can run out of momentum. Then you have to turn around 180 degrees and haul yourself hand-over-hand to the end. This is impressively commando-style, but it’s laborious!
Asia got its first zip tour in 2001 when German expat Juergen Zimmerer launched a canopy slide in Langkawi, Malaysia. At the time, it was the only one outside Costa Rica and it took you through one of the world’s oldest rainforests. However, in the summer of 2009, safety considerations triggered by a fallen branch forced its temporary closure. Earlier, the imaginatively named Flight of the Gibbon zip tours had opened in Thailand, apart from several in the Philippines.
India had to wait till 2009, when Flying Fox Asia launched zipline touring here. The owners of this adventure company—Jonathan Walter, a former British army officer as well as a veteran mountaineer and rafter, and Richard McCallum, who ran ultra-marathons when he was not being a sedate corporate honcho—were inspired as boys by the 1979 James Bond film Moonraker. Agent 007, accompanied, of course, by a ravishing female companion, zips down a cable car wire on Sugar Loaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro, using a belt. As adults, Jono and Dickie had a brainwave: To launch the world’s first heritage zip tour. Rajasthan’s medieval forts and sunny climes, along with camels and villages, provided a perfect locale. The first tour was launched at Neemrana Fort a year ago, followed by the one at Mehrangarh Fort last month.
Ideally, you should do both tours to get a complete experience. The Neemrana tour, which has five ziplines, is special in its own way because it has the second longest run in Asia, measuring 400m (the longest, about 500m, is in the Philippines). The longest at Mehrangarh is 300m but the sheer drop to the lake and the frontal view of the battlements are stunning. In both places, the highest zipline is about 40m above the ground. If you can only do one, opt for Mehrangarh. It has six ziplines that provide a wonderful aerial journey starting from the edge of the fort set on huge cliffs to the barren, dusty terrain surrounding it, and completing the tour with the exhilarating run over the Ranisar. On Zip 4, which passes close to a rocky hump, for a flickering moment you have a sense of the ground rushing up towards you, à la a bungee jump.
At Neemrana, the forested hillside adjacent to the fort and the undergrowth around the lovely ruins of sentry posts and stables make for a different experience but its USP is Zip 1—on which you gather the fastest speed of all the 11 ziplines of both forts put together. This is the zipline at which some of the fainter-hearted hesitate, but Flying Fox instructors Loui Hanlon and Raj Kumar can talk you through that first scary moment as you hang on your harness and pulley on the edge of the take-off platform and stare down the length of the steel cable.
Skywalk: tips to make your zipline tour breezier
Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur is situated at a height of 400ft and houses several palaces within its thick walls. For Mehrangarh, take the overnight Mandor Express to Jodhpur from the Old Delhi Railway Station; one-way AC-II fares are Rs960. The fort is 20 minutes by autorickshaw.
Charges: At Neemrana, the zipline tour costs Rs1,495 (for adults) and Rs1,195 (for children) on weekends; it’s Rs999 and Rs799 on weekdays. The Neemrana entrance fee (Rs500) is waived for bookings made in advance. At Mehrangarh, the tour costs Rs1,660 (for adults) and Rs1,330 (for children). There’s a 20% discount if you pay 24 hours in advance.
Souvenirs: Caps, Rs250; T-shirts, Rs250-499. A photo of yourself zipping, Rs150
Age limit: Over 10 years, supervised by guardian. No supervision for those above 18. No upper age limit
Weight limit: 127kg
What to wear: Trousers/shorts, long tops, shoes, sun hat
Medical contraindications: Pregnancy, back problems
How to book: Call +91-9810999390 or email email@example.com
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org