Monday, 30 November -0001

Up, up & away... in Eden

A trip through the rainforest canopy? By balloon? In Cornwall? Yes, it's possible...

Written by Robin Page

A lot has happened since I first went into the jungle, way back in the 1970s. For a start, the jungle is no longer referred to as ‘the jungle’ – it has now become the rather trendier ‘equatorial rainforest’. Anyway, back then, I went to the ‘equatorial rainforest’ to visit my sister, who had gone to work in a mission hospital in the middle of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Despite having as its leader President Mobutu, who was clearly insane, that vast country was almost peaceful. Not any more – it is now war-torn.

But while it is today too risky to visit the Congo’s pristine forests, I often think about them. They are glorious, beautiful and mighty. So high and fresh, with kaleidoscopic colours that make the one word ‘green’ seem so utterly inadequate to describe all of its verdant shades. I have long dreamt of floating through their canopies. But then, just the other day, came an extraordinary invitation: Come and see our rainforest canopy. By balloon. In the West Country. Floating through a rainforest canopy in a balloon, in Cornwall? Was such a thing possible? The prospect was so extraordinary that I accepted immediately.

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I was certainly full of adrenaline as I was strapped to the single seat dangling from the base of the helium balloon – called a ‘canopy bubble’ – that would transport me into the higher reaches of Eden Project’s Rainforest Biome. The Biome, which is like a gigantic polytunnel not far from St Austell, is 100 metres wide, 200 metres long and 50 metres high, and covers a total of 15,590 square metres (large enough to house the Tower of London). Incredibly, it is the largest area of captive rainforest in the world, with temperatures rising to 35C and 90 per cent humidity.

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As the balloon was released and I sailed up, up towards the canopy I was filled with a mixture of euphoria and horror. Yes, I was safe and the balloon was controlled by ropes, held by those on the ground, but I was suspended, floating, among the branches of some tropical behemoth.

And besides, what was that noise? Surely not my mobile phone ringing. Yes, I’m afraid it was – and within moments, there I was, floating nearly 50 metres up in the air, talking on the telephone about Yarg cheese.

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Hetty Innis, a sheep farmer’s daughter from the Cotswolds, is the Horticultural Supervisor of the Biome and is regularly lifted up by the balloon to work – pruning and trimming the taller plants and trees to make sure the Biome remains unpunctured and in one piece. It must be an idyllic existence. There are over 1,000 varieties of plant in this equatorial oasis, from Malaysia, South America, equatorial Africa: anywhere that is hot and humid. There are spectacular lilies, orchids and blossoms, as well as various familiar species in unfamiliar natural surroundings, from cocoa and coffee to rubber.

In addition, there are lizards and birds brought in to control insect pests. The birds are the attractive but secretive Crested Wood Partridge, or Roul-roul, from Malaysia and the small Sulawesi White-eye from Indonesia. Cheeky blackbirds and robins lend a hand by sneaking in and out of the Biome when the door briefly opens.

It is certainly the way to see rainforest once the fear subsides – up there in the canopy with the shades of green, the sound of falling water from the artificial mountain stream and the scents from numerous flowers and blossoms all around. It is a small taste of captured paradise.

Thousands of miles away, these helium balloons are now part of the apparatus for studying real rainforest canopy. But without the security of a Biome roof, I think I will leave that balloon trip to others. These days, the Eden Project is enough of a paradise for me.

Eden Project, Bodelva, Cornwall PL24 2SG: 01726-811911, www.edenproject.com



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