THE SHIRE // Go Ape at Crathes Castle

When it came to the first two of this year's fundraising challenges, preparation was a fairly self-explanatory thing: I taught myself to run and then I did it, lots; I paid for a swimming membership and then I lapped the pool, lots. Abseiling from the Forth Rail Bridge, however, is a little trickier to practice. And in some ways that's the point: the once-in-a-lifetime aspect is precisely what makes it so exciting and challenging. 

That said, it's something so out of the ordinary for me that I was more than a little concerned I might get there on the day and find myself paralysed by a surprising fear of heights!

So, when myself and a friend were recently invited to try out Go Ape* - a tree-top adventure course - I saw the opportunity to test myself for acrophobia and seized it with both hands..

Go Ape at Crathes Castle

Launched in 2001, Go Ape began life as a single adventure course in Thetford Forest (Norfolk/Suffolk) with a vision to "create adventure and encourage everyone to live life more adventurously." Since then, they've taken that vision both to the United States and to 28 sites across Scotland, England and Wales. One of those sites is located in the grounds of Aberdeenshire's 16th-century Crathes Castle, just half an hour from the centre of Aberdeen.

Customers only - Go Ape at Crathes Castle

It was here that Lesley and I headed one (damper than hoped) afternoon the other week, ready to let out our inner monkey and take to the trees.

Like all of their sites, the course is located in a beautiful area of British forestry. Go Ape are passionate about preserving the environment and contributing positively to the local area. They take great care to impact the forest as little as possible - recycling materials, regularly inspecting trees, creating habitats for small animals, and using braces that grip around the tree trunks without the need for bolts - and seek to use local goods and services in the creation and maintenance of all their facilities.

Crathes Castle itself is a National Trust property and the Go Ape facilities blend themselves in surprisingly well, contributing rather than detracting from the scenery. A well sign-posted attraction, we found our way there quite easily and located the cute wooden cabin nestled in the trees, which marks the start of the course.

Safety first - Go Ape at Crathes Castle

We were signed up for the original Go Ape experience, the Tree Top Adventure: a high ropes obstacle course featuring - among other challenges - ladders, bridges, tunnels, tightropes, zip-wires and Tarzan swings.

On arrival we were each given a document to read over and a disclaimer to sign before a trained 'Tribe member' started us off with a safety demonstration and practice session, gearing us up in our harnesses and teaching us how to use our carabiners to move safely from one rope to the next one. We got to put our newly-acquired rope skills to the test on a low-level ladder, crossing and zip-wire until both ourselves and the instructor were satisfied with our abilities and we were let loose into the wild!

Practice Session - Go Ape at Crathes Castle

A self-guided course, there are simple signs at every obstacle, providing participants with basic instructions but leaving them to figure out their own.. er.. "style" along the way. (Members of the Go Ape team do, however, roam the ground below, on hand to give a few pointers and ready to respond to any "Help us!" whistles blown from the trees.)

As we punched in the code to access the first of the course's five sections and climbed our way to the top of our inaugural ladder, I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of wobble in my knees. It turns out I'm not afraid of heights after all - much aided, I'm sure, by the practice session, which had given me complete confidence in the ropes' ability to catch me.

In the trees - Go Ape at Crathes Castle

Resting in this assurance, I manged to successfully navigate the course and found myself loving every bit of it! Crossing wooden planks; clambering up nets; tip-toeing along ropes; crawling through tunnels on hands and knees; stretching out between metal hoops; balancing on a skateboard; flying down zip-wires and jumping out into a Tarzan swing -- it was brilliant fun. All of it!

Groups are usually allocated a 2-3 hour time slot to complete the course, but being just the two of us we had plenty of time left over and were told we could go back and repeat it all over again if we liked. I repeated the final section - the one with the Tarzan swing and longest zip-wire - and it was just as good the second time as it was the first!

Tarzan Swing - Go Ape Crathes Castle

Unlike myself (as it turned out), Lesley unfortunately does suffer from a fear of heights. Having completed the course with her colleagues earlier in the year, however, she knew exactly what to expect from the Go Ape experience and was willing to tackle it once again, even pushing herself to conquer the Tarzan Swing - the one feature she'd missed out on her previous visit. I was more than a little bit in awe as she overcame her fear and pushed off from the platform into that sudden drop before the swing catches your weight. So brave!

Go Ape say that they're "passionate about motivating people to believe in themselves – to swap ‘I can’t’ for ‘I can’" and that was evident to me in both the encouragement of the instructors and the set-up of the course - a well-controlled environment with extra ropes on hand to help people regain their balance and conquer every obstacle, even when their legs have turned to jelly and their hands begin to shake.

If you're not used to heights or this type of activity, it's a real challenge - but it's such a buzz and sense of accomplishment when you manage to battle on and complete it. And you even get a certificate to take home so you can remember your achievement forever.. What more could you possibly want?!

I conquered the tree top adventure - Go Ape

I always thought of Go Ape as the kind of activity you participate in as part of a corporate event or team-building day and I can certainly see how it would lend itself well to that. They can put together packages for groups of almost any size, even laying on food and drinks (from local caterers, of course!) should your event call for it, and I imagine it would make for a great day out with teammates or colleagues.

That said, it was just as enjoyable as part of a duo and I reckon it would make for a great day out with friends or family (The Crathes Castle course is open to participants aged 10 and over, but selected sites also house a Tree Top Junior adventure for children aged 6-12.), whether here in Aberdeenshire or at another site across the country.

So much fun!

Go Ape Crathes Castle
Go Ape Crathes Castle
Tunnel - Go Ape Crathes Castle

Crathes Castle, Crathes, Banchory, AB31 5QJ

*In the interests of full disclosure, our visit was gifted for the purpose of review. This post has not, however, been shaped by that and all content and opinions are entirely my own.


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