Clipped to a steel cable and suspended 12 metres above the ground, I was about to find out why South Carolina's award-winning zoo is called Riverbanks. Moments later I was soaring over treetops and flying 300 metres across the scenic Saluda River in Columbia.
The zip-line adventure is just one of the extreme thrills for the human species at the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, which is also home to more than 2,000 animals and 28.5 hectares of serene botanical gardens. Other high-adrenaline excitement includes the Sky High Safari ropes course and the Scale the Wilds Adventure rock wall.
The zip-line tours themselves average about 120 minutes and the cost is $45 (all prices in U.S. dollars) for the Zoo Zip or $55 for the River Zip. Participants must weigh at least 32 kg and not more than 113 kg to safely traverse the many zips and rope bridges. No prior experience is necessary, but you will need is a sense of adventure and a little courage to step off that first platform and dangle over the ground far below.
Of course, for those who like to keep their feet on the ground, there are plenty of other things to see and do at the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, including some great opportunities to get up close to the inhabitants.
If you've never come face to face with the massive head of a giraffe, you can do that here at the giraffe overlook feeding area. You can also hand-feed colourful lorikeets, who are definitely not shy about landing on visitors who pay $2 to purchase a small cup of the sweet nectar they crave. As well, there is a kangaroo walkabout where you can freely stroll among one of Australia's most iconic animals.
Speaking of the land down under, Riverbanks is one of the few zoos in North America to house the irrepressibly cute koala. A gift of the government of Queensland, Australia, the zoo gained its first pair of male koalas in 2002 but has since added a pair of females. The couples appear to be getting along well because we were introduced to a baby koala named Heathcliffe who quickly stole our hearts.
Keeping such adorable animals is neither easy nor inexpensive. Because of the koala's strict diet, fresh eucalyptus leaves have to be flown in twice a week from Florida, Arizona to South Carolina. Between their food, specialized enclosures and their caring keepers, zoo officials say each koala costs about $30,000 a year to feed and house.
Another unique animal experience awaits at the Ndoki Base Camp, where you can get nose to nose with western lowland gorillas through an 11-metre span of glass. These great apes, which can weigh more than 200 kg, can be viewed from several great vantage points in their outdoor enclosure, which is lushly planted to resemble the gorilla's natural rainforest habitat in the Congo.
And if you want to pause and reflect after all the high-flying adventure and animal encounters, you can always take some time to tour the expansive Riverbanks Botanical Garden. This large green space features woodlands, gardens, historic ruins, plant collections and a visitor centre.
NEED TO KNOW
-- Visit riverbanks.org for the latest operating hours and events. Admission is $11.75 for adults, $10.75 for seniors and $9.25 for children three to 12. Children two and under get in free. Zip lining and the ropes course require additional fees.
-- Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens is located near downtown Columbia, S.C. The nearest route in by plane is Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, N.C. The distance from Toronto is about 1,400 km or 13 hours straight driving time.