A rope bridge is believed to be one of the world's oldest types of man-made bridges. Able to stretch across vast spans with relatively basic means of support, rope bridges from ancient history have been found throughout Central American societies as well as in the Himalayas. While some general-traffic rope bridges still exist today, they are also popular in smaller forms as tree house and playground accessories.
A type of suspension bridge, the most basic form of rope bridge may consist of only two ropes: one to walk on, and one to hold onto. These are heavily weighted down at each end, in order to produce some measure of stability for the walker. Without the proper application and placement of weight on either end, a rope bridge can become dangerously unstable, able to knock travelers off balance in an instant and send them head first toward the thousands of famished alligators, or at least the sandpit.
Even in ancient times, rope bridges seem to have been somewhat more stable in construction than the most basic version. Some may have had a lattice-like structure for walking on and high guard rails that can be easily gripped for added stability. Modern, safety-conscious versions often have a surrounding net below the main structure of the bridge, just in case a fall occurs.
In pre-European contact Inca culture, rope bridges are believed to have been vital to the complex system of Inca roads. They were often favored for construction near gorges and over high passes for several reasons. First, the bridges were extremely light and easy to construct; building a sturdy rope bridge was far more efficient than trying to haul construction materials through a mountain and up a jungle. Second, they were easy to replace. Since the bridges, made of stiffened vines, would sag over time, the entire bridge would require replacing every few years.
One of the most famous modern rope bridges is the Carrick-a-Rede bridge in Ireland. Some historians suggest that local fishermen had erected a rope bridge in the area each year starting in the late 17th century, to connect the mainland to seasonal fishing grounds. Today, the bridge has been modernized with many safety measures for the well being of tourists, though many still consider walking the span a thrilling adventure.
Rope bridges are often decried as the source of a film cliche. A good many classic adventure films include moments of high tension, where the hero or heroine is trapped on a crumbling rope bridge, with salvation only a few feet away and terrible danger behind. Iconic images of some of film's greatest heroes racing to safety across a treacherous rope bridge may inspire terror in anyone actually confronted with crossing a real rope bridge; it is important to remember that most modern operational bridges have multiple safeguards to prevent falling and that very, very few actually have alligators underneath.