If there’s one thing my post at the checkout lane of Premier Taste has shown me, it’s that Queenstown hasn’t earned the name of Adventure Capital of the World for nothing. The number of people who come through my till every day sporting fleeces and jackets emblazoned with the logos of the various companies is astounding. First there’s the jet boats – the Shotover, the Dart River, the Kawarau Jet; the paragliding, skydiving, and God knows what other ways to propel yourself from the sky; then the gondola and luge company; safaris and paintballing; kayaks and white water rafting; the various ski areas, of course, and then, a New Zealand classic, the bungy jumping. Each time they’d come to check out, it only showed me how much I’ve yet to do here, how many crazy opportunities there are to push yourself to so many physical limits.
So when a guy I work with at the supermarket, my Scottish friend Mark, mentioned a couple weeks ago that he was doing the Nevis Highwire Bungy in a few days, I knew I had to do it. Mark and I are in similar situations, in that we’ve both lived in Queenstown for a little while now, but the fact that we’re leaving in a matter of weeks has made us realize, we’ve got things to do. So I hastily rearranged work schedules and freed up my morning to allow for the four hours the entire bungy experience takes. While Mark had originally set out to do the Nevis with two of his friends, I managed to recruit two more – a German girl and guy who had both recently started working at Premier Taste as well.
Forking over the three hundred dollars for the jump (and the photo/DVD combo pack, of course) wasn’t something I spent a lot of time thinking over. It was just something I knew I couldn’t pass up. Skydiving, paragliding, white water rafting – all activities I’ve contemplated doing while in Queenstown, but all things I can do elsewhere. The bungy though? Queenstown is the bungy. To do a bungy jump in New Zealand is sort of the equivalent of eating a pizza in Italy or having a Starbucks espresso in Seattle. It’ where it all began.
The company I’d be jumping with, A J Hackett Bungy, built the world’s first commercial bungy operation in 1988 – the Kawarau Bridge Bungy, 43 meters above the Kawarau River in Queenstown. The company’s namesake, A J Hackett, is a Kiwi entrepreneur cited on Wikipedia as the very Father of Bungy Jumping. From his first jump off of Auckland’s Greenhithe Bridge in 1986, Hackett went on to establish commercial bungy sites around the world as well as earn himself several Guinness records, including the world’s first bungy off a building and jumping out of a helicopter in Malaysia with a bungy stretch of over a kilometer. Has this man lost his mind or what? The 134 meter drop of the Nevis Highwire Bungy – my form of torture – makes it the highest bungy in New Zealand and second highest in the Southern Hemisphere, second only to the Bloukrans River Bridge jump in South Africa. Here goes nothing, right?
And so the day arrived. It had been a fitful night’s sleep, and understandably so. In the days preceding J-Day, Jump Day as I’d come to call it, I didn’t dwell too much on the fact that I was about to go throw myself off a bungy pod suspended by cables over a gorge and freefall for 134 meters. But my sleep the night before clearly showed my subconscious was at least scared out of its mind – I had dream after dream of being up in the pod, of other jumpers going to the edge, screaming as they looked down, running back, the attendants holding their shoulders saying all-too-calmly, “Conquer your fears, you have to jump.” When I told Mark about the dreams when I arrived at the bungy center in town the next morning, he asked, “So did you jump?” And like those dreams where you’re falling but never hit the ground, I myself never stepped up to jump, so I didn’t even have that to go off for whether or not I would actually do it.
10.20 am. Boarding time. Coincidentally, Mark had pulled his back the day before and couldn’t even join us for the jump. “Who’s idea was this again?” asks Mark’s friend Dave. “Martin! And he’s not even coming,” we all groaned as we found our seats. There’s only one word for that forty-five minute ride: ominous. Like lambs being led to the slaughter, everyone glanced at each other, asking quietly, “So is this your first time?” As if desperate for reassurance that they would survive, desperate to know they weren’t alone. And you can tell the bungy company actually revels in it, that they love to play up our fears. As the bus passes the Kawarau Bridge jump, the driver almost delights in announcing, “Just to give you an idea, the Nevis is over three times the height of the bridge jump.” Awesome. And when I asked the woman making my booking about the safety record, she looked at me nonchalantly, “No one has died bungy jumping in New Zealand.” A response which of course skips over a myriad other options of not-so-hapy outcomes, but who’s getting specific? Included in the waiver I had to sign is the following statement:
“I accept that Bungy Jumping carries with it some degree of risk; both to the person, property and emotional trauma of friends and family spectating. Knowing of the risk I still wish to register and participate in Bungy Jumping and so expressly agree to assume the risk of personal injury, damage or trauma to friends and family while I participate in this activity.”
Emotional trauma? They really think of everything in this industry. The only thing that set me slightly at ease was finding out we would be jumping heaviest to lightest. A friend of mind who visited Queenstown a few weeks ago did the Bridge jump and said they had simply asked who wanted to jump first. I had been mulling over this for days, torn by my Type-A, overachieving side that wanted to be first as well, and my other freaked-out-on-the-verge-of-a-panic-attack side that really just wanted to see how it was done a few times before jumping myself. So I felt a little relieved as I harnessed up at the jump site, knowing the jump order was out of my control, but still feeling a little concerned for those heavier than me who had been told they were going first in order to “test the line.” If I was freaking out, what in the world must they be thinking?
We leave our purses and backpacks in lockers and walk out onto a wooden viewing platform. While we wait to board the gondola that’ll take us to our death, I mean, the bungy pod, we watch other jumpers take the leap. Most simply scream, their friends hoping for a swear word to slip out and incriminate them on the video, but one girl cries out, “Iiiii loooove Neeeew Zeeeeealand.” Hardly my sentiments at the moment. The time comes for our group to begin. It turns out Sam, Mark’s other friend, has the privilege of weighing the most and our leader asks if he’s come with anyone. The rest of us join him in the gondola, which conveniently holds five jumpers and one attendant. We clip carabiners onto a wire running across the ceiling – an action that doesn’t go unquestioned by myself as to why we might need to do so – and start moving. I’m delighted to find the floor of the gondola is serrated metal, so that I’m never quite unaware of just how high up we’re actually suspended.
11.30am. In the pod, finally. There’s still a group ahead of us, so we wait for them to finish their jumps, all the while growing quieter as a barrage of signs attempt to instruct us: “Remember you must do a big dive.” One sign shows the danger of jumping feet first, rather than diving straight out, which is of course the opposite of everything those “No diving in five feet or less” signs at the pool ever tried to engrain in our minds as a kid. About three turns away from your jump, an attendant sits you up on a counter and tightens straps around your calves, contraptions that have an eerie resemblance to the arm bands used by nurses to check your blood pressure. My German friend Georg looks at me and asks, “Why are you so white?”
One turn away, just as the victim in front of you jumps, you’re ushered behind “the line,” the line marked by the signs, “Only jumper and attendant past this point,” and told to sit in a seat that looks far too much like a dentist’s chair for my liking. [Have I mentioned by utter and complete hatred for dentists? So yeah, that didn’t help things.] Another attendant begins attaching a weight to your legs and clipping all sorts of carabiners and ropes to you, asking all sorts of comforting questions like, “So this is your first time bungy jumping? How are you feeling?” He explains about how I need to do a sit-up after my second bounce and pull a strap on my left foot. It’ll release something or another, letting me flip up as I’m pulled back into the cabin, rather than hang like a dead fish with my feet first. I’m determined that won’t happen to me, so I keep repeating everything after him.
I’m reminded of when I went white water rafting in the New River of West Virginia. Our raft guide told us that if we hit a particularly rough section of the river, he’d yell out, Get down,” and we should all dig our legs into the sides of the raft. We all know what happens in those moments of sheer panic and how easy it is to forget whatever it is you’re “supposed” to do – kind of how no one actually remembers to turn the steering wheel the opposite way when you start fishtailing on black ice, no matter how many times you’re told to do so in driver’s ed. So there I was in that raft, about to face class 5 rapids for the first time in my life, so I just wanted to be absolutely sure of what to do. “So when you say ‘get down,’ you mean…?” “No, I mean, I want you to start dancing,” says my smart-aleck guide.
12noon. It was much the same in that foreboding dentist’s chair in the pod. I asked something like, “So when you say pull to the left, you mean my left, not yours?” or some other panic-induced, ridiculously stupid question. After a quick, entirely-fake smile for the official camera, it was go-time. I waddled over like a pitiful duck to the wooden jumping platform. The attendant throws the weight over the ledge, causing me to lurch forward slightly, places a hand on my back, and starts counting.
It wasn’t even a matter of thinking about whether or not I was ready. There was no time for that, it was only, “Jump out, jump out, jump out.” As much as I tried not to look down, I had to watch my feet as they inched nearer and nearer to the edge of the platform. Photos give away my complete hesitance, my bent knees, arms that refuse to stretch completely out; the video captured the most pained expressions on my face.
It wasn’t that the attendant had to push me off the ledge, but it wasn’t that I jumped entirely on my own either. It was with a gentle nudge that I pushed off with my feet, a scream escaping before I’d even fully left the platform, much like a child squirms and says, “Ouch,” before even receiving a much-feared shot. But in about the span of two seconds, the most amazing thing happened. Freefall. The feeling of being completely suspended above the earth literally took my breath away; the feeling of floating, of being weightless, of absolutely nothing. It has to be what astronauts feel for the first time in space. In two seconds, all my panic melted into peace, my fear into faith. Hours of dread and distress instantly giving way to eight and a half seconds of soaking in as much of it as I could; of resting in my trust that the rope would support me. What better metaphor for life, for this year and my decision to come to New Zealand.
After the first bounce, I was entirely at peace, arms extended over my head, taking in the scene below me. I couldn’t even speak, breathing hard not from exhaustion but exhilaration. Once I bounced twice I did a sit-up and pulled the strap, possibly the simplest of maneuvers, definitely not one I needed to stress over. From there it was twenty seconds or so as they reeled me in, back up to the cabin, like some little fish caught in the Pacific.
“That was incredible!” I shouted to the attendants as they pulled me back in and unhooked me from the rope. There’s a reason all of the photo packages and paraphernalia from the company have “I did it!” written on them, because it’s all you can think in the first moments after the jump. Because you were so close to letting your fears win out, to not doing it. So when you step away from the jumping area and take a few breaths, it’s such a high to think, “I did it. That was it? That was what I was so scared of?”
But it all went too terribly fast. After the jump, it was back in the gondola, into the bungy center to select our photos and print them, and then back on the bus en route to Queenstown, in time for a 2.30pm start at work. Talk about anticlimactic. We didn’t say much on the ride back, just shared photos and uttered various words like, “Amazing,” “brilliant,” and “life-changing.”
If there’s one thing that gives me the courage to keep jumping in life – whether literally or figuratively – this is it. I just hope the freefall’s longer next time around.