BUNGY JUMPING – Gouritz River Bridge (Easter 2000)
Some eight hundred kilometers to the west of Fiji in the South Pacific Ocean lie a group of eighty-three islands collectively known as Vanautu or “the Land Eternal”. Some of these islands are towering volcanic peaks and others are low-lying coral islands with wide, sandy beaches. The people who inhabit the islands are, I am told, peaceful, loving and gentle souls who enjoy the sunshine, the sand and the good things of life.
Peaceful, loving and gentle they may be, but it would seem that too much sun gets to some of the men. On one of the islands, the small island of Pentecost, the men are known to build wooden towers, often in excess of thirty-five meters in height. They climb to the top of these towers, tie one end of a vine to their ankles and the other to the tower, and jump off.
This they may have done for hundreds of years in order to prove their manhood. If the vine turns out to be more than thirty-five meters in length, of course, the jump simply proves their mortality. Same result if the breaking strain of the vine is exceeded by the terminal body weight of the jumper. If all goes well, they presumably emerge as men of whom their women can be justifiably proud. Sort of like the circumcision rites amongst the Xhosa of South Africa, except that you get to keep your foreskin. The tower jumps are also done to ensure a bountiful harvest of yams, although a bucket of fertiliser would seem both safer and more reliable.
On the 1st April 1979 a group of students from Oxford University in England moved this ancient tradition from Vanautu into the first world, with appropriate hi-tech modifications and jumped off the Clifton Suspension Bridge after fastening opposite ends of an elastic rope to the bridge and to their ankles. History doesn’t record the impact of this momentous event on the Cambridge yam harvest of 1979, but presumably it helped to establish the manhood of the participants.
The rest of the world seems to have taken very little notice of the Cambridge event and it wasn’t until A J Hackett, in June of 1987, connected himself to the Eiffel Tower with a length of latex rubber and jumped off, that the sport of Bungy Jumping was born. Hackett went on to create the first commercial Bungy Jumping site in New Zealand that same year and the subsequent decade saw the sport of Bungy Jumping spread to many other parts of the world, including South Africa.
The first question that arises as you approach the subject of Bungy Jumping is : How do you spell the word? There are at least three variations that are in common use : Bungy, Bungi and Bungee. So uncertain is the correct form, that it is not uncommon to see different spelling being used within the same establishment. Now English logic says that there can only be one correct form. Americans, of course, are likely to have their own form, which the English are free to sneer at with the disdain that, they like to think, comes from good breeding. For no sound etymological reason, I shall refer only to Bungy, and snigger at the ignorance of those who dare to choose differently. Out of respect I shall address it only with a capital letter.
The idea of actually doing a Bungy Jump germinated in Jane’s fertile mind sometime during the early party of the year, although the desire was expressed rather vaguely at that stage. It was something that she wanted to do, sometime. It was really out of character and we all considered that it was very unlikely that she would actually attempt a jump, about as likely as the Pope visiting the Rheperbahn, incognito, with a pocketful of condoms, and far less fun to boot! None of her friends expected her to do it. But as long as it was a vague dream, it was considered harmless enough.
We planned to visit the Tsitsikamma National Park at the mouth of the Storms River for the Easter weekend. When we found that we could get a booking for the last two nights only, the plan was hatched to drive past Storms River and on to the Gouritz River so that she could do a Bungy Jump off the old bridge on Good Friday. We would then stay over in Albertinia on Friday night and make our way to Tsitsikamma on Saturday. Suddenly there was a definite plan and a definite date.
Jane told many of her family, friends and colleagues that she planned a Bungy Jump and no doubt many of them laughed up their sleeves. It did mean, however, that it would be very difficult for her to chicken out without looking like an absolute bag of wind. Although I had expressed an interest early on in doing a Bungy Jump, I was careful not to commit myself and intentionally left the subject vague.
We arrived at the Gouritz Bridge at lunchtime and were somewhat horrified at the height of the bridge. Sixty-five meters doesn’t sound very much, but one is inclined to think horizontally. When sixty-five meters stretches vertically below your feet it seems infinite. We were not cheered to see, when several small figures walked out into the water of the Gouritz River so far below us, that it was only ankle deep. Head first into that after a sixty-five meter dive would take care of all your plans for the future.
We watched one or two Bungy Jumpers in action and they made it look so easy. Jane smiled. I turned pale and offered to take some photographs of her jump.
We were given an indemnity form for Jane to fill in. Have you noticed how no-one ever reads these forms? These guys are going to tie a rope around your ankles and let you jump off a bridge, but they want you to sign a form to say that they are not responsible for any injury that you may suffer. “No problem! Where do I sign?”
One hundred and fifty rand was handed over and Jane was asked to step onto a scale. Her weight was recorded on the back of her hand with a black marker pen, as well as her jump number and a “B” to show that she was a Bungy Jumper. There are also two bridge swings available, so this distinction is necessary. Then it was on to be fitted with a safety harness.
It became obvious very quickly that the organizers of the jump, Kiwi Extreme, are absolutely superb in their treatment of their clients. Everyone we encountered was friendly, knowledgeable and totally professional. Safety is clearly their number one priority and they have seen thousands of jumpers off this bridge without a single serious mishap. This enviable record is easy to understand once you have seen them in action. Every step is checked and double-checked, by at least two persons working independently and every step is explained to the client so that he or she is aware of the precautions being taken.
Jane stepped into the harness, which loops around each thigh, over the shoulders and across the torso. This harness is for backup only and will play no role in the jump unless the ankle harness should fail. Once harnessed, Jane moved into the queue to await her turn. I went down to the observation area and found a good position from which to photograph the action. The observation area is situated on the cliff-edge between the new bridge and the old, facing the Bungy Jump platform.
After an eternity, it was Jane’s turn to be strapped for the jump. She was seated on a bench and a bright red padded protector was wrapped around each lower leg and fastened with velcro. A flat nylon strap with, she was told, a breaking strain of 4.7 tons was looped around her ankles, over the protective padding, and then looped between her legs so that the free end faced rearwards. This was pulled tight, as the operator explained that the loop was designed to become tighter as strain was applied to the end. He also explained that she would double her body weight at the full extension of the Bungy cord, and that the pressure on her ankles would be similar to the feeling experienced as he tightened the strap.
She smiled and nodded, looked intelligent and heard nary a word through the buzz of her own thoughts.
A safety strap was connected from her ankles to the full body harness to complete the back-up unit. The operators had meanwhile checked her bodyweight and selected the correct Bungy cord, each of which is colour coded for a particular range of body weights. These cords are changed after every three hundred jumps, in spite of the fact that they are deemed safe for in excess of one thousand jumps.
Jane stood and hopped forward to the rail. The Bungy cord was attached to the strap around her ankles, checked and double-checked, and she was eased through the guardrail and onto the jumping platform, which juts about two meters beyond the edge of the bridge. A few small hops and her toes hung nervously over the edge. Nothing between them and Mother Earth but sixty-five meters of air and twenty centimeters of water. She raised her arms at her sides so that they were horizontal. As if she was being crucified.
“Five, four, three, two, one, Bungy!!!!” The crew counted down in unison. Jane leaned forward, gently supported from the rear by an operator who held onto her safety harness. On the cry of “Bungy!!!” he released her and she dived forward.
For obvious reasons I cannot describe what went through Jane’s mind for the next thirty seconds or so, so allow me to relate my own thoughts, as they occurred the following day, when I jumped off the same platform myself.
I had bounded to the end of the steel jumping platform with a bravado that was well rooted in the safety record of Kiwi Extreme, but then I looked down and it was instantaneous panic. Standing on that platform with my toes hovering in space provided the most terrifying moments of my life. Don’t tell me that it’s safe – I know that. Don’t tell me that Kiwi Extreme have never allowed anyone to get hurt – I know that too. But it’s not natural to stand on a bridge and dive headfirst into nothing. It’s not rational. It’s not intelligent. The mind rebels at the thought. “Stuff this,” the mind says, “I’m quite comfortable right here on this bridge. Why jump?” No matter how safe Bungy Jumping is, it can’t beat just staying on the bridge.
On the cry of “Bungy!!!” the operator released me and I dived forward. No, I exaggerate, I fell forward more than I dived. Collapsed, really, with a little kick attached. Then the ground and the shallow water of the Gouritz River rushed upwards at an amazing speed as I toppled into a head-down position. The rubber duck with its two attendants, so small when seen from the bridge, increased in size at an astonishing rate as the sides of the gorge whizzed by and the distance between us vanished. My mind grappled inevitably with whether or not the cord would hold.
I don’t think that I screamed on the way down. If I did it would have been an obscenity or two that escaped from between tightly clenched teeth. Nothing more. I should have closed my eyes to keep out the rising earth, but I am sure that fear had my eyeballs protruding too far by this time.
“Did you hear the wind whistling gently past your ears?” you ask. “That quiet rush of air that so many jumpers describe?” Give me a break! I don’t think that I would have heard Krakatoa erupting if it was a few meters away.
Just a few seconds of falling that lasted an eternity. Just twenty-five or thirty meters of free falling and the Bungy cord came into play, stretching itself comfortably under my weight. No jerk. No noticeable feeling of pressure around the ankles. No retina-detaching jolt. Just a slowing of the rapid descent until the elastic cord reached the limit of its extension, and then I was on my way up.
Good grief! The underside of the bridge approached me at what seemed to be a faster rate than the ground had done just a moment earlier. My mind latched onto the fact that there was nothing to stop me hitting the bridge, save the force of gravity.
“You won’t hit the ground,” I had been assured earlier with a derisive chuckle. “The Bungy cord will never break.”
Okay I accept that. Just proved it, in fact. But what’s going to stop me hitting the bridge? How come I hadn’t thought to ask anyone this suddenly vital question? Is there some obscure rule somewhere that insists that you will never rebound to a height approaching your starting point? I blinked. Okay, it was a long blink. In fact I didn’t open my eyes until I was on my way down again, after not hitting the bridge. I was rotating like a top and the sides of the gorge processed in and out of view in an orderly fashion, but this gradually slowed. The bouncing also grew less and finally they both stopped.
I looked up at the bridge, then down at the ground. What a ridiculous position to be in, I thought, more than a little relieved at finding I was not to be the one to spoil the operator’s perfect safety record. Hanging by my ankles, suspended somewhere between the bridge and the ground on a piece of latex rubber. And I had paid good money for this?
Slowly I was lowered to the floor of the rubber duck, onto my back, and unstrapped from the safety harness.
“Now wasn’t that great?” the boatman enthused.
Now that it was all over, well, yes, I suppose it was great. Not great enough for me to want to do it again, mind. I felt foolish at the few moments of terror now that I was safely on the ground. It is illogical to be fearful of something that is patently safe. But then, fear is not always rational. Why are so many people fearful of non-poisonous snakes or spiders? Or the dark? Or roller-coaster rides? Or, I thought, Bungy Jumps?
I sat in the boat and watched the next jumper come hurtling down, a young girl who became garrulous with released tension now that her first jump was over. She wanted to do it again. She wanted to do the bridge swing. If only her boyfriend wasn’t so scared. She wanted to do somersaults off the bridge next time. Well, why not? Having done a Bungy Jump makes some people feel that they are ready to tackle just about anything.
The following jumper showered us unintentionally with the coins that he had not removed from his pockets, which was not only silly, but also dangerous. Having survived a Bungy Jump, death by a cranium crushing fifty cent piece was an irony I could happily do without. Once the third jumper was safely in the boat we were pushed across to the bank where we disembarked.
The climb to the top of the gorge was a steep one, with ladders and ropes being provided to assist the climbers over the more difficult sections. At the top I collected my certificate and video, and the jump was complete.