The naked eight-second free-fall

by Russell McGilton

Bungy jumping would seem to be the most riduculous thing to do with your body; pay a small fortune to fall several hundred feet with the only thing connecting you being that of a grubby piece of elastic, bounce around and claim you’ve enjoyed at least one extreme sport in your life while keeping your lunch where it should be.

This truism has not been wasted on Alan, a good friend and travelling companion to New Zealand who had steadfastly refused any of my outlandish affirmations that this adrenalin charged experienced may change his way of life forever.

‘Well, death would change my life forever now wouldn’t it?’ he hissed. I was hardly surpised at his response. The man was terrified of heights. On our take-off from Tullamarine he was a rattling, sweating mess, his claws tearing into the armrests, nose squashed into the perspex window, making sure that the earth did not leave his sight. I didn’t help at all by shouting ‘Oh, God! OH, GOD!! What was that noise, Al?! Was that…was that the wing I just saw coming off?’

I decided on another tack that I had always been a clincher; his terminal frugalness and his rampant exhibitism.

‘You know, Al, if you do it naked that let you do it for free.’

‘Naked?’ he asked, drubbing his fingers on the table, eyebrow raised. ‘For free?’

Inside the AJ Hackett Bungy Store in Queenstown a video was being continually replayed: a man with black curly locks in ski suit falling off chair lifts, stock broking buildings, helicopters and the Eifel Tower. ‘X-treme fun!’ a crazy-way-out voice promises. T-shirts of more ‘X-treme fun’ lined the shop floor. I felt like I was in a Leo Wanker skit. For all its X-treme funness the British backpacking sales assistant that served us was imbued with little of the enthusiasm the store was trying to promote.

‘There’s the Kawai Bridge, the Pagola Jump and the Nevis,’ she rattled off, like she was selling fries. ‘Nevis is the highest in New Zealand at 140 metres and costs $150 while the others are-’

‘I believe,’ Al blurts at her with a glint of hope in his eyes, ‘that if you jump naked you don’t have to pay.’

She rolls her eyes and sneered as if imagining the whole spectacle. ‘If you do it naked we’ll charge you double!’

Al snapped round at me, mouth agape. ‘You bastard!’

Early the next morning we’re on a bus traversing up a rocky, narrow road with other white-knuckled tourists. A mask of joviality gags our fear while Benny, a stout Irishman cracks inane jokes.

A young British woman, Becky, explained to me that this was her second jump.

‘You liked it that much?’ I asked hopefully.

‘No, another jumper had his leg torn open by the bungy cord. Had to have seven stitches. I passed out because of the blood. Couldn’t do my jump.’

I squirmed at the thought.

‘Nervous,’ a French voice catches my ear.

‘Nervous? I’m shitting myself!’

‘No! That’s the jump over there. Nevis!’

Suspended only by thin cables hung an aluminium gondola – The Nevis Highwire – floating above a deep jagged gorge like a Thunderbird rescue ship. Built a little over 18-months ago the Nevis promised an eight-second weightless descent. Looking over the edge I didn’t doubt it one bit.

Like fish we are weighted and tagged so the bungy safety team would know what strength of bungy cord to use. The heaviest people would go first. Another ‘X-treme fun’ AJ Hackett assistant (also without a glimmer of cheer in her work) told us that we were not to jump but rather fall as jumping might cause tangling problems with the bungy cord. At this point, I started having questions about the safety of the sport. I had heard dubious stories of jumper’s eyes detaching from their retina or their brains unexpectantly snapping around in their skull cavity but no one had died…yet.

This knowledge seems to have suddenly arrived as the group becomes decidedly tetchy: Benny’s cracking joviality had evaporated, the Frenchman would now only speak in French, Becky looked as if she is about to pass out again but instead decided to break out into desperate smiles while Alan stuck to his take-off plan, staring doggedly at the bottom of the gorge. My only solace was in making asinine remarks like ‘It’s a long way down isn’t it?’ before tearing off another finger-nail with my teeth.

‘Who’s up first?’ asks a burly bungy-handler who’s voice had a slight ring of executioner in it. Catching his weight tag, Benny is taken away, sat down and bound and manacled with leg harnesses and bungy cord. ‘The poor bastard’, we think. ‘Glad it’s not us’.

The bungy-handler barks a list of complex aeronautical instructions while making exaggerated hand movements at Benny who returns a tight smile and a look of ‘thankyou, but really, I’d like to throw up now.’

He is lead out to ‘walk the plank’, told to wave at the camera, arms askew, then counted down. Without a sign of hesitation he topples over the edge, stiff as a crucifix, ala The Mission, a string of curly bungy cord trailing after him like fish poo. Just when it seems that he’ll hit bottom the cord catches him. His body snaps violently, spinning in circles before finally calming down to a relaxed bounce. The bungy-handlers spark into action, sending a retrieving cable to the top of the Benny’s bungy cord winching him up. As soon as he is on deck we look for signs of a revelation, an epiphany, an answer to our fears in his pink, wind-blasted face.

‘How was it?’ somebody asks, hoping to be blessed with the question.

He doesn’t say a thing, his hair a blustered exclamation mark.

‘Christ! He’s mute with fear!’ Al whispers hoarsely to me, breaking out into a sweat.

As each member is baptised with their heroic ‘rites of the jump’ the group becomes divided between those who have done it and those that haven’t. Those who have are decidedly relaxed, laughing in excited pitches. We, the virgins, are envious and would gladly lick the mud off their Timberland boots.

‘Okay. Who’s up next?’ the bungy-handler with fly sunglasses and thick NZ accent points at me. ‘You.’

Dostoyevsky once said, after facing a firing squad, that death itself is nothing to be feared; as knowing that you are going to die is far worse. How now I empathised with the man and started looking for other options other than jumping. I tried telling Al telepathically to step in and stop all this mad business, but he just seemed to stare at the ground harder. I thought of pretending to faint, fake a heart attack, erupt with ‘I REALLY DON’T NEED THIS BUNGY CORD AT ALL! and unmanacle myself and jump – on the bus. But saving face had become a matter of life and death now and I want to be adorned by the virgins! It is the strangest thing to do to put all your god-fearing faith into a grubby piece of white elastic wrapped around your torso.

‘5…4…’ the bungy-handler counts me down.

‘Oh, God!’

‘3…2…’

‘Oh, no!’

‘1…GO!’

‘AAAAAGGGHHHH!!!’

I fall, see an expanse of chasm which then blurs and I become part of it. I close my eyes, stomach churning, hear the wind in my ears, finally appreciating for the very first time the grave reality of gravity. The eight-second free-fall is taking a long time but as I think this the bungy kicks in, whacking me in the face, then snapping my whole body. My back pings in three places. ‘A nice adjustment’ my chiropractor would’ve said.

When Al jumps he still hasn’t given up looking at the ground. Instead of falling off like a doll head-first like the rest of us Al does a hop, feet forward, eyes still plastered to the ground. Al realises this is a bad move and tries to tilt his head forward, but by this stage the bungy cord has cottoned on to what his up to and whips him upside down, much to his surprise.

‘Thank god!’ I think, seeing him flaying about at the end of the bungy cord, legs now asunder. ‘He didn’t do this naked.’

For an armchair experience of the jump try the bungy-cam at www.kiwinewz.com/html/bungycam.htm

Cost per jump$150 NZ ($135AUS)

Video of jump: $50 NZ ($40 AUS)

Where: AJ Hackett Bungy, Queenstown.