Nothing can really compare to the absurdly terrifying and absolutely exhilarating experience that is a bungee jump. There are other extreme sports that require you to plummet wobbly-faced from lethal heights but bungee jumping is the only one which allows you to do so alone, without the wed for special training or qualifications. All you need is courage and an intriguing deficiency of common sense.
As you stand on the edge, staring into the dreadful void, every atom of your being will demand you to retreat. Urgently. Yet you must refuse. You must spurn the survival instinct handed down through millions of miraculous years of evolution and instead bestow your trust in an elastic band and an alarmingly nonchalant instructor.
To step off that platform is to win and lose a battle at the same time: your willpower gloriously victorious, your nature shamed and defeated.
Of course, you won’t be pondering metaphors. You will just be vaguely aware of the wind roaring in your ears, the adrenaline hurtling through your veins, the profanities cascading out your mouth, the ground accelerating towards you and filling your teary eyes.
Strangely, all fear is vanquished the moment you jump – there simply isn’t room for anticipatory emotions. Or any other emotions. The experience is purely sensory. Once you’re falling you are emphatically in the moment. The decision to jump becomes irrelevant, as do the consequences of doing so.
You are alive in that moment, and that’s it.
In many ways a bungee jump is a manifestation of the leap of faith that is often invoked as a metaphor for leaving home to explore faraway lands. There are few better examples of literally stepping out your comfort zone. Perhaps this is why it’s typically an activity undertaken by travellers, who are already in that experimental mindset, than as something to fill a Sunday afternoon at home.
The roots of bungee jumping
Having said that, bungee jumping began very much as a domestic event. The roots of the sport can be found in the jungles of Vanuatu, a remote archipelago in the South Pacific. Each year, male villagers on the southern part of Pentecost Island construct wooden towers to coincide with the yam harvest, and leap from varying heights with a vine attached to each ankle.
According to legend, the custom arose following a marital argument. A mistreated wife ran away from her abusive husband, Tamalie, and climbed a tall banyan tree. Tamalie pursued his wife to the top, where to his astonishment she leapt off, and then goaded him for his pusillanimity. Unbeknown to Tamalie, his wife had tied liana vines to her ankles, which broke her fall and saved her life. Not to be outdone, an encouraged Tamalie then made the leap, and that was the last thing he ever did.
The event was then reenacted annually, with men jumping both to atone for Tamalie’s shame and to show they would not be tricked again. The practice is called land diving, owing to the jumpers actually grazing the ground (if all goes well) before being yanked back from full impact by the vines. Boys perform their first jumps aged 6 or 7 as a rite of passage, and the most experienced men will jump from heights exceeding thirty metres.
David Attenborough was the first broadcaster to film the ritual and the resulting BBC documentary opened the eyes of the UK to the concept.
However, the year was 1960, and for the next decade free love would prove more attractive than free falling. The next high profile visitor to bring attention to the land divers of Pentecost Island was none other than our dear Queen, who saw a live show during a tour in 1974.
Creating worldwide appetite
In the late 70s, bungee jumping came into its own with the emergence of the Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club. And with it the categorical proof that no one is better at stereotyping the British than the British. On April Fools’ Day 1979, club members David Kirke and Simon Keeling performed the first modern bungee jumps from the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. They wore top hats and tails for the occasion and jumped clutching glasses of champagne.
The rozzers were on the scene soon after.
After solemnly promising never to do anything so daft again, Kirke and Keeling travelled to the States and bungee jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge and the Royal Gorge Bridge, and in the process created worldwide awareness.
Worldwide appetite was created by a Kiwi called Alan John (AJ) Hackett. Inspired by the land divers of Pentecost Island and the Oxford Dangerous Sports Club, the entrepreneur saw the opportunity in making the sport accessible to the general public. In one of the most successful and literal PR stunts of all time, Hackett – and his magnificent mullet – bungee jumped from the Eiffel Tower in the summer of 1987, and made international headlines.
Less than a year later he opened the first commercial bungee jump in New Zealand, and today his name is synonymous with the sport all over the world.
But won’t I die?
Despite seeming almost comically perilous, bungee jumping has always had a remarkable safety record. Injuries and fatalities are so extremely rare that when they occur the stories generate huge media attention.
One such incident that had the world collectively gasping was when Australian backpacker Erin Langworthy bungee jumped from a bridge at Victoria Falls and experienced the dreaded rope-snap. She slammed into the crocodile-infested Zambezi River and spent the next hour doing her utmost not to drown or be eaten. She was incredibly fortunate to succeed on both counts.
If you are harmed it will mostly likely be from your own body throwing in the towel and dishing out a heart attack, or at the least a reasonably severe panic attack. As the Wikipedia entry for bungee jumping helpfully points out, the sport has been shown to increase stress levels.
Most people, of course, suffer no long term effects, other than a propensity to begin stories with: “Yeah, you think that’s scary, well when I was on my gap year and bungeed from…”
But that’s fine, some stories are worth telling.