The Plunge

[image # 1]"I can't believe you're doing this," my friend Sonia said over the noise of the bus. "Aren't you scared?"

"Not really," I explained. "It just doesn't seem something to be scared of."

"But my goodness, I'm scared for you! Are you just going to stand on the edge and jump without worrying about it?"

"Well that was the plan." I began munching on a plum while pondering the situation. We were on a backpacker bus on our way to Queenstown, and our driver had announced a stop at Kawarau Bridge, the world's first commercial bungy jumping site (known as "bungee" for American readers). Anyone wanting to do a jump would have a chance to do so, so who was game?

I raised my hand excitedly. Who wouldn't want to jump off a bridge when given the opportunity to do so? It sounded like fun!

However, I soon realized that my fellow travelers did not see things in this light at all. Of the 30+ people on the backpacker bus only three were jumping: everyone else was scared to death about the idea and was trying his or her best to make me feel the same. As the hours passed, I am certain that every single person on that bus asked me if I was scared of jumping and asked again half an hour later to see if my reaction had changed.

Finally, I got a little tired of this because I knew I would get scared if everyone kept telling me I should be. "No, I'm not scared," I finally said in a loud, slightly cross tone, "because I have faith in the laws of physics!" This was actually not a display of bravado or anything: jumping off a bridge did not scare me because, well, I've spent the past few years of my life studying this stuff, so my brain refused to be anything but logical about it. The rules governing bungy jumping are the same as the ones I study at university, so there was nothing to get scared over.

This declaration was met with nervous laughter and the questions subsided, allowing me a few victory nibbles on the plum. Sonia, however, remained troubled.

"Maybe you shouldn't eat that," she said.

Bungy jumping started off on a small island part of Vanuatu in the Pacific, where the young males on the island would jump off tall platforms with vines attached to their feet. The naghol, or Land Diving, was first done by Westerners involved in the Dangerous Sports Club of Oxford during the 1970s. The members did their jumps off various bridges using elastic cords, which often ended with their prompt arrest.

In the 1980s a New Zealander of the name of A J Hackett got involved and enlisted a professor at the University of Auckland to test elastic cords and do calculations to prove the jumps were safe, which was the first real scientific input regarding bungy jumps. What happens during the jump is described primarily by classical mechanics in physics: the jumper experiences effects based on a combination of simple freefall and the stretchiness, or elasticity, of the bungy cord. The weight of the jumper is also a significant factor because a heavier person will stretch the cord to a greater length, similar to how a rubber band is stretched to varying lengths based on the applied force.

These tests eventually proved that bungy jumping was safe so long as the physical calculations were properly done (the handful of bungy fatalities usually involved a miscalculation of cord elasticity, and those with back problems are also discouraged from jumping). In November 1987, A J Hackett opened the Kawarau Bridge as the world's first commercial bungy jumping site. The bridge was a slightly more risqué place back then: it was free to jump off the bridge provided you did so naked, but so many people volunteered that the practice was discontinued rather quickly.

When I arrived at the bridge the first thing I noticed was the chill of autumn well-known to anyone who has visited the Southern Alps of New Zealand in April. After going into the registration area, us jumpers had our weight written on our left hand and signed a lengthy release form.

"Tell me," I asked the girl behind the counter as I did the last signature with a flourish, "have there ever been any accidents at Kawarau Bridge?"

She gave me the exasperated look of someone who gets asked the same question ten times a day. "Would we still be open if there were?" she crossly pointed out. "There have been no major accidents at Kawarau Bridge, and it will stay that way if you listen to instructions and do as you're told!"

"Okay." I said meekly and wandered over to the bridge feeling like a scolded little kid. I wanted to know what the minor accidents had been, or at least how they got classified as "minor" instead of "major," but I decided not to worry about it.

What actually happens when you do a bungy jump at Kawarau goes something like this: you are fitted with a harness and have your feet strapped together with a cord around them, you shuffle the best you can to the edge and jump, you oscillate a few times until the cord becomes slack, and then you get pulled down into a dinghy boat in which they take you back to shore. You usually have to stand around a little while waiting for those in line before you to jump, which is thankfully enough to get you used to the view downwards. Kawarau Bridge is 43 meters tall, just under the length of an American football field, so it takes a little getting used to even if you are a physics student.

Finally it was my turn, so I shuffled to the edge. "Alright, love?" the operator asked. "Scared at all?"

"Nope," I replied, stealing a glance downwards.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," he said. "People usually lose their balance looking down like that because you can't step back with your feet tied together, and the resulting fall isn't much fun."

My head snapped up immediately. The operator grinned. "Look over at the horizon instead, will you, love? Just jump out like you're trying to reach it? Okay then. three, two, one, go!"

I jumped. For an instant I had the terrible, gripping feeling you get when you accidentally fall. Why am I doing this? I found myself wondering. This really is a bad idea!

Luckily, this stopped pretty quickly and I felt exhilarated with each microsecond (and time really does slow down during a jump, so that the thirty-odd seconds seem like an eternity). The thing about a bungy jump you have to realize is that the elastic saving you from a splattered demise makes the jump completely different from the freefall rides you might have experienced at an amusement park: it does a great job at gradually changing your acceleration, so the whole thing is very smooth and feels quite surreal. Then in an even better move you find yourself accelerating upwards, which is something so completely alien that you can't help but marvel. Have you ever thought it would be great to fly into the sky like Superman? In a bungy jump, that's essentially what you do!

Ever since I was little, I've wanted to fly. (I think we all do.) And now I was, or at least doing the closest I would to the real thing, and gave several euphoric shouts of joy. Even if I lived to be a million I would never forget this!

But all good things come to an end so I was lowered, beaming, into the dinghy boat on the river. It had been truly wonderful. If you ever have the chance to do a bungy jump, I highly recommend you take it. Come to think of it, I have never heard of anyone regretting doing so.

Soon enough our backpacker bus was trundling onwards into the New Zealand mountains. "Well I'm so glad that worked out well," Sonia sighed, settling into her seat.

If You Go.

The Kawarau Bridge is located a 30 minute drive away from Queenstown on the South Island of New Zealand. The cost for a jump as of May 2007 is NZ$150, and free transport from the center of Queenstown is available.

For more information on bungy jumping, or for information on bungy sites in New Zealand or around the world, visit http://ajhackett.com or http://www.bungeezone.com.

- Written By Yvette Cendes.

- Reviewed By Antje Heidemann.

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