Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011

New Zealand's Bungee-Jumping Pioneers on the Thrill of Falling

As long as humans have existed, we've been jumping off things for fun or survival. It's human nature to cheat death. But what sane person would jump off a ledge 14 stories up, tied only to a thin rope?

Lots of people apparently. The trick is of course to almost hit the ground, but not quite. That's the thrill of bungee jumping. The five-second freefall will leave you simultaneously terrified and elated as you plummet to earth, bouncing up and down on the elastic cord until the energy of your fall is exhausted and someone comes to untie your feet.

The only thing crazier than bungee jumping itself might be setting up a business helping other people to fling themselves off high surfaces. But leave it to the folks down under to think of it. The first commercial bungee jumping operation began at the Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown on New Zealand's South Island. It sits 141 feet (43 m) above the ground with breathtaking views of the New Zealand landscape. But you're not here to admire the vista. Just jump.

Of course, that's easier said than done. Jumpmasters will walk and talk to you to the edge. But they won't push you off. The decision to step off the ledge and let gravity take over is an intensely personal one, says Henry van Asch, the co-founder of AJ Hackett Bungy, the first commercial jumping outfit in New Zealand. "It's about the ability to decide for yourself," he says. "It's an emotional and intellectual adventure more than physical." (AJ Hackett Bungy spells it with a y though the common spelling in other parts of the world has a double ee at the end.)

Bungee is an adventure seeker's dream: it's both physically jarring and mentally intense. Just don't call it a sport. Van Asch, an adventure sports junkie whose credentials include speed skiing and mountain bike racing created AJ Hackett Bungy with his equally daring pal AJ Hackett, and had a difficult time explaining the activity to friends. "We call it a personal challenge," van Asch says.

Indeed, the activity is open to mostly anyone in good health. Commercial bungee operations in New Zealand see more than 150,000 thrill-seekers each year from all walks of life. Sonya Warne, a senior jumpmaster at Taupo Bungy, says she's assisted jumpers from as young as 10 and up to 90 years old. And even if you can't — or don't want to — partake in a jump, watching can be just as harrowing. "There's all the screams that go along with it," Warne says. Tourism New Zealand estimates that the number of spectators is more than double the number of jumpers.

In 1988 Hackett and van Asch first experienced the head rush associated with plunging toward the ground — and they knew that people would pay good money for the thrill. The pair of enterprising Kiwis decided to put the activity on display to the world in a commercial venture. Working with scientists at Auckland University, they restlessly stress-tested stretchy cables and threw sacks of potatoes (surprisingly representative of the human body) off bridges to test their materials.

Once they convinced the government of bungee's safety, they leased a disused bridge in Queenstown to set up their newfound business. It turned out to be the ideal location for adventurous travelers. Queenstown, a tiny hamlet of about 10,000 on New Zealand's South Island, lies off the beaten path, accessible by winding highways or a two-hour flight from Auckland. But it's one of those overly lucky places blessed with just about every form of nature — its proximity to the massive Lake Wakatipu (the country's third largest), the Remarkable Mountains (yes, that's their real name) and the Fjordland National Park have helped the tiny town bloom into an adventure mecca. Parasailing, river rafting, mountain biking and canyoning are all sporting staples in the community. And of course, thousands come each year from home and abroad to worship at the altar of bungee.

New Zealand's thirst for a thrill, van Asch says, has been around since the nation's founding. The Maori people who sailed to New Zealand in the 1200s were the most adventurous of their culture. "They heard about this legendary land" and set out to find it, he explains. The country's challenging terrain, from craggy mountains to expansive plains in just miles, has forced a culture of exploration, one that's been heavily embraced by the people.

For all its intensity, bungee jumping is careful to venerate generations past. It started as a coming-of-age tradition on the island of Vanuatu centuries ago. "Land divers" would ritualistically leap off wobbling manmade towers, careening toward the ground with only a vine tied around their ankles. It was the ultimate display of confidence that, if successful, would indicate a bountiful yam harvest that year — and bring great pride to the jumper. Naturally, modern bungee has made major strides in safety, but the psychology of jumping rests the same. "It's a crazy phenomenon, really, for people to jump off a bridge with an elastic band tied around their ankles," jumpmaster Warne says.

It's a relationship built on trust. The jumper must have faith that all aspects of the jump will be injury-free. Van Asch, as the proprietor, knows that all safety aspects are highly controlled. But try explaining that to a rational-minded person teetering on a ledge 14 stories up. "We want danger," van Asch says, "but we want safe danger. It's a strange paradox." Safety is, of course, one of bungee's most important practices, not least because a death would be a public relations nightmare. But a long-standing government scheme helped ease the primary barrier to starting such a business: injury liability. The state-run Accident Compensation Corporation, established in 1974, provides all New Zealand residents and visitors with no-fault insurance, and the fund covers their medical bills in case of injury.

AJ Hackett Bungy pays into the fund, which in turn removes the company's liability if a jumper were to be injured. "It makes risk more accessible," van Asch says. But it hasn't diminished the company's attention to safety. Hackett and van Asch used their expertise to create a Code of Practice for bungee sites across the world. As the pioneers of modern jumping, they literally wrote the book on how to do it safely. "Though it really is incredibly safe, it doesn't feel that way when you're standing on the tip of a bridge in the middle of nowhere," says Kevin Bowler, chief executive of Tourism New Zealand.

That's not to say there are no risks. With thousands of people jumping with commercial bungee jumping companies all around the world, inevitably there have been accidents and injuries. Jumpers can suffer whiplash, eye injuries and cardiovascular issues among other things despite safety measures. And, a couple of deaths have occurred, the most notable among professional bungee jumpers in the U.S. and Great Britain. But in New Zealand, AJ Hackett Bungy's safety record remains spotless.

Hackett's bungee operation currently counts four sites across New Zealand, including the country's highest jump, standing 439 feet (134 m) above the Nevis River. Hackett and van Asch found a worldwide audience for their creation, and over the past decade they've opened sites in six other countries from France to Indonesia. Van Asch, for good measure, has jumped at his company's sites more than 650 times in the past 20 years. But each time is as terrifying as the first time when you're dropping like a sack of potatoes tied only by your ankles.