16 October 2010

Bungy Jumping at Victoria Falls

It's 1997 and I am doing fieldwork in northern Namibia with Nige. I have decided to take a few days off in the middle of the work period and head to Victoria Falls for some sightseeing and to raft the Zambezi. Nige doesn't want to go because he was there last year with his girlfriend so I leave him well stocked up and drive across northern Namibia, along the Caprivi strip, into Botswana and then Zimbawa. The journey takes a couple of days and is another tale.

I arrive in Vic falls in the evening and quickly sign up for a raft trip the next day just as the shop is shutting. It's already dark so I head to a campsite.

The next days rafting is epic, huge volumes of water, massive rapids, crocodiles in the pools, a single capsize. Exactly what I had come for, I was a very happy bunny. That evening I sat in a bar with the 4 gap year kids who I had shared a raft with for the day. They were a bit younger than me, on a white mans tour with Daddies visa card but they were good company especially after so long in the desert. We are having fun.
"So guys what's next?"
"Vic falls bungy jump tomorrow, 100 m, it's the biggest in the World - you wanna join us?"
I have been a climber long enough to know that falling isn't really fun and I am also short on cash, I think it will be a bit contrived and lame so I decline in a shower of accusations about my courage, my manhood and my right to hang out with them. It's all good natured though and after about three more beers I agree that I will join them. If you are ever going to do a bungy jump, I guess Vic Falls is a better backdrop than going off a crane in an Asda car park back home.

The next day we go to see the Falls and they are, without doubt very impressive. Millions of gallons of water, tumbling into a gash in the otherwise flat basalt plateau. The noise is immense and the mist and steam do indeed look like smoke. The locals who showed it Livingston called it the smoke that roars". That seemed pretty accurate to me. We also see the bridge and look down to the river below. One hundred metres is a bloody long way.

Our jump time comes so we cross customs (the bridge is the boarder between Zimbawa and Zambia) and walk out on the bridge. A small, sinister looking street kid looks me in the eyes and draws his finger across his throat in a threatening jesture. This is unusual because the kids are normally happy and laughing. I hope it isn't an omen.

We get to the middle of the bridge and the obligatory Kiwi bungy master greets us. He explains that we will jump in order of size and after each person has finished they will lower someone down off the lower deck and haul us up. Easy as that. The mood is light hearterd but there are hints of nervousness amongst the boys. I feel like I am pretty relaxed.

Matt is up first, he is a big guy and he has done jumps before. He is trying very hard to be cool and ignores most of the Bungy masters banter and some of his instruction. When he jumps it is half hearted and he tumbles, uncomfortably into space. I make a conscious decision to listen to the instructor and do what ever he tells me. I rationalise that they do this 50 times a day - if you do what they say nothing can go wrong, can it?

Then there is a load bang from beneath us and the Bungy master winces and says "that one will have hurt". I ask what he is taking about and he explains that big guys will often have enough momentium to come back up and hit the underside of the brdige if they jump badly. This is serious, Matt is a big guy but not that much bigger than me. I make another "note to self" to listen carfeul to the instructions. I have to drive half way across Africa later in the day. I have fieldwork to do. I can't afford an injury now.

So the Bungy master straps a towel around my legs, then he wraps a climbing sling around that in a larks foot and clips it into the rope and the safety harness. He instructs me, best to dive, jump as far out as you can and keep your body straight. At the bottom, you can extend your arms out to the side, that will slow you down on the rebound. Flapping can slow you down further, stop you hitting the underside of the bridge. I listen intently taking it all in and visualizing the process.

I shuffle to the edge of the platform and look down. It's a fuckin long way but I feel calm. I don't give myself too much time to think, just bend my legs and push off hard, accompanied by a loud yell. Arms extended I execute a perfect swallow dive and accelerate downwards. An old climbing adage is, if you remember falling then its a long one". I definitely remember falling and seeing the river accelerate towards me. Just as I reach the water I am catapulted upwards. This is awesome! What a buzz! Then as I hurtle upwards I remember the underside of the bridge and extend my arms, frantically flapping. I am very happy when I avoid the impact and drop down again.

I bounce around for a while before the man on the cable comes a clips into my harness and slowly pulls me back up. He is happy and smiling a lot. I guess he sees a lot of adrenaline charged westerners.

At the top I catch up with Matt and we compare notes. I ask him if hitting the bridge hurt. He denies it happened but I am adamant. Maybe he was so psyched he didn't notice? He looks at me as if I am a bit daft and we head back to the edge of the gorge to watch the others.

The bungy company shot video and sell it to the jumpers. I am keen to watch Matt's and prove to him that he did in fact hit the bridge. We sit in the little cabin as they show the jumpers in order. As we watch Matt go, we see his terrible, half stumbling jump as plummets straight down, everyone is laughing. Then as he rebounds he accelerates upwards but then stops, he is 20 or 30 m short of the underside of the bridge. I am momentarily confused and then there is a dawning realisation...

I have been had! Big Time!

My video is up next and I almost can't watch. I see myself perform a perfect swallow dive on the way down and then morph into an idiot frantically flapping my arms on the way back up. Everyone cheers! I have to laugh - I have been had, hook line and sinker.

I get partial revenge by refusing to buy the video. Its all very good natured, but I have to admit I fell for it well and truly. Just follow whatever the instructor says. What could possibly go wrong?

No comments: