“A Life After Bungee”
At some point in everyone’s life, they must ask themselves the question: what would Batman do? I did so when conferring within as to decide whether or not to bungee-jump over the Zambezi River, and the obvious answer brought with it a brave determination I had never felt before. I was not a risk-taker, and felt out of my element. My mom insistently discouraged the idea, my younger brother said he would if his arm hadn’t been broken while skiing two weeks prior to our African excursion, and my Dad said it would probably be a hell of an experience but that you could count him out.
The constant baritone rush and roar of the mighty Victoria Falls was ubiquitous when standing on the Great Victoria Bridge that connected Zimbabwe to Zambia.It was Christmas day, but it was technically late Christmas Eve still in America.
I signed some “you might die” waivers, heard some rules and regulations, got fitted into a harness, watched a “you might die” instructional video, and then I waited in line.
My morals dampened as I watched a plump, middle-aged, Japanese man chain smoke cigarettes since he was next in line after the previous jumper had been retrieved. The bungee came up empty and the anxious Asian stepped forward, flicking his cigarette out over the bridge to be extinguished in the river after a one hundred and eleven meter plunge.
I continued to captivate my attention on the man as he was beckoned forth by the crew to the preparation platform. I think I did so because my turn was coming up soon, and quite frankly, this guy was shaking like a Chihuahua, so I felt better about my bravery. Clearly his family had talked him into doing this, and I looked to the left to see them with their fingers on the triggers of their digital tourist cameras that they were holding over the railing of the bridge so they could document the time that Dad almost shit himself. They all gave him a thumbs-up back, to which he returned a nervous smile. He sat down and the jump crew wrapped a towel around his ankles, and then securely (presumably) attached the bungee cord.
The guy started to get really anxious and apprehensive. Gone was his cigarette, gone was his crutch, this was the big moment. He stood up with his arms out for balance, looking like a floppy human cross as he hopped forward with conjoined legs and arms that had gone as elastic as the bungee cord from fear. The staff helped him to the platform board, and he tried to back out, exclaiming something in Japanese then laughing embarrassingly at his own cowardice. His family cheered him on, which gave him the necessary gall to act.
During the instructional video, it was suggested that if the jumper were to feel as if they were going to chicken out and make a fool of themselves, then they could request to face the platform backwards and have one of the jump crew give them a gentle nudge over the precipice, in case their own will had frozen in place. It was also suggested that in order to not get to the point of backing out in the first place, you should look straight out at the horizon and of course, never, ever look down.
The man did just this. The crew led him to the edge and it appeared as if he was almost on the verge of tears. His face was red and panicked at this point; beads of sweat trickled down his forehead and rolled over his tightly closed eyes. He crossed his arms in an X over his chest, and trembled like it was negative ninety, praying to his God in his head if he believed in one.
The bungee crew now announced excitedly, “1…2…3…BUNGEE!”
He was given a gentle plod and then the short little man seemed suspended in the horizon for an eternity that lasted a millisecond. Then gravity shook his hand and sensation took effect; like an old Road Runner & Wiley Coyote Cartoon, he seemed to have looked deploringly at his family as if to question their love for him and why he was the only one daft enough to be talked into doing this.
His family had captured this moment forever, and they clapped for him as I saw him dive-bomb beneath me through the almond-cut grate work of the waiting area. He was screaming stupidly, but sound still travels faster and his echoes of terror had reverberated off of the canyon walls before the band went from slack to taut. Once he was just a dot in my vision, he was followed by a giant black rubber band trailing about like a lasso until it suddenly went rigid as a ruler and then recoiled back into a curvy contour. This motion repeated about two times, and the man was now upside-down wailing his arms wildly above his head but trying to minimize movement. His cackling crazy screams carried up to the platform as he hung by his feet, spinning one hundred and fifty feet above the river like a fish on a hook, and the retrieval man worked his way down in a little seat hooked up to a self-repelling belay system. It was evident in his cries that he was goddamn proud of himself for following through, and goddamn happy that he would live to see another day.
At this point I was now third in line.
Peddlers came up to me to revel in the joys of tourism, they enjoyed watching the jumpers and really enjoyed the post-jumpers who wanted to buy even more hand carved souvenirs and memorabilia to signify their survival during the African adventure despite the risks taken.
One particular peddler I befriended was named Stefan. Stefan was very drunk and I could smell it. Stefan was hammered enough that I was able to convince him that he ought to sing motivational songs for me as I jumped.
Stefan was selling Zimbabwean currency, for mere single-digits of Rands (South African currency.) I exchanged a green ten-rand bill which had a highly rendered inking of a Rhinoceros, for a—I kid you not—million dollar Zimbabwean bill with a proud and smug Robert Mugabe posed as if he wasn’t the leader that had made his country’s currency worthless, being just as much of a bastard as he was on every single other bill—because he is on every variation of value.
Stefan was assuring me—just as the Great Victoria Falls Hotel had—that the bungee had almost a million jumps now, there had never been a single injury and the bungee cord had never come even close to straining, let alone snapping. In fact it was replaced for a new cord halfway through each day to (literally) ensure the lives of millions.
I would later discover to a dismal dismay and utter shock that they would never quite make it to one million. I was jump number 975,910 and there were roughly three hundred jumps per day.
It was now time; I was now up.
Stefan says to me as I rise from sitting on the bench in the queue, “My friend, fear nothing, we have a phrase, ‘there is a life after bungee.’ I have done this many, many times, you soon shall see.’”
He patted me on the shoulder and I gave him a high five to mask my wish that I was as drunk as he was right now. But I was not going to let it show like the Japanese man. No one else who I had seen that jumped put on such a display of fright. I was not going to be that guy.
Being able to see the drop beneath me at all times was a confidence stimulant, but each second was saturated with adrenaline and apprehension. I guess the idea behind the grate-work fashioned preparation canopy cage was to build courage—if the jump station was structurally sound, then so must be the apparatus.
Still, my legs felt wobbly as they forced themselves to move forward, I felt a detached and distantly vague sense of control, but it was as if I was trudging through the currents of a dream, not everything was in my control and I was in some dormant state of bravery that compelled me to desire a victorious resolution.
Two bungee-crew members held open the two sides of the platform gate and I passed through to the point of no return. “Abandon all hope ye who enter here”—or some other corny quote passed through a pretentious and overconfident young writer’s mind in a time like this. I resolved it was much more empowering to think of Batman being badass and how I ought to as well.
I sat on a grated bench and through the platform you could see the rapids of the river churning and curling, possessing a mean menace. This view entailed a brief yet thorough contemplation of physics, biology, and the unknown.
The funny factor is that earlier that day, my whole family had an uncomfortable experience with acrophobia-inducing heights. We had surveyed the savanna plains from a rickety old helicopter that crammed us in, cramped with our elbows jutting into one another. My mom clenched her eyes closed the whole time, and refused to take in a sight she would never be able to see again. Elephants were ant-sized from up that high as they could be seen ripping trees from the ground by their roots.
The bungee crew wrapped a towel around my ankles and secured the towel by wrapping a cushioned suspension device about the size of an airplane neck pillow tightly around them.
This was what kept you safe? This flimsy thing attached by only a giant rubber band to a bridge?
My face was now drenched with hot, humid air and salty sweat, I could see the mist from the torrent of Victoria Falls creating clouds that slowly rose high but never made it too far into the sky to unite with the real ones.
The bungee crew steadied me and helped hobble me forward one careful hop at a time. The platform was five hops away, four, three, two…
Someone reminded me not to look down. Wasn’t planning on it. I kept my eyes gripped on the sky. Then I closed them. And I took a deep breath, then opened my eyes again as I leaned forward, and it was impossible to keep looking away from the fall as my body went forward then straight down.
A rushing and blurring and howling in my ears are all that could be sensed. Colors and shapes whooshed by in peripherals, then all of a sudden felt elongated, held, then whooshed backwards and grew far away, images impossible to focus on. Blood rushed and thumped and filled my skull, this blood-rush indistinguishable from the extra rushing roars of wind and water pronounced with the effect of gravity.
I yo-yoed up and down a few times, and while the initial plunge was pure adrenaline and unforgettable, this part, I detested. I lost momentum stretch by stretch, and my surroundings began to become clear as I slowed and hung suspended and twirling, but bouncing no longer.
It seemed an eternity that I waited there, reminding myself that I was safely secure, and that a man in a seat would be here to snap my harness in and carry me up to the bridge, where I would ascend the parapets and exit stage left to be reunited with my family. Finally I could hear whistling and singing not far above my feet. The bungee retriever was now here to extricate me from the terror.
I proceeded as instructed by the video, let him take care of me and hoist me in a parabolic incline up to a platform on the parapets where I was greeted by someone who got me safely onto a skywalk with ample space to feel comfortable, but still small and thin enough to make you feel as if you were not home free yet. In order to get off the bridge, and to feel safe while you’re on it should a gust of wind shake your balance, I had to clip my carabineer onto other carabineers spaced about five feet from another, that were secured along a rope that was there to ensure people didn’t somehow die on the getting back safely part.
My family was waiting for me to return and they all hugged me as if they had just watched me jump off of a bridge. They asked how it was and I said I needed a day to articulate it. I asked my brother excitedly if he had gotten proof of the plunge, and to my dismay he replied that they hadn’t been able to get an angle where they could film me until I was being retrieved…
But this is just my life after bungee… this story is only a personal narrative based on my experience, when in all reality the entirety of my experience was forged in the tragic misfortunes of Erin Langworthy – the woman whose bungee cord broke for the first time ever at Victoria Falls on New Years Eve, just a week after I went.
Erin is a young Olympian swimmer from Australia. I cannot put into words what I think it would’ve been like, hearing a loud snap and realizing in horror that the river was approaching closer than anticipated. When Erin hit the surface of the water, it was from a height equivalent of a three story jump. Her right shoulder was dislocated, and her right clavicle fractured. Given her athletic prowess, swimming up a strong current with one arm and both legs tied together poses less of a threat than it would to others, but the dreadful situation could only exacerbate for sheer willpower to persevere triumphantly. The severed cord constricting her ankles were caught under two large rocks on the riverbed. Erin fought the current, desperately treading in place towards the riverside using a single armed motion resembling the “freestyle” stroke for twenty minutes. When the cord finally yielded, she made it to shore safely where bungee crewmembers had been working their way down the cliff face to rescue her. Sound like a happy ending? It was, until months later, when Doctors diagnosed Erin to have contracted a lethal parasite that was corroding her limbs and spreading. Erin was to have an arm and leg amputated immediately should she to wish to live.
I think about her everyday, and how she could have been me. I simply can’t help it, I don’t even believe in destiny or fate, but I do believe in being aware enough of indifference to never underestimate it as the omnipotent and arbitrary force stoking the fire of the universe.