If you’re a long time reader of the blog (hi, mom!), you know by now that El and I are very much “when in Rome” travelers. I wouldn’t say we have this insane bucket list of thrill-seeking activities, but we’re definitely “if this place is known for ___, then we’re doing it” type of people. Whether it’s cage diving with Great Whites in South Africa, having total strangers give us a tomato facial at Tomatina, bringing cloves of garlic into Dracula’s castle, or getting our (by ‘our’ I mean ‘my’) ass kicked by a bull, we are IN. So although I had made a mental note early in life to avoid bungy jumping (Damn you, Aunt Becky!), when you visit Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island, that’s just what you gotta do.
When getting ready for our trip, every single website or book I read on Queenstown described it as the place for adrenaline junkies. Even as you drive into the city, you can see jet boats kicking up water sprays on the lake and hang gliders weaving back and forth across the sky. Now I’m a lot of things, but adrenaline junky I am most certainly not. As someone who insists the closet doors be shut when we go to bed because she’s afraid “demons are going to fly out of them” while we sleep, I flirt with the line between normal human being and ‘scaredy cat’. I also have a big fear of heights. So there’s that.
While there are plenty of bungy companies out there, AJ Hackett considers itself THE bungy company as they were the first to commercialize it when they had people jump off the Kawarau Bridge in 1988. They claim that it kick started adventure tourism in Queenstown, but they do credit the origin of bungy jumping to the Vanuatu people. Even though they have several locations and adrenaline adventures to choose from (swings, zip lines, and a pants-wetting looking thing called a catapult), El and I decided jump at the place where it all started: Kawarau Bridge.
Kawarau Bridge is about 25 minutes from Queenstown on Route 6. AJ Hackett has their own exit signs so you can’t miss it. For some reason, we thought we’d park at one location and then walk or take a shuttle bus to the actual bridge where you jump, so we were surprised to pull up to the parking lot and see the bridge right there and people already making jumps. They book jumps in 15 minute intervals, and holy hell are they efficient; we saw at least three people jump before we even made it to the bungy center entrance.
The visitor center was HUGE, and the only way I can describe it is that it was like walking into the entrance of a high-tech museum hall. That is, if the museum was blasting sick guitar riffs over the speakers and there was a wall of tvs live-streaming people going through exhibitions. When you come in from the parking lot, you walk down this ramp to a huge open area with all sorts of AJ Hackett/Queenstown merch on sale, a cafe advertising its coffee options and a broccoli frittata (I don’t know why that detail was significant enough for me to write down in my notes), computer screens for people to access pictures of their experience, couches to sit and watch the live stream of people jumping, and LOTS of people walking around. Going from the sleepy parking lot to the ground floor of this place was like jumping into an ice bath…while slamming a shot of vodka…and riding a motorcycle out of a helicopter. In short, it was an adrenaline junky’s heaven, and it definitely did its part to amp up people for their jumps.
We got there an hour earlier than our actual jump, but the girl at the front desk told us they were booked solid, so we killed time by browsing the clothing racks and watching the live stream from the couches. To their credit, almost every single person jumped right away, with the one exception being a woman in her 50s who hesitated for awhile. When I saw the little wooden platform they actually jumped from, I could understand the hesitation. Just in that hour, I had to pee twice because I was starting to get nervous. I think reality was setting in that I, someone who’s afraid of heights, was about to willingly jump off a bridge that’s 43 meters (141 feet) high.
When it was our turn to check in, we filled out waivers on iPads and hopped onto a scale to be weighed. The girl checking us in then wrote our weight in kg in bright red marker on our left hands and our “order” number in bright green marker on our right hands. She handed us a boarding pass, put a bracelet on our wrists, and told us there’d be about a forty five minute wait out on the bridge. We walked out of the visitor center onto this outdoor terrace where people were standing and cheering on everyone who was jumping. I suppose it was some comfort to know that when I inevitably shit my pants before doing my jump, at least I’d have an audience.
It was really chilly and pretty windy on the bridge itself, and we had to put all loose items, including our phones, in this milk crate. Despite the cold, El took off his Caps pullover so we could wrap our phones so they didn’t fall out of the crate into the rushing Kawarau River below. We handed our “boarding passes” to one of the young guys working the bridge, and he weighed us a second time and triple checked to make sure that we had the right weight number and order numbers on our hands. He helped us both into harnesses and explained what was about to happen. I probably should have been listening better at this point, considering he was going over what was going to happen when I nose-dived off that thing, but all I could focus on was the little wooden platform that was all that stood between me and 43 meters of air. So instead of listening to instructions, all I heard was the Charlie Brown teacher.
El and I got split up between the two wooden platforms, and he jumped first. My view of him was blocked by the workers, so I could only wave to him and watch him stick his arms out in a swan dive formation before I lost sight of him when he jumped. When I later saw the video, he looked so graceful, even when he went waist deep into the water. I still had a couple people ahead of me on my side, and El actually made it back up to me right before I went. His shirt and hair were soaked, but he had a big grin on his face. He told me and the young girls waiting behind me about how he got nervous when he was standing on that platform, but that nervousness vanished the second he jumped. Surprisingly, despite the air temp being in the 50s, he said the river water itself wasn’t that cold. The girls behind me were like, “Oh wow, I definitely wouldn’t go in the water! Besides, they told me I was too light to be able to do that.” As if on cue, it was my turn to get strapped in and the first thing the guy said to me was, “Show me your left hand (the one with the weight on it). ::Peeks at it:: Awesome! So you’re going in the water, right?!” I had almost forgotten that, after years of not disclosing my weight to basically anyone, I was now wearing it like a literal scarlet letter (or number) for all the world to see. And the world got to see that my trunk had enough junk in it to sink me into the river.
All of the workers were in their early twenties and obviously bad ass if they’re working at a bungy jumping place in Queenstown, and for some reason, even though I’m a grown ass woman, I wanted them to think I was cool. So even though every fiber of my being was screaming, “NO, YOU DO NOT WANT TO GO INTO THE WATER”, I casually was like “Well, I guess I could dip my hands in” like it something I did all the time and they were boring me with the question. You know, super cool like.
When it was my turn, I stepped off the bridge and sat down onto an enclosed platform which was basically a cage. The first few beats of the Fugees’ version of Killing me Softly started up, and I can’t say I was exactly thrilled at the timing. But then I remembered American Pie was the song on before it, with its “this will be the day that I die” line, and I understood that the AJ Hackett crew has a dark sense of humor. A young girl started wrapping towels and cords around my ankles and asking me all sorts of questions, assumingly to keep my mind off what I was just about to do. They definitely know what they’re doing because it worked, that is, until she said, “Okay, so before you go into the water, make sure to tuck your chin to your chest and hold your arms over your head like you’re diving.” I responded, “Okay, but it’s just going to be my hands going in, right? RIGHT?!”, probably a little more hysterically than I had intended, and definitely obliterating all my cool cred. She gave me that “Wellllll…” type of look with a shrug, and the guy who takes people onto the platform was like “We went conservative, so chances are good you won’t even touch the water.” That sorta reassured me, but I still made a mental note of their faces to make sure they’re the first people I haunt when I come back as a ghost.
Before she helped me up, the girl gave me a high ten and said I was ready to go. Because my feet were totally bound in towels and cords, I had to wobble, then hop, to the edge of the tiny wooden platform overlooking the river. Listen, I am super klutzy, and it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for me to trip, knock the workers off the platform, and somersault my way down. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t panic while standing on that thing. Instead of losing the cool status I 100% didn’t have with the workers, I pulled a classic Courtney move: I put on a huge grin and a “I’m fine. This is fine.” demeanor. El later told me one of the workers said that I didn’t look nervous at all. El told him that I’m terrified of heights, and he was like “That’s the thing about Americans though; Americans NEVER back out.” You’re damn right we don’t! ::Cue some Van Halen guitar riff playing while I wear an American flag bikini and ride in on an eagle::
I hopped to the edge of the little platform and did the one thing that someone who’s scared of heights shouldn’t have: I looked down. It was in that moment that I accepted the fact I’d be the first person to die in a horror movie because I’m utterly useless when scared. The icy blue water below me was stunningly beautiful, and the people watching on the platforms were all supportive, but I don’t think I’ve ever come as close to literally shitting my pants as I did in that moment. Cool cover: BLOWN. The worker tried to get me to smile for these different cameras, but I was so distracted by the view below that at first I kept looking in the wrong places and waving to the air. Once I figured out where he was pointing, I gave a big grin and a thumbs up to the people watching and got ready to take my own Indiana Jones leap of faith. Without any more fanfare, the guy counted down from five, and against all natural instinct, I clutched dad’s diary to my chest, stuck my arms out, took a big breath, and jumped. At least, I think I did. It was kind of a blur, so it’s entirely possible I blacked out for a second.
Elliot was right: the second I jumped, all nervousness vanished and I understood the adrenaline rush on which adventure seekers thrive. I felt awesome. It really was like flying. 43 meters isn’t that far though, and the river was coming at me fast, so I somehow remembered to tuck my chin and get my hands ready to dive. I was about a foot away from the water when the bungy cord took over and snapped me back up. When you watch the video, it looks like I’m jerked back up, but I really didn’t even feel the pull. My body swung back and forth, twirling in circles, but all I could think was, “Well there goes my hair tie” because my braid had gone full on Exorcist and was flying all over the place. The cord also tugged on my shoe, so my other thought was, “My shoe’s gonna fall off.” Neither happened though-huzzah! After twirling around a few more times, my momentum started slowing, and I reached for the pole held out by two guys in a yellow raft below. They lowered me down, unhooked me out of the cords and harness, and rowed me the short distance back to the shore. I chatted with them briefly because I was curious how many people they have jump every day. He said in the winter (when we were there), they get around 100 people a day, but it gets up to over 300 in the summer. Bungy jumping was definitely not a cheap excursion, so at 300 people a day, those folks are making some serious coin. I’m sure there are some thrill seekers who say they’ve sold out, but I actually think it’s pretty cool they’ve made something as extreme as bungy jumping accessible to so many people.
I climbed up the ramp to the visitor center where El greeted me with a big hug and an excited, “You did it!” My adrenaline rush was still in full force because I was out of breath and felt like I was in a dream. We went over to the computer monitors they have available and scanned the barcode on the bracelets they gave us. We had already pre-paid to get either the video OR the photos, but like a total tourist sucker I ended up adding both. After paying for our add-ons, we collected our free t-shirts that loudly proclaimed the distance we’d jumped (43 meters) and our certificate of completion (kinda cheesy), and made our way back to Queenstown to have a celebratory beer.
Bungy jumping was never a bucket list thing for me to do, but when you’re in Queenstown, you do as the Kiwis do. Not only was it a once in a lifetime opportunity, and a helluva lotta fun, it gave me the opportunity to thumb my nose at my fear of heights. Later while we were having our beer back in Queenstown, our videos became available online, and I got to see myself jump. I had to laugh because I leapt almost before he was done counting down. I think I instinctively knew if I didn’t jump right away, I might chicken out. But I didn’t. Because I’m American, bitches…
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