“What size jacket does your girlfriend wear?”
A simple question aimed at the back of my travel partner’s head and I. A simple question that is, if I’d been traveling with my girlfriend, or even a woman. My travel partner was actually a mate with whom I shared not only a gender but a now awkward feeling that maybe we’d be better off doing something else. Something a little more extreme than visit an ice bar which apparently catered for romantic sojourns. After all, we were just two blokes who had crossed the ditch to explore New Zealand for a couple of weeks.
With that adventurous spirit in mind we dropped some Kiwi cash on the Kawarau Bridge Bungy. Opened in 1988 and built into the rock face above the raging Kawarau River this location takes your breath away long before the fear does. And still, standing on the ledge and looking down at the swirling river below, I found it hard to concentrate on the safety advice. The irrepressible urge to avoid falling from a great height now at odds with my only option, to jump. In that moment, I couldn’t help but wish I was back in the ice bar with the status of my travel companion and I in question. But it was too late for that, all that was left to do, was fall.
There’s a freedom in falling, but where does it come from? The moment when your feet leave the ground and you’re enveloped in nothingness, at once movement and static. As a child it manifests in those acts of bravery that seem almost other worldly at the time. Like diving from the highest diving board at the local swimming pool to experience a short burst of weightlessness before crashing through the water and feeling your body once again adhere to the laws of gravity. But for those few seconds, as a gravity defying renegade, you escape the constraints of your own body and get to see what life is like when the rules of the world don’t apply to you. There is a freedom in falling then, because it’s not really falling at all, is it? It’s flying.
I’d flown to New Zealand the week prior. My first overseas trip following my treatment for Leukaemia and my first attempt to seek out the missing pieces of my soul that I’d felt slip away in my 244 day incarceration in the gaol of ill health. I’d often heard about our neighbours across the ditch as a superb getaway location but, much like my own neighbours back in Australia, I preferred to avoid them and get on with my life. But with the recent relationship breakdown of my best mate and his missus we embarked on a ‘break-up tour’ of New Zealand. Aiming to hit strip clubs and casinos and everything in between we found ourselves in picturesque Queenstown and it was there that the inspiration for bungy jumping came amidst a frosty reception at the Ice Bar.
From shivering with cold to shivering with fear, there was a primal feel to bungy jumping that made me feel so incredibly alive, a feeling I was seeking and would continue to seek around the world. To stand on the edge of a precipice, whether on the world first commercial bungee site at the Kawarau Bridge in New Zealand as I did, or indeed anywhere else in the world, is to face yourself on the most basic of levels and ask the question, “do you have what it takes?”
As a species, we hold an innate fear of falling. Having never been exposed to the deadly impact of height humans will still avoid going near large drops in what is known as the ‘high-place phenomenon’. The will to live is naturally more powerful than the risk of dying. That is what makes the bungy the experience it is. To peer down at the ground where you once stood and ignore every biological urge not to fall.
The descent itself was every bit as challenging and exhilarating as I had expected. For anyone thinking of taking the plunge themselves, the experience starts slowly. You jump on a set of scales before having your body weight scribbled on the back of your hand, which probably helps identify the bodies of anyone who slips out above the river. You’ll have a towel, that resembles every towel your family ever owned but never used, wrapped around your ankles before the various cables, grips and locks are applied on top. Then you’ll get to shuffle a matter of inches from the safety of the bridge to the vertical drop high above the river. It’s a slow burn thrill that starts when you first arrive on site and culminates in those final few seconds before your leap of faith.
In my search around the world to find ways to make me feel alive, this ticked all the boxes. In a 43-metre free-fall lasting less than 3 seconds my vision for the future had been tipped on its head, just like me. This was the first time I’d felt validated. That traveling around the world to find joy and meaning was a worthwhile use of my time and money. But more importantly, it was my purpose.
No one knows why they are gifted a seat on Spaceship Earth, and I certainly don’t know what cosmic forces were at play when my own blood started to kill me from the inside. But by arriving at the top of my bungy platform filled with hesitation and fear, and reaching the bottom of the rope filled with hope and joy, I knew that my purpose was to experience the world in every way I could. That I could find the missing pieces of my soul by chasing happiness around the world. I don’t know why I got sick, but this was the first time I knew how I’d get better.
In short, travel made me happy again. This was my first redemption, and it’s a journey I’ll continue from here on out, because where once I knew how it felt to die, I know knew exactly how it felt to be truly alive.
I’ll hand the final words to Aristotle, a man who never bungy jumped, but would have been an adrenaline junkie for sure when he said “Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible”. I encourage you to keep these words close to your heart. We are all more courageous than we think. In life, if it scares you, it’s worth it. And when it comes to bungy jumping, you’ll only think about the fall, but trust me when I say you will fly.