Spring and Fall, New Zealand
Fall. Yellow and brick red leaves cling, trembling, to the trees. A gust of crisp wind, and a few are dislodged and scatter to the ground to join the ones that crackle under my feet. It is ten a.m. in New Zealand, and the grass is still coated with dew. My tennis shoes leave shiny prints on the lawn, ending where I head across the gravel trail. I hear each step, register the crunch of the tiny rocks crushed and spat out from my feet.
The air is chilly here in the North Island, twenty degrees or so cooler than the spring I left at home in California. My breath puffs out in tiny clouds. But a white heat is emanating from within me – the heatof nervous tension. Adrenalin. And yes, fear.
I march up the wooden stairs and into the building where a young man stands just below a sign that reads Taupo Bungy. “G’day!” he says, smiling. “Here for a jump?”
I nod and answer, “Yes?”
No one is to blame but me for this decision. Although I have tried various adventure sports, I decreed I would never go bungy jumping. The fear had something to do with being tied up by the ankles, which sounded painful. There was also the thought of that snap, the moment when the jumper reaches the end of her rope and rebounds back into the sky.But just before I left, I read up on the bungy jump phenomenon. For centuries, people in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu have leapt from towers with nothing but vine ropes attached to their ankles. In 1979, members of the Dangerous Sports Club picked up the sport using latex rubber cords; they jumped from the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and the Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado. New Zealander AJ Hackett started the commercial bungy jumping craze in Queenstown in the 1980s, where it is still quite a success at AJ Hackett Bungy.
When in New Zealand, it seemed, one must jump.
The thought of it stole into my head and lodged there like a small, innocuous, but growing worm. I told a friend about my reservations. She laughed and reminded me how I had been skydiving in Byron, California, which was much higher off the ground, and didn’t involve a rope.
But it was tandem, I argued, feebly. I wasn’t connected to something, but I was connected to some one.
She gave me a look then, very serious, and said, “You’ll do it.”
She teases me about being stubborn, and I’ll admit I do have some badger-like qualities. On my first day in New Zealand, I visited the jump site and watched several people leap off the platform that extended out from a cliff, anchored by a massive concrete block. That evening, over fish and chips and Export Gold beer at The Shed in downtown Taupo, I secretly obsessed about whether or not to go for it. I awoke at three a.m. that night, my mind racing with the hyperbolic night crazies. I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t do it, would return to it again and again. But I had to do it quickly, before I could give it much more thought.
And so here I am at ten a.m., signing my name with a shaking hand, asking anxious questions of the two employees. The male assures me that there is no “best” way to jump. Yes, he’s tried it all different ways: jumping, diving headfirst, falling backwards into the sky, going tandem with a friend. No, no accidents. A couple of people have reportedly freaked out just after jumping and tried to grab hold of the bridge, but it was too late for that, of course. Off they went.
The woman marks a number on my left hand in red ink, weighs me, and sends me off with some paperwork to deliver to her coworkers on the bridge. On my left, a small crowd has gathered at the lookout point to watch people plunge. I step out onto the platform and stop short of the gate that reads, “STRICTLY NO CAMERAS OR VIDEOS PAST THIS POINT. JUMPERS ONLY.”
Before me, a man stands poised to jump and at this point, I am not inclined to watch or to drink in too much more of the view than I have already ingested. So I stand firmly behind the gate until he has disappeared off the edge, and then force myself to march forward.
Four young women staff the cantilever platform, two on each side. They are friendly, cheerful. One of the two on the left hand side takes my paperwork, weighs me again, and she and her coworker begin the mysterious process of adjusting the bungy weights.
“Do you want a water touch?” one asks, referring to the option for a dunk in the river.
I shake my head.
“No one’s really keen today,” she says, and laughs.
I sit down and the young woman with a long black ponytail, freckles, and a calming demeanor presses my feet together, wraps a towel around my ankles, and starts to strap the cord around them. I’ve read that each bungy cord stretches up to four times its length, and performs 500 jumps before it is retired. I wonder how close to retirement my lifeline is.
More nervous questions froth from my mouth.
The employee assures me that she has jumped more than a hundred times, and that it is one of the safest things a person can do. Then she asks me to stand and walk very carefully to the edge of the platform. My ankles are shackled together, death row style, and even in this moment of slight terror, the irony is not lost on me. I inch forward in bound feet.Dead man walking.
Two painted footprints mark where I am supposed to stand.
The woman says, gently, “Yes, stand right there, with your toes just over the ledge. Now look up to your right for the picture.”
Teeth clenched, I gaze upward at the camera, and manage a smile.
I inch forward and stare down 153 feet, to where a turquoise river floats languidly between two sheer white cliffs. The water is dizzyingly clear and so very far away, stretching farther away, it seems, with every passing second. The bungy dangles just over the ledge – waiting, anticipating. We are attached, that weight and me, and somehow it seems that it will take me over whether I like it or not.
“Okay, jumper! Second day in the country. Arms up and take a good deep breath for me,” the woman says.
My arms rise up into a feeble diver’s stance. I have never jumped off the high diving platform at a pool. Never. “Okay,” she says. “Three, two – ”I close my eyes and dive.
I am fallingscreamingfallingscreaming. Terror. Exhilaration. Freedom.
Down I go at speeds nearing sixty miles per hour, all the way to the nonplussed river, moseying along beneath me. A momentary pause, and then – boing! – back up into the sky. Now I’m screaming ohmygodohmygod. Down and up, down and up. And down.
Two more employees are positioning the rescue boat below. One of the young men holds up a long pole for me to clasp with both hands, then gently leads me down into the boat, into a seated position. He and his coworker strike up a casual conversation.
“Where you from?” one asks.
“California?” I say.
“Ah, the gubernator!” they say, and laugh good-naturedly. They are relaxed; they do this all day.
I can literally feel the blood pushing through my veins. I step off the boat and start up the trail. I strut a little. I’ve definitely earned my lunch at Coffee Plus in downtown Taupo.
Monumental tests of courage and two seasons have transpired in a matter of a couple of days.
Spring. And Fall.