You know the drill: fasten an elastic cord somewhere to your body (your ankle, if you’re daring), make a mad dash toward the edge of that bridge, cliff, or canyon before you, and plunge hundreds of feet until the cord stretches to its limits and (hopefully) snaps you skyward just moments before you smash head-first into that river, valley, or gravel pit below. It’s called bungee jumping, and the craze began when the BBC aired footage of young men swan-diving off a high wooden platform with vines knotted around their ankles on Pentecost Island in Vanuatu. When some inspired English lads tried it out on Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge in 1979, they were promptly arrested, but not before the adrenaline addicted them. They went on to leap from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and Colorado’s Royal Gorge, as well as from an assortment of mobile cranes and hot air balloons.
Then an enterprising New Zealander, A.J. Hackett, caught the bug. After illegally leaping from the Eiffel Tower in 1987, he began opening bungee-jumping operations around the world, including in Australia, Bali, Mexico, Germany, France, and the United States, and turned the reckless pursuit into a multimillion-dollar industry. Queenstown, New Zealand was the site of his first venture, at the Kawarau Suspension Bridge. Here, you can plummet 143 feet backward or forward, with or without another person, and either bob above the water or be fully immersed. Other exhilarating jumps include the night dives at Ledge Bungy and the 229-foot descents into the rocky gorge beneath Skippers Canyon Bridge.
According to Guinness World Records, the world’s highest commercial bungee jump is off the Blaaukrans River Bridge, located twenty-four miles east of Plettenberg Bay in South Africa. Snap into a full-body harness and then walk along a specially-designed catwalk to the top of the bridge’s arch 708 feet above the water and take the plunge. If that’s too intense, they also offer a 656-foot cable slide (known as a “foofie slide” to South Africans) that will leave you buzzing for days.
Bungee operators adhere to rigorous safety standards, checking, double-checking, and even triple-checking all equipment prior to use. Body harnesses are usually employed as well, as backup for ankle attachment. Yet accidents are not unknown—one of which occurred in 1997, when a young woman crashed head-first into the playing field of the Louisiana Superdome while practicing for a Super Bowl half-time show. Bungee jumping is not recommended for pregnant women or anyone with heart problems, epilepsy, or recently broken bones.
Still wondering why people do it? Amy Robben, a social worker from Portland, Oregon, asked herself this very question the afternoon she peered over the Pacific Northwest Bridge with a harness strapped to her body. She’d recently ended a difficult relationship, and wanted to do something significant to mark it. Yet she was terrified to jump—until she realized that bungee jumping was the perfect metaphor for life.
“They have a rule against pushing people off the platform, so nobody can make you do this but you,” she says. “It felt like everything challenging I’d ever done was physically there in front of me, and I had to let it all go to jump. The level of accomplishment felt even greater than para-gliding or rock climbing, because when you bungee, it’s just you, strapped in all by yourself, with no one belaying you and absolutely nothing to hold on to—just like life.”