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I balanced precariously on the edge of an abandoned railway bridge, staring down past my toes at the roiling river 143 feet below. My ankles were lashed together. A young man stood behind me and spoke in a low but firm tone: "Just stay calm and do what I tell you."
The man was not a mugger or a kidnapper. I was about to dive headfirst off the Kawarau Suspension Bridge near Queenstown, New Zealand—voluntarily—with a giant rubber band tied to my ankles. The young man had assured me that if all went according to plan, the rubber band—a 40-foot-long, wrist-thick bundle of latex strands called a bungy (BUN-gee) cord—would stop my plunge a few inches shy of the water; then, sproing!, I would snap back up 120 feet or so, whence I would plummet and, sproing!, leap up again in a series of gradually diminishing bounces.
"Big if," I said.
"It doesn't take any skill, mate," he assured me. "Just faith."
The sport of bungy jumping, as it's called, traces its roots to the native "land divers" of the New Hebrides in the Pacific Ocean, who with vines tied to their ankles make ceremonial leaps from 80-foot towers. The modern version dates back to the 1960s and a group of Oxford students who called themselves the Oxford Dangerous Sports Club. They quickly learned that the hard part of bungy jumping was eluding the attention of bridge authorities, who generally frown upon such activities.
Since the '60s, renegade bungy jumpers have kept the sport alive. But last fall, two New Zealanders, Henry van Asch and A.J. Hackett, the latter of whom counts the Eiffel Tower among his bungy jumps, decided to go straight. Using remarkable powers of persuasion (which included the promise of funds to restore the Kawarau Bridge), they got permission to set up the world's first commercial bungy-jumping site.
Upon arriving at the Kawarau Bridge, I decided to calm my jitters by watching the other jumpers. As they leaped, some emitted brave kamikaze shouts, which, I noted with alarm, turned to quavering bleats of fear halfway down. Once the jumpers had stopped bouncing and were lowered headfirst into the waiting raft and untied from the bungy, the jumpers invariably took on the Look, the glowing demeanor of one who has just found God or escaped the electric chair.
Their postjump comments did little to build my confidence. "The first 10 feet are pure hell," one jumper told me. Nevertheless, all urged me not to wimp out. "It'll be the most extraordinary three seconds of your life," another said.
I sought reassurance from the launch crew, the youths in charge of the bungy apparatus. I didn't get any. Maybe it was their punk hairdos and the iridescent orange-and-purple-mirrored sunglasses; maybe it was the way they kept examining the cord, which, to my wary eyes, looked badly frayed; maybe it was the way one of them, as he finished tying the feet of each jumper to the bungy cord, would sing the '60s Beatles song Helter Skelter in a maniacal tone. I couldn't help pondering one of the lines from that song: "I'm coming down fast but don't let me break you."
Perhaps, I reasoned, a talk with the man in charge would put my doubts to rest. I asked "Helter Skelter" if Henry van Asch was around. No, Henry was at the moment riding camels in the Hindu Kush, he solemnly informed me. Then came the maniacal laugh, and the admission that he was Henry. After reciting a couple of facts about the bungy cord—that it's made from a single strand of rubber doubled back on itself thousands of times and that each cord is retired after 150 jumps—he admitted that he wasn't van Asch after all.