"adrenalin" adventure for those who throw themselves off Africa's most famous bridge

by The Southern Times

These are the words of Philip van Tonder, general manager of African Extreme Bungi, as he describes the "adrenalin" adventure for those who throw themselves off Africa's most famous bridge, built as part of the Cape to Cairo railway at Victoria Falls and a century old last year.

"When I first jumped," says Philip, "I thought I was going to die. When you do a free fall like this you are travelling at 120kms an hour and it simply takes your breath away.Your entire system and your body and brain are telling you these are your last moments. You are going to die now.

"You see the Zambezi storming up at you. You've got the wind running through your hair, your ears, your eyes and you're trying to breathe but it's not always possible and then you feel the bungi cord slowing you down until you reach the bottom of 111 metres. And then you realise you are not going to die, which is the greatest feeling in the world.

"You are now whipped back up to within 30 metres of the bridge and then do a second free fall and that's the most fantastic experience ever. By this time you are just smiling involuntarily. You bounce back underneath the bridge and we take a very nice picture. Finally you are again on the best solid ground you have ever walked in your life."

The walk on the wild side from Victoria Falls bridge has been going on for 13 years. Well over a hundred thousand people from all over the world have taken the ethereal plunge. There may not be any mask or block, but the scene as leg wrappings are tied must remind one of the Lord High Executioner in medieval times. This is the role of the Jumpmaster, who is as sharp as an eagle when it comes to appraising the emotions of his "victims".

Philip explained to me that the whole performance is not about jumping off the bridge. That's easy, he says. The big thing about bungi jumping is telling your mind to jump off the bridge. "You have to jump by yourself. The moment you tell yourself that you can do it is the moment you can do anything in your life. You can walk through walls, if you really want to. The light bulbs go on and that's the greatest personal treat in your history."

The jumpmaster is part psychologist, part father confessor. Most people fly without hesitation but there are a few, who have already signed indemnity forms, who turn away from the edge of the bridge. I would surely be among them if I ever got that far. But Philip is reassuring, the patron saint of bungi.

"When clients say 'no' we take them back off the platform, sit them down, urge them to take a deep breath and give them encouragement, a bit of hand-holding. We untie the fastenings around their legs and they walk up and down. We keep the harnesses, so if they say 'yes' we strap them up as quickly as possible and then it's into the breach, dear friends.

"A lot of psychology is involved. The funny thing is we actually use this to "up" the experience and bring down the emotions. For someone who is incredibly scared, we will say: "You know, we have been doing this for a long time. We know what we are doing, it's perfectly safe, we're double connected.

"If we find, on the other hand, someone who is too relaxed and needs some extra adrenalin, we will say: 'Jumpmaster, that cord you are using looks very frail - are you sure we should be using that one,' Or 'Just this morning someone hit his head against the bridge, so just duck when it comes up.' We play and interact with people, because this product is not just jumping off the bridge, but the whole experience. From the moment people sign up, we try to get them going."

The two senior jumpmasters, Macauley and Frank, come from Zimbabwe and Zambia, reflecting the status of the bridge which spans both countries. Most of the staff have been on the bridge from the moment the company was formed, making it one of the most experienced bungi crews in the world. They encourage the clients to fly swallow-style but will never push the client into the gorge. The most they will do when someone is scared is to grab the back of the harness and help the jumper on his or her way.

I asked Philip about the possible danger to someone holding back and not jumping far enough out from the platform, as with the crew member of a burning bomber being caught up in the fuselage because he was not clear enough of the aircraft. Would the jumper be hauled back and try again?

"What will actually happen is that if we see the client is losing his balance, then we will assist," says Philip, " but once the jumper leans forward there is too much momentum and we can't hold him back. But I am happy to say there has never been an accident."

Clients are full of ecstasy when they come up from their free fall. "That's the craziest thing I've ever done in my life" is one of the usual comments. Adjectives such as "fantastic" or "mind-blowing" litter the bridge after the great jump. One of my favourites was given to me by a missionary who said simply, as he flew off the bridge: "Tell my wife I always loved her." A lady jumper compared it to Livingstone's "flight of the angels."

The current bungi jumpers are more fortunate than their predecessors at Victoria Falls. Originally, recovery used to be by raft at the bottom of the gorge but on rough days it was uncertain and entailed a 15-minute walk back to civilisation.

This was replaced by a more primitive system of man-hauling the jumper back up to the bridge and now, much more securely, the company operates a winch system that draws the suspended client up to a catwalk near the top - a place where tours about the history of the bridge are currently offered.

The origin of bungi jumping is believed to lie in the island of Pentecost in the South Pacific, where for generations villagers have been land diving off rickety wooden towers with vines tied to their ankles in a ceremony that ensured a bountiful harvest.

The Bloukrans River Bridge above the Storms River in South Africa has the highest launch point for bungi jumping in Africa, but certainly with its backdrop of the world's greatest waterfall, the Victoria Falls Bridge is the most spectacular. From it the courageous clientele of African Extreme Bungi get as close as they can to being a bird in their ultimate flight of freedom.

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