My sabbatical has taken me to New Zealand, known to many of my friends as Middle-earth. Most of the Lord of the Rings movies were filmed here, and since I had no plans for my first day beyond checking into my hotel, I did a quick Google search and found the trilogy’s filming location nearest to the Queenstown airport: Kawarau River and Kawarau Gorge.
When I got there 15 minutes later, I discovered the gorge’s history intersected with my own beyond the occasional hobbit.
In 2000, during my third year of university, I spent two months on an internship in Melbourne, Australia. When the semester was over, my classmates and I joined a tour up Australia’s east coast. At the terminus in Cairns, every member of the tour group could choose two of three activities: scuba-diving at the Great Barrier Reef; whitewater rafting; or bungee-jumping.
We each unanimously chose scuba diving as our first activity.
I alone chose bungee-jumping as the second.
So, a day after diving into the ocean and a few weeks after turning 21, I boarded a shuttle that ferried me into the rainforest, where I climbed a tower — and jumped.
The above video starts with the cameraman saying “G-O” before the jump guide counts “5-4-3-2-1!” and appears to give me a slight push. What isn’t seen in the video (because I cropped it out) is the preceding two minutes where I stood there in shock, fear, and denial at the situation I’d put myself into. Was I really going to do this? Was I capable of making myself do this?? I’d been skydiving before, so I told myself this couldn’t be worse. But my skydive had been a tandem jump, where I was strapped to a jumpmaster; with the bungee jump, I was terrifyingly alone, without even one of my fellow tourists to cheer me on.
They say courage isn’t doing something because you’re unafraid; courage is being afraid but doing it anyway. Still, although I’m proud that I jumped and have often counted it among the outstanding experiences of my life, the memory has always been tinted by the fear I felt that day.
I arrived at New Zealand’s Kawarau Gorge to find not the Pillars of the Kings statues that the hobbits had rowed past, but instead another familiar name: AJ Hackett Bungy, the same company that had enabled my Australian jump almost two dozen years prior. The Kawarau River should’ve presented me with a quiet afternoon of hiking; I didn’t realize it was spanned by the world’s first-ever commercial bungee-jump site, the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge.
I strolled over to the viewing platform just in time to see someone take the leap. It was a beautiful day, and I was joined a crowd of onlookers who were awaiting their loved one’s precarious moment. A boy of about 15 wished aloud that he could do it. “If you do, you’ll never forget it,” I said. His eyes widened a bit when he realized this accented foreigner had defied death. “What was it like?” he asked. I gave him an honest answer: “Terrifying!”
His mom wandered up and joined the conversation, sharing that she had jumped from that very bridge on her 21st birthday, though she didn’t seem to remember her experience as fondly as I did mine: she’d lost the VHS tape, and she had no interest in a do-over. It got me wondering which camp I fell into: was my bungee-jump a once-in-a-lifetime event? Or was I ready to do it again?
I made my way into the shop, where real-time cameras and video displays gave me new perspectives of the ongoing jumps. Seeing other people dive off the bridge and live to tell the tale was not something I’d had last time, and I found these precedents inspiring. But, just like in Cairns, I needed a little nudge. “I’m at the Gates of Argonath; should I bungee-jump?” I texted my friend Mary, the world’s biggest Tolkien fan. “Absolutely,” was her succinct, confident response.
I put my phone away and walked up to the registration table. “I think I’d like to do this,” I said.
Do or die
Liberty, the employee who received me, had once told herself after watching her friend jump, “I will never do that.” But she eventually did — and, within a month of that defining moment, she’d joined the AJ Hackett staff. While my jumps wouldn’t be free like her last nine jumps were, she nonetheless provided me with a pair of discounts, including 20% off for having previously jumped with AJ Hackett, despite the intervening 23 years.
During registration, I volunteered aspects of my medical history that I’ve never shared with even my closest friends. The scenarios I described were new to Liberty, so she had to ring up her boss, who in turn rang up his boss. I wasn’t looking for them to give me an easy out — but if I had been, I would’ve been disappointed, as our conversation had the opposite effect. Compared to the traumas I was detailing to Liberty, a bungee jump didn’t seem so scary.
That’s not a logical fallacy; though I failed my undergrad course in probability, even I know that surviving one risky experience doesn’t make you more likely to survive another risky experience. What I was feeling was instead a known response to past hardship. A 1999 study titled “Airplane Crash Survivors Found To Be In Better Mental Health Than Non-Crash Air Travelers In The Long Run” described how surviving a trauma can lead to PTSD, but also to long-term resilience. Similarly, the 2010 study “Whatever does not kill us: Cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability, and resilience” defined the concept of “post-traumatic growth”:
… experiencing trauma doesn’t simply condemn us to a life of suffering and helplessness. Instead, we can pull strength, courage, and wisdom out of misfortune after having been caught in it.Laura Graham, “How a Challenging Past Can Lead to a Happier Present“, Greater Good Magazine
Multiple surgeries, a pandemic, losing my dad — I wish all these things had been easier, or in most cases, that they hadn’t happened at all. But we can’t control what’s come before; all we can hope for is to control how we respond to them.
Those personal challenges and losses in the last 23 years put today’s event into perspective. I wasn’t trying to convince myself that a bungee jump wasn’t dangerous, but rather, that I had nothing to fear in the first place. Living that truth became my goal for the day: I wanted to learn to stop worrying and love the jump, producing a video that, this time, I wouldn’t have to crop.
I walked onto the bridge, gave the staff my boarding pass, took off my jacket, and climbed into the harness. If you had asked me the process had been for getting ready to jump 23 years ago, I wouldn’t’ve been able to tell you; but now that it was happening again, it all seemed surprisingly familiar. Before long, I was ready to walk the plank.
This time, there would be no hesitation to my jump — but I wasn’t sure what visual would enable such bravery. I asked if I could fall backward, so that I wouldn’t see it coming. This option is available only to experienced jumpers (like myself), but the instructor said that it’d be a sad fate if his face was the last thing I saw. I decided to jump forward, just like last time, to better take in the land of the hobbits.
I also knew I was supposed to jump head-first, to diminish the snap when the bungee cord takes hold. But I never mastered that or any other aspect of swim lessons, so I accepted that I’d likely fall feet-first.
Even as I made my way to the edge, I maintained a friendly banter with the staff, telling them that I’d just landed in their country an hour earlier without intending to jump off a bridge. A moment later, it was time for me to fulfill that intention. “You got this, mate,” the instructor said — followed by “5-4-3-2-1!“
I wasn’t nonchalant as I plummeted 141 feet, and the video didn’t pick up how my vocabulary had matured since my last jump. But I was very cognizant that I had accomplished the one thing I’d set out to do: jump without fear. Having done everything from Disneyland rides to Olomana hikes to waterfall rappelling in just the last four months, a bungee jump no longer seemed like an outlier, but a continuation. This time, I was prepared for it.
Moments later, the ride was over, and I was presented with an opportunity: a second jump for only a third the price of my first jump. I thought about going again and striving for better form — but that would’ve felt more performative than for my own benefit. Instead, I made a detour to find Liberty and thank her for the experience, confirming that, as predicted, none of my medical statuses had proved an issue.
Jumping is certainly riskier than not jumping, and I would’ve hated to have gotten this far in life only to die on my first day in New Zealand. Such an ignominious death would’ve been contrary to how I’ve lived the rest of my life: I imbue my body with every vitamin and vaccine and no meat or alcohol, and I always wear my seatbelt — not because I’m afraid of dying, but because I love living. My current vessel is likely the only one I’ll ever have, and I want it to last as long as possible so I can enjoy as much life as possible.
But the the late journalist Hunter S. Thompson once wrote:
Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a ride!”The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967
A life of risk is unavoidable — but we can choose to seek out those risks that are calculated and necessary. I knew from prior experience I was in good hands with AJ Hackett; but it was necessary for me to have a new experience to learn I’m not the same person I was half a lifetime ago.
In 2000, at 21 years old, I could only imagine how fragile life could be, and it scared me into hesitation. Now, at 43, I know how fragile life can be — and it emboldens me into action.