There are times when I love my work. Getting paid to travel Australasia, seeing and doing amazing things, beats most jobs (with the possible exception of rock/porn star). And yet there are some rare occasions when I’d rather be picking chewing gum off the pavement for a living.
Times like these.
I am hanging upside down in a position known as “The Gimp Goes To Hollywood”, 109m above Queenstown’s Shotover River.
A long cord reaches from my harness to the middle of the yawning canyon, where it’s attached to another cord stretching across the great divide. A much shorter cord attaches me to a platform. There’s a release mechanism on the shorter cord, which is about to be utilised. A crowd of around 20 people are watching me with an expression that says, “we’re not nearly that stupid”.
To add more unwelcome attention, a dozen whitewater rafters have stopped their boats to watch, way beneath me. They’ve unhelpfully started a loud countdown. “Ten… nine… eight…”
If the Canyon Swing crew hadn’t known I work for TNT, I could probably have got away with a nice straightforward, upright, feet-first leap of faith. But they know I’m “the TNT guy”. And they want to have some fun. “Seven… six… five… four…”
As they strap my camera to my palm, and thoughtfully pass on some photography tips, the crew are barely concealing their sadistic joy.
I feel like I’m part of a doomed experiment, and there’s no turning back. “Three… two… one…”
There’s a horrible expectant pause.
“How you feeling Damian?” asks one of the crew with a big grin. I mutter something unprintable and flash an “I’m-going-to-die-aren’t-I?” smile.
“Right, well, just, let me know whenever you’re ready to…”
Click. I’m gone….
“YOU F*CKERRRRSSS,” I scream-laugh. As I fall, headfirst… down… down… down…
It’s hard to clarify exactly what goes through your head. But it’s something like this: “Aaaaarrgrgghhh. Yaaaahhooooooo. I’m going to dieeeee. This is amazinggggggg. Heeeeeeelllllp.
I don’t want this to stoppppp. Stopppp…”
And then I do. The fall turns into a long, relaxing swing across the canyon.
And I feel sensational. Invincible. Loved-up with life.
When I get hauled back up, the people who sent me to almost certain death are now my best buddies. And I’m one of them. And I want to do it again, straight away. And I do. I think I’ll keep my job actually.
No matter how many bungy jumps you’ve done – and I’d done four at this stage – the N-n-n-nevis is still enough to make fully-bearded bikers reach for their teddy bears.
It’s not just the bleak, grey rock walls which surround it. Or the fact that at 134m it’s the highest conventional jump in Australasia (third in the world). On top of that, you don’t fling yourself off some nice wooden platform; it’s more a metal hut, hanging precariously over the centre of a deep canyon. And it doesn’t just hang, it sways in the wind. And moves according to how many people are in a particular corner. Do I need to spell it out? This is S.C.A.R.Y.
Two hard and fast rules had guided me thus far. Rule one: never look down until you absolutely have to – it will only put you off. Rule two: always try and jump as soon as possible. Thinking time is the enemy of courage. Both these rules were instantly dashed.
To make the bungy cord length easier to calculate, it’s heaviest people first. It was the first time I had ever regretted not eating enough pies – I was to jump 28th. So I waited, trying desperately not to watch, for a torturous 15 minutes.
I then got the cable car across the canyon to the jump site, trying desperately not to look down at the gaping chasm mocking me as my nerves ebbed away. Once inside, I glanced at the floor, to see it’s partially made of glass. Looking down is unavoidable.
The room was split between the terrified and the triumphant – wide-eyed post-jumpers buzzing and bouncing with a new level of adrenalin – as loud aggro-metal pumped from a stereo.
The pre-jumpers were unable to tear their eyes from the spectacle of seeing people dwindle with their screams into tiny spots beneath them.
And finally, finally, it’s my go.
No one had backed out, and I wasn’t going to be the first. All I have to say is, wow. Wow. Wow. And wow. The waiting was well worthwhile.
This is the bungy jump for the needle-to-the-bone, hardest-core, adrenalin junkies.
I don’t know which was worse: that my life just flashed before my eyes, or that it it was a pretty miserable and all-too-swift affair? Born. Learnt to ride bike. Fell off bike. Grew first moustache. Met Johnny Ball. Lied outrageously on my CV. Got this job. Died, jumping out of a plane in a shell suit.
I’m sitting on the edge of an aeroplane with my legs dangling out of the open door, some 12,000ft above terra firma. The views put the “esses” into sensational. The giant placid lakes, the snowcapped Southern Alps…
As I stared down into the epic, inescapable nothingness below, my mouth became as dry as burnt toast. My stomach, with a hitherto unannounced genius, was doing all sorts of pioneering balletic moves. Someone said “smile” and pointed to a camera on the wing. I did the opposite. And we were gone. Just like that…
A backwards summersault. Then we’re plummeting, like two sacks of potatoes. Down, down, down through the skies, through mortality, through a new sensation… and suddenly I realise I’m screaming. Not in panic, but in sheer unadulterated… I don’t know what.
Pleasure? Living? It sounds clichéd.
But holy cow, I had never felt so alive, so much like screaming whatever was in my head. “ACCCEEIINNNTHEHHOLLLE F**CKIIINNNNGGSSSSHHHHIITTTTT IIICCCAAANNFFLLLYY IIIIMMM AAABIRRRRDDDDDD!”
Some 40 seconds later, the parachute pops open and it feels like being shot back upwards, out of a cannon. And then peace reigns.
And we drift for another four glorious minutes towards the airfield, and the boring safety of the ground. You haven’t lived until you’ve needlessly jumped from a perfectly good plane.
Best of the rest
New Zealand has nearly as many bungy jumps as it has sheep – frankly if you leave NZ without doing one you’re a bed-wetting wuss.
Skydives also proliferate the country. Why? Because it’s New Zealand.
If adrenalin thrills are a drug, Queenstown is the factory. Home of bungy pioneer AJ Hackett, it’s also famed for its whitewater rafting, jet-boating, river sledging and paragliding (though most activities are available elsewhere too).
Zorbing is another Kiwi invention. Strap yourself inside a giant plastic ball and roll down a hill. Whoever thought that up should be knighted.
River sledging is another quirky one. It’s kind of body-boarding meets whitewater rafting. Grab a board and hurtle down
a fast-flowing river.
Canyoning is ace too. It’s abseiling down waterfalls, jumping from stupid heights into rock pools, water slides, flying foxes and heaps more water and rope action.
If that sounds like your cup-a-char, you might want to stick Waitomo Caves on your agenda too. There you can brave 100m abseils into glow-worm caves and more. Or go black water rafting – essentially, sitting on a rubber ring and swimming through underground tunnels.
Photo: Tourism New Zealand/Shotover Can, Getty, TNT