Never Too Old to Bungy


“Five —” What was I thinking? “Four —” At my age, I could easily change my mind—just tell them I don’t want to do this. “Three —” They could take off the harness and I could just walk away.” “Two —” I could get my money back. “One — “ I jumped.

It all started on Vanuatu, or so the story goes. Hundreds of years ago, on one of the 83 islands in that South Pacific archipelago nation, a young wife was pursued to the top of a towering banyan tree by her jealous husband. To escape him, she jumped to the ground far below. Her husband jumped after her to his death. The woman, however, lived, saved by the jungle vines from the tree that she had managed to tie to her ankles.

Over the centuries, this story has inspired countless men to practice jumping from tall places, just in case they should ever be in a situation like that of the hapless husband. Today some jump to celebrate the harvest and prove their manhood.

So what was I proving on this fine spring day in Queenstown, New Zealand? Ten years earlier a young mother I knew had bungy-jumped in a maternal effort to show her children that you could conquer your fears, that even though she was terrified of jumping into the ether held by only an oversized rubber band, she would do it. At the time I thought how brave and admirable she was to have done this for her children—and how happy I was that this was not something I ever intended—or needed—to do. Now, at 73 I had reached the point where I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, and jumping into space sounded like something no sane person would do.

However. After two full days in this beautiful lakefront, mountain-rimmed town, my husband, Mark, and I had done all that we wanted to do here. We were ready to move on, but our flight schedule was set; we had one more day here.

As I was drifting off to sleep that second night, a vision swam—or rather, jumped—into my mind, of the young man I had seen that afternoon bungy jumping off a platform near the top of the gondola lift to the top of Bob’s Peak. I woke up with bungy on my mind. “Why do you want to do this?” Mark asked with a bemused smile on our morning walk up the winding trail of Queenstown Hill. The more we talked, the more appealing the idea became. I had set myself other goals late in life—like trekking in the Himalayas in my fifties, and then running my first (and probably only!) marathon to celebrate my sixtieth birthday. I loved the idea that although any reporter would describe me as “elderly,” I could still undertake new (and, at least in this case, nutty) challenges.

We walked into the office of AJ Hackett Bungy Tours. A. J. took his first bungy jump from Auckland’s Greenhithe Bridge in 1986, went on to jump from other bridges and other high places, including the Eiffel Tower, and is now the major commercial operator worldwide, who advertises that he has never had a fatality among his jumpers. The word bungy, he has said, is “Kiwi” (aka New Zealander) slang for elastic.

As I was asking Aimmee, the (very) young woman at the desk, questions like how jumpers are connected to the bungy cord (answer: by the ankles or in a harness), whether I would have to dive head first (no: in the harness I could jump upright), what were the differences among the four jump sites in the Queenstown area (mostly variations in height of jump and distance from town), and how much the adventure cost ($103 U.S. dollars — plus $50 for photos and DVD of my jump), I was still only gathering information, not making a commitment.

Aimmee smiled and then said hesitantly, “I’m going to ask you a rude question.” I correctly anticipated her query: “How old are you?” Would I have to sign a special release? Take out extra insurance? Tell them where to send the body should I ruin Hackett’s record? “Oh, good,” she smiled at my answer. “Since you’re over 65 we have a special discount!”

Not a rude question, after all. I could ride the gondola up to the platform, jump, and get a tee shirt, photos, and a DVD of my adventure, all for $64, less than half-price. The prospect of such a bargain outweighed the butterflies in my stomach.

A couple of hours later Mark and I rode the gondola up and crossed a narrow foot bridge to A. J. Hackett’s little office in the air. Here I stepped on a scale; minimum weight for jumpers is 35 kilos (77 pounds); maximum, 130 kgs (286 lbs). Aside from the public embarrassment of having my weight written on the back of my hand for all to see, there was no problem there. I gave my medical history, including rotator cuff surgery eight months before. No problem here either.

To quote A. J.: “Physically, no harm will come to a jumper. The system is very gentle on a person who jumps.” Hmmm. If no harm could come to a jumper, why did I have to sign papers agreeing to hold A.J. Hackett Bungy harmless from any personal injury, damage, or trauma to myself?

At the platform a cheerful young man asked me where I was from (Was he trying to distract me from full awareness of what I was doing?) as he helped me into my climber-type harness, which was like stepping into a pair of shorts consisting of belts and buckles. He attached me by a ring on my harness to the handmade multi-ply, Malaysian rubber bungy cord, tailor-made to the jumper’s body weight.

My “handler” told me to walk to the edge of the platform and smile for the camera. I did as I was told; I had temporarily suspended thinking for myself. Then he told me to step back on the platform, he would count down from five—and I would run to the edge and then leave what was now passing for terra firma to plunge into the firmament.

“Five. Four. Three. Two. One.”

My stomach lurched as I free-fell into the air 140 feet. The glories of Lake Wakatipu were below me but I couldn’t look at anything. I knew that Mark was taking my photo but I couldn’t smile for the camera. My only thoughts revolved around the dizzying sensation of dropping.

And then, after my two seconds of free fall, I felt myself being held firmly, comfortingly by the bungy cord. My stomach stopped somersaulting as I bounced up, and then down in a gentle swinging motion. Euphoria replaced terror. I looked over to where Mark stood. I smiled. I waved. I swung around. I kept bouncing.

I looked down and around. I saw the snow-capped peaks of the Remarkables mountain range, the glacial blue lake, the serpentine curve of the forested shoreline, and the buildings of Queenstown. I bounced and swung some more. I marveled at the absolute silence, the feeling of being alone in the air, and the sensation of flying. And then, all too soon — was my adventure over already?—I saw the other cord come down, the one I had to catch and link to my harness so I could be winched back up to the platform. This one was swinging away from me, and I briefly wondered how I would get out of outer space if I didn’t manage to clasp it. I connected it, I was hoisted up, and my much-too-short ride of only three and a half minutes was over.

My thrill at having done this was, it struck me later, out of all proportion to the feat itself. It had not required months of training (like the trekking and the marathon). It had not required any special skill or effort. It demanded nothing more of me than the ability to trust in technology and be willing to take a measured risk. But as Helen Keller once wrote, “Security is mostly a superstition. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” I did feel as if I had had a daring adventure, and as I hugged my husband, I felt exhilarated and triumphant as I ticked off one more fear that I had conquered, and began to think about others that I had never even dreamed of facing.

As a grandmother, I like to think of myself as a mature, wise elder. As just a woman, I like the idea that I can still do something off the wall—or, in this case, off the platform. The words of a grizzled gypsy I had met twenty years earlier at a gathering of the hippie group The Rainbow Family of Living Light came to mind: “Everybody has to grow old, but you can stay immature forever.”

© Sally Wendkos Olds

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