zen and the art of the bungee jump

The Royal Livingstone High ResThe only sound you can hear above the roar of  Victoria Falls is the diminishing scream of people plummeting more than 300-feet towards the Zambezi River below.

“Don’t look,” you tell yourself as the anguished screams echo back. “Do not look.”

But you can’t help yourself; you look, as the bodies before you are pitched off the bridge into the misty abyss.  You look until you realize – you’re next.

Victoria Falls, the UNSECO World Heritage site which forms part of the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, is one of the largest waterfalls in the world. More than a mile wide – and 350 feet high – over 10 million liters of the mighty Zambezi River go over the falls each second with such thundering force that a fine spray of mist rises hundreds of feet into the sky like a giant cloud, casting rainbows that can be seen for miles across the bushveld.  Surely there’s no more beautiful place on earth to tie a rubber band around your ankles and jump off a bridge.

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But first, you must embrace the easier-said-than-done idea of jumping.  This is not like skydiving, where you stand out on the wing of a plane pretending it’s all a dream before letting go and falling backwards.  To bungee jump you must face forward and stare down your destination as well as the horizon; you must jump head-on into the air against every instinct your body holds for self-preservation.  You must choose to make what your body thinks is a suicide leap.

As your turn approaches, supervisors check their manifest against the series of identifying numbers that have been written on your forearm with a magic-marker. Your name is crossed off the list and suddenly the juices in your stomach rise into the back of your throat as you realize the time for turning back is about to pass.  You silently wish somebody had the courtesy to at least produce a blindfold.

The sound of a million-plus-gallons of water speeding over the edge of a cliff roars in your head like a herd of charging buffalo as the next victim is shuffled into position, bound at the ankles.  The man in front of you – the last man between you and a leap – teeters on the edge, holding on with white knuckles. In the instant you turn to notice the small video camera that’s been set up to record it all for posterity, he is gone.  Another full-throttle scream erupts, tingling up your spine, before fading somewhere below.

Vic Falls Bungee may have a 100% safety record and the experience of thousands of clean jumps but the Victoria Falls Bridge not only exists in a legal grey zone between two borders, but at 111 meters high is roughly the equivalent of two Statues of Liberty.  It’s enough to make any sane person gulp.

IMG_1666When the last of the screams have died down, you are ushered to the precipice. Time slows to a crawl. Regardless of how poised and calm you were moments ago – when the physical act of jumping face-first off a bridge was just an amusingly theoretical construct – your mind goes into rapid synaptic overload.  You hear nothing, as though a cone of silence has descended around you.  Your vision narrows and your body moves without necessarily being conscious of the fact. You experience what is known as fear-induced shock.

You shut your eyes tight, wondering what has brought you to this lawless no man’s land:  a bridge in sub-Saharan Africa straddling two of the world’s poorest countries.

And when you open them and begin to shuffle towards what can only be a certain and gruesome doom, you remember that you’ve paid for the privilege:  $110, plus an extra $50 for the t-shirt and video.

However confident and competent your guides seem, you nevertheless waver on the narrow ridge of steel that functions as the launch point. Trying to focus on anything except the task at hand, panic, turns briefly, to clarity:  this fear is real – it won’t somehow leave this city-boy with a terror of heights just by jumping.  You can still turn around and go back – jumping is not an inevitability.

“Ready on three?”

Ready, you say aloud.  And on “3,” you breathe.  On “2,” you crouch.   And as “1” rings in your ears like the crack of a starter’s pistol, or the drop of the hangman’s trapdoor, you leap up and swan dive into the air.  With a scream that comes from somewhere deep inside your bowels, you drop with all the grace of a frozen turkey shot out of a cannon.IMG_1669

Everything is upside down when you’re headed south tethered only by your feet.  Mist is raining down but goes up your nose, and Victoria Falls appears to be flowing upwards.  With eyes wide open you see your face is about to slam into the rocks until the bungee cord snaps you back up into the air in the nick of time, sparing you from a Thelma and Louise-style ending.

Five, six times you bounce up and down – tossed about like bait on the end of a fisherman’s line.   Blood surges into your head as you finally come to rest, suspended over the rushing rapids.  Everything appears shrouded in a glistening mist and bright sunlight forms perfect spherical rainbows like an army of Glindas come to show you the Yellow Brick Road.

IMG_1676It is a spectacular high – and a literal rush of blood to the head – though as you wait to be winched back up, you realize it wasn’t about the jump at all.  It was about the moment before.

By the time you head back across the Zambian border, upright on two wobbly legs, you understand it was all about the moment you said “ready” and believed it.

Background: The past five years have seen the area surrounding Mosi-oa-Tunya – or “the Smoke that Thunders” as the local tribes people refer to the Falls – blossom into a destination for thrill seekers, adventure tourists and nature lovers, particularly in the peaceful, politically stable country of Zambia.  Whether its soaring high into the sky in a helicopter or vintage Tiger Moth (www.uaczam.com), going solo in a Microlight (www.batokasky.com), hi-speed jet boating (www.advanced-advertising.com/sites/jetx/index.htm), fishing the swift and predatory Tigerfish (www.zambezifishing.com), surfing the rapids of Batoka Gorge on a body board (www.bunduadventures.com) or riding the highest concentration of grade 4 and 5 rapids anywhere in the world (www.safpar.com), you are never more than a few minutes away from extravagant beauty and world class thrills.  Zambia seems poised to become the next great adventure destination. (And as a former British colony, everybody speaks English, too)  Make the journey now and have it virtually to yourself – before the rest of the world catches on.

The sundeck at the Royal Livingstone

Zebra graze near the sundeck at The Royal Livingstone

Setting up camp: On the forested banks of the Zambezi, two minutes upstream of the cataract where the Falls thunder into Batoka Gorge, The Royal Livingston Hotel is a dreamy reminder of a more elegant and courteous world: cool lounges and shaded verandas; sundowners along the river deck; high tea, butler service and the perfect Pimm’s cup. Of course there is the omnipresent smoke and thunder of the Falls, too, only minutes away on foot.

Getting there: Like most Shangri-La destinations, getting there is half the battle, making the reward that much sweeter.  There are no direct flights to Zambia, however South African Airways flies daily from JFK to Johannesburg, connecting onwards to Zambia.  New roomy Business Class seats convert into fully-flat beds that make an ordinarily grueling flight pass like a dream. (www.flysaa.com)

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