The duck-egg blue waters of the Kawarau River in Queenstown are perfectly calm. A massive gorge encloses it like parentheses, its rock face covered with warm yellow tussock, bottle green trees, and some dead grey pines too. A few hundred feet away lies the site where The Pillars of the Kings stood in the Lord of the Rings. I stand atop a suspension bridge, a speck in this grand scheme of things.
“Jump. Do it now,” whispers X in my left ear.
X is not some voice in my head with a death wish. She is the tiny bungee instructor at A.J. Hackett Bungy, the world’s first commercial bungee site, which opened in 1988. X’s green eyes are streaked with kohl and her hair reminds me of Khaleesi. Anxiety the size of a dragon eggs rattles in my belly.
“But…” I sputter, peering at the 141-foot, sheer drop that will dunk me in the river (if I ask). “I’m terrified!” What I actually want to say is that I’m sure there’s a “wrong” way of falling, which I’m sure I will. There is a possibility of my spinal disc slipping or my contact lenses flying off my eyes. I wriggle my tied-up feet and inch backwards on the plank.
“I would like to back out, thank you,” my most polite voice quivers. Khaleesi—I mean X—looks disappointed. But not defeated.
We often assume new identities when we travel. Many a times they are bolder, shinier doppelgängers of the people we are. In different time zones, I, for instance, do things I might not attempt closer home. Two years ago in Toronto, I left behind two of my travel companions and signed up to walk along the circular, rail-less ledge at the roof of the 1,168-foot-high CN Tower. I leaned forward, saw flying airplanes in the eye, and looked down 116 storeys at Toronto dwarfed and shrunken from my vantage point. While I mostly stick to hikes and treks around my own city, here in New Zealand’s South Island, I had signed up for a via ferrata mountain climb along waterfalls and crossed bridges made only of rope, shaking violently above whirling pools.
Where I’d draw the line was bungee jumping. Why, I’d tell everyone, would I have my legs tied, look hundreds of feet down into yawning valleys or freezing rivers, summon my most primal fear of dying with my head cracked open—and pay for it? We don’t jump because we are not supposed to invoke some terrors.
And then, this June, I learnt that my flight into Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world, was a 20-minute drive away from the world’s first ever bungee site. “So,” I told myself, “since I so emphatically squat any term that starts with the word ‘bungee,’ I should take the plunge.”
I wish terrible things upon that voice as I now look down the gorge.
“You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel this way,” says X, massaging my arm. She tells everybody this, I’m sure. But then I remember how every single person before me jumped willingly, and whooped so loudly that the crowd standing near the suspension bridge erupted in applause.
And here, my therapy session wasn’t going too well. But I jump.
If you are waiting for the part where I say I felt like a bird, it’s not coming. I fall like a rag doll, and feel my stomach lurch up, nay down, to my throat. My hair whips my face and I swing jerkily as if I am going to grab a trapeze. If somebody applauds for me, I don’t hear it. When the men in the boat hand me a pole to grab and get into the raft, I am too stunned to move.
But something does happen soon after, which takes the edge off my experience. My memory of that jump is now velcroed to it.
I climb the deserted steps along the cliff face to return to the bungee centre on top. Midway lies a little gate beyond which I see a little boy, his golden retriever, and a bespectacled woman wearing tinkling beaded necklaces and a smile that makes her eyes crinkle. “Ooh you did it!” she waves at me with genuine delight. “It was you we were watching there!” she points to the suspension bridge.
I grin, and she tells me how she is waiting for her daughter who is up next. We turn to look, and see a girl fall, shrieking with glee. “Oh, look at you girls,” she beams. I mumble that it was terrifying. “But you leapt. You’ll always remember that,” she says.
I climb the rest of the stairs shivering in the cold, only this time there’s a sunny, egg-yolk-like warmth quivering inside me.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.