I didn’t know anything about it but I wanted to try it. So I started to research the pioneer of bungy jumping in the 1980s, AJ Hackett, whose company runs the jump at the Souleuvre site. And I looked at photos of the location and it looked nice, so I thought I’d make a trip of it.
AJ Hackett’s whole ethos is about overcoming fear. They manufacture their own ropes and have an excellent safety record. They weigh you to assess the right length of rope for your weight – the viaduct is 62 m over a stream and you don’t want to go head first into the water. They put a towel around your ankles and then attach a webbing harness around your feet with loops over your shoes. It is clipped on with carabiners and screws attaching it to the rope. Then you hop onto the platform which is like a diving board with handrails.
There is a second platform and, if you don’t want to jump or you are overcome by fear, they leave you and use the other platform; it’s up to you.
So you stand on the platform, nervous, thinking it’s a long way down, looking down at the valley and noticing the trees which are beautiful colours. They count you down to zero and say “Go!” And you dive off like a bird with your arms extended. Your eyes start watering from the air rushing past and it’s cold even if the sun is shining and the loop of the bungy rope is paying out beside you; you are flying and it’s the greatest rush; the endorphins are extraordinary.
The rope doesn’t bring you up at all suddenly at the bottom. The stretch is gradual so there’s no discomfort. At the full extension you can reach out and put your hands in the stream. One of the people I was with dipped their head in, which was a bit of a shock in November.
At the rope’s full extension you go into a crouch position and that gives you the maximum bungy coming back up. You come back up the first time to the platform height and can bounce up to four or five times before you come to rest about 5 m above the stream. Then they hook you on a long pole, pull you to the side and let you out of the harness.
My second jump was off the Contra Dam in the Verzasca Valley in Switzerland, which features in the opening sequence of the James Bond film Goldeneye.
The dam is 220 m high so it’s a much bigger jump. There’s no permanent structure for bungy jumping, the platform is anchored only by concrete blocks and high-tensile steel cables. The professional in me thought: “Do they inspect that?”
Your legs aren’t strapped together at that site, so you can walk around. There, not only do you have a climbing-type harness, you also have two individual harnesses.
You climb up five or six steps and you have to jump off to the side of the platform so you don’t hit the side of the dam. There’s no patience there if you get scared. If you haven’t jumped in 20 seconds they’ll get you off and the next person up.
There’s a split second after you step off where you feel as though you are suspended in mid air and you can see the people with cameras at the side of the dam. Then you fall. And it’s the biggest rush ever.
The drop is 220 m so you feel like you are falling for a long time, though it’s over in seven seconds. It’s a flight; you don’t see anything.
Because of the location they can’t pull you to the side of the dam when you come to rest so they have to winch you back up. They teach you how to go from a lying-down position with your head pointed down to sitting up in the harness because they send down a rope with a hook you clip on the harness and they winch you back up. While you are waiting you have about five minutes sitting up in the harness about 2 m from the massive curved face of the dam. It’s very quiet and you can hear the birds and the insects and you feel like the only person in this huge valley. It’s beautiful.
At work, I use it in safety training to talk about risk perception. I show a slide of me jumping to get their attention and talk to them about translating safety procedures into the real world.
I only go for the jumps in good locations; I’m not interested in jumping off a crane in a car park. I’d love to go to the AJ Hackett site in New Zealand, which is where it all started, but the next one I have planned is to go back to Switzerland and to jump off at night. They illuminate the top of the dam, the moonlight shines down the valley and you can jump off backwards if you have been before.
I’m afraid of ladders but I’d recommend this to anyone. It makes you know you are alive. You can come back and people ask what you did at the weekend. “I jumped off a dam,” you say. “How about you?” “I went clothes shopping,” they say.