Spare time: Don't look down, don't look up, just bungee

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The Independent Online
It's the ultimate virtual reality: falling without the bump. And it's terrifying. But bungee-jumping is not as challenging as it appears, writes Eric Kendall.

"They'd have to pay me more than pounds 50 to jump off there." The old boy from Yorkshire had a point. By normal standards, hurling yourself from the top of a crane to bounce around on an elastic band wouldn't be an obvious thing to choose to do, regardless of any inducements offered.

As I explained that you have to pay them the pounds 50, another body came winging down, exclaiming: "Better than sex!" before pinging skywards on the rebound. The old cynic still wasn't convinced: "He can't be doing it right."

It may be fun, as thousands of jumpers have been proving for years, but it doesn't take a Casanova to know that the sex analogy simply can't be correct. OK, bungee-jumping is a brief thrill, involving a mighty surge of adrenaline and ecstatic shouting, but you do it upside down, at speeds of up to 100mph. Call me old-fashioned, but it's not my idea of a roll in the hay.

From the moment you think about jumping, the idea haunts you. If you dither, it could be weeks of torture, the thought forcing its way in whenever there's a gap in the day, and time to frighten yourself. The longer you leave it, the worse it gets.

Dwelling on the origins of bungee doesn't help: a woman on the Vanuatu Islands in the Pacific fled from her marauding husband by climbing a tree. Realising she was trapped, she tied a vine to her ankle and jumped. Meanwhile her husband didn't tie a vine to his ankle, and jumped too, only to overtake her just before hitting the ground in a terminal way. For the woman, proto- bungee was also better than sex, but not the way they mean these days. Since then, islanders have jumped from towers every year with vines tied to their ankles, as a rite of passage to manhood and to ensure a good yam harvest.

In the yam-free world of commercial bungee-jumping, the vines are replaced with latex ropes on to which the jumper is tied, usually by the ankles. Cranes, towers and bridges can be jumped from, generally at heights of between 120ft and 300ft. The vital thing is that the drop is greater than the bungee at full stretch, plus a bit for luck, but that's all taken care of by the operator. You've got more important things to worry about, such as sheer terror.

Though more scientific than vine-jumping, bungee also has ritual elements. Being weighed, going through the "no back problems? no heart complaints?" routine is for real, but in the true spirit of the circus, every last ounce of atmosphere and buzz is wrung from the procedure, just in case you might start to feel, despite your nerves, that your money could have been better spent.

But that's cold feet for you. While waiting for the long crane ride, any number of plausible arguments go from your spinning head to your churning stomach, not least that there's no sane, sensible reason for going ahead. The reality, once you've been weighed, joined the queue, stepped into the cage - is that you've come all this way, paid your money - and lots of people are watching. You've got to jump.

And you do. Don't look down, don't look anywhere; don't think, don't breathe. Just 5-4-3-2-1-bungee. The first, fastest, highest drop is almost instantly over, moments of hollow free fall leaving you a few feet from the ground, pumping with adrenaline and gasping at the recognition that you're still alive. Now the real terror begins, as the elastic pulls you inexorably up, suspended in time and space, to hang once more, high in the sky, before plunging back towards earth. Finally your diminishing bounces subside to leave you helplessly dangling on the end of the rope and you're lowered down to exchange endless grins and even transatlantic whoops with other jumpers - a mixture of relief and something more powerful that could have you feeling good for days.

It's a fantastic sensation. Many people immediately want to jump again, and some come back to become serial jumpers, trying every trick imaginable, from acrobatic stunts to blindfold, fear-enhancing techniques. But for the majority, that's it: they did it because it was there. Without any skills to learn or progress to make, why do it again? It's the ultimate fairground ride, though maybe safer, but wouldn't driving the roller- coaster be even better than taking a scary ride?

The minimal danger (when jumping with a reputable operator) and zero qualifications required are both the best and the worst of bungee. You don't have to pull the parachute rip cord, fly the hang-glider, dive deeper or in any way influence the outcome: a sack of potatoes can bungee-jump. If one thing is certain about bungee, whatever anyone tries to tell you, coming to a sticky end is not on the agenda.

Taking the plunge

The British Elastic Rope Sports Association, Bersa (01865 311 179), promotes bungee-jumping in the UK and ensures affiliated clubs operate within their strict code of practice; call for details of your nearest Bersa affiliated jump site.

The UK Bungee Club (0171-720 9496) has mobile rigs that operate all over the country, as well as the permanent site at Chelsea Bridge. Since 1992 more than 100,000 people have jumped with them. The first jump costs pounds 50, subsequent jumps pounds 35. Approximately one-third of their customers jump for charity, one third as a challenge (in some cases having been given "gift" jumps - it's more exciting than a book token). They categorise the final third as adrenaline junkies. Summer is the main season, though weekend jumps continue throughout the year.

Most UK jumping is from cranes, though the first jump was made from Clifton Suspension Bridge, in 1979. Some aficionados claim that jumping in impressive gorges such as New Zealand's Skipper's Canyon adds something to the experience, but a crane probably gives the most extreme sensation of exposure and height. Jumps have also been made from balloons, helicopters, cable cars and dams.

Safety records of reputable companies are impressive. The only special requirements for the jumper, beyond basic good health, are to empty pockets of loose change and to wear clothing that's tight enough not to come straight off over your head. People looking for an additional thrill can also try catapulting - reverse bungee - which is exactly as it sounds.