As High As You Can Go

I didn’t think there was a chance in hell I’d actually go through with it.
The preceding sections of the Costa Rica rainforest canopy tour, which had involved me zip-lining across epic tree-lined valleys several hundreds meters in the air, had straddled the thin line between wondrous exhilaration and abject terror. The bit where they lowered me at great speed from a treetop platform on the end of a dangling cable I had only just survived with the contents of my bowels intact. But this, a humungous rope swing entailing a 20 metre free-fall, this brought a whole new level of fear.  

We were instructed to queue along a curling pathway that came to abrupt end with a precipitous ledge some 60 feet above the ground. While I probably should have adopted the old mantra “let’s get it over with”, I instead hovered awkwardly at the back of the line and watched as the other members of my group proceeded to launch themselves from this overhanging shelf one by valiant one and swing back and forth through the forest ceiling like enormous pendulums. Some would scream; others remained curiously silent as they fell. I, for wont of a better expression, was bricking it. As my turn drew closer, my heart began to beat faster and faster. I tried to assess if there might be a way out of it but there appeared to be no other way down and, to be completely honest, I wasn’t prepared to lose face in front of my two accompanying friends, particularly as they had been some of the first to complete their jumps with seemingly wild abandon. 
So, the moment came. I stood there on the edge of the platform in a strange blur of not-really-happening, and peered fleetingly downwards. It was a bloody big drop, there was no getting around it. Those who had already completed the swing looked back up at me from the ground below and I could just about make out encouraging smiles, but the haziness of their faces only served to illustrate how sickeningly far down they were. To make matters worse, the instructors whose job it was to attach our harnesses to the rope, appeared to be barely older than children. Was I really prepared to put my life in the hands of a bunch of 12 year olds who didn’t even speak my language?
Yes, it seems. For I realised pretty quickly that my instincts of self-preservation would never allow me to initiate the jump myself, and the instructors must have sensed this, for no sooner had they attached my harness to the end of the rope that they had kicked my legs from under me, laughing maniacally, and I was falling, in all my clammy white-fleshed glory, to my untimely death. 

Except that I wasn’t. Instead, I was travelling upwards, the rope having kicked in at the vital moment, and carrying me high, high up into the treetops. The trouser-soiling freefall bit now over, I actually began to enjoy the experience as I swung through the canopy like some feeble Tarzan parody, though only in the manner that you “enjoy” leaving the dentists after particularly painful tooth extraction. Mercifully, it wasn’t long before I was lowered back to earth, cheered on (in my head) by my adoring fans. Supportive to the last, my friends actually remarked that my freefall had been “the funniest thing we’ve ever seen” and that I had “screamed like a girl”, a humiliation only slightly preferable to death. While I felt a certain degree of satisfaction to have confronted one of my great fears, the words that echoed the loudest in my head as I lay in bed that night were “never again”. Far from conquering my terror of falling from a great height, the episode had only served to confirm that my fear was well-founded. Much as it pains me to admit it, I am simply not cut out for bungee jumps, sky dives, or indeed any form of freefall adventuring.
It was just as well that I came to this conclusion before emigrating to New Zealand, where opportunities to engage in thrilling adventure activities present themselves as frequently as old stone cottages do back home. Whether it be the menacing shadow of Auckland’s Sky Tower or the litany of promotional pamphlets that get rammed down your throat from the moment you step off the plane at Queenstown airport, the palm-moistening spectre of the bungee jump is never far away.
Now I don’t want to give the impression that I am scared of heights per se. I’ve stood at the top of the Empire State Building and looked out from the summits of massive mountains; planes have never scared me (well, hardly ever - more of that in my next blog). But there’s something about the falling that I find truly terrifying. So having ticked off and, to be honest, not particularly enjoyed the experience of a rope swing in Costa Rica, I resolved that bungees and sky dives would be forevermore off-limits.
It was easy, then, when the same friends who had heckled me in Costa Rica came to visit in January and tried to cajole me into doing a bungee with them. I knew the possibility of me agreeing was non-existent, so I was able to enjoy our trip to Queenstown, the oft-proclaimed “adventure capital of the South”, confident in knowledge that no amount of wheedling or guilt-tripping would change my mind. As it turned out, watching other people bungee jump is only mildly less terrifying than doing one yourself, for I found myself living every moment of the experience with them, my forehead crowning itself in little pearls of sweaty terror just at the mere thought.
For all their initial bravado, my friends were not quite the fearless thrill-seekers they made themselves out to be. As the day of their pre-booked Karawau Bridge jumps approached their burgeoning angst became increasingly apparent. On the night before, one of them became so fidgety and pallid of hue that I thought he might do a surreptitious runner back to England. Still, their determination to go through with it ultimately won through, not least because they’d boasted of their intention to do a bungee in the now-distant comfort of their offices back home, and losing face to one’s colleagues was surely an even worse outcome than the plunge itself.
           As it happened, they both went through with it and actually came out saying they’d loved it.  For me, though, an observer on the visitors’ viewing platform, the whole thing appeared every bit as horrific as I’d imagined. I watched with a slightly stunned disbelief as the jumpers were led to the sheer-dropping edge of the bungee platform and asked to “give the camera a wave” before leaping into oblivion. The oddest thing was the way their bodies fell, less graceful Olympic divers, more rag dolls on a string. And then, having fallen, the way they bounced back up, as if boosted by some theme park trampoline, before being lowered into a small raft waiting for them in the river below.
           My resolve never to attempt a bungee myself was only strengthened by seeing my friends thrown around like a pair of volleyballs. They said it was an “amazing” experience, of course. And I know from Costa Rica that those few seconds after the initial freefall, when you realise you aren’t going to die and you get that wooshy sensation as you fly through the air, are pretty cool. Especially when your backdrop is as spectacular as the Karawau Gorge with its crystal clear river and time-worn rocks. Me, though, I still prefer to enjoy the scenery from the ground up. 

         Now, believe it or not, when great heights aren’t involved, I do actually enjoy the odd rush of adrenaline. Otherwise, I’d probably find my stays in Queenstown rather dull. And I was fortunate to return to the town this year with some semblance of pocket money. On our first visit in November 2010, soon after our arrival in New Zealand, we were close to penniless from our European travels (not to mention our complete and utter lack of saving), so we had to do Queenstown very much on a shoestring. We stayed in a budget backpackers, walked up the mountain to avoid paying for the Skyline Gondola, and took the scenic but nevertheless sedate steamship cruise across Lake Wakatipu rather than forking out for an expensive jetboat ride. So while it was possible to enjoy the place, and certainly its scenery, without wads of cash, our budget definitely precluded us from partaking in Queenstown’s more thrilling activities.
         This time, my personal mission was to ride the famous Shotover Jet, a high-speed jetboat that propels visitors down a particularly beautiful stretch of the eponymous river. Though I still felt a pang of annoyance that I had to hand over close to a hundred dollars for the privilege, I soon came to appreciate the value in the activity. The staff at the booking centre were welcoming and friendly, and the whole thing was slickly organised, with a prompt bus transporting us the 15 minute drive to the jet site to the north east of Queenstown. The neck-to-ankles waterproof jackets we were instructed to wear might have made us look like a Darth Vader tribute band, but at least they helped to keep our jeans and cameras dry. The ride itself lasted longer than I expected, and significantly longer than the mere seconds of adrenaline-pumping action you pay for with a bungee jump. It must have lasted 20 minutes in total, which was the perfect amount of time to soak up the views without feeling the discomfort that would have developed if we’d spent any longer travelling at such high speed, so close to jagged rocks, and with the ice cold air stinging our exposed faces. Our skipper was your typical Kiwi bloke, friendly and with a line in dry wit and shamelessly in love with the great outdoors. And with such stunning surrounds, it was hard not to feel a twinge of envy for such a simple life, driving excited travellers up and down this glorious stretch of New Zealand landscape beneath cloudless blue skies. 

        As if sheer speed was not enough of a thrill, the ride also featured a series of super-fast 360 turns at the wider points of the river, much to the whooping delight of the passengers. Here was adventure in manageable form, and without the petrifying build-up you get with a bungee jump or rope swing. With the Shotover Jet ticked off, I was happy to spend the rest of the trip in more placid mode, taking in the breathtaking scenery of Queenstown and its surrounds without the need to resort to perilous dare-devilling. My more dauntless friends were inevitably of a different mindset, and proceeded to partake in horse riding, black water rafting and paragliding before their trip was over. Me, well, even if I never relent and leave the bungee jumps and skydives to the more audacious of you out there, at least I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that I, just the once, that time in Costa Rica, stared my fear in the face and won. 

This blog is dedicated to my dear cousin Vicky McWilliam, who passed away suddenly on 26th April 2012.


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