Falling from the high wire in Queenstown, New Zealand

The small bus pulled up to the corner of Camp Street, the driver checked my name and we jumped in.  “High winds again”, she said. “You’ll have to be lucky.”  My efforts the day previous had been scuppered by similar weather, but something felt different today, and we agreed to take the chance and press on towards the valley.  I was absolutely, utterly hell-bent on throwing myself 134 metres off the Nevis high wire bungee.

Upon arrival 45 minutes later, it was easy to see why the wind posed a problem.  The Nevis was called a “high wire” for a reason – it was a small shed-like structure suspended in the valley by a few high tension wires.  The wind, rather than a steady stream, was gusting sporadically, which was causing the small platform to buck unpredictably in mid-air with every blow.  There were, however, momentary periods of calm and the Kiwi’s  – ever the optimists – were ushering us eagerly towards the near edge of the fall.

The valley itself was stunning, and in the moments when my eyes weren’t transfixed on the platform hanging in midair, I was able to take in the beauty of the burnt oranges and deep browns of the vast chasm ahead.  A rushing river meandered its way through the rock, having probably carved the valley in the first place, maintaining its wild claim on the land.  I was jolted back to the task in hand when a small mechanical lift wound its way along the wires towards us and came to a relatively gentle stop.  We stepped on, four of us, and it began to whirr back, hundred of metres above the river below, towards the central platform.

Adrenaline began to kick in.  There was a glass panel in the floor of the platform which showed the bungee cord hanging in the distance below.  It began to clunk upwards and I was brought forwards and sat in a chair.  “You go on three,” he said.  “Pull the lever at the bottom and you’ll rotate the right way up, otherwise you’ll hang upside down until we get you back.”  He tied the rope to my ankles, grinned, and shuffled me to the ‘plank’ poking out over the platform edge.  He dropped the rope limply down by my side, it was surprisingly heavy and I almost went with it.  I spread my arms, my heart began to pound, I could feel my pupils dilate, alert. 

“Three”, I looked down.

“Two”, the river rushed below.

“One”, I looked straight ahead.

“Go”, I threw myself forwards.

I hung for a moment, and then plumetted.  The acceleration was startling, and in a second the ground was rushing rapidly towards me.  I fell 134 metres in about ten seconds, weightless, at the mercy of the thick chord tied tightly round my ankles.  I screamed in utter delight the entire descent. 

Some people don’t see the point of bungee, but I couldn’t disagree more.  You’ll never feel more awake, more tuned to every sense, and more alive than you do in that 10 seconds when your life is completely out of your control.

The caves of New Zealand

Waitomo Cave, New Zealand

Leaning back on the rope, securely tied overhead, I eased back towards the pitch black tear in the ground below me. The headtorch attached to my helmet could only penetrate so far into the 40 metre fall below. The rest was mystery.

Feeding the rope through my “control” hand, I began to descend. The cold hit the second my head passed beneath ground level, the boots, wetsuit and thermal jacket unable to keep it out. The narrow beam of light showed where to place my feet, highlighting deep shades of stoney grey, wet from recent rain, allowing little comfort or grip. The sliver of light overhead became smaller and smaller, and suddenly the wall fell away from my soles and I was hanging in midair, no concept of the space around me, unable to see the bottom.

Soon the rocky surface below came in to view, and I eased myself on to the rocks, disconnecting myself from the rope, standing at the bottom of a deep, dark funnel within the earth. The cave extended away in only one direction, limiting the options but making the decision an easy one. Guided by my headtorch, and using the ropes already placed along the walls I pressed on – the route in was no option, an exit would have to be found seperately. Ducking and squeezing through the cave, the sound of running water turned from a distant whisper to a present rush, and rounding yet another bend the ground came to an end, met by an underground “blackwater” river passing across the path, running for unseen miles. Despite this it seemed lighter here, somehow, although deeper and further from the kiss of the sun. As I stepped into the chilling water, and climbed upon a buoyancy aid, the reason why became clear.

All along the seemingly endless black above me hung millions of glowworms, lying in wait for their prey. Tiny blue-white lights lit up the depths of the cave like infinite stars in a clear night sky. They guided the way as the water pushed me onwards through the cave, often coming down the walls almost to the waterline, until the river became shallow enough for me to stand and make my own way. At the earliest opportunity I pulled myself out of the water, the wetsuit offering little comfort, and began to press along a gently upward winding narrow path. At points the way became so narrow and contorted that progress was almost impossible, but I managed to press ahead, ever upwards, a good sign. I sensed an almost imperceptible rise in temperature, but with it a definite, thunderous noise of falling water. I entered the next chamber.

It was a 15 foot, underground waterfall and it blocked the way forward, tumbling down into the small cavern in which I stood and flowing way through a small gap off into the darkness. The waterfall needed to be climbed, without ropes. Taking grip, the downward force of the water was intense, opposing every reach and every push, occasionally blinding as the flow increased and decreased, irregular but constant. Pulling and forcing my way up against the water, using whatever holds the rocks offered, I eventually managed to slide my stomach over the lip of the drop, soaked to the core, fingers numb. Hauling myself to my feet, weighed down by the water held in the wetsuit, I squelched over and through to the next cavern.

A steep slope led upwards, I had to squint. Pressing my face into the narrow space, the warmth of the sun brushed my cheek, giving that last ounce of energy to slide up the stone and out into the world. I was filthy, cold, wet and exhilerated. I felt alive.