In about an hour I will be dropping 440 feet above a ravine. The nut of it is, I’d say I’m pretty calm. On the 30-minute bus ride from Queenstown to The Nevis, the highest bungy jump site in New Zealand, I find myself – as I often do on a trip like this – retracing my steps and wondering how it is that I got here. My mind wanders in search of focus and clarity but these are scarce comodities in a place with so much to do and so much to see. I lean my forehead deeper into the window and look out as far as my eyes will take me, going places this bus wouldn’t dare.
My younger brother, Paulo, and I had already been in New Zealand for a week visiting our friend, Bryce. Our stubbly beards were coming in nicely since we had made a “no shaving” pact for the trip, mostly to see how dirty we could get and how much fun we could have in the process. Despite our youthful spirits, our charming wit, our rugged travel know-how or anything else that others may say about us we are, after all, just boys.
The previous night we had arrived in Queenstown from our adventures in Milford Sound. It had been a glorious couple of days of mountains covered in the first fresh snow of winter and drives through roads that wound their way deeply around lush valley floors. We had spent much of the time struck dumb like boys at a prom but all of it deserved much introspection. At Homner Tunnel, we had barely managed to escape the grip of a raging blizzard that tried to rip the very chains off our car, though that’s another story. We had been feasting on trail mix and a bag of wine but these things were in short supply after our miscellaneous romps and the food supplies had been getting dangerously homogeneous. Soon the nuts were gone and the bag of wine had vanished. All we were left with was the bag of twenty four sausages that we had bought outside of Queenstown for eight New Zealand Dollars.
Naturally, when you have a pack of twenty four sausages that cost you only slight more than thirty cents per sausage, you end up eating sausage more often than would be considered normal. Or healthy. For breakfast, that’s not such a bad thing; in fact, it’s delicious. I wasn’t exactly eager, though, to see what sausagenous creations we’d come up with for lunch and dinner for the rest of the week.
And speaking of delicious, the Kiwis have sort of standardized a thing called a mochaccino. It’s simple enough: a cappuccino with chocolate milk, but no, it’s not a mocha. And it’s not a cappuccino with chocolate syrup added, like those heathens at Starbucks do it after I explicitly described to them that the milk must be chocolate from the beginning, otherwise it tastes like coffee with chocolate. A mochaccino is, very distinctly, chocolate with coffee – it makes all the difference in the world, reader, and I had focused intently on my beverage while we waited for the AJ Hackett bungy center to open.
And now I’m here, my mochaccino is gone and I’m sitting on a small commuter bus with about 19 other lunatics on the way to the rush of our lives. As the road leaves Queenstown it veers left and the Gibson Highway passes a remarkable mountain range known as – and this is where the Kiwis get really creative: “The Remarkables”. You’ve probably seen these rocky peaks if you’ve seen “The Lord of the Rings” since pretty much every mountain range in “The Return of the King” was composed from shots of these majesties. The bus takes us out into the country on a picturesque drive along green pastures spotted with rocks and boulders, a landscape very much like one would expect in northern Scotland, which is, of course, worlds away. In the distance every peak reminds us of how well we timed our trip: the first snow of the season had fallen not a week before and now the sun is shining just brightly enough to slice the thin, crisp air that cools our nose hairs before refreshing our blood.
In order to climb the foothills to the Nevis Crossing and the jump station gondola (yeah, you jump off a gondola; no joke), a more rugged vehicle is needed and so we’re told we have to ditch the bus. I sort of wonder how bad it could be until we come to a muddy stretch that is practically on a 45 degree incline.
“Jesus,” Bryce says, “you couldn’t climb that mess with crampons and rail spikes.”
“Sure you can, mate,” pipes in the kiwi guide, “but ya need one of those,” and he points to a canvas-backed monster vehicle, supposedly to take us up to the gondola. It’s tires are each the size of a Volkswagen, and the kiwis had put chains on every one. The 4WD animal probably runs on puppies, it’s so mean-looking. The cabin consists of 2 seats and a steering wheel with no other frills like seatbelts or doors. The passenger compartment behind it is essentially a cage in a tarp, and the tarp is mostly ripped.
As we stare in amazement at this thing, I hesitate to point out to Paul and Bryce that the emergency exit of the beast, while clearly labeled, is a tear in the canvas.
“Safety first…” I hear Paul mumble to no one in particular. I have to agree. This concern for the image of safety doesn’t exactly leave me swollen with confidence on the cusp of my first bungy jump. The kiwis call it “dropping,” which I think sort of downplays the absurdity of jumping off of a gondola that hangs over a ravine with a six inch-deep creek at the bottom. But we climb into the belly of the beast and it roars to life, gripping the mountain, pulling its narrow mud paths under the chains on those massive tires.
At the top of the mountain we put on full-body harnesses and are instructed on how not to die when bungy jumping. At first I am struck by the lack of attention the other jumpers give to this lecture but then again, if you’ve paid good money to have some one help you jump from a dangling platform, survival and self-preservation may not be your keenest instinct. I, for one, still have some odd notion that I want to survive this and double and triple check my equipment.
“Hey, Pete, c’mon. We’re going to the gondola and we need your weight to be balanced.”
“Hang on, Bryce, I have to make sure this strap is – hmmmmf – tight enough.”
“Pete, you’ve checked that strap four times and the clip isn’t coming unclipped until you put those opposable thumbs to work.”
“Let me just check it one more time.”
After securing the equipment they ferry us out to the dangling “room” which is suspended on the middle of a wire that crosses a ravine. This is where you jump from. Naturally.
The Nevis (as the thing is called) hangs one hundred thirty four meters (four hundred forty feet) over a cobalt-colored river running through a stony gorge. Giant snow-capped mountains situated over the surrounding rocky cliffs are lined with snow like pointy ice cream cones dipped in white chocolate. Why they bothered to hang the thing over a river that is at most six to eight inches deep probably has more to do with the gorge than with the river. That’s not a very comforting thought, but it’s probably true and I recommend not thinking about it.
I have a ridiculous nervous grin on my face and I can’t wipe it off, like a six-year-old boy waiting for his turn on the bumper cars. I’m excited. I’m nervous, but in a generously excited manner that is making me dangerously unafraid. The man who put on the velcro strap on my feet guides me out to the platform as if I were walking the plank. I pull my shoulders back and I hold my head high like a proud captain who does not fear the pirates or the sharks. The scenery is fantastic and I notice that I’m level with the snow line. I find the last tree before the line of white powder that consumes the mountain. I focus on it. I think about my family. I hear a countdown but it doesn’t reach three – already there is nothing under my feet…
I’m not thinking about anything on my way down, just my family. Nothing in particular about them, just them. And soon they, too, are gone and there is nothing but me. I don’t close my eyes for a moment. The world is frozen in time and like the inside of a wave, it is perfectly soundless. There is no roaring rumble, and no screaming wind. I feel blissful, in sync with everything that exists or could exist. Who knew such peace could be had?
…and then, just like that, the bungy bounces and I’m back on the platform. The mountains are unimpressed (I can tell), but my breath is still out there in the open, somewhere down by the river.
Paul is a different story.
Fact: he yells the ENTIRE way down, even on the bounces. After his yelling is outside of my hearing range I watch him through the plate-glass floor on the jump platform with the eyes of a big brother, my heart in my hands like a stress ball. I can’t help it. It’s probably uncool, I know, but that’s just the way some things go. Apparently Paul’s near-death experience provokes some grand stir of emotions. As soon as his feet can feel something other than air underneath them he lunges at me for a hug and I feel his heart trying to leap out of his chest. He completely let go of himself in his own way and I can see it in my little brother’s eyes; I can feel it in his hug. Awesome.
As people take their turns they get us off the gondola in batches according to our weight. By the time Bryce takes his dive, Paul and I have already been escorted off the platform and we get to watch him from the edge of the cliff. He spots us and makes faces on his bounces, goofing off as if he were on the ground.
After the drops the beast takes us down and the bus takes us back. But for one Asian girl who somehow doesn’t take a hint that no one wants to hear her talk about how, like, totally cool bungy jumping is, the ride is silent. Everything seems lighter. I feel a trance descending on the bus: the silence after the storm. It feels so natural and justified. I lean my head deep into that window and wonder things. We are, remember, just boys, but how did we ever get this far?