Running off bridges

Victoria Falls – Livingstone – Zambia

June 2008

I’ve had better nights’ sleep. I was bricking myself over the thought of doing a bungy jump. It had tormented me for weeks beforehand and now the day had arrived I was not feeling too great about life! Then a stroke of luck followed in that our helicopter flight for the morning had been pushed back until lunchtime which allowed us to go and find some breakfast in town. We stumbled across a café which served up a full English fry up which was very much welcomed and no matter how nervous I felt I wasn’t going to let it ruin breakfast!

I was super excited about the helicopter ride. It’s a very strange feeling the first time you fly in one as once you are on board and strapped in you just kind of go up! When a plane takes off, there is a whole load of noise and the overwhelming feeling that you are attached to rockets belonging to a space shuttle, then, once airborne it doesn’t really feel like you are 35,000 feet in the air. A helicopter on the other hand, although loud, offers a floatier sensation, a mixture of elegance and coolness and then there’s the views! Wherever you end up in the world, if you are staring at a natural superstar and think ‘wowzer’ then, whip your wallet out and get in a helicopter for a bird’s eye view. I can guarantee you will be blown away by what you see. On this occasion for me it was Victoria Falls, also known as ‘the smoke that thunders’, especially during the wet season. We were at the end of the wet season and so the Zambezi river was just coming out of its peak flow which meant that the falls were spectacular. Miles before you get near them you can see a cloud of mist coming up from the falls with a rainbow thrown in for good measure. As remarkable as the falls are it isn’t the widest or tallest in the world but can lay claim to be the world’s largest sheet of falling water which, some would argue, including me, is the definition of a waterfall. But basically the total area the falls covers is huge and from the air it looked phenomenal. I believe it was actually our first look at the falls as we had not had chance to walk down to view them from the ground and so to see them for the first time from the air was something special. The flight only lasted fifteen minutes which in excitement land equates to about thirty seconds yet worth every penny.

Then, upon landing, it was time! Walking down to the bridge which crossed the huge gorge in front of the falls we started to get a feel for the immense power generated by so much water falling off a cliff. Unfortunately, that was overshadowed by the feeling of fear and dread as we walked onto the bridge and headed to the jump site. The bridge is approximately 130m high and 200m long. The London Eye is 135m high. Behind the bridge is Victoria falls which, due to the arrangement of the gorges cannot be fully seen from the bridge but, you see enough to be impressed. Below the bridge is raging white water and when I say raging I mean grade five raging rapids. And then there was the bridge itself, over one hundred years old, made of steel and wood, rattling every time a car passed over it serving as a main crossing point for traffic between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Literally one side of the bridge was in Zambia and the other in Zimbabwe. The cost of throwing yourself off a bridge two times and zip lining across a 200m gorge? US$115. What could possibly go wrong!!!! First on the agenda for me was the bridge swing which was feared slightly less than the bungy by most. For some reason the name bungy jump conjures up a lot of fear largely revolving around the fact that you are falling head first and you believe your eyes will pop out when you switch from falling down to falling up. More on this later. A bridge swing however, well, it’s a swing! Swings are nice right? For starters you jump feet first, always better to have the option of landing on your feet than your head if things go wrong. Oh wait, we are 130m up in the air, feet or head first, if something goes wrong it will hurt. Ben was first to be called up for the bridge swing and watching him nervously jump and freefall for eighty metres didn’t exactly make me feel any better, no matter how big his grin was when he finally made it back up to the bridge. Next up was me. Already harnessed up I jumped over the rail onto the overhanging platform that I would shortly be leaving. There were no rails in front of me, just a massive piece of fresh air and so I took the decision to hold on to the rails at the rear for dear life as the jump master hooked me up to the ropes and carried out all necessary pre-flight checks. There was one very clear instruction issued. Run and jump away from the bridge as far as possible for there was a small chance of falling back and smashing the back of your skull against the jump platform. Funnily enough they didn’t give us a hard hat! Now think about this for a moment, how does your brain compute being told to run off a bridge into thin air? Not fall off a bridge, that’s relatively easy. Run off a bridge, make those lanky legs of mine take one step at a time at pace until I’m running in empty space like Chayote Wild running off the edge of a canyon. As I pondered this conundrum the jump master had finished all his messing around and freed the rope ready for me to jump. This was an eighty metre length of rope that was reassuringly weighty yet, the weight immediately pulled on my harness and obviously towards the direction of death. I will never forget that feeling, it was hideous, the force trying to pull me off a bridge. I have never really been one to hang about as I would much rather make the fear go away by getting on with it and after a few steps I departed the bridge. Remember the last time you went over a small hump back bridge too quickly in a car and you lost your breath? Well multiply that by a floppity k’jillion and you will get some idea of how I felt as I began plummeting towards the rampant Zambezi river. This is another feeling I will never forget, falling feet first for eighty meters before a rope finally kicked in and served its purpose. After the initial moment of feeling completely void of air in the lungs and the accompanying tensioning of the rope, a surge of adrenaline rushed through me providing the same buzz that I got after the rafting in Jinja. All of a sudden I was swinging in the middle of the Batoka Gorge with the same stupid ass grin that I had seen Ben wear shortly before my jump. Then, as I was waiting to be hauled back up, my wingman, quite literally this time, Olly appeared. Hanging upside down on a bungy cord, also wearing the same stupid ass grin that Ben and I were. It was one of those surreal moments in life where you and your mate are having a loud chat with each other while swinging around in a canyon with one of the natural wonders of the world a few hundred metres behind you. When I was back on the bridge I was absolutely buzzing, all fear had gone and all I wanted to do was strap into the bungy and jump again. Alas, it was not to be the case.

Two bloody hours later (!!!), I was finally and reluctantly hopping over the safety rails once again to get geared up for the bungy. The sun was starting to set, we had run out of time to do the zip line across the gorge and, after a long wait I was the second from last to jump for the day. All my adrenaline and excitement had dissipated over the past two hours and I was back to being a nervous wreck! All I wanted to do was leave the bridge with a proper bungy jump pose. Arms straight out to the side, legs and back straight. I had watched so many people fall off and it didn’t look very classy. Don’t get me wrong, if you have the balls to do something like the world’s third highest bungy then it doesn’t really matter how you leave the bridge but, in my head, I was only ever going to do this once and so it may as well be good. It wasn’t! My knees were like jelly, I was emotionally drained and, I had just had a towel wrapped around my ankles as part of the harness. I certainly didn’t require a push as my body simply gave up bothering, my knees bent and I simply fell forward off the bridge with my arms loosely in front of me. As I plummeted towards earth for a second time that afternoon, the actual fall didn’t feel any better than the first. Only when I stopped falling did the rush kick in and I finally relaxed fully for the first time in a several days. People always worry that their eyes will pop out when you reach the end of a bungy rope, truth be told, you are experiencing so many emotions that before you realise it, you are flying back up towards the bridge, something I can still clearly remember happening. I swear I bounced up towards the bridge faster than I fell towards the ground. The falling down and up continued for a wee while longer and then I just had to wait, dangling upside down from a bridge 111m above me. As I was happily enjoying a different perspective of the world, a man was abseiling down a rope and it would be his job to connect me to another rope that would pull us both back up to the bridge. I cannot describe the fear that followed! The dangly man started to unscrew one of my karabiners, I had no idea which one and I didn’t care as all I knew for sure was that some or, all of that gear was keeping me from falling into white water oblivion and there he was releasing part of my harness. Honest to God, those few seconds were as scary as the seconds before jumping off the bridge. Thankfully the dangly man wasn’t trying to kill me and before I knew it I was sat upright and the two of us made ourway back up to the bridge where I was met with many adrenaline-fuelled smiles that reflected my own stupid grin at the time. It was 6.30pm when we made it back to the campsite and it is safe to say that we were all mentally buggered!

The following day was spent with a pair of lions at a sanctuary. I’m not usually one for getting excited about animals in captivity but this is Africa! On arrival the first job was to fill out an indemnity form. We were then given a sturdy stick each and told that they would usually distract and keep the lions entertained as opposed to our limbs. A moment that reminded me of our time with the mountain gorillas and being told to sit down if we were charged at. The lions in question were a brother and sister, fifteen months of age who had been rescued as cubs after their mother was killed. The aim of the sanctuary was to rear them and release them back into the wild which meant that the lions weren’t exactly tame and they were obviously being trained to look after themselves which I would guess involves hunting. A fifteen-month-old lion is a good sized animal, I would guess almost full sized and most definitely big enough to get you more nervous than bumping into next doors cat in your garden at home late one night. The stick didn’t exactly fill me with confidence that it would keep a lion distracted enough to stop it from ripping my limbs off. As it happens lions are extremely lazy animals, especially during the heat of the day which was exactly when we were visiting and they had also been on a walk with a group earlier in the morning. The result was a pair of lions that really couldn’t be arsed with us which, I suppose is better than a pair of lions full of energy. Once we met the lions and their keepers we took them for a walk out and about in the park, as one would. Walking through the African bush with a couple of lions in tow is a rather surreal experience. A lot of the time they just wandered off to the shade of a tree and chilled out and it soon became apparent that they were in charge of the show. I suspect the last person who tried to hurry a lion up didn’t last too long in the job. We all got an opportunity to have our photo taken with them, a moment that was hilarious to watch as absolutely none of us trusted ourselves to not provoke a tourism disaster for Zambia. As they lay down we had to individually approach them quietly from the side and crouch down behind them while keeping our stick in front of their nose as a little distraction. Sometimes they would play with the stick, on other occasions they looked at you with a look of sympathy. In one of my pictures, the brother lion is having a right good yawn which sums up what lions think of my company, not that I am too fussy as I can’t imagine there will be many other times in my life where I get to touch a lion.

Taken from my unpublished ‘The African Trigtale’. My experience on a ten week overland tour I did in East and Southern Africa in 2008. Kindly edited by Lauren Goringe.

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