Leap of faith [Creative Non-Fiction]
Just thinking about it makes me sweat. My fingers burst with perspiration; my pulse ascends; goosebumps begin appearing all over my body. That’s why I try not to reflect on the events of July the 1st, 2009.
* * *
In the hours beforehand I was a mental wreck. I had spent the sub-zero night in a tent containing only a thin sleeping bag, a makeshift Qantas pillow and a snoring Englishman. I couldn’t have prepared myself any worse. However at the back of my mind I convinced myself that the torment would be over before I knew it. And tomorrow night I would be able to find sleep, knowing that I’d never have to bungee jump ever again.
Had somebody told me prior to my African trip that my itinerary would consist of a bungee jump I would have dismissed them. For as long as I’ve been aware of its existence the notion of bungee jumping has repelled me. Honestly, what sense is there in jumping from a bridge? Nevertheless it was cognitive reasoning, of all things, that convinced me. If bungee jumping is my greatest fear, and I can conquer that, then surely… I’d be invincible? The logic seemed flawless at the time. It didn’t seem so coherent now.
It was midday when I first laid eyes on the Victoria Falls Bridge. A shiver darted down my back as I examined its monumental structure. Connecting Zambia to troubled Zimbabwe this was more than just a symbol of physical power. Its 198 metre length was all that separated Livingstone, a historic city and the tourist hub of Southern Africa, from Zimbabwe, a battleground infamous for corruption, poverty and $100 trillion bills.
I had told myself not to look down, but a masochistic desire overcame me. I gazed at a bungee jumper as she catapulted herself from the central platform. Amazement beset me as her powerless body just kept on falling… and falling. 110 metres later the rope jerked her up like a puppet, but by this stage my eyes had no interest in her bouncing body. They were too busy glued to the base of the valley, my mind struggling to comprehend the sheer distance I would be descending later that afternoon.
There was still time to back out. An indemnity form, enquiring as to whether or not I was 18 years of age, was thrust upon me. By stating the truth I could have easily earned myself a get-out-of-jail-free card. But I was determined not to let petty paperwork get in my way. My ultimatum was now or never. And never would have been a resignation of defeat.
The original plan was to arrive at the bridge, take the jump and return back to the campsite, all in the space of an hour. Being in Africa, though, meant that such a schedule was ambitious at best. Between midday and sunset our bungee party began echoing the infamous ‘TIA’ (This is Africa) slogan – a catchcry of tourists in relation to dodgy practices and unreliable locals. We were being forced to wait behind 30 thrill-seeking backpackers, many of whom had arrived at the station well after us.
Watching strangers take their own individual dives from the platform didn’t help contain my nerves. The raw fear evident in their motionless faces and the pure volume subsequently released from their mouths distressed the impatient crowd. Nonetheless, amongst this chaos, there was some cause for relief. Judging by their otherwise civilised demeanour all of these prospective bungee jumpers seemed perfectly normal. They were not insane, nor were they suicidal. Surely that meant my plans to jump from a bridge – a perverted and downright foolish notion – did not necessarily negate my sanity.
By 4 o’clock I was beginning to find myself in a comfortable psychological zone. For every terrified participant there was a correspondingly calm antithesis – somebody able to complete the jump with remarkable grace. That was until Asian lady arrived.
I don’t know much about Asian lady, except that she was female and of Asian-descent. But in the moments that followed her arrival to the platform I think I gained a pretty comprehensive picture. Such was the terror felt by Asian lady that her orgasmic shrills would have been far better suited to a triple X movie. Her concerned eyes were the epitome of fear and her shaking body caused everybody to fall silent. No longer was I scared of the jump alone. The thought of reacting like Asian lady was just as frightening.
Asian lady pulled out. She removed her harness, breathed a reluctant sigh of defeat and took a seat. This was part of business for the bungee jump attendants, who continued their job by reading out the next name on the list: “Kevin Hawkins”
In most situations hearing my name called after four hours of waiting would have elicited from me a relieved smile. All I could muster now was a sheepish laugh, followed by a deep breath.
The first step I took onto the platform had a touch of surrealism to it. I tried convincing myself that the task awaiting me was just a monotonous chore, but the charade was quick to expire. The supervisor approached me and began the safety briefing. This man – familiar with the routine – felt proud of his ability to multi-task. Whilst informing me of all the necessary information for my pending jump he united my legs with tight strips of rustling Velcro. I watched with curiosity. My mind became preoccupied with the Velcro, compromising my capacity to listen to his message. I began to panic. What did he say? Did I miss anything critical? Before I had the chance to open my mouth I was being asked to shuffle towards the designated jumping area. From here I couldn’t ignore what was awaiting me; humorous images of convicts walking the plank had lost their comic value.
“Your toes should be hanging over the edge,” remarked the instructor. With the railing supporting my body, I peered down and adjusted my feet. My eyes made contact with the winding neck of the Zambezi River beneath. To either side of the river stood authoritative landmasses of daunting height – Zambia to the left, Zimbabwe to the right. Behind me Victoria Falls could be heard, roaring with awe-inspiring superiority. There couldn’t be a more beautiful place to die, I pondered. I closed my eyes and said a prayer – my twentieth for the afternoon. I hadn’t even reached ‘Amen’ when the supervisor began counting.
What? Already? Surely not yet! But… I haven’t even seen him attach me to the rope!
WHAT??? Am I attached? Do I jump? Do I jump? Do I jump? DO I JUMP???
Surely I’m attached?!? Asian lady. If I don’t jump now, it’ll only get scarier!
I was attached after all. Other than that, though, the first two or three seconds that followed my leap of faith are an eclectic jumble of disjointed memories. I remember jumping with my body straight rather than diving forwards. I remember stepping into nothingness and dropping at a rapid speed. I remember closing my eyes for a few brief moments and opening them to be disorientated.
It was only after my first bounce that I began to realise what had just taken place. I may have been upside down and spinning violently, but somehow I was able to regain enough consciousness to contemplate the fact that I’d done it. I’ve actually bungee jumped! But the terror didn’t stop there.
Having bounced almost to the height of my original leap this was not the time – or place – for celebration. I stared downwards to see the looming surface of water become closer. In effect I was going for a second bungee.
“OH MY GOSH!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. The only time I ever utter that phrase is when satirizing Napoleon Dynamite. But bungee jumping gives you no time to think. No time to comprehend. No time to reflect. Only enough time to follow your own unexplainable instincts.
Thirty seconds later the falling and bouncing and falling and bouncing had ended, leaving my inverted corpse at the bottom of a gorge, literally hanging by a thread. Tensing my neck muscles I made the unfamiliar motion of staring up at my feet. Above them I noticed loose springs detaching from the rope. An abseiler and his lazy eye descended down to my level, flipping my body to its natural orientation. It was then that memories of childhood wedgies returned to my consciousness. There was a funeral in my pants and everybody was invited.
In any other context these little inconveniences would have bothered me. Metres and seconds away from certain death, my life had become dependent on a man with depleted vision. And the nut sandwich wasn’t helping the cause. But this was no ordinary context. I had just conquered my life’s greatest fear. I had achieved the impossible. Casual observers may have only seen a juvenile tourist being hoisted from the depths of a canyon, but in my mind I was on top of the world.
* * *
Leap of Faith was the 2nd piece I submitted for Creative Writing, as part of the Creative Non-Fiction component of the course. It was originally written as a blog entry and can be found at KevInAfrica. If you have any criticism, advice or encouragement, feel free to leave a comment.