WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND — `BUNGEEEEEEEEE!'' howls Charles as he plummets head first with only a wad of giant rubber bands lashed to his ankles to arrest his fall. Moments later he's standing on the ground. His face fixed with the ``post-bungy'' grin.
``It's an amazing sensation; being counted down to zero and then launching yourself off into space,'' says the gangly 18-year-old. After his fourth jump, he adds: ``It's a clean, safe buzz. Better than a lot of self-abusive thrills.''
Charles is one of thousands of New Zealanders taking the plunge into bungy jumping.
In fact, with more than 18,000 paying customers, the Kiwis assert this is ``The Bungy Jumping Capitol of the World.''
Otherwise sane folks are paying NZ$25-$189 (US$15-$113) to nose-dive off bridges, towers, and viaducts. Publicity stunts have been done off an Auckland, New Zealand, skyscraper and the Auckland Harbour Bridge. The New Zealand Army is looking into the merits of bungy jumping as a training exercise for soldiers.
The craze can be traced to New Zealander Allan John (A.J.) Hackett, considered the pioneer of commercial jumping. Hackett first gained notoriety in 1986 by leaping off a ski gondola in France. His best-known stunt was a 110-meter (360-foot) free fall, in formal attire, off the Eiffel Tower into the waiting arms of Paris's gendarmes. More recently he's done television commercials.
Hackett's inspiration came from the Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club, which bungy-jumped from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge in 1979.
The sport's origins can be traced further, to generations of jumpers on Pentecost Island, part of the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. There, ``land diving'' is part of an annual pagan ritual to ensure a good yam harvest. It's also considered a proof of courage. With springy vines tied to their ankles, young men take headlong dives from an 80-foot high tower built around a tree. Injuries, say locals, seldom occur.
Instead of vines, New Zealand jumpers use hundreds of rubber strands to form a cable as thick as a person's wrist. As the strands stretch, all of the shock of the fall is absorbed. There's no painful jolt, ``no limbs pulled from their sockets,'' assures one jumper. And the length of the elastic cord and ankle straps are based on exact weight-to-stretch calculations.
``We've had no accidents in more than 15,000 commercial jumps,'' claims Hackett's partner and co-developer Henri van Asch. He credits a three-year ongoing program of research and development of equipment and safety standards.
But recently, one of Hackett's own operators was injured during a promotional jump off a crane when his harness came loose. In France, where four people have died, bungy jumping was banned. Hackett has just returned from France, where he got the ban lifted for bungy operations that comply with strict new standards.
But van Asch is concerned that ``amateurs'' jumping on the commercial bandwagon may yet cause a serious accident or death in New Zealand. His company is spearheading moves to establish nation-wide safety standards.
Heavy Rubber Bungy Jumping Ltd. (which offers 16- to 24-meter jumps over indoor pools and from a tower) freely admits to two minor accidents which occurred when people were being lowered after their jumps.
The company, under new ownership, has put additional safety measures in place. ``Safety is paramount. The equipment is checked daily. Safety comes before anything,'' says Paul Stieglbauer of Heavy Rubber.
A.J. Hackett's record isn't unmarred. The New Zealand Conservation department in Queenstown, which receives 5 percent of Hackett's gross sales as an access fee for jumps off a historic bridge, confirms that a woman dislocated her shoulder last year when being lowered into a boat after her jump.
Still the apparent risk is part of the appeal: ``You ask yourself, `Do I have enough guts to launch myself off this platform looking down and knowing how far down it is and all the thoughts, the visions of what could happen if something went wrong?''' asks Charles.
The elation and self-confidence boost after a jump is a ``high that lasts for days,'' says Stieglbauer, who pitches bungy jumping as release from managerial stress. Indeed, Hackett runs outdoor ``stress management'' courses which include bungy jumping for corporate executives in France.
Hackett's company is on the verge of expanding into Australia. Chris Allum, another partner, doubts they will branch out into the United States. ``The public liability insurance is too high to make it profitable,'' he says.