Oh snap! Bungee jumper plunges into Zambezi River at Victoria Falls

The Australian survived, but tourists who assume that extreme venues in Africa are safe may be fooling themselves.

Nine Network/Reuters
Bungee jumper Erin Langworthy speaks during an interview in Johannesburg January 7, in this still image taken from video. Australian tourist Langworthy, 22, survived a bungee jump gone wrong at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe on December 31, 2011 after her rope snapped, sending her plunging into the Zambezi River. She was evacuated to South Africa, where she spent a week recovering in the hospital.

Jumping from a bridge down toward a river filled with crocodiles – what could possibly go wrong?

A lot, apparently.

On Dec. 31, Australian tourist Erin Langworthy became one of thousands of people to try bungee-jumping off the bridge that connects Zimbabwe and Zambia, within sight of the tourist mecca Victoria Falls. It’s 364 meters of sheer gravitational pleasure, followed by a gut-wrenching jerk just feet above the rapids below. The only problem, for Ms. Langworthy, is that her bungee cord broke and she fell into the Zambezi, which, in its quieter areas, is infested with crocodiles.

“I think it is definitely a miracle that I survived,” Langworthy, an Australian student, told Australia’s Channel Nine in an interview. She says that she lost consciousness on impact, and “I felt like I’d been slapped all over,” but as she went deeper into the river, the cold water snapped her back into consciousness.

It’s easy to criticize tourists for jumping off bridges. There is, as Disney says, a circle of life.

Bungee-jumping – a New Zealand innovation in the area of extreme sports – has been available at this particular spot for more than a decade, and has drawn more than 50,000 tourists each year, providing needed revenue to both the Zimbabwean and Zambian economies. Perhaps fearing that some bad publicity could end the good times, Zambia’s tourism minister, Given Lubinda, assured prospective tourists that the bungee-jumping is, generally speaking, perfectly safe.

“It [the bungee jump] has been in operation for 10 years,” he told the Lusaka Times. “This is the first time I am hearing of an incident. The probability of an incident is one in 500,000 jumps.”

There is some mathematical truth to this, of course. But as someone who has taken a number of tours in Africa, I would add just a few qualifications.

One: Tourists who come from litigious societies such as the United States may have an assumption that an activity is safe, because it is allowed to exist. Such an attitude may be reasonable in the US or Australia, but it doesn’t necessarily work in a country such as Zambia, where civil court cases can take decades to resolve.

Two: Africans of all races and nationalities revel in the credo, “Africa is not for sissies.” A tough environment engenders a corresponding toughness of character. A hike up Cape Town’s Table Mountain starts out gently, but rapidly can become death-defying, with nary a handrail in sight.

Three: Maintenance of facilities – such as roads, factories, power plants, and yes, bungee cords – tends to be on an ex-post-facto basis.

Langworthy’s plunge reminded me of the anecdote of a friend in Johannesburg, who took his clients on a year-end corporate junket to Victoria Falls. The last event was to be a bungee jump off the Victoria Falls bridge. All but one of the clients took the plunge. The one who didn’t jump had asked the bungee operator what would happen if the bungee cord breaks. The tour operator grinned: “We’ll replace it.”

Risk, of course, is part of the draw of African tourism. Tourists in Cape Town pay decent money to jump out of a perfectly good boat and into the Atlantic to be bumped around inside a cage by a great white shark. Animal lovers can take a walking tour through Kruger National Park, accompanied by armed game wardens, to see lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and buffalos up close.

It’s what you do.

Many tours, of course, are perfectly safe. My wife and I took a safari vacation at a posh resort in South Africa, located within a national game park. There was no fence to keep animals out of the lodge area, which was part of the lodge's appeal, and my wife and I signed forms promising not to sue the lodge owners if something happened to us during our stay.

What could have happened, we asked – too late. In a ranger report entitled “No Game Drive Needed,” the lodge reported that a young male lion ran through the camp, along the guest pathway, during breakfast, pursued by an older male who presumably didn’t want any competition. Running past the main lodge, and three chalets, the male caught up with his younger rival, pinned him down and was “going for the throat.” Fortunately, the younger male broke away and disappeared.

The guests presumably finished their tea without further incident.

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