This was my entry for the 2013 Canada Writes Creative Non-fiction. As such it is a true story.
The sun beamed through the blinds as I awoke on my first morning in Cairns, Australia. I’d come for a long weekend to dive the Great Barrier Reef, but that wasn’t until tomorrow. On a day like this there’s really only one thing to do, so I threw on my bathing suit and grabbed a towel. I scooped up my book and headed straight for reception. A large bearded man wearing headphones occupied the space behind it. I shouted to be heard, “What’s the fastest way to get to the beach?”
He replied with a thick Aussie twang, “Hop on the bus mate, it’ll be here any second. It only takes two minutes.”
As I stepped outside the heat pressed in around me. It was exceptionally hot even for Australia, a great day for swimming and lounging. I pulled the bookmark out of my current book, a cheap throwaway from a charity shop that I planned to leave behind. I was several pages in when the bus pulled up and I absent-mindedly hopped on board. It only had fifteen seats and most of them were taken, but I found a spot at the front and tried to ignore the lack of air conditioning.
I continued to read, not paying any attention to the chatter of my fellow passengers. After I’d finished several more chapters it occurred to me that two minutes had long since passed, so I glanced out the window to find no town or beach in sight. I leaned towards the driver, “Excuse me, I was just wondering how much longer until we get to town?”
He glanced over his shoulder, “We aint going to town, this here’s the bungee bus.”
At the very mention of the word the rest of the bus erupted into cries of “Bungee!”
I shouted over them, “What exactly do you mean this is the bungee bus?”
“This bus is going out to our bungee jumping facility in the rainforest. Did you not want to go bungee jumping mate?”
It’s not exactly your everyday question so it took me a moment to think about it, “No I hadn’t planned on bungee jumping today.”
“Then why did you get on the bungee bus?”
I was as confused as he was, “I was supposed to get on a bus to town. When do you go back to the hostel?”
“In six hours mate.” Marvellous.
Fifteen minutes later we arrived at the facility. It towered over the already tall trees and cast an almighty shadow across the horizon. Everyone else excitedly ran off the bus with more cries of “Bungee!” and I was left with a choice to make. I had six hours to kill. I wasn’t even sure what was involved, I’d only ever seen bungee jumping on television. I settled in at the bottom of the tower to watch the first jumpers, curious as to why anyone would willingly throw themselves off a perfectly good ledge.
The rest of my fellow passengers were running to the top of the platform. The first to jump was a tall guy with braided hair. He was a tiny speck when he jumped but he grew rapidly as he fell gracefully from his perch. He was so quiet I could hear the twang as the cord caught him inches from the pond below, flinging him back into the air. Eventually he stopped bouncing and a boat went out to pull him down. He came ashore all nonchalant, like falling fifty metres was hardly worth the effort of getting out of bed. He joined the back of the queue and my interest was piqued.
The second jumper was a petite woman, but you wouldn’t know it from the noise she made. She started screaming before she’d even jumped, and she continued the whole way down. Her screeches echoed off the tree canopy and birds took to the skies. When they pulled her down she fell into the boat with a thud, her expression a puzzled grin quite unlike anything I had ever seen before. She ran straight to the back of the queue to go again. My mind was made up.
I dug out my emergency credit card, the one my parents had informed me to use only in the most dire of circumstances. Of course I used it several times a week, because to a twenty-one year old running out of beer is considered a serious emergency. I reasoned that falling off an extremely high platform with nothing but a fat elastic band between myself and death was most definitely an emergency, so technically it was ok. Nobody ever said Twenty-one year olds have the best logic.
I paid the fee and joined the queue, which now snaked down to the bottom of the very tall flight of stairs. I began my slow march to the top. About eight steps up I started to have buyers remorse, but the queue had filled in behind me and I wasn’t ready to squeeze past half a dozen perfect strangers to chicken out. One by one, jumper by jumper, I made my way to the top.
Now’s probably a good time to mention I’m not a big fan of heights. I’m not exactly scared of them, but I’m not far off. Each step pushed me a little higher on an open staircase into the sky, and with each step my knees wobbled a little more.
In one of those cruel tricks time plays the journey to the top felt like both an eternity and the blink of an eye. Before I knew it there was only one person in front of me and he was ready to jump, which meant I was next. The anticipation was killing me, I already wanted it to be over with. Just when I thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse, the guy in front had a last minute change of heart. He stood there forever, presumably with his life flashing before his eyes, inching closer and then retreating. The staff repeatedly coaxed him towards the edge and provided gentle words of encouragement. Soon the people in line behind me provided some encouragement of their own, although far less gently. Gradually the retreating stopped and his journey to the edge made progress, until there were no more inches left. One second he was there, the next he wasn’t. Suddenly it was my turn.
I was called forwards. I approached like a man heading for the gallows. After the previous performance the crowd behind were short on patience and I wasn’t keen on testing it any further. Peer pressure is a wonderful motivator, and soon I was ready to go. I got the final thumbs up from the wavy haired blonde guy that had strapped me in and I hopped to the edge.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of standing there. You can see for miles all around, but the only place I looked was straight down, at the tiny yellow boat waiting for me. A thousand thoughts went through my head. I have to admit the predominant theme was, “Could this be it? What if that blonde bloke had one too many beers last night and missed a buckle?” Sometimes it is easy to forget that simply being alive is a dangerous affair, that crossing the road is a life or death decision. Standing on top of that tower it was very easy to remember the burden of frailty we all must bear.
One moment I was philosophizing about such things, and the next I was falling. I didn’t scream, not because I am brave but because I was too busy smiling. Those few precious seconds are burned into my memory, a feeling so intense I cannot possibly commit it to paper. My heart pounded in my ears as I approached the pond below at a frightening speed. Then the tip of my nose kissed the water, before I was wrenched back into the sky. I bounced a few more times until the boat caught me. I am sure when they cut me loose I had the same expression that I had seen on the petite woman. I understood it now, it was a combination of euphoria and genuine surprise that I was still alive. The captain of the boat said, “Nice jump mate. You gonna go again?”
I didn’t. I knew in that moment that once was enough, that any subsequent jumps would only dilute the memory. I sat in silence for five more hours with that stupid grin on my face, quietly reading my book, until the bus came to get me.
Sometimes life doesn’t go the way I’ve planned. Sometimes I get scared by a big presentation or a job interview. Whenever this happens I remind myself to live in the moment, to take the plunge, and if I’m really struggling I quietly whisper to myself, “Bungee!”