The brilliant, sparkling blue of the Kawarau River comes into focus, just as the tug of a rope, reaching the end of its slack, snaps back toward the sky. A delighted squeal of adrenaline echoes off the Otago region’s surrounding mountains, as a jumper bounces in the air, taking in the sites around Gibbston and the Kawarau Bridge. Two men wait patiently in a bright, yellow raft below, extending a pole toward the dangling adventurer to retrieve and deliver them back to shore.
Above the suspension bridge, 23 kilometers (14 miles) away from the ever-bustling Queenstown, another thrill-seeker stands with knuckles squeezed around a metal handle and toes on the edge of the platform towering 43 meters (141 feet) above the surface of the gentle, rippling waters. 3–2–1–JUMP.
From this manmade, makeshift peak, New Zealand bungy ascends—and descends.
Carys Rolley stands behind the jump deck on the Kawarau Bridge, the first commercial bungy site in the world which opened in 1988, chiming in with a few words of encouragement as the crew coaches a timid jumper to stand up and inch toward the ledge. Rolley is the marketing coordinator for AJ Hackett Bungy, a pioneer of introducing adrenaline infusions into the adventure capital of the world. The company owns the Kawarau Bridge along with with the Nevis Bungy and the Ledge Bungy in Queenstown and the Auckland Bridge Bungy in Auckland. She has been with AJ Hackett for two years, watching countless tourists and locals get strapped to one of their bungy cords—made special at the Nevis site to ensure consistency and quality—and noticing a mixture of excitement and dread in their eyes.
“You’re telling yourself to do something which you’ve told yourself your whole life not to do, jump off something really high,” she explained. “Bungy is all about personal achievement and overcoming that fear. The more scared you are, the better sense of achievement you have.”
The highly trained, 200-member staff spends its days reminding people how much they want to jump, despite the knot in the bottom of their stomachs. Rolley says being nervous is 100 percent normal.
“Don’t overthink it,” she stresses. “When they get to “3–2–1–BUNGY” look ahead and just jump.”
Thrill-seekers flock to AJ Hackett Bungy in the adventure capital of the world
Christopher Chase Edmunds +
Visitors interested in any of these ultimate thrill-seeking adventures should contact AJ Hackett Bungy through its website, bungy.co.nz, for more information about prices, safety and transportation.
ready to take the leap?
At the top of the observation deck at the Kawarau Bridge, Jacob Archibeque pulls out his certificate of completion and free T-shirt, compliments of AJ Hackett for being safely back on the ground. A recent college graduate visiting from California, he admits it took him a second to work up the nerve to dive down toward the Kawarau River.
“The suspense was a little nerve-racking when I started walking out, but I just couldn’t think about it and just had to jump,” Archibeque said. “My legs were shaking. I knew I had to do it right then.”
Archibeque has been saving up to do this for a while. He wishes he could do all of AJ Hackett’s jumps, but he’s glad he chose the inaugural location. He even decided to be dunked in the river, an option jumpers can request if the water levels are high enough.
Back in the heart of downtown Queenstown at the AJ Hackett main office, a group of eager adventurers check in and wait for their 40-minute shuttle ride to the Nevis Bungy site, the tallest in New Zealand at 134 meters (440 feet).
As he exits the check-in line, Nico Dineso glances at the freshly marked black number written boldly on his right hand. The number indicates his weight so the bungy crew can adjust the equipment accordingly. The AJ Hackett staff checks this number three times throughout the jumping experience to ensure the safety of all customers.
Dineso is on a three-week holiday with his family from Germany. His parents have a green mark on each of their left hands; they are merely observing Dineso and his sister, Tara, who is doing the Nevis Swing. The Swing, the “biggest and fastest in the world,” propels participants 160 meters (525 feet) above the Gibbston Valley floor at hair-raising, highway-like speeds.
At the opposite end of the check-in area, Katrine Fausind, a Denmark native, watches the TV screens showing highlight reels of all the jump sites as she also waits to hop on the AJ Hackett shuttle out to Nevis.
She bungy jumped twice in Australia a month ago, but only from 50 meters (164 feet).
“This [bungy site] is much higher,” she said, hesitantly. “I’m very nervous because I’m afraid of heights, but I’m also excited to have this kind of near-death experience.”
Rolley’s advice to anyone considering crossing bungy off his or her bucket list is simple:
“Jump on a flight to Queenstown.”
The history of bungy rests on an ancient legend hailing from Pentecost Island, Vanuatu, northeast of Australia’s eastern coast. A woman fleeing harsh treatment from her husband found refuge in a tall Banyan tree. When he followed, the woman tied vines to her ankles and jumped to a safe landing. Her husband, unaware of the life-saving vines, continued his pursuit and jumped to his death.
This legend inspired the annual practice of land-diving on Pentecost Island and would later spark intrigue throughout the world. The ritual made its way to Oxford, England and caught the attention of a group of students called The Dangerous Sports Club. It was this group that acted as the inspiration for AJ Hackett Bungy New Zealand.
When AJ Hackett saw a video of the club’s outlandish adventures, he reached out to Henry van Asch to turn the sport into a business. After in-depth research and human testing of latex rubber cords, they decided their findings needed public confirmation.
In 1987, Hackett jumped from the top of the Eiffel Tower, the jump that marked the beginning of the bungy phenomenon. About a year later, the world’s first commercial bungy jump began at Kawarau Bridge, a 43-meter (141-foot) jump over the Kawarau River. Today, AJ Hackett Bungy offers jumps from the bridge daily.
“[It being the first bungy site] paired with the fact that we have a 100 percent safety record makes people want to come check out where it began,” Carys Rolley, marketing coordinator, said.
This adrenaline-filled success has helped put Queenstown on the map as the “adventure capital of the world.” AJ Hackett Bungy remains at the forefront of bungy’s evolution, ensuring the world’s thrill-seekers find the greatest adventures right where it all began.