Novice jumper takes leap of faith at Victoria Falls

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LIVINGSTONE, Zambia -- I approached the bungee platform on Victoria Falls Bridge as an observer, not a jumper. I had never given leaping off a bridge much consideration. But my friend, Nelson, was committed.

That was fine with me. I could watch from my perch, interview Nelson afterward and have my adventure story.

But something happened that turned me into a bungee jumper.

We were on the Victoria Falls Bridge, standing a half-mile or so from the falls, a phenomenon that defies description. The power is overwhelming as you stand within view of it, enveloped in its massive roar, dwarfed by the mile-wide, 328-foot deep drop over which the Zambezi River hurls 144 million gallons of water a minute.

Exhilarating? You bet. Enough to make you willing to hurl yourself off the bridge? No, not to my mind.

The drop off the bridge is even higher than the height of the falls itself. At 364 feet, its said to be the second highest bungee jump in the world. (The highest is in nearby South Africa.)

At the bottom is the river, only a half-mile or so from what is called the boiling point at the bottom of the falls, aptly named for the violent turbulence of the water. Under the bridge, where the river turns narrow, I could see whitewater rafters.

Victoria Falls bridge, at 364 feet above the Zambezi River, affords the second-highest bungee jump in the world. TW photo by David CogswellI watched as the bungee-jumping team harnessed and prepped Nelson for his jump. He was intrepid, enthusiastic.

When he was firmly wrapped, bungee cord hooked to the straps that bound his ankles together, he hopped to the perch overlooking the gorge as the team counted down: Five ... four ... three ... two ... one ... BUNGEE!

And off he went, falling, falling, turning, twisting. I watched him bounce for a while, and when the bouncing slowed, one of the team descended to meet him as the others ratcheted the two of them up to the bridge.

Well, there it was. He had done it. Now it was my turn. I could take it or pass. Against all reason, I took it, and the team performed their preparations on me.

They wrapped towels around each ankle, then more towels around my ankles coupled together, creating a soft padding so the strap would not cut into the skin. They hooked the bungee cord to my feet, then attached a safety backup strap to a harness that encircled my waist.

When I was wrapped and hooked, with legs fastened together, they invited me to hop to the edge, spread my arms like a swan and leap out as far as I could from the platform.

Five ... four ... three ... two ... one ... BUNGEE! Down I went, the wind in my face, the landscape rushing toward me at an accelerating speed.

That moment often comes back to me as an example of how empowering a leap of faith can be. It was a transformative moment, and it always gives me a jolt of power when I think of it.

The experience was much smoother than it had appeared when observing it. The extension and contraction of the cord is on such a massive scale that there is nothing jerky or rough about it.

It felt as though I was jumping on a soft trampoline to the height of a skyscraper. The elasticity of the cord translates into a gentle absorption of the force, so there is no rough contact with anything.

I was flying, soaring. It was an aerial ballet. Never had I felt so graceful. Never had my body experienced so much direct physical force, and yet it was all smooth, smoother even than walking.

To arrange for bungee jumping at Victoria Falls, call the Zambia Tourism Board at (212) 888-5770.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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