Friday, 6 December 2013

Not Flying, But Falling With Style

I know, I know, this blog's title is Borneo 4X4 Adventure, and this post has nothing to do with 4X4. Isn't it nice for a change? Anyway, I am still from Borneo, and falling off a bridge is still one hell of an adventure. This is a blast from the past, at the Gouritz Bridge in South Africa ( S 34°11'8.19" E 21°45'20.12"), circa 2004.

SOMEBODY’S spirit had been willing but his flesh was weak. The evidence was purely circumstantial, though – a pair of soiled briefs lay discarded just outside a public men’s toilet. The convenience was next to a parking lot for visitors to a scenic spot in Gouritz, South Africa.
Three bridges spanned a spectacular 70m gorge, which gave photography buffs great landscape opportunities. One span bore trains across the chasm; another served road traffic; the third, in the middle, was no longer in use. At least, it wasn’t used for getting anyone or anything from one side to the other. You could walk to the middle, though, and jump off.
Thousands of people have done it, maybe hundreds of thousands or millions, even. Bungee jumping, that is. But, billions have not and that was reason enough for me to go to the edge and find out if I had what it took to plunge beyond.
Normal people do not just get out of bed one morning and decide to jump off a bridge as high as a 20-storey building.
The journey to that desolate and wind-blown place began a day earlier, when I arrived in South Africa on a mission. The job at hand was not to risk life and limb but to ride the new BMW R1200 GS motorcycle and write about it. With two free days before the event, my fellow travellers (two fellow journalists and BMW Malaysia’s corporate affairs manager, Vijay) discussed the options of spending time in the most memorable ways.
“How about bungee jumping?” suggests Hezeri Samsuri, my counterpart from the New Straits Times, holding out a brochure.
Like a long story that takes its own sweet time to get to the point, four intrepid Malaysians drove leisurely to Gouritz, near Mossel Bay, about 60km from the quaintly-named George, about 400km east of Cape Town. An observer would think we were in no hurry to get there.
Time passed slowly and quietly but it did, and we found ourselves in front of the counter with a decision to make.
“Once you sign here, you won’t get your money back,” said the friendly guy running the place. Normally, I would have asked his name, but it did not seem important at that time. Nor was the issue of a non-refund for the 160 rand (about RM85) fee if we balked at the last minute. All I could think about was the plunge and, more importantly, whether I could make that leap of faith.
I’ve had to make similar decisions many times before. My real story began nearly 25 years ago when, as a 16-year-old student, I decided to be adventurous. Although shy and reserved, I drew up a list of things to do. Ride dirt bikes and superbikes; drive sports cars and 4X4 vehicles off the road; travel to foreign countries and hitchhike or backpack across faraway lands; scuba dive; shoot white water rapids; rappel down cliffs; skydive.
Plastered on my bedroom wall as reminder was a camera advertisement from a magazine, depicting a man in the classic arms out, legs apart and bent position of a freefalling parachutist.
Over the years, each item on the list has been ticked off one by one. In fact, that piece of paper is gone; the list exists only in my mind now.
I rode a Yamaha DT 175 through the bush in Western Australia in pursuit of kangaroos; revved a Kawasaki GPz 1100 up to Kinabalu National Park; abseiled down a quarry and into some very dark and scary caves; hitchhiked over 2,000km from Perth to Melbourne with A$50 in my pocket over eight days in 1982; dived among the corals off Sabah, and travelled to every continent except South America and Antarctica without joining any of those “see 10 countries in 12 days” tours.
But one item remained unchecked – skydiving. Timed passed and with each tick, the whole list thing seemed less important, even though I had earlier pursued each challenge with so much passion. It was never about proving anything to anyone; gradually, even the need to prove to myself that I could do all these manly things faded too.

Bungee jumping was never on my list simply because the crazy sport had not even been invented when I compiled it. Along the way, many other extreme sports came in but I did not add them on as that might have been tempting fate.
I have never put all these thoughts and memories down in writing before ... but you know what people say about your life flashing before your eyes? Standing with your legs securely bound at the edge of a tiny platform, looking down through 65m of nothing to a dry riverbed, knowing you are expected to look brave and leap off in a few seconds – all that definitely pushes the playback button.
Vijay had taken the plunge as I took the photographs, and Hezeri had bravely followed suit while I operated the camcorder. (The other fellow traveller, Joseph Chin of The Edge, wisely declined to partake in such foolishness, citing concern about losing some valuable dental work.)
Then it was my turn. Some wag had carved a bull’s eye into the sandy riverbed, over 200 feet and an eternity below and added “SPLAT” for good measure.
Think of Mom. I’m sure many who had passed that way before me must have cried out silently for their mothers. But I was thinking of Mind Over Matter.
It is safe, I tell myself. No one has been hurt, much less killed, the guys running the operation keep telling us. Vijay and Hezeri have demonstrated, not with words but action, that it can be done and done safely.
But the guy who used to own that discarded pair of briefs near the toilet might have disagreed. He might have concluded that there was a fate worse than death. The spirit may be willing but the flesh that makes up the sphincter may not be so strong.
I can testify that, standing there at that moment in time, guys can literally feel their balls shrink, regardless of what the brave mind says. I thought I had known fear before, but it was then that I really tasted it in my mouth. and felt it in my belly …
I try to convince myself that there is nothing to fear but fear itself, and that I am more afraid of being seen to be scared than of taking the plunge.
Sign your life away here, and here ...
“Hold your arms straight out, arch your back and hold your chin up … it looks better,” I was told. “Five, four, three, two, one … BUNGEE!”
I jumped, and fell forever, although the rest of the world did not notice anything significant for the two seconds or so as I accelerated at 9.8m per second. I will remember it for as long as I live.
The good news is that the way the elastic bungee cord slows a falling body is a lot less violent than I expected. And bouncing up and down several times while being suspended upside down is not all that unpleasant.
After the fear comes the ecstasy. I liked the feel of adrenalin coursing through my arteries and veins. I enjoyed the rush of elation as my fellow jumpers and I welcomed each other back to terra firma and the hearty backslapping and congratulations.
We compared the thoughts that went through our mind and Hezeri confessed to thinking about death. So why did he suggest the crazy stunt in the first place?
“I was hoping you guys would say No,” he admitted sheepishly.
For the record, I did not file a claim for new underwear and, to the best of my knowledge, neither did my fellow jumpers.
At the end of it all, I felt a bit taller although I’m not sure if it was the bungee that actually stretched my spine or simply the feeling of achievement that supposedly makes one walk tall.
Now, maybe I should start looking for an airfield soon and settle some unfinished business, once and for all.