A test of nerves: Free falling over the Tana River

Interviewee: Tell us about your strengths.

Me: *clears throat* Well, in the last eight months I have ridden a wild ostrich and also jumped off a 60-metre tower with nothing but a rope attached to my ankles. I have pictures. I think this shows that I am willing to take risks and will take your company to the next level.

(At this point, the lights dim, neon lights start flashing about, Justin Timberlake and a bunch of dancers waltz into the room, and I join them to do some really smooth moves to a JT song; then this loaded multinational corporation hires me instantly as a highly paid… erm something.) 😀

While the silly scenario I just described may not happen to me in this lifetime, I really have taken those two risks I was telling my imaginary interview panel about. Apart from being the fastest birds on land, ostriches are both tasty and fun to ride. Riding the bird at the Ostrich Farm in Kajiado was a moderately exciting venture. Doubt it was a wild ostrich though, otherwise I would not be here writing about it. Anyhow, nothing I have done in my 25 years of existence on planet Earth comes close to bungee jumping.

Bungee jumping is an activity that involves jumping from a tall structure while connected to a large elastic cord (Wikipedia). Doesn’t this definition sound a bit cuckoo? It was worse explaining it to my mother. The activity is nothing short of crazy. Nevertheless, I have been dreaming of doing it ever since I found out about it. About a week before I did it, I was checking out a few facts about it and was amused to find out that the very first bungee jumpers in 1979 were arrested shortly after they jumped. It was an illegal undertaking then, but I digress (as I’m prone to doing every so often).

It was almost midday when a bunch of excited youths made their way to Bungeewalla at the Savage Wilderness Camp, Sagana in Nyeri county. The journey was largely uneventful. The 14-seater mini-van was filled with snacking, laughter, and cheerful banter. Past the Embu/Meru junction towards Nyeri, we branched into a dirt road and drove about 1.5 km to the Savage Wilderness Camp.

Once off the van, we waited briefly near an area where inflatable rafts, life jackets and other whitewater rafting paraphernalia were stored, as one of us narrated his experience with whitewater rafting. It sounded rather interesting, and a few of us expressed interest in it. Whitewater rafting has been on my bucket list, alongside bungee jumping and other extreme activities, for some time now.

In a little while, Simon, our guide, told us to get started with our first order of business – peeing. After this, we proceeded to the location where the jump takes place. Everyone gathered at a small plot adjacent to the River Tana. Andreas, owner of Bungeewalla Ltd, was going over the safety procedures and rules of the jump by the time I got there (from my first order of business). He is, without a doubt, one of the biggest goofs I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with. “Once you get to the cage,” he said sternly, “I will not answer any questions about life.” We were laughing half the time he spoke. I suppose this serves him well in his job. Maybe someone needs to lighten the mood before you put mind over matter to consciously jump off a 60-metre tower.

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The bungee tower. 60 metres. 178 steps.
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The tower from a distance.

Before any of us could go about jumping, we had to be weighed, then sign some sort of release form confirming that we were not on drugs, pregnant and hadn’t had any neck or back injuries or surgery et cetera, that exempts Bungeewalla from any responsibility in the event of a mishap. Very clever Bungeewalla. *wink*

I was curious about how many times Andreas had bungee jumped, having run this operation for more than two decades. He gave me a puzzled look and said, “Are you kidding? Do you know how dangerous this is?” We all laughed at his response as he went up the 60-metre tower, which has 178 steps (Andreas apparently counted them).

The first duo to do the jump was harnessed and started the long climb, one with a significant head start before the other, as we all watched. The first lady couldn’t bring herself to jump and ended up climbing back down about 20 minutes later, even after much coaxing from the group. It’s easy to call her “chicken”, but having done the jump, I think I sufficiently understand her refusal to follow through. On the other hand, the first gentleman jumped off the tower, seemingly without a care in the world. He made it look so easy. I felt excited as I watched him bounce around following his jump. I couldn’t wait my turn!

The group cheered everyone who went up the bungee tower for the jump with such zeal. I loved the team spirit. I was the fourth individual to scale the tower. I was fastened with chest and leg harnesses and clipped onto an ascender. These would ensure that I was supported while I climbed. I enthusiastically began my climb amid cheers of ‘Go Ednaaa!” Up, up, up I went. I felt (and hoped that I also looked) like Spiderman going up that tower. Ten steps later, I was panting like a gazelle that had just outrun a lion. I realized that the pace I had taken going up those steps was akin to sprinting at the start of a marathon. It was also a stark reminder of my unfitness. After a few more steps, my chest was burning up and my legs were nearly buckling from how much I was exerting myself. I started climbing slower, stopping every now and then to catch my breath.

The climb seemed to take an eternity. It reminded me of Jack and the Beanstalk. The guy ahead of me was already in the jump cage getting ready to jump when I was about halfway up the tower. I stopped to observe him as he jumped, also taking in the great view of the landscape.

Andreas helped me into the jump cage when I finally got there. Being the second female to do the jump, I had to reassure him severally that I wasn’t going to back out. I was absolutely sure I wasn’t going to. Not after coming this far! (And paying Ksh 4,500! :D)

After attaching the elastic bungee rope to both my ankles and explaining a few more safety measures, Andreas pointed to a little gate that, he explained, would be opened once I was ready for the jump. Still excited and oblivious of the magnitude of what I was about to do, I asked him to open it then stood at the edge of the cage.

The reality of how far down I was about to jump hit me so strongly; I had to take a small step back. I was 60 metres above the ground! 60 metres! The Tana River shone menacingly in the sun. A few kayakers rowed past. The 15 kg elastic bungee cord attached to my feet felt heavy and tugged me downward as if sensing my fear. My feet wouldn’t budge. I was suddenly very afraid of what was about to take place. How was I going to fall? What if the rope tangled up? Would it hurt? What if I didn’t enjoy it? I couldn’t possibly jump! I wrestled with my thoughts. Twice, I leaned over as if to jump as the group below did an excited countdown, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1! Go Ednaaa!” I retreated into the cage both times. “Oh my God! Oh my God!” I said repeatedly as I tried to gather enough courage to jump.

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The jump cage.
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To jump or not to jump? That is the question.

Ten minutes later, I let go and jumped off the cage, frightened out of my wits. One of us would say afterwards that this jump goes against our very instinct for survival. Certainly so. Down, down, down I went. My eyes were wide open. I didn’t want to miss a thing. The river below came at me rapidly as I fell, then I felt a strong tug as the elastic bungee rope (having reached its elastic limit) kicked in, and I bounced back into the air, defying gravity for a few seconds, and then free falling again. I took everything in silently for the first few minutes, caught up in some sort of pleasant shock and overwhelmed by a giant rush, mixed with anxiety, anticipation and other interesting emotions I cannot adequately describe.

I remember doing a few involuntary somersaults in the air. I enjoyed it more with every passing second, even managing a couple of “Woohoos!” and “Yeeaaahs!” I also spread out my arms and did the Superman thing (I know, I know. Second superhero reference :D) as the water and greenery below zoomed past and our group, now gathered at the riverbank, cheered me on. It was amazing.

In retrospect, I see why one needs an empty bladder before bungee jumping. There is an absolute lack of control that accompanies the jump. In fact, this activity is rather difficult for anyone who has control freak tendencies, much like me.

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Hanging by a thread… er elastic bungee cord.
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Just before I was reeled in…

The bounce dies down after about six to seven minutes and you’re left slowly swinging back and forth like a spider from its web. One of the attendants rowed in a kayak to the spot where I was hanging, less than a metre away from the river. Andreas, who had control of the rope from above, lowered me further down and the kayaking attendant handed me the rope that was used reel me to the riverbank. After being reeled in, I was placed on a small leather mattress on the raised stone surface at the riverbank where I lay with a big grin on my face as the attendants loosened and removed my harnesses, while several people from our group gathered around me, asking how the jump felt.

I was still a bit buzzed for some time following my jump. I was talking animatedly, my body was shaking a little, and I really wanted to do it again. Adrenaline is quite something. I suppose I, to some extent, understand why some people get into extreme sports, dangerous as they can be.

So I have finally ticked bungee jumping off my bucket list, even though I have every intention of doing it again and again, hopefully from an even higher height. Yeah! Also, whitewater rafting, skydiving and deep sea diving, here I come!

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Excited, and a little hungry, before the trip.
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Happy jumpers. Evidently still high on adrenaline.

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