The scariest

One of our vocabulary items yesterday was “the scariest.” The PowerPoint had been illustrated with a young kid screaming his head off on a rollercoaster (which can’t have been too intense as he only had a lap bar). So we got talking. Who had been on a rollercoaster? Not many, they were probably still too short. But it seemed many of them didn’t even want to go on a rollercoaster. Not even in the safety of the hypothetical where I would expect them to act braver than they really were. Many of the young boys openly admitted that The Viking was more than scary enough for them.

I had to chuckle at this. The other day I caught a bus. It was a local bus, meaning it was an old machine. The back seat was the only one available, so I shuffled my way down the isle as the bus took off, and climbed up into it. I thought I would feel safer sitting down, but oh no. Korean bus drivers do not drive with riding comfort or fuel efficiency in mind. As soon as the last passenger has climbed inside they hit the accelerator hard. Never mind the passengers walking to their seats or still trying to pay. Their stops are equally abrupt. And I was clearly reminded of this as I felt like I was on the back seat of The Viking ride, the other seats declining in front of me and then rising back up to the driver. I got air a number of times, bouncing and sliding on the stuffed vinal seats as I frantically tried to find something to hold on to.

I didn’t mention the bus, but proceeded to share stories of some of the scary things I had done. I’d been on rollercoaster’s and other rides at Disney World and Universal Studios. I’d been abseiling off the roof of Centre City, and rock climbing on Paritutu. I’d delivered a speech on a stage in front of 2500 people. I moved to Korea by myself. And earlier this year I’d been…

Bungy jumping.

The sharp intake of breath and the gaping mouths told me they were clearly impressed. Some almost disbelieving.

But it was true.

An optional extra to my DMZ trip was to extend my tour by a day to go rafting and bungy jumping on the Hantangang (한탄강). Having not done much rafting before I was keen to try this. I’d considered bungy jumps before but had never liked the look of things when the rope recoiled, it looked like it would be uncomfortable, so I hadn’t the desire to do one. But this jump would only cost me $30. That sounded super cheap. I checked out prices in NZ. To jump at Kawarau, where AJ Hackett pioneered bungy jumping in 1988 = $180, Auckland Harbour Bridge = $150, Taupo = $150. I started to think that it was just too good a deal to let pass by without a strong reason not to. I did consider the ‘you get what you pay for’ concept. Here I wasn’t going to be paying for the 52m of air I would hurtle through headfirst but rather the equipment and staff that were supposed to allow me to live to tell the tale. Korea really isn’t the most safety conscious country I’ve been too, but surely if they’d had a few fatalities they’d have to make some improvements or shut up shop…

I decided to do it.

Our itinerary stated we would be leaving our pension in the morning to go bungy jumping, having a lunch break, then going rafting. Nerves and excitement where shared over dinner that evening as we tried to mentally prepare for what we were about to do. Rain Sunday morning put things into jeopardy. The company wouldn’t let us do the jump. We were fortunately able to bring our rafting booking forward with the hope the weather would improve enough to jump in the afternoon.

Our bus, of mainly English teachers, pulled up at the rafting base. We disembarked wearing our togs, jandals and singlets. We watched tour groups of Koreans in matching ponchos and crocs, or raincoats, wetsuits and water shoes gathering around rafts (Koreans take dressing for outdoor pursuits very seriously). I’m not sure which group would have found the other more amusing.

Donned with lifejackets and wetsuits we carried our raft down to the river. We quickly changed the chant to keep us rowing in time from 1, 2, 3, 4 to 소주  (soju = distilled liquor, Korean vodka equivalent) 맥주! (mekju = beer). This of course added to our entertainment factor as we paddled our way down the wide bends of the Hangtan-Gang.

White water was in short supply, so to make things a little more interesting we went ashore a couple of times to leap off rocks into the water. It seemed that jumping was mandatory. Normally I might have had second thoughts, but as I was about to go jump off a bridge I figured I couldn’t let a few meters cause hesitation. As I waited in line to jump I instead turned my thoughts to the safety of the people jumping who clearly didn’t know how to swim. We hadn’t been asked before we set out on the water about whether or not we could swim. I would think that an important question to ask, but as I’ve said, safety doesn’t seem to be a big concern here. It makes me angry when I see professionals letting people think that they’re invincible just because wearing a life jacket.

As I pondered this I also pondered the wisdom of drinking and rafting, as set up along the river were tents serving soju and beer. Clearly we weren’t the first people to think of these things whilst rafting. But seriously, drinking and water sports is not a combination that should be encouraged. And it’s not like anyone’s journey down the river was going to be a particularly long one.

Of course you can’t have a drink here without having a smoke. Rain and rafting, not to mention splash fights with friends and jumping off boulders had ensured we were all thoroughly saturated. No logoed poncho or fancy raincoat would have saved us from that. And why would we want it to. Yet somehow dozens of Korean men had stowed their cigarettes and lighters away somewhere nice and dry, so that they could light up at that beer tent 10mins downstream from their buses. The mind boggles.

Back on land we received the good news that we would be able to do our jump after lunch. Dry and fed we boarded the bus and drove downstream to a big red bridge. We eyed it up quietly. It looked strong, that was reassuring. There were people jumping off it and, after a bit of bouncing, being safely collected by a man in a rowboat. This was also reassuring. But this bridge was definitely a lot higher than those rocks we’d just been jumping off.

No time for thinking though, After a short look over the side we were ushered into the office to be weighed (the results of which clearly showing my appreciation of the buffet meals on my recent trip to China) and sent upstairs to get our ankle harnesses. A waist jump was possible here, but we decided as a group that we wanted an authentic bungy experience. A couple of buckles around the ankle didn’t seem enough to be reassuring. But it was tight. A Korean came up to the ledge to translate the instructions. “Jump like this or like this, as if you’re diving. Don’t just do a little jump like this.”

That was it.

I discussed with the others the absurdity of what we were about to do. We were about to override our protective instincts that tell us jumping off really high bridges is a dumb thing to do. We were paying for a few seconds of ‘thrill’ (probably better described as terror) as we hurtled downwards. But mostly we were doing it for the feeling of accomplishment afterwards. I know I was. I hadn’t done something like this in a long time, and I knew I needed shaking up a bit.

I was about 4th in line from our party. The first guy jumped before we even realised he was on the platform. Clearly he didn’t want time for thinking. The second guy didn’t jump on his first or second count. I was glad to see them quickly send him to the back of the line before anyone else caught his nerves. The next jumper went in an orderly fashion, and then I was summoned to the line.

My new friends shouted words of encouragement. “Fighting!” “You can do it!” “You’re a New Zealander, you invented the bungy, this is in your blood!” To that I replied. “Yip. Kiwis can fly.” I couldn’t back out now. National pride was on the line.

I stepped forward and a purple rope was attached to my ankle harness. I tried to dismiss consideration of what would happen if that rope got tangled in anything. It seemed no further instructions were necessary, and I was given the nod. But to be sure everything was in order I established the protocol with the instructor. “3, 2, 1, Bungee.” I edged forward, swearing in my head. I fixed my eyes on a point across the river and let go of the railing.

Gulp.

“3, 2, 1, BUNGY!”

Falling, falling, falling, my heart in my throat.

Boing.

Exhale.

Down, up, down. Try to enjoy this. Wave to your friends.

Woah. Spinning. Spinning. Why do I have to be spinning? Hurry up little rowing boy. Catch me and stop me spinning.

Lying, ankles bound, head spinning in the bottom of the boat I tried to push my anger about the spinning out of my mind to think of a response to the inevitable question “How was it.”

I don’t think I came up with anything particularly profound.

“I did it.”

I kept my cool, and I did it, and yeah, I guess it was fun. And next time I go to do something scary I can remind myself of that.

Kiwis can fly.

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