Ups and downs

01:23, Nov 20 2013
Yet another bungy jumper plummets from the Kawarau Bridge near Queenstown.

Robert Upe heads to the birthplace of bungy madness, 25 years after the first leap of faith.

It was 25 years ago this month that one of the world's biggest tourism phenomenon was created on a Queenstown bridge.

On November 12, 1988, A J Hackett, a carpenter, ski bum and encyclopaedia salesman, and Henry van Asch, a farmhand and a speed skier who clocked almost 200kmh, set up shop for their daring enterprise in an old bus at the Kawarau Bridge - the birth of bungy jumping .

"The reception desk was an old card table," Hackett recalls now.

"We never doubted that bungy jumping would last but we didn't know if we could manage it ourselves and whether other operators would come along and stuff it up. But from the very first jumps, we knew it was something very special."

Since the modest start, it's estimated that at least 4.5 million people around the world have taken a bungy jump, 75 per cent of them with the A J Hackett brand, which has had no fatalities.


Things can go awry, however. In one dramatic incident last year, an Australian tourist jumped with another company in Zambia and ended up plunging into the rapids in the Zambezi River after her bungy cord broke.

She survived, but others haven't. Among the fatalities, an Italian couple died during a tandem bridge jump in Italy.

The first "commercial" jumper coaxed off the Kawarau Bridge by Hackett and van Asch was one of their "ski bum" mates, Jef Desbecker, now a veteran Kiwi heli-skiing guide.

Ever since Desbecker took the 43-metre dive, there has been a steady flow of people following him over the edge, making Hackett and van Asch millionaires many times over.

Van Asch said: "It's a bizarre physical activity that brings elation and, afterwards, contemplation. It is a very individual thing and engages your psyche. It doesn't happen in a matter of seconds. It takes some people minutes, hours, days, months or years to jump. When they come out of it they say 'holy s...', I can do anything."

About 100,000 people a year take the leap of faith in New Zealand, which is still the spiritual home of bungy, although it has a foothold in several countries.

The co-founders split as business partners in 1997 (some say it was amicable, others bitter) with van Asch taking over the New Zealand operation and Hackett the rest of the world.

Some of Hackett's global bungy sites include Australia, France, Germany, Bali and Macau (the highest bungy at 233 metres).

The next to open will be in the 2014 Winter Olympics city of Sochi, Russia, and then Sentosa Island in Singapore.

The idea for bungy came to Hackett from Vanuatu, where villagers jump from towers with vines tied around their ankles.

Hackett substituted the vines for a bungee-inspired cable and recruited van Asch to help him get the business off the ground.

"A big challenge early on was from the cowboy operators," Hackett said. "Bungy would go through boom and bust cycles, dictated by accidents. But the cowboys are pretty much gone now. It has matured."

Hackett, who has lived in France and now Singapore, flew in from Sochi to be with van Asch for last week's 25th anniversary bash.

Celebrity jumpers have included golf champion Tiger Woods, Lord of the Rings star Orlando Bloom, singer Katy Perry, comedian Billy Connolly (who did it in the nude), soccer star David Beckham and even a sheikh from Abu Dhabi.

However, A J Hackett Queenstown sales manager Regan Pearce says the most dominant group of jumpers is backpackers.

After all these years, the co-founders still have their nerve and continue to jump. Van Asch has jumped about 600 times and Hackett more than 1000, including an illegal publicity stunt off the Eiffel Tower in 1987, and many times out of helicopters.

"After 25 years, we have just gone through round one really," Hackett said. "There is a whole new generation [of potential jumpers] coming through now."

Fairfax Media