When planning my first trip to New Zealand in 2015, I had a burning desire to visit the famous Kawarau Bridge – site of the world’s first commercial bungy jump back in 1988. Adventure seekers from all over the world come to New Zealand’s South Island to take a leap from this legendary bridge traversing the beautiful Kawarau River.
Okay, right up front, I will confess that I have a deep-seated fear of heights! So, I already knew that I would not be able to do my own bungy jump off the Kawarau Bridge. But, I was still looking for a way to make that happen. And, yes, the blog post title is a bit of “click bait” but stay with me here. I promise there’s a way…
Hatching the New Zealand Kawarau Bungy Plan
First, some quick background. I was traveling around New Zealand with a small group of good friends. Our trip was co-led by Gary Scott of Right Path Adventures (my prior Nepal trekking guide) and his young colleague Al Macdonald of Thrive Adventures who brought his New Zealand travel experience.
After visiting Queenstown – known as the world’s “adrenalin capital” because of all the extreme sport options available there – we headed to Lake Wanaka for two nights.
Time was running out, but I knew that somehow, someway, I had to get to the famed Kawarau Bridge to see where the sport of bungy jumping began. I really wanted to watch all those adventurous souls (much more than me!) taking the leap.
Luckily, on our free day in Lake Wanaka, I was able to talk the group into paying a visit to Kawarau Bridge – just an hour’s drive south of the lake. However, none of my travel mates – all fellow baby boomers – were interested in a bungy jump. Apparently, no one was in the market for a major chiropractic adjustment while jumping off a tall bridge.
However, we knew that Al, our 30-something tour leader & Mr. Outdoor Adventure, would be game. In fact, he had already done about 6 bungy jumps in the past. So, we took up a collection and told Al we would happily pay for his jump. The deal was…we all wanted to come watch and vicariously enjoy the experience – and that is exactly what we did!
So, that morning, we called the Kawarau Bridge Bungy and made a 12:30pm reservation for Al. The cost was 195 NZD (New Zealand Dollars), which was around $150 USD at the time. Soon, we loaded ourselves into the van and headed down to the adrenalin-infused scene of the K-Bridge (shortened nickname for Kawarau Bridge) Bungy.
Kawarau Bridge & Bungy by AJ Hackett
The historic Kawarau Bridge is an 1880 wood & stone suspension bridge which spans the Kawarau River Gorge. The setting is beautiful with a turquoise river running through the steep rocky walls of the gorge.
The Kawarau Bridge Bungy jump takes place from a height of 43 meters (142 ft.), which is equivalent to leaping from a 13-story building! Jumpers experience the thrill (or is that terror?) of a freefall for a few seconds before the bungy cord catches them just above the river and yanks them back up like a yoyo. Sounds fun, eh?
Famed New Zealander AJ Hackett is the man behind it all – both as the co-inventor of the sport in 1986 and the man who launched commercial bungy jumping in 1988. He’s still actively running the business with four AJ Hackett Bungy jumps around New Zealand and some others around the world. (See final section for more history on AJ & the start of this crazy sport!)
In comparison, AJ’s tallest bungy jump in New Zealand is the Nevis Bungy, located outside of Queenstown. Almost 3 times as high as Kawarau, the Nevis bungy is 134 meters (440 ft.) tall and boasts an 8.5 second freefall. I got palpitations just watching the video on the website!
The Kawarau River Bridge is about a 25-minute drive from Queenstown and an hour from Lake Wanaka (see map). The 2019 cost for an adult bungy jumper is $205 NZD, approximately $130 USD.
What’s also great about the K-Bridge Bungy is that the area has a variety of great viewing points for the many spectators. Plus, you’re allowed to walk on the bridge itself and get very close (like 3-4 feet) to the jumpers who are gearing up. And, Kawarau is the only one of the three Queenstown area bungy jumps that can be done as a tandem. How romantic!
At this point, you might be confused with the words ‘bungee’ and ‘bungy.’ Apparently, they mean the same thing. But the ‘bungy’ spelling is used mainly in New Zealand (per AJ Hackett’s preference!) and ‘bungee’ in the rest of the world.
Tagging Along on Al’s Bungy Jump
Upon arrival at the “Kawarau Bungy Centre, The World Home of Bungy” complex, Al went inside to check in. I followed along, wanting to vicariously experience all aspects of the process. He signed a lot of forms – and I can only imagine the legalese needed for extreme sports like this!
Al got weighed and a staff member wrote his weight (in kg) on one hand, with his photo # on the other. Every bungy jump is well documented by both still and video photography. So, they need the visible #s to keep the jumpers straight. I don’t think it’s to identify any bodies. LOL… Don’t worry – they’ve never had an accident in over 30 years of business!
With check-in complete, Al received an official receipt to give to staff members on the bridge. So, he & I headed out to the bridge to get this bungy party started! He first had a waist belt attached with a short blue bungee cord hanging down.
As Al was waiting his turn, I spent an exhilarating hour watching jumper after jumper dive head first (some confidently, others quite nervously) off the bridge, their feet bundled and cabled up. It was a blast to watch! And I definitely noticed that ALL the jumpers that day were young – mostly in their 20s!
Watching Other Jumpers First
It was also fascinating watching the jumpers go through their preparations. I chatted with one sweet young woman from Germany. I witnessed both her preparation and her jump – and she screamed the whole way down. I later saw her, and she told me that she loved it!
I watched as the very competent and safety-oriented AJ Hackett Bungy staff carefully prepared each jumper’s lower legs and ankles with padded towels after which they attached the ankle/foot cables, in addition to the waist belt. Both an ankle and body harness are used at the same time for extra safety.
I asked a staff woman on the bridge about how many people “chicken out” after paying their money – getting to the edge and deciding there is no way they can fling themselves off the platform to the river far below. She said it averages around 1 in 100.
However, this morning, they already had 3 jumpers say “No Thanks” and forfeit their entire fee! By the way, these “bungy chickens” were a mix of men and women. Fear of heights clearly has no gender preference.
Also at the Kawarau Bridge Bungy, jumpers have the option of doing a “water touch” – meaning a head dunk or possibly a partial body immersion into the river below! The staff calculates your weight and attempts to adjust the length of the bungy line accordingly for this extra thrill.
Down at the river, a 2-man “rescue raft” was busy reeling in the jumpers, after they stopped bobbing up and down. They used a long pole (above left) to reach the dangling jumper and pull them in closer to where they could be safely lowered down into the raft. They would then deliver the exhilarated and greatly relieved jumper to the nearby shore – before heading back out for the next jumper.
Al’s “Superman” Jump
Finally, it was Al’s turn. Our group was positioned in various places to watch and attempt to get some photos of Al in bungy action. By this point, I had moved off the bridge to the side observation platform.
We all anxiously watched as Al hopped the short distance to the edge of the platform (below), with staff tightly holding onto his waist belt. There, he was instructed to pose for the cameras, looking in a few different directions. Then it was show time!
Al had already planned to do a “Superman” pose with one arm jutting out in front and one by his side. And as expected, Fearless Al’s jump was picture perfect. Of course, he opted for the “water touch” so he got a quick head dunk!
Down below, the “recovery raft” was waiting for Al to bring him into the boat. Safely on land, Al had a long climb from the river up the path to the main building at the top where we were waiting to give him our applause and kudos – and pose for a group photo. Al had, indeed, been a great bungy “stunt double” for me & the others.
Al headed into the Bungy Center to pick up his official certificate and “jumpers only” T-shirt which he proudly wore. Al opted not to buy the official video package for an additional 100 NZD – which included digital photos, video & printed photos. Regardless, it was fun seeing Al’s photo on the computer screen (below left).
Our trip to the Kawarau Bridge Bungy turned out to be so much fun. It was great being able to vicariously experience a bungy jump through Al, up close & personal. Thanks to our fearless & capable “Bungy Stunt Double,” I didn’t have to dive head first into what would seem like an interminable abyss and die of fright along the way!
Getting back to the promise of the blog post title: Yes, this is how you can bungy jump when you’re afraid of heights. Hire a Stunt Double like Al!
On our drive back to Lake Wanaka, we made a quick stop at another New Zealand landmark – the Bra Fence – where one of our female members decided to make a personal donation. You gotta love those delightfully crazy and creative Kiwis – from bungy jumps to their bra fences (above)!
I hope you will be able to visit the Kawarau Bridge Bungy when you have the opportunity to visit New Zealand’s South Island. And if, like me, you are not brave enough to do your own bungy jump – or perhaps smart enough not to! – I hope you can find someone to be your “stunt double.” That way, you can vicariously experience one of New Zealand’s great thrills!
History of The Sport of Bungy, AJ Hackett & the Kawarau Bridge
As already mentioned, New Zealander AJ Hackett was the co-inventor of the sport and the man who launched commercial bungee jumping in 1988. Here’s more of the story, part of which is taken from the AJ Hackett Bungy website About Us page.
AJ was first inspired by the Vanuatu (South Pacific ocean nation) ritual called “land diving” and the Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club experimental jumps in the 1970s. So, AJ and fellow adventurers Chris Sigglekow and Henry van Asch sought ways to make bungy jumping safe.
They finally succeeded with a bungy jump from the Auckland Harbour Bridge in 1986. AJ garnered further fame & notoriety by illegally jumping off Paris’ Eiffel Tower in 1987. As a result, he received a brief jail sentence, while generating international attention to the sport!
Back in New Zealand, AJ launched his own company, AJ Hackett Bungy, and created the world’s first commercial bungy site on the historic Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge. The company opened for business in November 1988, with 28 people taking the plunge that first day. And the rest is history…
AJ Hackett is widely credited with launching New Zealand’s adventure tourism industry and helping to develop a safe code of operation for bungy jumping in use internationally.
Now there are many bungy sites around the world – and many that are quite a bit higher than Kawarau Bridge. However, this most famous of leaps still attracts thousands of thrill seekers each year – and for very good reason!
- AJ Hackett Bungy website
- Kawarau Bridge Bungy – has good video of the experience
- Nevis Bungy – has good video of the experience
- AJ Hackett International – locations in Australia, China, Russia, France and Singapore
Comments: Would you do a bungy jump from the Kawarau Bridge? Have you already done a bungy jump in New Zealand or somewhere else? How was the experience?