I’m not going to start this post off with a clever lede. I won’t be coming up with some elaborate, slow build-up segue to get to the point where I tell you just how I’m feeling about backpacking and New Zealand and Queenstown and life right now. Instead, I’m just going to show you a picture and ask you a question: what on Earth could have possessed me to sign up for anything that would cause me to make the following expression of sheer panic?
The answer is — well, there are quite a few answers, really. An epiphany during a dinner shift at the restaurant where I work. A misguided momentary flash of bravery. A full morning and afternoon’s worth of well orchestrated deception by nearly everyone surrounding me. And, well, to be honest, a guilty feeling that I couldn’t make you guys read about frisbee golf again. Extreme measures had to be taken.
As I’ve mentioned before, adventure tourism is one of Queenstown’s main draws: whether it’s bungy-jumping, sky-diving, or whitewater rafting, this is the place you come to do it. And working reception at a hostel means I’m often the one trying to sell visitors on the idea of throwing themselves out of planes, off of cliffs, or otherwise into harm’s way. It stands to reason that I should be familiar with what I’m selling, and the local companies specializing in adrenaline take that into account by sending hostel staff on what they call “famil” trips. “Famil,” if you’re wondering, is short for “familiarization,” and is really just a fancy way of saying that I get to do for free a lot of the activities our guests would normally pay hundreds of dollars for.
The favorite “famil” of the whole staff at my hostel, and the one the owner is the most enthusiastic about, is the Canyon Swing. It’s basically a complex system of ropes and pulleys strung out over a river about 15 minutes outside of town. The idea is that you toss yourself off a cliff overlooking the river, hurtling through a 60-meter free fall before transitioning into a 200-meter arc that swings you back and forth between the canyon walls while you pray you don’t end up going splat. In other words, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with an activity that sounded less up my alley than this one.
So I spent my first few weeks at the hostel insisting I’d never try the canyon swing. I literally laughed in my boss’s face on several occasions when he suggested I’d eventually come around to the idea. A co-worker volunteered to do a tandem swing with me to ease my nerves, and I informed him that if he were ever stupid enough to strap himself to me and jump off a cliff, he’d probably find himself strangled and/or covered in vomit by the time we reached the bottom of the free fall. There was no way I was going on this sucker.
And then, one night last week, I got bored. We’re talking this-is-pointless, what-am-I-doing-with-my-life, existentially bored. I was reading the newspaper at the restaurant where I work nights — and by that I mean I was leaned over the counter, flipping the pages of a local paper I’d already read cover-to-cover four times, waiting for even one customer to come in — when I realized that this was not why I’d come to New Zealand. This wasn’t why people came to Queenstown. If I was going to tie myself down somewhere for a while then, dammit, I should be taking full advantage of every unique opportunity that presented itself to me — even if it scared the bejeezus out of me.
So the next morning, I popped my head into the hostel owner’s office and mentioned, casually, that I was thinking about doing the swing after all at some point in the near future. I told him I’d only do it if I could do a tandem swing with my co-worker. And then I promptly forgot about it. Until a few hours later when Tom, the unlucky colleague who’d naively offered to accompany me on this venture, posed a very innocent question:
“Jess… have you eaten yet?”
“Because Brett’s booked us on the canyon swing. We’re going in 30 minutes.”
The owner of the hostel, it turned out, had decided to book our canyon swing for that day. He’d known, the second I’d suggested I was even entertaining the idea of doing this, that it would be now or never. More importantly, he’d made the surprisingly accurate judgment call that he’d have to leave me in the dark about what was going on until the last possible second so that I couldn’t freak out and run away.
By the time our van arrived at the swing site, I’d gone completely silent. My cuticles were ragged after spending the past 45 minutes between my teeth, and my eyes hadn’t blinked in so long my contacts were going dry. When the swing operators started fitting our group out with harnesses, I insisted Tom and I would be going tandem. Tom stood by looking as if he’d rather take his chances jumping off this cliff with no harness or safety lines than be attached to this nail-biting, hair-pulling, squealy-voiced train wreck of a person — but I stood my ground. I watched the other jumpers from our group, perfectly sane people who’d paid good money to put themselves through this, launch themselves off the platform in the most imaginative ways possible: hanging upside-down by their heels like ducks in Chinatown store windows; rocking backwards on lawn chairs and toppling end over end through their free falls; taking sailing, self-assured leaps off the platform and belting out the kind of screams you can tell are fueled by excitement rather than terror. After each jumper was hauled back up to the jumping-off point, I’d ask them how it was. They’d swear they’d just had the time of their lives and would be going again after the final jump of the day — mine — was over.
“All right, Tom,” I sighed when my turn came up, “let’s go.”
“No no, hold it,” the swing operators interrupted me. “You’re not going tandem.”
“Yes, we are,” I insisted. “I told you guys that from the start.”
“Funny — you’re not wearing tandem harnesses.”
And then it hit me: the morning of lies. The omission of truths. The cocky, “you have no idea what you’re in for” look on the swing operator’s face as he had strapped me in to my harness half an hour prior. This was how the whole thing worked. They’d never had any intention of letting me swing tandem, and now it was too late to back out.
The two swing operators pulled me up to the edge of the platform and started snapping carabineer hooks all over me, tightening ropes, clacking unseen elements into place. I couldn’t help but imagine that this must be what it would feel like if executioners started fiddling with your electric chair. I peered out over the edge of the cliff and immediately snapped my hand up to my eyes, turned away horrified, made a noise as if I’d just witnessed a violent murder.
“Ohhhh no,” I told the two men operating the swing. “I can’t do this. Really, I don’t want to do this.” I’ll just reason with them, I figured. It’s worked before.
A guest at the hostel had told me, a few days earlier, that he’d only managed to get himself off this very platform because he’d been able to convince himself he was dreaming.
“I mean, think about it,” he’d told me. “Standing on the edge of a cliff and convincing yourself to jump — that’s not a normal position to be in. You’re really only ever in that kind of situation in dreams. So once I’d convinced myself I was just dreaming, it was fine.”
The problem is, even in my dreams, I’ve never been able to convince myself to jump off cliffs, to fly from building to building, to do anything even remotely daring. My self-preservation instinct knows no boundaries of consciousness; it defies all Freudian explanation. And besides, I couldn’t shake the knowledge that this was real life. I, Jessica, was about to be sent flying off a cliff. I was about to see a river and a rock face and a whole lotta ground rushing towards me at 150km per hour and there was not a damn thing I could do to stop it.
Not that I didn’t try: I started grabbing the railings surrounding the platform, wrapping my arms like tentacles around the swing operators’ backs, seeking out a grip on anything that would keep me from going over. Somehow, the operators managed to lean me out over the edge, their arms pulling me back just slightly enough to keep me from going over. Then my high-pitched voice came out. The word “please, please, please” spewed from my mouth with a rapidity and fervor normally reserved for people speaking in tongues. Tears began trailing down my face, which suddenly looked like that of a toddler who’s just fallen down and is, you can tell, about to let loose one hell of a sobbing tantrum.
“That’s the point where I really thought to myself, ‘Well, that’s it, they’re going to pull her in now,'” Tom told me later. “I thought for sure they weren’t going to make you go through with it.”
Instead, in that split second before my tears gave way to sobs, in the middle of that deep breath before my begging became wailing, the highly trained professionals over at the canyon swing saw their window and let go of my harness.
When I finally forced my eyes back open 30 seconds later, the whole thing was over, and I was swinging softly from side to side of the canyon like a metronome needle. The guys who’d so casually dropped me off a cliff mere moments before were reeling me back up to the platform, the pulleys and cables click-clacking into place as I hugged the rope towards me and inched closer to the top.
“Would you do it again?” everyone asked me when I got back to the hostel later that day. And I had to answer them with a very honest “Dear God, no. No. A thousand times, no.” They’d actually given everyone in my group the option to go again after their initial jumps — and I’d been the only one to flat-out refuse. In fact, I’d refused while fiddling wildly with the hooks on my harness, trying to shimmy out of the thing before I could be lured out to the edge again.
The thing is, I’m glad I did it. I’m glad my boss tricked me into going; I’m thankful the swing operators shoved me over, even though I won’t take back any of the unflattering names I called them on my way back up. It’s a great feeling to have quite literally stood on the edge of a cliff, surveyed my fears, and been forced to confront them without the option of turning back. But it’s an even better feeling knowing that it’s all over, assuring myself that I’ll never have to go through it again — and being able to look back at the video evidence and laugh.
*Don’t watch this video if you are offended by salty language and/or the sight of a grown woman crying, are drinking chocolate milk or anything else that might come spurting out your nose if you laugh too hard, or are in an office or other setting where the sounds of high-pitched screams might cause alarm.