Bridging The Gap On Fear

Illawarra Mercury

Monday January 17, 2000

DAVID ILIFFE

It's official. There's a new attraction for those who like to tease the grim reaper and don't mind paying for the privilege. Hell-raisers, coffin cheaters and thrill seekers across the country can untie their bungee cords, fold their parachutes, trade in their hang- gliders and make a beeline for the Maldon Suspension Bridge near Picton to leap off the side of it as part of a new sport called: bridge jumping. Last week, Mercury reporter DAVID ILIFFE strapped on a full body harness and got a taste.

I should have known better.

Every time I utter the phrase, ``Sure, I'll give it a whirl, how scary can it be?" it's always a prelude to unknown terror.

Last time, I found myself flying upside down in a 20-year-old Pitts bi-plane 500-odd feet above Lake Illawarra hollering ``Maroubra" into a brown paper bag.

The time before that, I got married.

This time, I found myself standing on a platform on the old Maldon Suspension Bridge near Picton, eight storeys above a shallow stream tied to a bit of rope with a little too much slack for my liking, about to test Newton's law of gravity.

Bridge jumping is the latest fad for the middle-of-the-road thrill seeker who is bored with the big dipper, but not quite ready to brave the bungee.

Rush Bridge Jump Australia is the first operation of its kind in the country and the sport is still in its infancy worldwide.

So far only South Africa has succumbed to this new, more subtle brand of self-inflicted terror.

As he helped me into a full body harness, one of the company's founders and a jump veteran, Cormack Dunn, persuaded me I had more chance of twisting my ankle climbing back up to the bridge than dashing myself on the rocks below.

``You're in a full body harness, so it doesn't have all the safety concerns of bungee in terms of back injuries," he said.

``You feel the free fall and you get the same sensation with the very quick acceleration, but you don't go upside down.

``So it's perhaps not as intimidating as bungee."

In fact, with the support of not one but two ropes, each capable of carrying five tonnes, and staff who check and recheck every clip and rope, it would be easy not to be intimidated at all.

Yet when you are standing on a metal shelf overlooking a gaping chasm with only the jump master's steady hand and three long seconds between you and a stomach churning free fall the intimidation is overpowering.

As he attaches the dual ropes to clips on the front of my harness, the extra weight seems determined to drag me over the edge.

Suddenly it is time to move to the corner of the launch platform and the gates are slid open.

The jump-master almost has to prise my hands off the rails and into their correct jump position on the rope in front of me.

The countdown begins.

``Three," he says.

I panic, thinking that at the key moment I'll take a forward step instead of a sideways one, a definite no-no in bridge jumping.

``Two."

How big a step do I take? Will it be big enough to clear the platform or will I gash my head on the corner as I plummet towards the water?

As I inch a little closer to the edge preparing to jump, my toes mutiny.

``He wants to do what?" they scream. ``Is he crazy?"

``One."

The next thing I know, I'm free falling at what feels like terminal velocity, trying hard to shout, but only managing a poor man's gurgle.

Then, before I know it the rope has caught me and I'm hurtling towards the far bank of the river before swinging back beneath the bridge and across the water like a pendulum on speed and laughing like a man possessed.

Afterwards, Mr Dunn explains the lesser-known after-effects of bridge jumping.

``If you're not on a high for the rest of the day, there's something wrong," he says. ``It makes you feel like you can do anything. You should try sky-diving next."

So, how often does he sky-dive?

``Never tried it," he confesses. ``I'm too scared."

Later, though, driving past the nearby sky-diving centre on my way home, I make a mental note of the number.

``I'm the bridge jumping king," I say to myself, ``I can do anything."

Jumps are $95 each and at present four people can jump for the price of three.

Phone (02) 46770500.

© 2000 Illawarra Mercury

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