I’d never thought of myself as a risk-taker. I didn’t chase adrenaline-highs or seek out danger. But as I stood looking at the tiny figures jumping into the void and dangling from a rope attached to a railway bridge 128 metres above the thundering Zambezi River, my heart began to pound in my chest. They must be insane, I thought. The next thing forming inside me wasn’t a thought, or even a feeling; it was just something I knew. I am going to do that too.
I’d been travelling in Africa for a couple of weeks. I was with a small group and a guide. We’d started in Namibia and driven north-east from the capital through the Kalahari Desert’s dusty red savannah for hours. At night we slept in tents. I was sharing with a young German woman whom we’ll call Gabriele. We’d been to tiny traditional villages, with mud-walled huts and thatched grass roofs. We’d eaten meat and pap by the campfire together. I’d learned she had been volunteering in a Windhoek orphanage and she dreamed of studying medicine or fighting for human rights. We’d canoed with Angolan refugees in the Okavango Delta, slipping low through the shallows in a traditional mokoro to watch hippos bobbing and snorting just metres away in the deeper water.
Although hippos are responsible for more deaths annually than any other African animal, none of this felt like a high-octane adventure. Our guides were calm and knew where they were taking us. It had been a wonderful experience so far and was to culminate at one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
Long before it cascades anywhere, the Zambezi River rises from dark ‘dambo’ wetlands in north-west Zambia. It travels 1200km, flowing for two-thirds of this journey over a mostly flat basalt plateau that extends for hundreds of kilometres all around. The river swells to almost 2km wide before its whole volume plunges – the world’s largest sheet of falling water – into a transverse chasm carved into the rock.
We arrived there, at Mosi-oa-Tunya (‘The Smoke that Thunders’) or Victoria Falls in the afternoon, entering on the Zambian side of the park. It was a warm winter day, in August’s medium-to-high-water season. This meant you could glimpse the steep, jagged rock faces of the gorge but there was still plenty enough water crashing over the cliff edge to fill the air with droplets which look like rising smoke – hence the Sotho language name.
Surrounded by rainbows and mist, we crossed Knife Edge, a narrow structure near the precipice taking visitors almost as close as they can get to the Falls. The greatest waterfall on Earth plummeted beside us. Then we had some free time. I wandered in awe through the park for a while before reconvening with the others at Gorilla Head Viewpoint, where sure enough there is a rock that looks like a gorilla’s head, as well as a spectacular view over the river and the Victoria Falls Bridge. Constructed in Great Britain and assembled on site in 1905, the bridge is an audacious single span of steel, 128 metres above the river, and the only rail link between Zambia and Zimbabwe.
There was a strange disquiet among our small group as I re-joined. I realised they were watching people throw themselves off the railway bridge, with rope attached. Bungee-jumpers. I shook my head in disbelief. Who were these idiots? What would possess you to do something like that? I was not fond of heights. My knees had trembled a little earlier, simply crossing Knife Edge overlooking the eastern edge of the cataracts. There was no way I would ever be able to bungee-jump. Would I?
I’d never thought of myself as a risk-taker. I didn’t chase adrenaline-highs or seek out danger. But as I stood looking at the tiny figures jumping and dangling from a rope attached to a railway bridge 128 metres above the thundering Zambezi River, my heart began to pound in my chest. They must be insane, I thought. The next thing forming inside me wasn’t a thought or even a feeling; it was just something I knew.
I am going to do that too.
I had been through some bad things in recent years. Depression. Working until 3 or 4am, then back at the job again by 8 o’clock. A horrible break-up. In some ways I was trying to rise up from a swampland myself. Escape the plateau. Maybe that bridge – that leap – was a portal into a new life. Of course, I didn’t have any of those thoughts consciously. But a weird sense of inevitability and recklessness and f**k it was rising within.
My young German friend stood beside me and asked if I was tempted. I laughed. I think, perhaps, I have to, I said. Imagine leaving here, not having done it!
She nodded solemnly. Then grinned a perfect grin. Like me, she was afraid of heights, but, she explained, she wanted to bungee too, to face her fear. Did I promise I would do it with her?
In retrospect, I sometimes wonder who was taking care of who.
Neither of us slept well. We were filled with adrenaline and kept shuddering and having to re-talk ourselves into the adventure. We giggled hysterically in our tent before drifting silently into our own thoughts and disturbed dreams. The next day my legs shook as we walked through the park.
We enrolled ourselves for the jump in a well-organised activity centre. We were weighed and our weight was written on our arm. Before we knew it, we were heading out across Victoria Falls Bridge, just us two. The sides and underneath of the bridge were open, so you could see the Zambezi raging below. What are we doing? we kept asking. But we kept walking.
Soon I was sitting on a bench on a narrow platform, 128 metres up. I had agreed to jump first. I was trying to be brave, a model for my new friend. My insides were writhing around. I had never known terror like this. A man was taking me through what would happen. He kept saying my name. Deborah. Okay Deborah? as if he could see my eyes glazing over with dread. We’re going to tie this special knot, Deborah, around your ankles. It will tighten as it is pulled. I remember telling him repeatedly that I have very small feet and to make sure my heels wouldn’t slip through. He must have been trying not to laugh.
Gabriele was being prepared too. I knew there was no backing out now. I would never forgive myself. I was told, when the time came, I should stand with my toes almost over the edge, my arms straight out at either side, like an aeroplane, Deborah. Don’t look down. Look out to the horizon. Jump outwards, towards the horizon. Like you’re flying. I will count down. Then you jump.
As well as the rope around my feet, I had a harness around my torso. I couldn’t understand why the guy in charge had his hand on the strap in the middle of my back. You won’t push me, will you? I kept asking. I want to jump myself. I don’t want to be pushed.
He chuckled. I’m not going to push you, Deborah. I’m holding you. You’ll see.
I shuffled towards the edge. With that, he tipped the end of the rope over the side of the bridge. It unravelled like a snake by my feet, like the snakes in the pit of my belly. I noticed how frayed it was. Suddenly I felt the weight of all that length of cord, pulling me forward. And I was glad that he was, indeed, holding me.
I concentrated on the horizon. I was determined not to hesitate, to jump on the first countdown, not to scream. I gazed out across the treetops of Africa as they stretched away for kilometres. The edges of the gorge. The mists. I glanced down and saw rapids churning below. There were crocodiles down there as well, but they were the least of my worries. I breathed in and out.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . . Bungee!
To this day I have no idea who emitted the shriek as I fell. I think it was Gabriele, watching behind me. I felt my body abandon my stomach, my mind send emergency signals, a hollow in my spine, a rush of air against my skin. A change of pressure in my head.
I bounced. Several times. Up, up, up my body curled and twisted towards the underside of the steel girders of the bridge. Back down, down, towards the water. The falls smoked and thundered a short distance away. Up. Down. Soon I was hanging by my feet above the Zambezi River. I was one of those idiots. But I had done it.
It seemed an age that I was dangling there. My head felt full of blood. The rope moved around my ankles. It didn’t feel like it was tightening as it should. I started to whimper a little. A man was lowering himself towards me, ready to hoik me back up to the bridge. My feet slipped a little more. Please help me, I heard myself call out to him. When he finally reached me, he smiled and started chatting. I will never forget him. He told me his name was The Void.
I was hauled back to the bridge, and a little later so was Gabriele – for she successfully made the leap too. Afterwards, she had a small nosebleed, but we could not stop laughing or congratulating each other, high on whatever substances our bodies were pumping through our systems to help us recover from the trauma of what we had chosen to do.
I don’t think either of us became adrenaline-junkies. It took me months not to feel as though I were falling through the sky every time I closed my eyes in bed at night. Did something change that day? There’s no ‘control version’ of my life to compare outcomes with but Gabriele has followed through with her fight for justice around the world, and I too have gone on to do things I always dreamt of. And, for now, we’re both still here to tell the tale.
Deborah O’Donoghue’s debut thriller Sea of Bones is available to order from all good bookshops.