Today, bungee jumping is a common extreme sport that can be found in almost every country around the world. But it must have taken some nerve to be the first person to attempt to jump from a bridge with nothing but an oversized elastic band strapped to your ankles.
New Zealander A.J. Hackett is often credited as being the originator of the bungee jump, but while he certainly popularised it and set up the first commercial jump, the history of bungee goes back a long way – probably further than you think.
Origins in Vanuatu
Bungee jumping was actually inspired by the ritual known as ‘land diving’, which originated hundreds (or perhaps even thousands) of years ago on Pentecost Island – one of the islands that makes up the country on Vanuatu in the South Pacific.
The ritual came about as a part of an ancient story of a local woman who was being mistreated by her husband. The legend says that she often attempted to run away only to be caught and punished. So she came up with a plan and when she ran away she climbed up the tallest banyan tree on the island, tying a vine around her ankle as she made her way to the top. Her husband followed her in an attempt to catch her and bring her back. When she reached the top of the tree, the woman jumped to the floor and the vine broke her fall. She then taunted her husband, saying that he was too cowardly to perform the jump himself. With no vine around his ankle, the husband threw himself after her, only to fall to his death.
The event has been reconstructed ever since as the islanders build a tower and then jump from it as a means of providing their bravery and warding off evil spirits, including that of the husband who plummeted to his demise. It is believed that a successful Yam harvest can only be achieved if the ritual takes place.
Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club
In the 1970s, the first footage of land diving surfaced around the world. A copy of the footage got into the hands of the Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club – a group of people based in Oxford and London. These were some of the early pioneers of extreme sports and in fact they coined the word ‘bungee’ in reference to their first attempts to emulate land diving.
In 1979 members of the club visited the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol where they carried out the first successful bungee jump. However, it was seen very much as a niche activity that the club confined to its own members. The club itself had a policy of dressing in rather aristocratic dress and there was an element of elitism surrounding the group. It wasn’t until bungee jumping made its way to New Zealand that the sport gained notoriety around the world.
While the Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club may have invented the concept of bungee jumping as a pleasurable activity, it was then that A.J. Hackett and some of his friends who took it to the mainstream. Hackett and his cameraman Chris Sigglekow had seen the footage of the land diving in Vanuatu and had learned about the Club’s experimental jumps and they were keen to attempt it themselves.
Creating a stretchy elastic cord they performed their first jump from the Greenhithe Bridge in Auckland in 1986. The jump went exactly as planned and the two enjoyed the rush so much that they vowed to attempt higher jumps. Roping in other friends, they visited several other bridges in New Zealand before heading to Europe.
During this time they moved away from the system of using a parachute harness (which meant they jumped feet first) or an ankle-tie, allowing them to jump head first. A run-in with the authorities in New Zealand led to the police contacting Television New Zealand to put out a story warning people not to jump from bridges. However, this actually acted as publicity for Hackett and got people interested in the idea.
Bungee had captured the imagination of the public and Hackett saw this an opportunity to explore the idea further. He attracted even more media attention when he managed to illegally bungee from the Eiffel Tower.
Hackett opened the world’s first commercial bungee jump site in 1988 in Ohakune, before finally setting up a permanent operation at Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown. Today Queenstown is known as a hub of extreme sports in New Zealand and attracts over 500,000 visitors a year.
Bungee or Bungy?
It is interesting that there is no definitive agreement on whether the correct spelling of the word is ‘bungee’ or ‘bungy’. It is generally considered that Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club first created the term and their spelling was ‘bungee’. But in New Zealand, where the sports was popularised and commercialised, ‘bungy’ is the preferred spelling.
It’s usually considered that both spellings are acceptable, although in the UK and much of the world, ‘bungee’ is the usual way.
By Sara Bryant, independent content writer who consulted UK experience day specialist Into the Blue over some of the information contained