Port Elizabeth and Storms River, South Africa

All the South Africans I’ve met have given the same advice about their country:  don’t miss the Garden Route, a stretch of coastline between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth that encompasses some of South Africa’s most beautiful scenery.  The entire area is highly geared towards tourism, and at stops along the route you can participate in just about every outdoor and adventure-travel activity imaginable.

I flew from Johannesburg straight to Port Elizabeth, where I bought a ticket for something called Baz Bus – a service that drives along the Garden Route daily and lets you hop on and off at any town.  I spent an uneventful day wandering around Port Elizabeth before jumping on a Baz Bus headed west.

 

Port Elizabeth Beach

 

Port Elizabeth Surfers

 

The bus dropped me off at Storms River, a small town surrounded by parks and nature reserves.  Just east of Storms River is the Bloukrans Bridge, which at 216 meters is the highest single-span arch bridge in the word.  Bloukrans Bridge also happens to offer what they advertise as the highest bungee jump in the world (although technically it’s only the highest bungee bridge in the world; the highest bungee jump of any kind is apparently in Macau).

 

Ad for Bloukrans Bridge

 

Bloukrans Bridge

 

Someone Jumping from the Bloukrans Bridge

 

I’ve been skydiving a couple times but I’d never bungee-jumped.  For some reason the thought of bungee jumping scares me more than skydiving.  In a plane, you’re so far up that the height seems unreal, I think, but that’s definitely not the case with bungee jumping…  Looking down from the edge of a bridge, the height seems extremely real.  Regardless, I’d been wanting to give it a try, and what better place for a first jump than Bloukrans Bridge?

That afternoon I joined a group of about 20 other jumpers, most of them young Germans.  To get to the center of the bridge we marched single-file along a narrow catwalk with a metal-mesh floor that let us look straight down into the dramatic river gorge below our feet.  When we reached the jump site the crew gave us a short safety speech before cranking up loud hip-hop music and encouraging us to dance.  Uh…  Huh?  I took a pass on the dancing, but the young Germans were all over it.

The routine at the jump site was fascinating.  I began to see that everything about it, including the dance music, was carefully designed to move the process along and reduce the odds of someone balking at the moment of truth.  Despite the outwardly casual atmosphere, the whole operation was as regimented and methodical as an assembly line.  When my turn came, someone wrapped up my ankles, wished me a safe flight, and helped me hop towards the edge of the bridge.

People sometimes talk about the phenomenon of time slowing down at particularly intense moments, but right before and during my jump I experienced the opposite – everything happened in a fast-forward blur.  As the countdown started, I remember being concerned that I hadn’t been able to watch the bungee cord being attached to my ankles.  How could I be sure they hadn’t forgotten?  Three, two, one…  I could barely hear the countdown over the thumping bass.  When I no longer felt anyone supporting my outstretched arms, I assumed it must be time to jump.  All I had to do was lean forward.  What an amazing rush – so much speed so quickly!

 

Rob’s Bungee Jump from the Bloukrans Bridge (Video)

 

Rob Jumping from the Bloukrans Bridge

 

On the Way Down

 

Sensory overload.  I struggled to take it all in.  The adrenalin-fed thrill of the initial freefall was followed by at least four bounces, blue sky replacing the gorge in my field of vision as I reached the weightless apex of each arc.  My ankle binding felt loose.  Was it slipping off?  My mind raced, euphoric and overwhelmed.  A crew member appeared beside me.  He clipped a carabiner to my harness and began hauling me back up.  “Hey, some of the guys on the bridge will sell you a section of the bungee cord you used,” he said.  “Are you interested?”  What?  Are people especially vulnerable to a sales pitch for some lame souvenir while they’re still basically in shock, dangling six hundred feet above a rocky gorge?

 

Happily in Shock after the Jump

 

I spent the next day walking around the Tsitsikamma area of Garden Route National Park.  After checking out the suspension bridge over the mouth of the Storms River, I hiked along a short stretch of the Otter Trail.  The full Otter Trail takes five days to complete and is supposedly one of the most beautiful hikes in Africa, but I planned to turn back at a waterfall only a few kilometers from my starting point.

 

Storms River Suspension Bridge

 

Looking Back from the Mouth of Storms River

 

Rocky Shore along the Otter Trail

 

Jumping off a bridge had been perfectly safe, but walking along a well-worn trail turned out to be hazardous.  Moving more quickly than my limited coordination could handle, I tripped on a root and slammed face-down into the ground.  It happened so quickly I wasn’t able to prevent my camera, which had been in my right hand, from also taking a bad spill.  The camera survived intact, but a rock sheared off a wide strip of skin from my one of my shins.  Lesson learned, I slowed down and managed to stay on my feet the rest of the way.

 

Tsitsikamma Waterfall

 

Garden Route National Park Shoreline

 

Rough Hiking Trail

 

Evil-Looking Rock Dassie

 

I hopped back on the Baz Bus the next day.  It can be strangely difficult for me to leave one of the towns I visit on this trip, regardless of whether or not my time there has been particularly memorable.  I find myself wondering what it would be like to just stay.  Even more powerfully, I sometimes imagine I’ve already lived my entire life there, and the artificial memories created by those fantasies inspire a ghostly sense of nostalgia as I prepare to move on to my next destination.