By Nigel M. Nassar
I don’t know about you, but there’s something nostalgic about Jinja City that keeps beckoning me over. Some sort of calming and grounding effect I can’t seem to shake off, so much so I always find the flimsiest excuse to somehow find myself in this rather laid-back heritage city that is also home to the source of the Nile.
It’s just as well that I am not alone in this. A friend who is equally possessed by the so-called “Jinja spirit” will, for the umpteenth time, hit the two-hour highway from Kampala to the eastern Uganda city just to go eat some ‘rolex’ chapatti he claims is made in some special way.
On another occasion, it will be to have another look at some medieval European and Asian-style architectural marvels that dot the city as the footprint of colonial era and Asians’ earliest activity in Uganda. Some of these buildings are really dilapidated, but the stories they tell are something of documentaries and books.
Speaking of dilapidated, there is a house there that you should see – Idi Amin lived in it. Trust me when I say it has character written all over it. But that’s a story for another day.
Plus, the Jinja War Memorial, built by the colonial government in 1945 in memory of the Ugandans who lost their lives fighting alongside British soldiers in the first and second World Wars, will be the other thing to write home about here, among other historical structures.
The other day I gave in again to the Jinja spirit, but this time for bungee jumping. For those not familiar with this, it’s an entirely daredevil recreational activity in the extreme sports category, and tourists with the knack for fringe stuff love it.
You literally jump from a high erection that could be a building, a crane, or a tower; with your feet tied to an elastic cord that suspends you mid-air and prevents you from making impact with the surface below. After you jump, you could be lifted back up to the platform using pulleys, or you could be lowered down gently to recipients who are part of the bungee crew.
It’s a go-to activity the world-over, and popular bungee locations in Africa include the Orlando Towers bungee and the Bloukrans Bridge bungee, both in South Africa, the Victoria Falls bungee in Zimbabwe, the Rapids Camp Sagana bungee in Kenya, and the Nile High Bungee in Jinja, Uganda, among others.
Four years since bungee jumping in Jinja halted due to some challenges met by the previous operator, adrenaline junkies like myself can now take the leap of faith over the Nile River again, following a recent resumption of the extreme tourist activity.
I ached to go back here for another jump after my 2011 introduction to bungee on the same tower left me adrenaline-pumped and longing, but operations had ceased in May 2017. So you can imagine the excitement when Bungee Uganda, the new operator, resurrected it last month.
Little wonder that I was among the jumpers at the launch on October 24, as part of the media and tour operators invited to experience the activity and include it in their destination marketing portfolio for Uganda moving forward.
Located at Kimaka right behind the Jinja Nile Resort, Bungee Uganda sits on a green campsite at the edge of the Nile River about a 10-minute drive from the Jinja City Centre.
The bungee tower hovering over the Nile stands out as your welcome to one of the world’s most dreaded-yet-loved recreational extreme sports.
In fact, if you arrive here between 9:00am and 6:00pm on any day of the week, part of your welcome could be prospective jumpers making their way up the tower and others being kitted for the jump. My team, which included my wife and kids, and journalists Moses Serugo and Steven Odeke, got a similar welcome.
It was the loud countdown from five by the jump master, to a visibly shaken prospective jumper, amidst loud cheering from onlookers nudging the prospective jumper to “go, go, go”, and others chanting pep talk, “You can do it, you can do it…” We joined in the pep talk. She didn’t jump.
I call them prospective jumpers because as exciting as it appears from down looking up, it’s a totally different ball game up there on the plank, which stands majestically above the waters of the Nile between 38 and 44 metres high, depending on the water levels.
By comparison, the Macau Tower bungee in China at 233 metres high, and the Bloukrans Bridge bungee in South Africa at 216 metres high, currently hold the record for highest bungee jumps in the world.
People do change their minds after making a full payment and going all the way up the bungee tower and seeing firsthand how low they will be dropping. So you are a jumper only after taking the leap.
At Bungee Uganda, Ugandans pay sh200,000, and those from the rest of East Africa $100 (about sh360,000). Others pay $115 (about sh415,000). These payments are non-refundable once you make an attempt, which basically means you have been processed through the system and reached the platform even though you have probably not taken the jump.
They also have a tandem jump option if you want to jump as a couple. My wife freaked out on this one last minute upon seeing how high the tower stood. Ditto my journalism mentor Serugo, and Odeke
I am a daredevil, so for me, there is no going up the plank and not jumping. Weirdly though, it is scary every time. Not that I have done it many times – this was only my second, which came 10 years after my first. So you understand when I say it felt like a first-time experience.
But first things first; make sure you are in perfect health before going for the jump. People with heart complications and back problems are discouraged from doing the jump, unless it is sanctioned by a doctor.
Because you are in freefall through space for what might feel like an eternity for inexperienced jumpers, a healthy heart is a must. Also, because the yanking at your legs by the elastic cord engages the springing capability of the spinal cord, you shouldn’t have back problems when setting out to do the bungee.
After the jump, some may develop mild dizziness, slight backache and negligible muscle pains, but all these wear off in a few minutes.
In fact, part of being processed for the jump includes signing a document indemnifying your rights to sue the operator in case of any complications or unforeseen incidents during and/or after the jump.
This notwithstanding, all bungee operators worldwide emphasise safety first, and severe bungee accidents remain extremely low. According to healthresearchfunding.org, only 18 fatalities resulting from bungee jumping have been reported between 1986 and 2002, and that the probability of having an accident while bungee-jumping is 1:500,000.
So, you can take heart and take the leap of faith; it’s safe. Worldwide, the general minimum weight for a jumper is between 35kg and 40kg, while the maximum stands at around 145kg to 150kg. Once your weight has been taken, it enables the crew to calculate the length of the cord for your jump, preventing you from hitting the surface below.
But for the bungee in Jinja, seeing as the surface below is water, one is asked to choose beforehand if they want to touch or kiss the waters of the Nile, or not. Many prefer the touch, as it’s a fad among tourists touching or kissing the surface of the longest river in the world from a drop.
Should you choose to touch or kiss the water, prepare for either that, or even a dip that could go all the way from your head up to the waist, in which case a change of clothes will be required.
I planned to scream all the way down as a way of calming my nerves, so I chose not to touch or kiss the water for fear I might end up swallowing some. Besides, I didn’t want to have to change clothes in case I got a dip instead.
The other tip to help with calming the nerves is never looking down when up on the diving plank. Just keep your gaze straight up ahead of you and lunge out as though you are diving into a swimming pool. Then, nudge yourself further forward like you would to increase speed, as opposed to holding back, which feels like your heart is leaving your body.
This, coupled with screaming loudly, helps you to let go, and that’s when the fun part begins. Plummeting down to gravity at breakneck speed through that stillness is so scary and yet exciting.
It gives you that liberating feeling, as though you are floating but not quite. For a moment, you feel like you have conquered the world of birds, except that you are flying without wings.
Seeing as I went for the ankle harness, which makes it feel like you are not harnessed at all, the free fall is even more daring and fulfilling, as opposed to the full-body harness.
By the time you feel the tugging of the cord at your ankles, which means you have dropped to your last low, you have already got used to no help, so much so you are not expecting rescue. Actually, the harness surprised me when it engaged.
With the body harness, you somehow expect rescue because you can feel its hug as you drop. You might want to start with the body harness style if you are less daring. Whichever harness style you choose, the first drop is the scariest, and then the cord yanks you back-and-forth several times before you are lowered gently into a waiting boat.
The thing with bungee jumping is that whether you have done it before or not, that moment up there on the diving plank is a rather lonely and quiet one, despite the background noise by onlookers cheering you on. It’s a solo mission you even wonder why you are taking, and yet you really want to take it because at the end of it all, it’s about the thrill of taking charge and conquering your fears. This is the same feeling seasoned jumper Nick Steers expressed.
“I have done it countless times in different parts of the world, but it is scary every time, which is why I do it. Why would I do it at all if it didn’t scare me?” he said. Steers was the day’s jump master on the day of my jump.
He operates the platform with two other bungee consultants: Mathew Lawrence and Jeremy Cahoon; all three of whom from the Canada-based Bungee Consultants International, which boasts bungee consultancy experience since 1991.
The thing with bungee jumping is that whether you have done it before or not, that moment up there on the diving plank is a rather lonely and quiet one, despite the background noise by onlookers cheering you on. It’s a solo mission you even wonder why you are taking, and yet you really want to take it because at the end of it all, it’s about the thrill of taking charge and conquering your fear
The three, alongside four other Ugandan bungee assistants, run a tight ship processing prospective jumpers through the system right from payments, signing indemnity forms, weight measurements, kitting, jump-assisting, all the way to receiving those done with the jump in the waiting boat.
I liked that they give you all the information you need, boost your morale, and also double-check their knots while kitting you.
They also have a tandem jump option if you want to jump as a couple. My wife freaked out on this one last minute upon seeing how high the tower stood. Ditto my journalism mentor Serugo, and Odeke. You can’t blame them; this stuff is not for the faint-hearted. It is literally a leap of faith – letting go and letting God!
As much as I can attempt to explain the feeling, the only way one really gets to understand it is getting up on that plank and lunging out into the abyss. It’s doable.