It was the leap seen round the world.
When bungy jumping co-founder AJ Hackett threw himself off France’s Eiffel Tower in June, 1987, he captured the imagination of the planet.
Decades later, the bungy craze he helped start still is – more than three million people have put faith in giant elastic bands and thrown themselves off ledges at AJ Hackett Bungy and AJ International commercial sites in
Queenstown, Auckland, Australia, Macau, France, Indonesia and soon Sochi, Russia.
Hackett, whose daring stunt on French soil saw him briefly detained by Parisian police, would later describe it in Mountain Scene as “one small step for man yet a bloody great leap for adventure tourism”.
Now in his early 50s, the man known universally as AJ, still relishes the memory and proud response back home where two years earlier French spies had blown up Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland, killing an on-board photographer.
“Kiwis really embraced it because they saw it as ‘now we’re equal: you guys sunk the Rainbow Warrior – and we’ve jumped off your bloody tower’.”
By the end of the following year, after rigorous testing of bungy cords and their jump system, Hackett and fellow Kiwi co-founder Henry van Asch decided public jumps were a goer.
The pair, who’d become ski mates in Wanaka, had the perfect spot in mind – and decided to site the world’s first commercial bungy above the stunning Kawarau River at Queenstown’s Kawarau Bridge.
It required permission from the Department of Conservation (DoC) which gave them short-term permits to use the dilapidated suspension bridge. Part of the deal saw the pair immediately putting money – $5 a jump – into a fund to restore it.
Van Asch credits DoC official the late Brian Ahern for being open to bungy: “He was good, he said ‘I don’t know anything about (bungy), but they’re telling me what they’ve done and they’re going to show us a live demo of what they can do with weights before they subject any human bodies to any risk, which presumably is going to be themselves first’.
“He kind of took it all on board and we were probably quite lucky he was able to understand it,” Van Asch says.
Whilst priding themselves on their professional approach, Hackett recalls the odd thing being a bit loose at the start – like his first jump on opening day.
“[DoC] gave us permission on the Thursday, and we got the apron and the skillsaw out and were still building the jump decks on the Saturday morning we were opening. We didn’t have time to measure the bridge.
“We just took the height off the sign – it said it was 44 metres. We didn’t realise the water went up and down metres every year – so for the opening I dived out and got a really big water touch – and realised it wasn’t 44.”
The company jumped 28 people on that first day and by night would be promoting the activity at Eichardt’s pub in town.
Two weeks later they upped the ante and organised a trip to jump off the higher Skippers Bridge in Skippers Canyon.
This time they didn’t rely on a sign stating a height of 90 metres for Skipper’s Bridge, which turned out to be 72m.
Van Asch recalls: “Luckily we measured it otherwise we’d have been dead, or someone would have been – probably AJ.”
The first Skippers trip involved chopper flights in for clients, later treated to a gourmet barbecue lunch and French champagne, now a Hackett bungy tradition when doing firsts.
Van Asch says momentum built very quickly from their local beginnings – fuelled by lots of media attention.
“Within the first three months we probably had 15 or 20 TV crews come down. This got the word out globally and it was like ‘This is happening, these guys are serious, they’re doing it safely, people are loving it and it’s going to be world famous’ – and within a year it was.”
It was a busy time – and competitors started to emerge from everywhere, including one rival crew wanting to crash the Kawarau Bridge party from the other end.
Van Asch, Hackett and their crew moved quickly, mainly concerned about safety, lobbying DoC not to give rivals permission at the site. They also had an official bungy safety code written and signed off by authorities, ensuring others had to stick to it. It didn’t stop competitors, but it made everybody safe, Van Asch says, adding:
“But they still weren’t the originals, they still weren’t as good as we were – and they didn’t have the spirit of it.”
Since then, the growth has been as startling as it’s been progressive – what started with a bus for an office and a 43-metre jump off a run-down bridge in Gibbston spawned multiple local jump sites plus one off the harbour bridge in Auckland, giant swings locally, more recently a Kawarau Bridge zipride and a group of global sites run by Hackett, following the pair’s commercial split in 1997.
Van Asch says quickly injecting professionalism across the safety, marketing and finance aspects of the business has been key.
“At any one of those stages, we could have stumbled…and it never would have happened.”
By way of example, Van Asch says they carefully managed media from the get go, with Hackett fronting interviews to deliver three key messages – it was safe, they were the originals, and people were going to love it.
“AJ would be in front of the camera, he’s a great talker, fantastic guy to work with…I’d be behind the camera.
And if it wasn’t quite right we’d say we didn’t quite get the message right, let’s just re-run that question.
“We were really clear that we need to be accurate in the messages we got out.
“It wasn’t really contrived but we managed it and we knew it was going to be good for us, good for Queenstown and realised quite quickly it was going to be great for NZ.
Van Asch adds: “And 25 years down the track, bungy has still maintained its aura of excitement and satisfaction. It’s high adventure with safety.
“It’s perceived to be dangerous so subsequently it’s very exciting for people but we’re able to perform it in a safe manner.
“And that’s really the core of what we do, that’s what cracked it in the beginning – how to do this crazy thing safely.”