Queenstown bungy stalwart off to Russia

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Queenstown’s connection to Russia’s massive AJ Hackett-branded bungy, swing and flying fox project just got stronger. 

Kiwi bungy king AJ Hackett – who co-founded the global phenomenon in Queenstown – has appointed former veteran local bungy boss Graham Whorskey to run his Sochi operation, opening in June. 

Hackett says Whorskey’s operational and management background “take a lot more pressure off us as a group”. 

The Russian venture called AJ Hackett Sky Park and four years in the making includes 200m and 65m bungy jumps, a double-ended flying fox and the world’s largest swing. 

The larger bungy, the world’s second biggest, is from a pod halfway along the world’s highest and longest suspended pedestrian walkway. 

“It’s bigger than Ben Hur, that thing,” Whorskey says when catching up with Hackett last week in Queenstown. 

“It’s a fantastic project on a scale we’ve never seen before in bungy.” 

Whorskey, who’s waiting on a visa to start work in Russia early next month, isn’t sure how he’ll handle the language barrier till he arrives: “All of the normal things that crop up in the course of the business here will crop up there – and I can’t speak the language.” 

Hackett says: “Graham will have a full-time PA running around with him for the whole language thing. Key Russian staff will have to speak and in some cases read and write in English. 

“Even though probably 98 per cent of our customers will be Russian, we just need to know what’s going on, and if they’ve got problems we can help resolve them quickly in our language.” 

The project in Sochi, home of the Winter Olympics, sprang from a heliskiing visit to Queenstown by Hackett’s partner and Russian investor Dima Fedin. 

Hackett: “He went out to Nevis and jumped off it and thought, ‘wow, I really like this, one of these could go quite well in my village’.” 

Fedin – whose family owned the Sochi ski area till the Government bought it for the Olympics – contacted Hackett asking him to meet him in Russia. 

Hackett, in Switzerland at the time, told Fedin he was too busy but asked if they could meet in France.
“He said, ‘yeah, I’ve got a house in Chamonix’, and I was like, ‘f…, I just live around the corner’.” 

After the two skied together, Fedin showed Hackett his plans. 

“I’m thinking, ‘[the design’s] a bit Russian, not particularly pretty, I think we can go a bit better than that’.” 

Subsequently, one of Russia’s top architects was employed to design the adventure park. 

Hackett also flew in Christchurch engineer Arthur Tyndall, who’s helped Hackett’s NZ bungy structures, and local bungy whizz Geoff Wilson. 

Another local whizz, Graeme Morgan, left for Russia this week to help the installation team. 

Whorskey envisages more opportunities for other staff employed on Queenstowner Henry van Asch’s AJ Hackett-branded New Zealand sites, even for short stints overseas. 

“From their point of view, they’re saying ‘We don’t want you coming down here stealing our staff but if you liaise with us we’re happy to let some of even our senior guys go and do a bit of a sabbatical onto some of the offshore sites’. 

“Traditionally, Queenstown has been the training ground for jumpmasters – the most popular sites in the world are here. 

“It’s actually the mindset of the crews that come out from this type of environment. It’s not just customer service – Kiwis trained in NZ just get it. You’ll say I want you to crawl out there once a week and make sure that pulley is inspected and they will do it.”