Posted by: Tommy | January 11, 2011

Jumping off a cliff…over, and over, and over

I jumped off a cliff 6 times today.

We’re in Livingstone, Zambia – gateway to Victoria Falls.  After 3 intense travel days – Tofo-Maputo, Maputo-Jo’burg (again on the Intercape bus, still with no A/C), then a flight to Livingstone from Jo’burg.  We really needed a break – the craziness that was Mozambique, plus not sleeping well for almost 2 weeks, had left Anna and I both tired and cranky.  Luckily, Zambia is the perfect cure for that.  We took Wednesday (the 5th) off, doing some laundry, watching some downloaded movies on the laptop and making a store run.  In the afternoon, we leafed through the “Adventure Zambia” brochure at the hostel and picked out a few activities.

Adventure activities are always expensive in my opinion; hundreds of dollars for what usually amounts to a few seconds of thrill.  It makes sense – there’s a ton of safety gear, specialized training and a niche market involved.  Still, usually I end up opting out of “adventure sports” because of the high costs.  Give me a frisbee for $5 and I’m good, sportswise.

But in Zambia- where the unit of currency is the Kwatcha, valued at 4700 to the dollar – adventure sports are reasonable.  So today found us doing something to hadn’t yet experienced on our trip – jumping off a cliff.  For only $95 each, we were allowed a full day to do whatever we wanted at Abseil Zambia.  There are 3 options – the Flying Fox, the abseil/rap jump, and the Gorge Swing.

Abseil Zambia is based on the side of a gorge about 10 kilometers from Victoria Falls.  There’s a little water in the bottom of the gorge, but for the most part it’s dry and filled with trees.  The cliff face is over 200 ft. from top to bottom and the gorge is quite wide.

A truck picked us up at 8:30, then stopped at 2 more places to pick up other adventurers along the way to the gorge.  We met Ellie and Mel, 2 18 yr. old British girls teaching in Namibia for a year and Kristen, a Danish woman of 40 or so who had booked a half-day package, rather than the full day.  The 5 of us made up the entire group for Abseil Zambia – perfect.  Small, so there’s not much waiting.  Large enough that Anna or I didn’t have to go first every time we wanted to jump.

We arrived around 9:15 and were given a safety briefing.  All of the guys, native Zambians, were extremely professional and remained so for the entire day.  It’s really a comfort, when you’re doing something crazy, to have professionals guiding the way.  It was also a distinct change from Mozambique and one of the reasons we are so fond of Zambia right now.  After the safety briefing, the 5 of us headed to the abseil launch area.

Abseil is also known as rappelling, something I’ve never done.  And yet, because I was the only guy, I was elected to go first.  So I was strapped into a harness, ropes were tied to me and I was encouraged to start jumping down the cliff. I took little baby steps, clinching the rope tightly with my gloved hands.  After only a few feet, the rope was seriously burning my hands.  I spent the entire 200 ft. trip trying to weigh my certainty that I was going to plummet to my doom with the intense pain in my hands.  Not exactly the beginning I was looking for, since I had already paid to spend 8 hours here.  I know that 8th grade girls routinely rappel at T Bar M ranch near San Marcos, but not down 200 feet, and not in Zambia.  Anna, of course, followed right after me and zipped down the line, jumping off the wall a total of 5 times (I took about 80 small steps to get down) and landing gracefully next to me.  Ellie, Mel and Kristen saved my dignity, as each of them struggled down in much the same fashion as I did.


After the abseil, we had to walk half an hour, down a path and up a long staircase to get out of the gorge.  The brochure we’d read advertised that “your jumps are limited only by how many times you can climb out of the gorge”.  They weren’t kidding.  The sun was blazing and the stairs were steep.

The next activity was the Flying Fox, aka zipline.  The difference between the Flying Fox and the zipline is that, in the Flying Fox, you are strapped in by your butt and you Superman-jump off the platform.  On a zipline, you hold onto a handle, with a harness around your waist in a sitting position.  The Flying Fox was a lot of fun.  Since I had gone first before, Anna volunteered to start off the Flying Fox.  There wasn’t much to it – get strapped in, run along the wire, then leap off head first.  Sounds simple, in theory.  Actually willing yourself to leap off a cliff is another thing, entirely.  On Anna’s first try, the crew member ran with her and gave her a big push at the edge…she was jumping, but not wholeheartedly.

On her next attempt, she was visibly more confident, running full speed to the edge and flinging herself off.  Seeing how much fun she’d had, everyone else was able to jump off without any help, though the second jump was always braver than the first. The Flying Fox was also nice because you don’t drop into the gorge.  You move out more or less horizontally, then a crew member reels you in.  No walking!

On the Flying Fox

After the Flying Fox came the moment we’d all been dreading/looking forward to.  The gorge swing.  Kristen was on the half-day package and her time was almost up, so the guys made her go first.  She strapped into the safety back-up harness, then the much larger regular harness.  The guys led her to the edge, near the giant swing rope.  Then she took one giant step and she was gone.  Holy crap!  It was terrifying to watch her do it, knowing my turn was coming.

I was tabbed to go last this time.  I watched Ellie, Mel and then Anna each fall off the edge until I was alone with the crew.  As I went through the final safety check and approached the edge, I could look down – 200+ feet down – and see the 4 girls waiting for me, thrilled, knowing they’d come through no worse for wear.  I couldn’t back out now.  I stared straight ahead at the other side of the cliff, refusing to look down as the main crewman counted down…3.2.1.  Giant step.  Then absolute terror.  In the 3.5 seconds of free fall before I ran out of rope, a million thoughts went through my head.  At the last moment, I realized I’d pulled my body away from the rope, the exact action I’d been told would give me whiplash.  I pulled the rope close just as I reached the end and started to swing out.  Whoooooo!

Anna, losing her head at the Gorge Swing

Not only did I not die, but now I’m zipping through the air, well above the trees.  I can look out and see part of the Zambezi river, flowing through a part of the canyon well down from where we are.  It takes a minute or two to lose momentum and stop swinging before I can be lowered to the ground.  The harness cuts into my legs and I try to pull up on the rope, but it doesn’t really matter.  I’m high on adrenaline and nothing else registers.

We all climb 15 minutes back to the beginning- rap jump.  Rap jump is basically a crazy, inverted version of the abseil.  We’re descending the same section of cliff face, but this time we’ll be going face first.  The abseil scared the heck out of the the first time, when I couldn’t look down and wasn’t worried about landing on my head.  How would I handle this?

It turns out, much better.  Now that I’d jumped off a cliff face first on the Flying Fox and survived a 53 meter drop into the gorge, rappelling down the cliff was much easier – it was fun.  The walk back up the gorge was not.  The sun was scorching and the rappelling cliff is at the far end from the staircase.  After a nice lunch of pasta, cole slaw and salad, we asked to take another turn on the Flying Fox (no climbing).

No problem.  We all strapped into our harnesses and took turns leaping off the cliff, each going 2 more times.  We were definitely bolder – Ellie and Mel took turns posing as ballerinas and superheroes, Anna definitely hit full speed during her jump and I took the camera with me, taking some straight-down photos while dangling from the wire.

After the Flying Fox, it was time for another round of Gorge Swing.  Inexplicably, we wanted to repeat the terrifying free fall that we’d all been so happy to have survived only hours before.  Anna decided she’d rather drink a beer and watch than jump and then have to climb back up, so Ellie, Mel and I were strapped in to our harnesses.  Ellie and Mel wanted to do a tandem jump – both tied to the rope at the same time, and tied together, headfirst and with your feet bound so you don’t kick each other – so I was up first.

And this time, it wasn’t nearly as bad.  It was fun from the beginning; I could really enjoy the freefall and feel the swing catch me and zip me out across the open space.  As I dangled there, waiting to be lowered, I couldn’t wait to race to the top and do it again.  I waited at the bottom long enough to watch the girls do their tandem swing – looked fun – then raced off down the path to the stairs.

Oh man, it was hot and there were so many stairs.  I had a stitch in my side and was breathing hard when I finally made it back to the gorge swing platform.  The guys harnessed me up quickly – my swing would be the last for the day, then they could all go home.  As I was walking up to the platform to jump, my leg was aching from the abrupt pull of the harness, my side was still hurting and I couldn’t remember why I was in such a hurry to jump again.  I took one look over the side and announced that I was good, I didn’t need to jump again.

Before I could change my mind, the leader called to the crew that we were done and everyone started packing up.  Anna brought me a beer as I slipped out of the harnesses.  If I hadn’t jumped from the gorge swing, I would really regret it.  But having done it twice already, I didn’t need to kill myself just to squeeze every drop of “value” out of the experience.  Today was a great day – easily one of the 10 best we’ve had on our trip.  We finished it up by playing some cards on the deck at the hostel, taking care to drink our daily ration of tonic water to keep the mosquitoes away, flavored with a little vodka, just for taste of course.

We have a couple of great videos of the Flying Fox and the Gorge Swing, plus some more pictures of this crazy day on the Flickr page.  I can’t figure out how to load the videos here without using youtube, so go here to check them out.

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  1. Anna – the photo of you running to do the Flying Fox reminded me of you jumping off the boat into Lake Ray Hubbard as a toddler (with life jacket, of course). A dare devil from way back when…Love, Aunt Shelley

  2. Glad you’re having fun with this-I’m not nearly that brave!

  3. Your Mom and Dad were at Lindsay’s and Travis’s wedding and Sally told me about your travels. So interesting!!! Love it. P.S. I told Jerry I would be telling you stories about his teenage years. Roxie

    • Roxie,

      Hi! Hope you enjoy the blog – we enjoy the trip….waiting for the stories. 🙂


  4. So Anna was the master repeller. Who would have guessed? This is the kind of activity, like the sky diving over the Alps, that a Mom doesn’t really want to know about in advance. What a kick!

  5. […] Gorge Swing, Livingstone, Zambia – Another experience that makes the list because it was on the actual show.  We also thought about a Fear Factor section that would feature the Gorge Swing, but nothing else came close to this for sheer terror.  And exhilaration, mostly when you realized that you didn’t die. Freefall at the Victoria Falls Gorge Swing […]

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