Travel: The Tamalie legacy 

Plunging with Whistler Bungee

Tamalie had no way of knowing, the poor, splattered bastard. Legend has it he got scrappy with his wife, a spat of the type quarrelsome lovers pursued in Bunlap, a Vanuatu village on Pentecost Island in the Pacific. All kitty-like, the wife climbed a tree for solitude, which Tamalie decided to disrupt via a visit to the branches. The wife, who is unnamed in the legend, made to jump, probably because Tamaile swore nothing happened, that chick in the reedy skirt is just a friend and they were only cracking coconuts. Whatever the reason, jump she did, and Tamalie, his heart asunder and hut unkempt, followed suit, plunging to his death while his wife dangled from vines she tied to her ankles.

Scandalous.

But impressive. So much so, the men of the village, fearful they might land in similar peril, began practicing the vine jump. So stoked where they on the thrill of it all that they made the thing customary. They called it land diving, involved elders and inadvertently gave birth to modern bungee jumping.

Since then, people have thrown themselves from air balloons thousands of feet in the air, bounced off the Eiffel Tower and started commercial practices in tourist meccas like Whistler.

Whistler Bungee is a family business managed by Matt van der Horst. A curly haired chap from Port Moody, he’s tossed himself into the ether some 500 times. The business has been kicking for seven years, and van der Horst has been on the vine for the last six.

“The first jump I did was on Boxing Day of 2002,” he says. “It was snowing hard, and it was windy. There was a bunch of people, and it was awesome. The first jump is the best because you don’t know what to expect.”

Neither did Richard Stevenson, my vertically challenged sidekick in endeavours of participatory journalism. A pansy of the highest order, he wouldn’t go first, which left the honours to me, a pansy of barely less distinction.

Composed of putty, my brain had been moulded to accept bungee jumping as face-first from-the-ankles affair, and that’s what I opted for. The staff at Whistler Bungee are agents of tasteful sarcasm with nerves of galvanized steel. Accordingly, they strapped and clipped me into the harness, ankle holds and bungee cord, all the while spouting casual commentary that did little to quell my fears — which is not their fault, but rather a symptom of my sometimes cowardly nature.

Then I walked out onto the platform to cast my eyes about the Cheakamus Canyon in search of some point of solace. But solace, like life, is hard to figure when it lies 160 feet below your toes. And so I was warned not to stand and soak up the fear for too long, lest my nerves collapse like a third world economy. Enter the five count.

I don’t really remember what happened. Pictures show me forming some sort of dive-like posture, presumably on five. I look scared and awkward, my hands made of wire, my knees trying to turn around in their sockets and bend my legs all the way home for a good cry in the shower. Nothing doing, so I jumped anyway because I’m cool like that.

Impossible to describe the pleasure of pure, electric panic. Weightless, a servant to gravity, mind bending like a noodle travelling via interstellar overdrive, arms flailing, seeing everything and nothing and then suddenly, gently, bouncing upwards again, ribs sticking out of my mouth as my heart tried to escape through the top of my head. And then peace, deep and lasting, my insides re-sculpted by the humble hands of conquered fear.

Stevenson next. Red hair dishevelled and face a portrait of uncertainty, he opted for a backwards leap. It’s an interesting strategy: On the one hand, you don’t have to stare into the canyon, don’t have to fathom the river wild and how your corpse might smash and burst off rock formations jutting above the surface; on the other hand, you have to jump backwards, which feels like closing your eyes while driving.

Despite his sometimes raging pansyism, Stevenson occasionally reveals a heavy sac full of atoms splitting in perpetuity. On his birthday, I poured water on his feet and watched him stagger drunkenly across a bed of hot coals in Upper Squamish Valley. Perched on the bridge in a state of full commitment, he let loose this war cry and hurled himself backwards, looking like he might over-rotate into a back flip. But he didn’t, not completely, just plunged downwards and bounced around like a sentient piñata.

“It was thrilling,” he said later. “It felt like the adrenaline rush I’d been looking for for a while, which I’d been missing for a bit. I feel like I already want more. It’s always a feeling of more. But that day I felt really humbled. There was a greater expanse in the universe than just myself. It put me in a euphoric kind of mood that day. It also kind of helped to have something good to eat and some sex afterwards.”

We each went once more, me backwards and him by the ankles. During it all, Stevenson developed a platonic crush on the staff. Call it a spin-off of Stockholm syndrome, a not so complicated emotion you might experience after forcing your well-being into the hands of strangers.

And rightly so, for those hands are indeed capable. See, despite the fearful implications of hucking your could-be carcass into a massive void, it’s important to remember that bungee jumping is safe. For his part, van der Horst thinks the drive home is more of a deathtrap. And, given the recent rock slide, which killed no one but certainly could have, the man chalks up quite the point.

As for Tamalie, whose death makes him the sport’s patron saint, there’s a lesson to be learned. Make sure you’re strapped in before you jump. It says something to that effect on the waiver, and, really, it’s only sensible.

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