How Safe Is Bungee?
How Safe Is Bungee?
Senior management of the Victoria Falls Bungee Company granted Zambezi Traveller an exclusive interview after the widely reported bungee accident. I spent a couple hours at the Victoria Falls Bridge, high over the Zambezi River, with Allen Roberts (Director), Garth Fowler (General Manager), Sonja Clay (Marketing Manager) and Hosiah Mudzingwa (Operations Manager). To my dismay, I found I had just missed seeing Bear Grylls take a jump!
On 31st December 2011 a client from Australia plunged into the Zambezi River after her bungee cord snapped. She very soon became an international celebrity, while the media had a field day; crocodile infested river (not exactly true in the gorges below the Falls!), famous location, approaching rapids, video footage of the event and most importantly a survivor who could tell the tale.
ZT: First and foremost, how is the client?
Allen Roberts: We are in regular contact with her and the good news is that she is recovering well. Her lungs are still sore due to water inhalation, but from all accounts all is going well and she is due to start a new job soon. Her courage and calmness from the minute the cord snapped must be commended, she is a very together young lady.
ZT: What impact did this have on your business?
AR - We were closed for 22 days whilst investigations were taking place. But this was not an option; this was the first accident since we started operating 17 years ago so we needed to find out why it happened and to do whatever was needed to make sure it does not happen again.
In terms of PR, I am sure that there has been a negative impact, but surprisingly enough we had continued requests to jump, even immediately after the event. Since we reopened business has been brisk, you have just missed Bear Grylls taking his jump.
We are also grateful for the support that we have had from the Zambian tourism authorities. The Honourable Minister came and jumped from the bridge just a few days after the incident to show solidarity and support for our product that has run safely for so many years, and we are very grateful to him for that.
ZT: All over the world there are many adrenalin activities that have had serious accidents, but the hype around this has been huge, why do you think that is?
AR: All the activities on this bridge including bungee are among the safest activities that you can do. This incident received attention because there was instant video footage that soon went world-wide and most importantly there was a survivor that could be interviewed. It was a compelling story and thankfully one with a happy ending.
ZT: How are people briefed before they jump?
Garth Fowler: We are very clear and highlight the potential risks that are involved with taking part in these activities. We brief clients on how to jump safely and what to do in the unlikely event that something does go wrong.
AR: After this incident we are taking things to another level. There are currently no official standards for bungee jumping in either Zimbabwe or Zambia so we have always used the New Zealand Code of Practice which is very thorough. Now we are working on setting even higher standards. Our primary focus is to ensure that this never happens again, so we are taking even more stringent checks and balances on all equipment, and on the participants.
ZT: The broken cord was sent for forensic testing. What were the results?
AR: Obviously our primary concern was to find out what went wrong. We sent the broken cord to a specialized Structural Engineering company in SA which is run by a team of Professors from Wits University. They carried out extensive testing on the cord and found that the rubber was weaker than it should have been. The conclusion is that it is this that caused the failure. This is something we are discussing with our supplier but in the mean time, and to ensure that we can all have complete confidence in the bungee cords, we are now having the rubber independently tested at regular intervals to ensure that a similar failure cannot happen again. The good news is that the rubber we are now using is very strong and indications are that our new cords have a breaking strain in excess of 2 tones so they are completely safe.
ZT: I know that you have introduced some new safety measures since the incident; can you tell me about those?
AR: Well the first thing is the independent testing of the rubber which I have already spoken about. That’s critical and confirms that the rubber is of the required strength and elasticity.
The second thing is that once the cords are being used, we subject them to a load test after every 20 jumps where we stretch the bungee cord to a predetermined length and measure the force that the cord is applying to the load cell. The load cell reading tells us what condition the cord is in and is an early warning system should there be any undue wear or damage to a cord.
Thirdly we have implemented periodic cord inspections where we remove the outer binding of the cord which allows us to see exactly what the condition of the cord is inside. If there is any damage or wear to the cord then we will see it when we do this inspection.
We also inspect the cord before and after every jump throughout the day and twice a year we are independently audited by an organization that inspects the safety of critical equipment for oil rig workers, crane workers and other professionals working at height – they thoroughly inspect our operation to check our equipment, safety standards and procedures and report accordingly. This has just happened and we have passed with a 100% clean bill of health. We are also working with the Zambian Bureau of Standards to set up a set Code of practice for Bungee Jumping for Zambia.
ZT: Who makes the bungee cords that you use?
We make our own bungee cords. We buy the rubber in a raw form, it comes in long extruded belts and each belt consists of forty individual threads lightly joined together. We then make up cords according to certain specifications that match jumper weights. We have detailed safety procedures in place for cord make-up. The staff are very experienced and there are numerous checks and balances.
ZT: How many people have bungee jumped since the accident?
Sonja Clay: Well over 500, including Bear Grylls!
ZT: I have to ask all of you – do you jump?
Hosiah Mudzingwa: At least one member of our crew jumps every day. The first jump of the day is done by a member of staff to check that everything is good to go.
Garth Fowler: I jump as often as I can, I love it.
ZT: What have you all gained from this experience?
AR: The silver lining is that as a result of what happened there has never been a safer time to bungee jump at Victoria Falls. The new standards, tests and inspections we have implemented are probably setting a new standard for the activity world wide. It’s great to think that we are pioneering techniques that can make bungee jumping safer for everyone
ZT: Bungee Jumping isn’t all you do is it?
Garth Fowler: That’s right, bungee was our first activity but in recent years we have added a Bridge Swing, which most of our clients tell us is even more exciting than the bungee. Then we have the Bridge Slide or “foofy” slide as some people call it, which is great for the less adventurous and for families. Then we also have a Bridge Tour which is a great experience for families and tourists with an interest in the history of the area. Our Visitor Centre tells all about how the bridge was build in 1905, it’s a fantastic story. Infact for any visitor coming to the area we would say you have to visit the bridge; there really is something for everyone.
ZT: Finally, what would you say to anyone thinking of doing a bungee jump at Victoria Falls?
Garth Fowler: We would say see you at the bridge, because there has never been a safer or better time to bungee jump off the famous Victoria Falls Bridge.
Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 08, March 2012)
Read more about the region in our destination guide:
Zambezi Traveller Directory:
Victoria Falls Bungee