Jumping for joy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 August, 2005, 12:00am

LAUNCHING A NEW venture represents a leap of faith for any businessman, but for adventure-sport entrepreneur A.J. Hackett this rings truer than most. The 47-year-old New Zealander, who plans to launch his new Sky Jump attraction at the Macau Tower later this month, is the man who turned bungee jumping from a reckless minority pursuit into a global multimillion-dollar industry. He's also the bold opportunist who brought the activity to the attention of the world in 1987 with an audacious - and illegal - leap from the Eiffel Tower.

Since then, Hackett has set up bungee operations on four continents and convinced more than two million people to hurl themselves from lofty heights with only a piece of elasticated rope standing between them and pancake empathy. Along the way, he's propelled himself from enough towers, bridges and buildings to construct a small but lofty city. Nevertheless, he insists he's never been a rash thrillseeker and that safety is always his No1 concern.

'As much as people think I'm a bit mad - and I am a bit mad - I don't like pain,' Hackett says. 'I'm very much into managing risk. I love the challenge, but I like it to be controlled, so I surround myself with good people and we test the hell out of it until we're very comfortable. Then we do the jump. I've got three kids and there are a lot of people who rely on me, so I'm not interested in getting smashed up.'

Hackett has carried this ethos into his business ventures, taking care to finely balance the risks with the rewards. In his bungee-jumping operations, which include sites in New Zealand, Australia, Bali, Mexico, Germany, France and the US, Hackett has continually sought to improve the experience with higher and more spectacular jumps. His safety record, meanwhile, remains impeccable. His latest endeavour, however, isn't a bungee jump, but a mutation of the activity he made famous. Although it offers the opportunity to plunge earthwards from a dizzying 233-metre-high platform, the $488-a-pop attraction is aimed at people who want to experience the thrill of bungeeing without dangling upside down or turning themselves into a human yo-yo.

'People seem to feel more comfortable about a cable than they do about a rubber band,' says Hackett, referring to the Sky Jump's apparatus. 'So Sky Jump is like a cross between bungee jumping and parachuting, but it's a controlled descent. It's like falling through a drainpipe. We land you right on the target every time.'

Sky Jumpers will be attached to three cables that have a combined strain capacity of 3,000kg, which makes breaking a virtual impossibility. Two of the cables control the trajectory, ensuring a smooth drop, while the third is attached to a hi-tech winch drum and propeller that uses air resistance to control the speed of descent.

The result is a jump that slows down as you near the ground, allowing you to land evenly on your feet. Regardless of such safety measures, however, it's still a challenge for the uninitiated. 'You've still got to make that commitment,' he says. 'You've got to jump.'

Psychology is a vital component of his business. Like some sort of reverse suicide negotiator, 20 years in the bungee business has made Hackett an expert at coaxing people to throw themselves from tall ledges. 'There's a real psychological edge to how you jump people,' he says. 'If you've got a group of people waiting to jump, you get to know who's relaxed and who's scared, so you can say, 'OK, he looks relaxed so I'll take him first'. The others are usually more confident after they see someone else do it.'

One thing Hackett will never do, though, is push people off. He firmly believes that his customers must step off the ledge of their own volition, and that this is the most therapeutic part of any jump. 'Fear stops people from doing things,' he says. 'But you've got to face your fears. If you've got vertigo, then Sky Jump is the perfect medium to conquer those fears. It's safe, it's predictable, you don't have to be physically fit - it's all about the shoulders up. As long as you've got the right head space, it's cool.'

The right head space, it seems, is something Hackett has always had in abundance. Although these days it's tempered by a generous helping of nous. He admits, for example, that he would think twice before pulling a stunt such as his Eiffel Tower leap. This, is mainly due to safety concerns of a different kind, he says. 'In the US, for example, there's a lot of paranoia. I tried to jump out of the Statue of Liberty's torch about 15 years ago, but I got caught just before the jump, so it didn't happen. To illegally try to jump off the Statue of Liberty today, I'd be seriously concerned about getting shot.'

The Macau Tower venture hasn't been without its setbacks. Originally slated to open as a conventional bungee jump in April last year, the project was delayed by personnel changes in Hackett's organisation and a desire to 'take our time and get everything right'. Happily, the timing of Sky Jump's opening coincides with an upsurge in interest in Macau that has accompanied its casino boom.

'Macau in the past has been known as this funny little town on the edge of the Pearl River Delta, but now it's really growing up,' says Hackett.

Before settling on Macau, Hackett had tried to install a bungee site at the Peak, but was rejected by the Peak Tower's owners despite support from the Hong Kong Tourism Board. The issue clearly still rankles.

'The attitude in Macau is much worldlier [than in Hong Kong],' Hackett says. 'There's a more open spirit and I think in many ways you can thank Stanley Ho [Hung-sun] for that. The way Macau is run is forward-thinking. They're not so conservative.'

Sky Jump is the latest in a growing list of attractions at Macau Tower, where brave souls can also walk around a two-metre-wide catwalk on the outside of the observation deck while attached to a safety harness, or embark on a 100-metre climb to the top of the structure's mast, a hair-raising 338 metres above the ground. Depending on the success of Sky Jump, Hackett plans to install commercial bungee jumping from Macau Tower.

Although he remains a keen bungee jumper, snowboarder and skier, Hackett is more content now to be a thrill architect than a thrillseeker. 'I'm more into creating stuff that other people can get a kick out of,' he says. As a former builder, this seems appropriate. 'For me, the biggest thrill is conceptualising a new jump, building it and then getting it to work, so it actually performs as a commercial entity. While I've got happy customers, I'm happy. Of course, when we build a new jump, I'm always the first to test it.'