“AJ? It’s the guy on the backhoe over there by the parking lot. » Reading the abundant literature devoted to Alan John Hackett, known as “AJ”, the New Zealander who invented the bungee, the English name for elastic, we did not expect to meet him in a suit and tie. But from there to finding him at the controls of such a machine, there is a step that this 63-year-old man explains in a big burst of laughter. “We New Zealanders were farmers isolated from the world, we couldn’t rely on anyone, we had to fend for ourselves. They call us the “number 8 wire”, it means that we can repair everything with an iron wire of section 8, that’s what I have done all my life”, he says on the Souleuvre site, a bridge built by Gustave Eiffel then abandoned, before he made it in 1990 the most important jumping site in France.
A tuxedo jump from the Eiffel Tower
Eiffel-Hackett, these two names will remain linked in the history of sport, since it was the iron lady who in 1987 offered the young Kiwi the opportunity to show his know-how to the world. “We had been jumping with friends in New Zealand for a few months when we did this obviously unauthorized jump. We hid in the tower at night and I jumped in a tuxedo, it was gone”, says the one who had experienced the hospitality of the French heights at the Caille bridge, in Haute-Savoie, where this former member of the New Zealand speed ski team had his habits.
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Left ? Not really: the New York security services of the Statue of Liberty, the new media target of the small team of jolly fellows who surrounded her, were more efficient and the FBI less sensitive to Kiwi humor. The case ended in an eviction. “It broke the mood. I found myself at home in 1988 in the New Zealand mountains, the small ski shop that I had set up with a friend did not earn a penny. Then my associate proposed to me the idea of selling rubber bands and supervising jumps, it worked. »
Beginning of extreme sport
Accompanied by the partner and the young French wife of AJ, the former speed skier then settled in a caravan in Queenstown in the South Island, near a bridge which is still one of the sites principals of what was to become the AJ Hackett Company. “It was the beginning of extreme outdoor sport. For us New Zealanders, it’s second nature, but the world has joined us in these delusions, ” he says. Then comes the Souleuvre, the second permanent site installed from 1990 and still in operation today.
The images of the installation of the platform on the decrepit bridge, broadcast in Hackett, Her Majesty of the Extremea documentary broadcast by the channel trekking, give an idea of the adventure. We see teenagers in shorts, harnessed to ropes to recover structural parts brought by helicopter.
Not a serious accident after 4 million jumps
“Be careful, we seem cool like that, but we’ve never compromised with safety, we’ve done more than 4 million jumps in thirty-five years and we haven’t had a serious accident, two or three times we had a problem, including once here in Normandy (1) but no serious injuries, hammers this handyman who leaves nothing to chance. Everything is calculated to the millimeter. It’s true, it’s impressive to make people jump from more than 200 m high sometimes, like on our site in Macao, but in reality there is no risk. The only risk for us is that the person is too scared to jump, but that’s rare. »
In thirty-five years of experience, AJ Hackett has not added much to the bungee technology, directly inspired by a traditional jump in the Vanuatu Islands, except the countdown to the jump. “Counting from 5 to 0, it allows the person to focus on the count more than on fear, it’s very simple but it changes everything. The limit of this sport is not physical but mental, almost everyone can jump, it only happens in the head. »
“What I’m most proud of, in the end, is not having built a great company, but having given all those who have jumped a better idea of themselves, everyone is afraid, but we are so proud to have dominated it. Man is on earth to live happily and to the full, isn’t he? », he philosophizes. Before returning to his digger.
Originally an initiation rite
Discovered by thrill-seeking Oxford students in the early 1980s, the bungee (“elastic” in English, editor’s note) originated on the Pacific islands of Vanuatu (former New Hebrides). Jumping was an initiation rite for young men, who had to jump from a bamboo tower with their feet fettered by a vine. The English adventure was cut short following a fatal accident and was taken over by AJ Hackett, who first launched in 1986 from a 20-metre high bridge in New Zealand, before move quickly to greater heights.