Taking the leap

Written by: Rachel Licciardello | April 1, 2019

AJ Hackett is regarded as The Godfather of adventure tourism in New Zealand, putting New Zealand on the map as the adventure capital of the world. He’s certainly The Godfather of modern bungy jumping, delivering adrenaline rushes to the masses over the past 31 years. With his Cairns site about to receive a thrilling new attraction, we chat to AJ about the birth of modern bungy jumping and how a failing business led to the creation of commercial bungy.

For many bungy virgins, strapping a rubber cord to your ankles and jumping head-first towards the ground tens (or even hundreds!) of metres below might seem insane, suicidal even. It’s high, it’s fast and it takes great mental strength to overcome the strong, natural survival instinct not to jump. But, New Zealand native AJ Hackett has made a business out of it. And quite a successful one at that. 

The majority of people who bungy jump today do so through AJ Hackett sites around the world – New Zealand, Australia, France, Russia, China and Singapore. The reason? Other than AJ being the public face of bungy, the man who brought it to the world, the AJ Hackett bungy brand has an impeccable safety record of more than four million jumps, with zero deaths or serious injuries.

For AJ, safety has always been paramount. Even since his first jump, he’s been drawn to the risk and the rush, but he doesn’t have a death wish. “The reason, I think, we’ve been so successful commercially and with safety is that it’s just been at the absolute forefront,” says AJ, whose branded sites jump close to 140,000 people each year. “It has to be fun, and it has to be safe, and if it’s not either of those we don’t do it.” 

Today, AJ owns AJ Hackett International which encompasses all sites excluding New Zealand, has 500 employees and a $30 million-a-year turnover. And still, AJ is the ‘guinea pig’ to take the first jump for any new jumps or heights – after a test weight, of course.

In 1979, the Oxford Dangerous Sports Club made the first known modern bungy jump, launching off a bridge in Bristol, using a parachute harness, before taking to bridges in the US. These jumps inspired a New Zealand video editor and thrill-seeker by the name of Chris Skigglekow to attempt his own jumps. After his failed attempts, Chris asked AJ to assist. AJ was intrigued, and the pair decided that if they could make the activity safe and predictable, they would go for it. They consulted the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and discovered a mathematical formula for the bungy cord rubber.

They discovered a strand of rubber cord would snap at 6.7-times its length, but at 4-times its length it would only use 15% of its breaking strain. All AJ and Chris needed to know was the height of the bridge to work out the right (and safe) length for the cord. In 1986, Chris and AJ put the formula to the test. Using their bungy cord and a modified parachute harness (which meant the original jumps were feet-first), they threw a sack of lead and rocks over the side of the Greenhithe Bridge in Auckland. It was a success! Chris went first. Then AJ. They each experienced a rush like nothing else.

The next weekend, AJ, Chris and other friends (including Henry Van Asch who would go on to co-found AJ Hackett Bungy with AJ, and to this day operates the New Zealand operations separate to AJ Hackett International which is owned and managed by AJ), set out to find higher jumps each weekend. They continued these weekend jumps for months. AJ devised an ankle-tie system, and turned the jump from feet-first into head-first.

In 1987, AJ headed to France with the NZ speed-skiing team. In his luggage was his trusty bungy cord and ankle tie, and a desire to “expand bungy through jumping off higher things and in colder conditions”. He jumped a 147m-high bridge, jumped from a cable car into snow at Tignes (“at minus 15° – that’s bloody cold!”), and then orchestrated his most public jump ever – from the Eiffel Tower. It was a clandestine operation, involving sneaking into the tower after dark and spending the night there. The jump made headlines around the world, and got him arrested. The footage of AJ, in his tailcoat, mullet and NZ accent, surrounded by French police, was the perfect launch campaign for commercial bungy.

Back in New Zealand, while running a struggling ski shop and still jumping weekends, AJ turned to bungy as a way to pay down debts. “The ski shop was losing money all the time,” recalls AJ. “I’d go away overseas and have to come back and bail it out, I’d have to put another mortgage on the house and borrow a bit of money from the bank. I was getting tired of that, so my partner convinced me to do a jump weekend, and ask people to pay to jump. At that time, it was still very personal for me; it was just mates, by private invitation. We’d illegally jump off whatever we found, you know, and it was great fun.”

On November 12, 1988, 28 people paid to jump off the historic Kawarau Bridge. “We ended up operating three-day weekends which worked really well, so we sort of tidied up a bit of the mess in the company. I went away overseas, came back about four, five months later, and it was the same problem again. So, we decided, ‘Oh, let’s just do another event, a 10-day event.’ That’s what we did. We made enough money to pay the bills, shut the business, then soon after that we set up the world’s first full-time commercial operation.”

That initial set-up in 1988 cost AJ just $1500.

To understand just how AJ got to the point of willingly hurling himself off bridges and buildings, we look to his early years. AJ, or Alan John Hackett as his birth certificate reads, grew up on the North Shore in Auckland, New Zealand. As a kid he was outdoorsy, sharing his time between scaling trees, climbing mountains and racing trolleys. His family didn’t own television until he was 14. 

It seems he inherited his thirst for adventure from his mum’s side. His mum travelled the world alone as a young woman, and her brother, AJ’s uncle, went to the Antarctic with Sir Edmund Hillary on the Trans-Antarctic Expedition in ’58.

Ever the entrepreneur, AJ’s first paying job was a paper route. “I’ve always worked, you know, from really young. I used to do a paper round from when I was about 10 years old. I’d get up every morning at about 5.30am and deliver approximately 100 papers, six days a week. I did that for about five years to earn a bit of pocket money.” How did that fare for AJ during those crisp NZ winters? “Our winters aren’t bad in Auckland. It doesn’t really get below 0°…” (collective wince from North Queenslanders who consider it ‘cold’ at 15°) “but it does get a bit wet,” explains AJ. “That would be the difficult part, trying to deliver to someone without it falling to bits in the letterbox!”

At 15, he left school for an apprenticeship and became a qualified carpenter/joiner. At the time he was also working as a lifty, and got into skiing. He moved to Perth looking for mining work, ended up selling encyclopedias door-to-door and killed it – AJ was named the Australasian encyclopedia salesman of the year 1979. “I realised, ‘Hang on, I’m actually pretty good at this, but it’s not actually what I want to do,’ explains AJ, “so, I went back to the tools, building and working in the house trade for five years, travelling around New Zealand working, and getting more serious about skiing.”

 

“Our whole thing is really about helping people to break down barriers, personal barriers.”

 

AJ’s life has been a collection of firsts, mosts, highests, and world records. In 1988, he made the first bungy jump from a building (Auckland Stock Exchange). In 1990 it was the first heli jump (380m) in France, and the first permanent heli bungy operation in the world in 1998. In 2000, AJ’s Cairns site opened the world’s biggest jungle swing. Also at Cairns in 2000, a world record was set for the most bungy jumps done in under 24 hours (505 people jumped in 12 hours). In 2015, Cairns beat its own record with 542 people jumping within 24 hours. In 2006, AJ opened the world’s highest commercial bungy of 233m at Macau Tower in China. In 2008, he opened the highest Viaduc Swing in France (61m). In 2014, AJ opened Skypark at Sochi, Russia, which includes the world’s highest swing and the world’s longest suspended pedestrian walkway.

In 2017, AJ’s Cairns site launched its award-winning, innovative photo and video system. The Cairns team engaged Silicon Valley-based company Shred Video, to help them capture high speed adventure activities in an extreme environment. The Shred system performs motion tracking on each jump, using similar technology to self-driving cars, and pulls from six cameras set up around the 50m bungy tower. From those clips the system generates one epic video, personalised with the jumper’s favourite song, all in the time it takes to read this sentence. In the age of social media, that means by the time you are back standing on solid ground, your video is in your inbox, waiting for you to post online. This clever system won AJ Hackett Cairns the 2017 TTNQ Innovation Excellence award, and was quickly implemented across all AJ Hackett International sites.

Today, bungy jumping is an activity sought out by adventurists, adrenaline-seekers and bucket-listers all over the world. For some, it takes no thought at all to commit to a jump, for others, it takes hours, days, weeks or months to prepare themselves mentally. “Only maybe 1% of our customers that sign up to jump will actually get to the top and won’t be able to,” reveals AJ. 

 “Our whole thing is really about helping people to break down barriers, personal barriers,” explains AJ. “Obviously ours are gravity-related. Many, many people have a fear of heights, you know? Bungy is the more difficult one, with the more intense rush, but there are gentler options like flying foxes and things. You push yourself, which is the bit that you’re really running from. When you get past that, that’s really our thing.”

Over the decades, the company has expanded to include other non-bungy activities, from zip lines to jungle swings, climbing walls and more, and has successfully delivered one million thrilling non-bungy experiences alongside its four million safe jumps.

At the Cairns site, which will celebrate 30 years in 2020, evolution has included the construction of a 1000-capacity amphitheatre for events, function hire from kids’ parties to stunning weddings, and regular Sunday Sessions featuring drink offers and live music. 

While Cairns has offered a locals-only deal for the past 15 years, this has recently been revamped. From April 1, for just $10/week you can jump or swing every day. AJ also gives you $10 back to spend on site each week you visit. “We’ve got exciting stuff happening in Cairns,” AJ teases, referring to a new attraction currently in the pipeline and due to open later this year. Details are still hush, but in true AJ Hackett International form, it will be a world first!

Anyone can start a business, but scaling it from a $1500 weekend hustle to a $30 million-a-year international brand is something else. AJ’s advice to fellow go-getters is: “You have to believe in what you’re actually jumping in to”. It’s not enough to be good at something, which is why he isn’t selling encyclopedias or building houses today. “Once I started to get into bungy, I knew I wanted to really commit myself and focus on adventure tourism,” says AJ. “Once you find what you believe in, you have to bloody grind though; because, business, it’s not easy.”

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