As a self-styled gonzo traveller, I've swallowed my share of thrills. Sandboarding in Nicaragua, spelunking in Hungary, spearfishing in New Caledonia — it's enough to make you think I'd enjoy jumping headfirst off the lip of a 764-foot TV tower. To be honest, the world's highest commercial bungee jump held as much appeal as playing Russian roulette with a fully loaded revolver. For there are gung-ho hardcore adrenaline junkies in this world, and then there are humble adventurers who do these things simply because the opportunity arises. On seeing Macau Tower, my knees jackhammering each other, I couldn't stand the thought of forever wondering if I shoulda-coulda-woulda. I just had to take the leap and risk it all, here in the world's biggest gambling centre.
Along with Hong Kong, Macau is considered a Special Administrative Region (SAR) in China. What this means is that both SARs belong to the same communist club, but follow a different set of rules. While the Chinese love to gamble, it is illegal to do so on the mainland. Not so on Macau. A 45-minute ferry ride from the business behemoth of Hong Kong, Macau has now surpassed even Vegas in gambling receipts. With the introduction of billions of dollars of foreign investment — largely Vegas-style casino developments — this formerly quiet, one-time Portuguese colony is booming. Macau's old town still maintains its European charm (complete with 17th century fortresses and churches) and has even been named a UNESCO Heritage Site. But scattered throughout the region are glitzy casinos beaming neon into the night sky.
The Wynn is a spectacular riot of colour, the Grand Lisboa straight out of a science-fiction movie, and the recently opened Venetian is now the world's biggest casino. With over a billion people on the mainland to support the boom, no wonder gambling moguls are looking east and dreaming big.
Hong Kong real estate tycoon Stanley Ho is one such mogul. He was so inspired by New Zealand's Auckland Tower that he decided Macau needed a sky-scraping landmark of its own. Built over four years and opened in December 2001, the Macau Tower is one of the world's tallest freestanding structures, 338 metres at its highest point, with a slick viewing deck to gaze out over the construction bubble.
But I'm not here to enjoy the view. There's a bungee cord here with my name on it. New Zealander AJ Hackett is widely credited as having introduced bungee jumping to the masses in the late 1980s, both as a pioneer jumper and entrepreneur. His operation is the brain (or lunatic if you prefer) behind turning a TV tower into an urban playground. For the less adventurous, the Skywalk allows you to walk around the outer rim of the tower, attached to a harness connected to an overhead rail. It's a feat I attempted, running around the outside of the tower like a kid on a merry-go-round.
Opened in December 2006, Hackett's Macau Tower is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's highest commercial jump, beating out South Africa's Bloukrans Bridge. It claims to use the most advanced technology yet, but tugged towards the edge by the heavy 50-metre bungee, I may as well be connected to a strand of dental floss. My sphincter could crush a diamond. There is no gentle way to hurl headfirst towards concrete at 200km/hr, a four to five second freefall, before rebounding and doing much of it all over again.
The dreaded countdown begins, and then everything else is a blur. There's too much stimulation to bother with screaming. I'd say my life rushed before my eyes, but the only thing rushing was the ground to my cranium. Just as I shut my eyes and braced for impact, the bungee recoils gently, shooting me back up towards the platform. It only takes the mind a few seconds to gather its wits, and the last place you want that to happen is suspended at the top of the recoil, just in time to plunge once more. This time I scar my throat with screaming until finally, at last, the bounce settles, and I find myself upside down, talking to the camcorder duct taped to my hand. I use the word insane. A lot.
After the dangling stops, I'm lowered onto a giant air mattress. It feels as if all the blood in my body has rushed to my head, and I can't decide if I feel horror or pure happiness. No matter how many chips the casinos rakes in, survival will always be the ultimate jackpot.
If you go
Several ferries run every day from Hong Kong to Macau, a 4-min trip.
Adventure activities are open every day from 1 1 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., although due to wind you can only bungee between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. The Tower offers packages for all its activities, including DVDs, photos, T-shirts and certificates. AJ Hackett's worldwide operations claim to have never had a single fatality.
Vancouver-based travel writer Robin Esrock hosts
Word Travels (CityTV/OLN) and is the author of the upcoming book, The Great Canadian Bucket List. You can find him at: www.robinesrock.com