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Extreme Sports: Diving from Great Heights at the Orlando Towers in Soweto, South Africa

  • Sam Goodwin
  • 10 June 2011

As someone who, as a child, refused to climb a staircase in a Kew Gardens greenhouse due to a fear of heights, I never expected to be stepping off a suspension bridge 33 storeys above Soweto, in Johannesburg, South Africa, with nothing more than a rope secured to my waist and below me only cement.

Even after relatively mild experiences on roller coasters and other vague elevations, it took a long time for me to feel comfortable with being up really, really high. I finally had a breakthrough when I decided to attempt my first bungee jump at the age of 18, in late 1996, in Kuranda, Queensland, Australia. The adrenaline hit, and, of course, I loved it immediately.

Orlando Towers South Africa-towers

A suspension bridge connects the colourful Orlando Towers of Soweto, South Africa. The bridge was built for high-intensity vertical sports such as bungee jumping. Photo courtesy of Jen Campbell

The instructor had advised that I focus on a spot on the horizon, avoid looking down and lean forward until my balance reached the point of no return, at which time I was to bend my knees, push off and yell, “Bungee!” Rather embarrassingly, not only did I follow the latter instruction, but have continued to do so during most of my six bungee jumps since: three on the Gold Coast in Australia during 1997, two in Bali in 2008 and the Macau Tower jump in 2008 – a massive 233-metre plunge.

In 2009, I moved from London to Johannesburg to work on the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Given this was my first experience visiting Africa, let alone living there, I compiled a list of experiences I wanted to tick off before my contract ended in August 2010.

This list included a proper safari – something I never got around to doing – and, after spying the Orlando Cooling Towers during a work visit to the Soweto Derby in late 2009, another bungee jump.

A Vertical Vision

Orlando Towers was opened to adrenaline excitement in 2009 by Skyriders, a South African company established in 1988 and specialising in rope access for work, inspection and maintenance in very high or hard-to-reach areas. While Skyriders began in window-cleaning and progressed to industrial access in the 1990s, Orlando Towers was their first foray into the world of extreme sports.

Orlando Towers South Africa-elevator

The anxiety builds as adrenaline thrill-seekers are swept into a cage elevator that propels them to the top of the Orlando Towers Vertical Adventure Centre in Soweto, South Africa. Photo courtesy of Jen Campbell

Long before that, the hulking structures were the cooling towers for the Soweto Power Station from 1942 to 1998, when the coal-burning facility closed. Then, Bob Woods, a rope-access specialist and director at Skyriders, was fortunate enough to experience the stunning view from the top of the towers while conducting maintenance work. Believing that more people should be able to take part in this amazing experience, a brainwave that struck Woods in 2001 compelled him to developed the decommissioned Orlando Towers into a ‘vertical adventure centre’.

The years that followed were filled with discussions and negotiations with the people of Soweto, as well as local councils, engineers, builders and the Johannesburg Property Company. In 2005, preliminary plans for the Orlando Ekhava Precinct were presented, with the comprehensive Orlando Towers Vertical Adventure Centre project approved in 2007.

At the end of 2007, a lease was signed; development began soon after. By July 2008, a lift tower was installed and the site officially opened. In order to develop the vertical adventure component, a bridging platform between the two towers was raised 100 metres from the ground (three metres from the top of the towers) and secured in place for the ‘World’s First Bungee Jump Between Two Cooling Towers’. Fittingly, the first leap was made by Bob Woods.

Orlando Towers South Africa-hanging

Hanging around at the Orlando Towers of Soweto, South Africa, bungee jumpers and giant swingers wait to be lifted to a launch platform 100 metres above the ground. Photo courtesy of Jen Campbell

Today, Orlando Towers offers a number of adrenaline-pumping experiences, including the 100-metre bungee, a swing from the centre of the suspension bridge resulting in a 40-metre free fall, and a swing into one of the cooling towers. Beyond these thrills there are also rap jumping, base jumping, abseiling and a zip line. The centre even offers rock climbing and paint balling, and the suspension bridge itself is an excellent viewing platform from which to take in the seemingly endless panorama of Soweto.

A Flying Leap

In August 2010, only weeks before I was due to head back to London, I realised I’d ticked very few things off my to-do list. No safari. No bungee jump. Then, two people I had met at the Soweto Derby back in 2009 suggested we tackle Orlando Towers as a celebratory wrap-up after the World Cup.

When I arrived, I was surprised at how simple and laid-back the setup was. Despite being very professionally qualified and approved, the staff were all very relaxed about the experience. Instead of my usual bungee experience, I therefore elected to try something new to me – the giant swing – and was outfitted with a harness, something specific to the swing experience.

At first we waited at the foot of the tower, watching the group before us throw themselves into gravity’s embrace from 100 metres above. This increased the anticipation, and perhaps the apprehension too, but given past experiences and my love of bungee I was desperate to give it my go.

Orlando Towers South Africa-swing

In Soweto, South Africa, the swing at Orlando Towers is an adrenaline-packed alternative to bungee, which is also available. Choose your thrill. Photo courtesy of Jen Campbell

When it was our turn we were given a quick briefing and bundled into the open-air rickety-feeling lift riveted to the exterior of one of the towers. The staff played on this fact by tweaking the speed of the elevator halfway up the tower (50 metres above the ground) to make the entire lift shudder. It also didn’t help that the lift hugged the shape of the tower, meaning you began by leaning slightly against it, and finished by dangling off it.

At the top, the walkways to the suspension bridge allowed us to look into the massive tower. We worked our way around to the launch platform and waited for the first of our group to bungee. It took a lot of coaxing, and a few moments of considering turning back, but she eventually leapt. The second group member completed her bungee jump too, and then I was strapped on to the swing rope.

The swing does not involve walking out onto the bridge, as with the bungee, but instead begins on a platform attached to one of the towers from where you try to fly from one tower to the other. Once you’re attached to the rope, the weight of the rope itself practically drags you to the edge. Unlike a bungee, where you’re told to lean into it and fall headfirst, the swing involves taking a long stride off the 100-metre-high platform and then free-falling for 40 metres before the rope pulls taught and drags you into a massive swing toward the other tower.

Orlando Towers South Africa-free falling

Free-falling 40 metres from a 100-metre platform between the Orlando Towers in Soweto, South Africa, is a powerful swing experience. Photo courtesy of Jen Campbell

It was far more stomach-churning than a bungee jump, feeling much more like the floor had been removed from under my feet and I was simply falling to the ground below. I’d certainly recommend it to anyone who has previously bungeed and is interested in putting a new spin on it.

Although I missed out on a few things while I lived in South Africa, I certainly do intend to go back and take part in a safari. I also hope to experience the world’s highest bridge bungee: 216 metres from Bloukrans Bridge!

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Sam Goodwin

Sam Goodwin currently lives in London, where he works in event branding. Sam has previously lived and worked in Australia, Indonesia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and South Africa, and enjoys exploring the world especially to discover new heights from which to jump and new depths into which to dive. Conveniently, he often manages to tie this in with wherever his works sends him.
Sam Goodwin
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adventure travel, Africa, architecture & landmarks, cities, personal experience, South Africa, Southern Africa, sports, traveller tale, WHL Group newsletter,

One Response to “Extreme Sports: Diving from Great Heights at the Orlando Towers in Soweto, South Africa”

  1. Ah, the Soweto Towers – your photos brought back memories of my homestay there back in 2005. Nice to see that the setting that once was so tragic (yet led to so much hope and finally to triumph over apartheid) is now the scene for such “free”-spirited fun.

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