Bungy pioneer AJ Hackett has been in plenty of situations that could possibly have killed him, thanks to his fondness for jumping from high places attached to a piece of elastic.
Yet it was while he was driving his family on a country road two weeks ago that the Kiwi action man was sure he was about die.
AJ – who made headlines around the world in 1987 when he bungy-jumped off the Eiffel Tower – was lucky to survive the car crash which has left him confined to a wheelchair as we head into Christmas.
AJ’s wife Amanda and his three stepchildren were just north of Waipawa on their way from Wellington to their home in Hawke’s Bay, when he suddenly saw the headlights of a car driving straight at him on the wrong side of the road as it overtook a truck.
“I knew we were going to be dead in about a second, and I had to take evasive action fast,” says AJ (55).
Years of doing extreme sports have left him with razor-sharp reactions, and he instinctively swung the steering wheel of his Toyota Caldina station wagon to the left.
“But I couldn’t just drive off the road – there was a bank I didn’t want to drive into. I pulled back to the right, trying to go between the bank and the car, but the car swiped the right side of us. The next thing I knew, we’d flipped and I was hanging upside down in my seat.”
Now recuperating at the villa he shares near Cape Kidnappers with Amanda and her children Flynn (12), Lila (10) and Pearl (9), AJ can’t quite believe that his only injuries were two broken ankles and bruising.
Amanda and the kids managed to scramble out of the car unhurt, apart from bruising caused by their seat belts, but it could have been a very different story.
“If we’d hit head-on, the combined speed would have been about 190-200km, and it is pretty rare to survive something like that,” says AJ. “It was beautifully timed really – if we’d been just 20cm over, I don’t know if I’d be here now.”
The driver of the other car also survived the crash.Amanda (45), who’s been married to AJ for three years, says the first thing that went through her mind was her kids.
“When I saw the headlights, I thought, ‘Oh, my babies – can they survive this?’ And then I thought, ‘AJ is going to get us through this,’ and he did. I have huge faith in him.”
The family had just been to Queenstown to celebrate the 25th anniversary of AJ starting the world’s first commercial bungy-jumping operation with his partner Henry van Asch.
“One of the advantages of playing sport and doing things like skiing is that you learn to react quickly and you don’t think about it, you just do it,” says AJ.
While safety is paramount in his industry, there have been a few occasions when jumps haven’t quite gone to plan – and AJ was once again saved by his quick reflexes.
“I did a jump from a helicopter in Vanuatu, and it wasn’t at the right height so I hit the water. I had just enough time to get my arm across my head so it took the impact. I broke my arm, crushed some vertebrae and hurt my ribs, but it could have been worse.”
AJ admits breaking both ankles has been extremely painful and being confined to a wheelchair is frustrating.
He should have been heading to France and Russia to oversee his bungy operations there, as well as catching up with daughter Margaux (14) who lives in France. But this recovery period is actually giving him a chance to reflect.
“I’ve got time to rethink things and I know there are going to have to be changes,” says AJ, who also has two sons, Dean (23) and Jayde (18).
“I need to get a better balance between my business, family and personal life. I’m so busy – I’m never in New Zealand for longer than three weeks at a time, I’m always off around the world working on my various projects.”
He’s also enjoying their rented 10-acre property.
“I can’t do much, so it is nice to sit out on the veranda and just look out at the ocean, smell the roses in the garden and taste the apricots from the orchard.”
And Amanda is very happy to have him at home. “He’s a great patient and loves being pampered. He’s a bit fragile.”
They both hope that talking about what they’ve been through will make people drive more carefully, especially during the holiday season.
“New Zealand drivers need to be more patient,” says AJ. “I’ve done a lot of driving in Europe and noticed drivers here seem to take more risks. It’s not worth it.”