As Erin Langworthy stood atop a 360-foot high platform, about to bungee jump for the first time in her life, she couldn’t help but think, “What am I doing, throwing myself off a perfectly good bridge?” She dismissed the thought, certain her brain was just trying to talk her out of the experience of a lifetime. As it turned out, she should have listened to her gut.
After celebrating her college graduation, Australian native Erin Langworthy decided to take a well-deserved vacation. Though she was fully prepared to jump into the working world, one last hurrah in Zambia, Africa, sounded like the perfect way to cap off her years of study.
Erin traveled alone, but she joined a tour group that planned events for participants. When she checked the group’s itinerary, she was delighted to see bungee jumping on the docket. She always had an adventurous spirit and bungee jumping in Africa was about as adventurous as something could be!
Digging into the details, Erin saw the jump would take place over the Zambezi River — the one between Zambia and Zimbabwe — near Victoria Falls, from a bridge 364 feet over a gorge of unforgiving waters. Admittedly, she was a little nervous.
But she knew bungee jumping was done all over the world, with hundreds of jumps per day at the Zambezi River alone. The odds of something bad happening were astronomically low. Still, the thought was in the back of her mind the day before her jump.
Maybe that was why, when filling out a postcard for her mom, she made a dark joke: “I’m doing a bungee jump tomorrow,” she wrote. “So I’ll say goodbye… only joking!” Neither of them knew just how serious that joke would become.
The following day, Erin made her way to the bridge. As she beat back the butterflies in her stomach, she looked down into the waters she’d be bungee jumping over… and saw crocodiles. She swallowed hard, nervous, but determined.
When it was her turn to jump, she stood on the platform as the professionals tied her ankles to the bungee cord, reminding her the “rope” would hold, just as it’d done countless time before. Ready for a thrill, she stifled her worry and jumped.
Gravity took control, and Erin sped down toward the rough waters. “I was caught up in the moment, and simply spread my arms and fell forwards,” she wrote. “Everything sped by in a blue-green blur. The rush was amazing.” Then, she felt a jolt.
Her descent slowed for a moment, but a second later, she sped up again, falling, falling, falling towards the water. She didn’t know that something had gone horribly wrong until she made a splash.
Everyone along the bridge was in shock. The bungee cord had, in fact, remained tied around Erin’s ankles — just as the worker had assured — but because of the wear-and-tear from hundreds using the cord before her, it snapped.
In the water, Erin instinctively locked her arms together and threw them over her head, protecting herself as best as she could. Thanks to her terrific instincts, her head was guarded, and she didn’t black out. The rough waters still took a toll on her body.
The sound of the bubbles blasted her ears as she was whipped around by the water. The air knocked from her in the fall, she could barely breathe. Heroes were rushing to her rescue, but they were some distance away. Erin was on her own.
The 30-foot long fragment of bungee cord was still tied tightly around Erin’s ankles and kept catching between the rocks. Using as much strength as she could muster, she dove into the water to free the snagged rope. In the back of her mind was the crocodile she saw.
Finally she wrenched the rope free, but by that time, she could barely breathe, and the world was going dark. On the move, she slid her arms between two rocks along the side of the river and held on dearly as help arrived.
As she held on to the rocks, a man from the bungee company grabbed the harness Erin was wearing and pulled her out of the water. Finally freed, Erin was exhausted and freezing until the man gave her his shirt to keep her warm.
As she coughed the river water out of her lungs, Erin noticed the purple bruises covering her body. Everything had happened so quickly that she never had a chance to take it all in. Laying by the river, Erin struggled to process her near-death experience.
While Erin coped with the trauma of her near-death, her condition was worsening. She needed emergency help as soon as possible, but because she landed on the wrong side of the river, there were delays due to political concerns.
Because the Zambezi River lay along the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, and Erin was pulled out from the rapids on the Zimbabwe side of the border, she was prevented from receiving immediate help: She had no Zimbabwe passport.
From the moment Erin was pulled to land, it took 5 hours to get her to a hospital. X-rays showed no broken bones, but her lungs had partially collapsed. After speaking with doctors and taking a large dose of antibiotics, Erin was visited by the bungee jumping company.
Bungee workers assured her that, from that point on, they’d be adding extra measurements to ensure the same terrifying experience never happened to another traveler. Meanwhile, Erin’s condition worsened.
As her health declined, Erin had to be flown to South Africa, where she could receive more medical help. Friends she’d made in Zambia visited her there, returning all the stuff she had to leave behind. She was ready for the adventure to be over.
Erin returned to Australia two weeks later and re-united with her friends and family (though her mom had joined her in South Africa). She held no ill will toward bungee jumping, though she did become more vocal about the risks of traveling, especially to certain parts of Africa where things operate very differently.
One of Erin’s favorite actresses, Ashley Judd, was actually the one who first inspired for to adventure to Africa. Judd habitually visits the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to study the endangered bonobo ape population. Strangely only a few months after Erin’s incident, Judd had a first-hand experience of the continent’s more brutal side.
On her twice-annual research trips to the DRC, Judd visits a local camp for several weeks to a month at a time. The lessons she learned strengthen the fire of her activism. However, in all the time she’s spent learning about the Congolese, the jungle, and its animals, she always returned to the US safely. This time in early 2021 was different.
At 4:30 in the morning, Judd walked with two expert trackers into the rainforest searching for the bonobo. As they headed through the dark of the jungle with only the dim light of Ashley’s headlamp, everything took a turn. While the men noticed an object blocking their path, Ashley hadn’t seen the trouble until it was too late.
Ashley tripped over a tree on the path and slammed onto the rainforest floor. Immediately, everyone knew her right leg was severely broken. It was an urgent situation, Judd needed medical attention STAT. But as she wept in pain, she knew emergency healthcare wasn’t available.
Medical resources in the DRC, particularly where Judd was deep in the rainforest, were scarce. Judd laid on the earth, unable to move, trying to cope with the pain. One of the trackers ran for help, while the other stayed by her side. After five excruciating hours of waiting, several men came through the brush to facilitate what was about to be a lengthy rescue.
In place of pain killers, Judd bit down on a stick as her rescuers came onto the scene. Before she could be moved, however, they had to brace her leg. One rescuer, Papa Jean, worked carefully to adjust the broken bones into place, fashioning a makeshift brace to hold everything together. Next, they lifted Judd up and through the jungle, beginning their hours-long journey towards help.
Judd was carried through the jungle in a hammock for a three-hour trek. After that, there was a six-hour motorbike ride to South Africa to reach the closest hospital. It felt like an impossible journey, and despite her best efforts, Judd was in bad shape on the bike, unable to hold herself up.
To stay on the motorbike, Judd sat facing backward between two of her rescuers. Whenever she was about to pass out, Didier, the driver, called for her to stay awake. Judd’s friend Maradona rode at the very back of the motorbike and propped up her leg. To distract from the pain as well as their own discomfort, they maintained playful conversation to pass the six hours by, something Judd won’t ever forget.
Finally, they reached their destination, Sunninghill Hospital in Johannesburg, and it wasn’t a moment too soon. By the time they arrived, Judd’s leg had no pulse, and she was still bleeding internally. Although it was a miracle she was still alive, the nurses and doctors made many split-second decisions to avoid amputating Judd’s leg, or worse.
While Judd had an intensive road of recovery ahead of her, she was lucky to keep her limb. She received a blood transfusion to replace all that she’d lost. Then, an external fixator was constructed around her leg to hold it together, which, unfortunately, had to remain on her leg until it healed further.
There wasn’t much more that could be done for Judd except to wait. The damage to her leg’s tissue was so intense that doctors couldn’t safely proceed with the surgery just yet. No, Judd had to recover a bit before going under the knife. While she healed, Judd was overcome with immense gratitude to all who helped her, so she decided to take action.
Judd reached out to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof from the hospital room, telling him she wanted to share her story and highlight the need for improved healthcare in the DRC. They spoke virtually over an Instagram Live stream, where Ashley recounted the catastrophic ordeal.
After hearing the details of Judd’s accident, Kristof said she’d obviously went through “an awful lot of pain.” Judd agreed, then added that primarily the experience left her with a broadened perspective of her own privilege, “I guess I would say I’m in a lot of love. I’m in a lot of compassion and I’m in a lot of gratitude.”
As she explained to Kristof, “The difference between a Congolese person and me is disaster insurance that allowed me 55 hours after my accident to get to an operating table in South Africa.” She continues to explain how things could’ve gone differently if she were someone else.
Judd confessed, her status as a famous actor is what saved her leg and probably her life. In an Instagram post, she thanked everyone who cared for her, including her father. Judd explained how her dad jumped on a plane immediately after receiving the most frightening text any parent could get from their child: “emergency, can’t answer questions, please come now.”
Since Judd’s accident coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, there were many more complications, including travel restrictions. Though, as her father was fully vaccinated, he was allowed to make the 22-hour flight to South Africa in order to be by Ashley’s side.
Judd’s father handled everything, from talking with doctors to mild foot rubs to ease her anxiety while her leg tissues continued to heal. But, there was still the obstacle of her surgery to tackle. The medical staff at Sunninghill Hospital helped her recover enough to be discharged to travel to the US for surgery. Four different flights and about 22 hours later, Judd reached her final hospital stay.
Even after arriving in the US, Judd’s leg tissue had to heal more before they went ahead with the surgery. Eventually, they cleared her for an 8–hour operation to repair the bones, decompress a hemorrhaging nerve, and pick shards of bones out of the nerve. In the final hours of what had been a many weeks-long ordeal, her worried family got the news: the surgery was a success.
At the end of her recovery journey, Judd again shared her gratitude for the top-notch care she received. The Judds stepped up to continue the healing process, yep, that’s her sister Wynonna washing her hair, and she began physical therapy. Thanks to her status and resources, she was going to be okay, an unavoidable truth that fueled her to speak out.
Judd wrote in her Instagram post, “Let us always remember those without insurance. Let us remember those who do not have choices. Let us remember those who are lonely and afraid.” Judd’s gratitude to the people of the DRC isn’t just her verbal thanks, she’s promised that once she has recovered she is heading right back to continue her work conservancy work for the bonobo apes.
Even from her hospital bed Ashley spent a good portion of her time explaining to the press the reason she was in the Congo in the first place. “We get up about 3:30 am to walk for a few hours to arrive at where the bonobos nested in treetops the night before. Sometimes I’ve had to wade rivers in the dark, up to my waist, barefoot, as part of the treck!” Ashely explained.
She highlights that the bonobos are not like other primates, they are extremely unique, and unfortunately, extremely endangered. When you watch their huge, hulking forms swing from tree branch to tree branch in between intermittent bouts of bug-picking, it can be hard to believe that we are actually so closer related to bonobos on a genealogical level.
The bonobos haven’t been studied nearly as much as chimps, and according to Judd, our lack of understanding is only endangering their population further. One conservation in Iowa, oddly enough, is aiming to change that. They have a bonobo there named Kanzi who is blowing researchers minds with his special ability.
Kanzi is 35 years old male Bonobo who has lived at the Des Moines, Iowa Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative since birth. The initiative develops and accomplishes projects to help great apes all over the world, but in the meantime, they work with Kanzi on some behavioral lessons. In other words, they try and teach Kanzi to do things like a human would.
The organization’s work with Kanzi has been nothing short of spectacular. Now, he has all the makings of a world class Boy Scout! He can gather kindling, coax a flame, and roast a marshmallow so easily it might make you burn with envy. Somehow, though, that isn’t even his most impressive talent…
But first, how did Kanzi take his first steps towards the metaphorical cooking merit badge? According to Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh of ACCI, Kanzi “used to watch the film Quest For Fire when he was very young, which was about early man struggling to control fire. He watched it spellbound over and over hundreds of times.”
And now, “Kanzi makes fire because he wants to,” Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh said. Hopefully they won’t be dealing with a future arsonist at the initiative! Thus far, Kanzi just likes cooking marshmallows—though cameras have also spied him roasting hamburgers in a pan.
When Kanzi is all done with the fire—and after he’s eaten his ‘mallows—he even knows to pour some water on the flame until it’s extinguished. That’s enough to make Smokey the Bear shed a single, prideful tear. Still, Kanzi has another talent, one that far exceeds his penchant for fire safety and inhaling roasted marshmallows.
When Kanzi was a baby, bonobo ape psychologists tried to teach his mother to use a keyboard. Unfortunately, they failed miserably. What they had succeeded in, however, was speaking loudly and clearly enough so that little Kanzi—who was always nearby, probably watching Quest for Fire—could overhear and pick up the lessons himself.
Now Kanzi understands enough English words to fill a tiny dictionary (about 3,000) and can point to symbols that communicate back to humans. He can’t talk, but he can take directions better than even most well-behaved children.
To prove it, in one popular YouTube video, Kanzi sat with an instructor who wore a mask over her face so he couldn’t just read her lips. The instructor said, “Kanzi, could you cut the onions with your knife?” and he did! Well, he did his best, anyway.
Kanzi may have had a lifetime of training to learn these impressive skills, but it just goes to show how intelligent bonobos really are. As Ashley says, “It has been my privilege and honor to follow bonobos in the Congolese rainforest, and learn from their unique way of life.” They are truly incredible animals.