Bridge jump has rookie diving for cover in hot pools
On a sweltering Sunday afternoon, three young Maori boys and a big, lanky Pakeha are sitting on the edge of a busy bridge on the outskirts of Te Puke.
The boys are about to plummet into the river six or seven metres below. The big, lanky Pakeha is not so sure.
Why do Bay of Plenty kids feel the need to hurl themselves from cliffs, waterfalls and bridges? How high is too high? And how can this possibly be more appealing than an Xbox 360?
I am determined to hunt down the answers - even if it means leaping from absurd heights to find them.
At the Te Awanui Drive bridge I meet David, a bulky, bearded, singleted jumper who, according to reports from a kid further along the railing, is "the man at doing bombs".
David tells me how Mount Maunganui's Salisbury Wharf, now strictly off-limits to swimmers and divers, was once a popular launching pad for bridge jumpers. "I used to do all sorts of stuff from there ... flips, bombs, jumps ... but they all started moaning ..."
I look past my toes to see a dog paddling in the green water. It's high tide and the 4m drop down is hardly what David considers a decent bridge jump.
"At low tide, it's like 6m," he says.
I'm not worried - 4m will do me fine. I shake David's hand, gulp, and jump. One ... two ... three ... SPLASH.
An hour later, I'm posturing atop the slimy plank in the middle of Maketu's Kaituna River mouth, teeming with newfound bridge-jumping confidence.
I wait until a small audience has assembled on the beach, and then nail a run-up bomb that David would be proud of.
While driving back to Tauranga, I come across Whana, 11, Te Kapene, 10, and Kane, 13, perched on a state highway bridge like a row of penguins about to dive from an Antarctic ice shelf.
I pull off the highway and try to find a way over to them. They look at me like I'm coming to tell them off.
Nah, I assure them, I'm just a rookie jumper looking for some sweet bridge action. They look even more worried.
Te Kapene shows me how it's done and flings himself off, pushing up a tidy little splash four seconds later.
"It's about six metres, mister - seven if you jump from there," says Whana, pointing to a high girder mere inches from a passing milk tanker.
"It's fun jumping just as they honk."
Down below, Kane can sense I'm uneasy about it, so he swims over to the deepest part of the river where he reckons I should aim for.
I reluctantly leap, flap my arms in a girlish panic for a few frightening seconds, hit the freezing water with wings spread, and surface to find my three new mates giggling at me.
"Mister, you shouldn't wave your arms like that, it'll make them all red when you hit the water."
Ouch. You could've told me that before I jumped, Whana.
I decide to cut my adventure short at Moturiki Island, where a local teenager has just clambered up the back of the blowhole with a splotch of blood on his leg.
He'd managed to clear the rocks and dodge the jellyfish in his six-metre plunge, but it was the waves that got him as he tried to haul himself back up.
Why on earth would you do that?
"I just close my eyes and jump," he tells me.
It all sounds too much like a Water Safety New Zealand press release waiting to happen, and I accept that I'll never be able to understand what motivates these little daredevils.
I cancel the last two stops on my tour - Kaiate and McLaren falls - and head straight for the comparative dullness of the Mount Maunganui Hot Salt Water Pools.
There's elderly tourists, no jellyfish, plenty of lifeguards and the most extreme activity going is a slide for toddlers.
But best of all is the sign I see as I walk through the door.
NO DIVING. Now that's more like it.