Cengiz Kocak, Turkey’s most prolific BASE jumper, has leaped off high-rise buildings, telephone towers and hills. He says he does it to remind himself that he's not dead yet. Next on his list is Istanbul's historic Galata Tower.
ISTANBUL, Turkey — When Cengiz Kocak was seven years old, his father took him to a festival in Ankara where military planes flew thousands of feet above the ground. At some point, Kocak looked up at the clear blue sky and saw tiny dots, which he thought were toys. They turned out to be skydivers. Their display mesmerised him.
The next day, he improvised a bed sheet for a parachute, climbed over the railing of the balcony of his parents’ second-floor apartment and jumped. He woke up two days later in hospital, with non-life threatening injuries.
Kocak, now 44, is a professional BASE jumper. BASE jumping is the extreme form of parachuting that involves many risks and few rewards except for what he says is, “an exhilarating feeling of being alive.”
Over the years, he has accumulated some 650 jumps.
BASE is an acronym for buildings, antennas, spans (another word for bridges), and earth. High-rise hotels, cell towers, hills and caves are referred to as ‘objects’ by BASE jumpers, who go to extreme lengths to climb and leap from them.
In Turkey, the trend is still new. Kocak, who says he’s the only professional BASE jumper in the country, wants to change that.
Lately, he has been planning half a dozen jumps as part of a marketing campaign for the European Outdoor Film Tour, which celebrates extreme sports.
The first jump from the Galata Tower, the 700-year-old observatory, was supposed to take place on October 28 but has been postponed due to bad weather.
If jumping from Dubai’s Burj Khalifah, the world’s tallest building, can be dangerous, then plunging down the Galata Tower is even more so.
The height between the tower's terrace, from where he'll attempt the jump, to the ground is only 37 metres, making it one of the lowest jumps for Kocak.
“You have only a split second to open the parachute. Many things can go wrong,” he says.
He plans to land in a nearby street.
His lowest jump was from a cave called Prohodna in Bulgaria. That was from a height of 27 metres. “I will never try that again. That is something I can do just once in a lifetime."
This is not the first time someone will have used Galata Tower as a launchpad.
In 1632, Hezarfen Ahmed Celebi, an Ottoman-era scientist, is said to have jumped off the tower. He then glided to the neighbourhood of Uskudar on other side of the Bosphorus Strait using a bird-like hang glider — making it history’s first intercontinental flight.
The Bosphorus cuts through Istanbul, dividing the city into European and Asian parts. Istanbul is the world's only city spread over two continents.
Kocak says it’s impossible to make such a long glide even with 21st century technology. “The best equipment, the best glide ever invented, can give a flight ratio of fifteen to one,” he says.
That means the glider loses one metre in height for every 15 metres travelled in air. “Considering the distance from the tower to Uskudar, that’s not possible.”
Nevertheless, Kocak says he still considers Celebi to be the first person to have jumped from Galata. “I am happy with being the second only in 385 years,” he says.
As part of the film tour, his last jump will aim to emulate Celebi's feat. But the only way to do that is by getting a lot elevation — much more than what Galata Tower offers.
To achieve the target of flying to Uskudar, he plans to jump from a height of 1,500 metres from a helicopter wearing a wing-suit (a wing-suit is full-body flying gear which has strong fabric under the arms and between the legs). “I’ll glide down to the tower’s height and come very close to it at a speed of at last 200 kilometres per hour. That's the point when I’ll deploy the parachute and try to land on the other side of the Bosphorus.”
He is set to attempt this in a couple of months.
A free-spirited life
Unlike skydivers, who are equipped with a reserve parachute and proper gear, BASE jumpers get their thrill by being ready at the drop of a hat.
“A BASE jumper is like a vagabond. I don’t abide by rules. I am looking for new objects to jump from wherever I am traveling. These days, telephone towers catch my attention,” Kocak says.
This rebelliousness is in stark contrast with the strict routine of the military where Kocak spent more than 20 years as a skydiver for Turkey's Airborne Brigade. During that period, he served in Afghanistan and Bosnia.
“As a child, my parents would hush me up whenever I mentioned my wish to become a parachuter. So I did the next best thing which was to join the military and do what I like most.”
Kocak became an active member of Turkey's national skydiving team in 1998, clocking in more than 6,000 skydives and a national record for jumping from 25,000 feet without an oxygen mask.
However, BASE jumping, which he professionally took up in 2011, required some drastic life changes.
“I have two daughters. But the marriage didn't last because I was hardly at home. Then one day my younger daughter didn't recognise who I was and called me uncle. That's when I told my wife we must separate.”
For the last couple of years, he has been mostly living out of a minivan, which is just big enough to accommodate him. “If I were only a few centimetres taller, it would be impossible to live in it,” he says with a laugh.
Money, or rather, the lack of it, is a constant problem for BASE jumpers, he says. “I am on the move. I have been to many countries and many times fellow jumpers have paid for my travel and hotel.”
The main source of income for BASE jumpers is sponsorship earnings.
Kocak says while he constantly searches for exciting places to jump from, he keeps some of the details to himself, in line with the code that jumpers follow around the world.
Once he finds an object, he jumps but never publicises its location. That's a standard practice among BASE jumpers who don't want to draw notice of the authorities, which might enforce restrictions.
Kocak says he has been to 43 countries, often not knowing how he’ll afford the air tickets and other travel expenses. One year, for instance, he accumulated over 80,000 kilometres in travel-time.
He has also had his fair share of trouble for jumping without official permission, a formality that BASE jumpers typically avoid because they know they’ll almost never get it.
Once, this happened when Kocak was in Poland. “I went to this hotel and told staff that I was looking for a room. I took the elevator, found the roof and jumped. I was arrested and spent two nights in jail.”
He was allowed to leave with a penalty of 400 euros — he still hasn't paid.
Kocak has been arrested twice more, and barely escaped capture many other times.
The under-construction buildings in Istanbul are particularly inviting for BASE jumpers. But preparing a quick get-away is crucial, he says.
Search for a purpose
Kocak says he never leaps from a place if it doesn’t scare him.
He quotes Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, “‘dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum. I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.’
“And so I say: I fear, therefore I am. Jumping in itself is nothing to me. But the fear right before that jump makes me feel that I am alive.”
The solitude of mountains and caves affords him the opportunity to read, which he says, he does a lot. These days, he’s reading Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life.
“That’s a complicated one. Reading that book can take 10 years. Takes a lot of time to digest it.”
One of his favourite authors is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who wrote the classic Little Prince.
The author reminds him that BASE jumping is a game not without a purpose.
"Exupéry is aware of the importance of staying foolish like a child who is always ready to play. In a way I am also a fool — a child always curious and ready to play. So I am playing this game to learn and understand different things."
The buildings, the mountains and the towers which he climbs for the jumps have come closer to him than anything else. People interact with each other for experience, emotions and understanding. Kocak has his objects to teach him about life.
“You see I learn about these objects. I feel them. I know more about them than anyone else. Many years from now when I speak somewhere, I will be the only one who has had this unique kind of experience.”
It’s the thrill of overcoming some deeper fear that motivates Kocak to take the plunge down high-rises again and again.
Yet, it's not always rewarding.
Wingsuit flying, an offshoot of BASE jumping, has taken dozens of lives in last few years. Kocak also uses wingsuits sometimes and doesn’t like talking about his friends who have lost their lives.
It’s amazing that Kocak hasn’t had a serious injury in his 650 jumps because among the BASE jumpers it's a common understanding that anyone with over 500 jumps has been seriously injured, at least once.
He also wants to put Turkey on the adventure sport map. “I have been to the Alps in Italy and France. Like others, I have been wowed by the hills and mountains,” he says.
“That was until I visited the Black Sea region. Its beauty is mesmerising. The Yerkopru Waterfall in Mersin is one of the most fascinating places I have ever seen.”
But what does he really want?
“I don’t want to leave behind any legacy. I won't be here, so what’s the point?”
Yet once in awhile, someone reaches out to him with an unexpected message.
“Like one time I received a T-shirt in the mail from some school kids. They wrote a letter on it in which they said they wanted to be like me. That’s it. If I can inspire someone to lead a different kind of life, then I am a happy man.”