So, that time I jumped out of a plane? Yeah, that one.
Some writer I am. You would think playing the virgin skydiver would provide plenty of creative fodder. But I think I could trawl the thesaurus for hours and still fail to come up with the right mix of synonyms to describe the strange cocktail of elation and exhaustion it engenders.
Sandwiched between Matt, my assigned photographer, and my tandem diver Milan, I still couldn’t believe what I was about to do. Milan – a jovial Croatian who’s been in New Zealand for eight months and reckons he’ll stay until the powers that be boot him out – assured me with nonchalance that he’d already done about eight jumps that day.
We’d only just met, but the usual personal barriers didn’t apply. There I was squeezed in between his legs, sitting on the floor of the plane – upright spooning, if you like – and Matt in turn slotted in between mine. We formed a strange kind of human jigsaw puzzle: tourist between the seasoned pros, a pattern continued all the way to the front of the aircraft.
Relax, he urged me. I let my hands rest on his jumpsuited thighs. Tried to breathe. Matt snapped a photo. I wasn’t ready. For the photo. Or the jump. Or anything.
Milan pointed out our rising height on his altitude watch – 5,000, 10,000, 12,000 feet. He hooked my harness onto his, tightening straps, pulling my goggles over my face. The clouds thickened; the plane banked sharply. I inferred that we’d reached the top of our ascent: 15,000 feet, more than double the height of the mountains we’d long since overtaken.
The next 10 seconds or so are a bit of a blur. There was NO time to think. The door opened and the first pair disappeared into the ether. Suddenly I was aware I was being pushed from behind, and found myself scooting merrily toward the exit.
My legs were out. I tucked them underneath the helicopter, like we were told to. Facing directly into the expanse of the open sky, I naturally recoiled and threw my head back, just like we were told to. And I forgot all about taking a deep breath, like we were told to.
It wasn’t cold, but before I knew it I was in the air, and gasping for breath as the plunge sucked all the wind from my lungs. Photographer Matt materialised to the left, and right then I knew how celebs feel when accosted by the paps, being snapped when you least expect – or want – it.
I’m not photogenic at the best of times, and plummeting freefall at 200k was definitely not among my finer moments. In all of the photos that show my face, I look like I’m crying in terror. Or constipated. The wind’s rippling my face, and my mouth hangs gormlessly open. I was desperately sucking air like nobody’s business (I have enough trouble breathing at ground level, let alone when the air is that thin … plus I may or may not have been hyperventilating a little). As for the DVD, I haven’t even dared to touch it. NZONE won’t be using my shots in any promotional footage, that’s for sure.
One of the others on my jump hated the initial freefall, but the worst part in my books was the spinning. Slowing down was a BITCH. I’d kept my eyes open the whole time up till then, but being whirled mercilessly around like a rag doll (I think that’s what it feel like to be a tiny molecule of water sucked down a freshly unplugged drain) was like nothing I’ve ever done. It’s beyond dizzying and makes you feel utterly, utterly out of control. Milan was having a blast; I was practically wetting myself. So like a child, I whimpered quietly, clamped my eyes shut and clutched my harness for dear life (I would’ve hugged myself and curled up into a ball if I could’ve).
The gentle, swaying descent – now that was a blast. I caught a glimpse of the parachute edges a couple of times, which brought on a wave of panic, so I quickly learned to train my eyes firmly below. Milan pointed out landmarks in every direction – Mt Cook, Coronet Peak, the Remarkables. It was a perfectly clear day with amazing visibility – the river, the mountains, the greenery. And quite honestly, that part felt far too short. I could have marvelled at the surroundings from the air for twice as long. But other jumpers started swooping in from other directions, and before long, we were approaching solid ground once more.
When it all comes down to it, I was nervous for three reasons:
Heights. My fear of heights is debilitating.
Pressure. Not only do I not have a head for heights, I am terrible at depressurising, but my ears popped reasonably quickly on the way down.
Motion sickness. I can’t read in moving vehicles without paying for it dearly afterwards.
The height thing didn’t turn out to be such a problem. Waiting for my ears to pop was more painful. But worst of all was the fact that I was nauseous for about an hour afterward – a case of extreme motion sickness, I guess.
All up, it was an amazing, unforgettable afternoon. Every night for the week that followed, I found myself running through the whole thing in my head and marvelling, Did that really happen? They say some people immediately rush to sign up to become jump instructors after their first skydive. But I think it’s safe to say it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me – an adrenaline junkie I am not.
Ever been skydiving? Or want to?