Taupo, New Zealand
By Leif Pettersen
Taupo is small tourist-geared town, a short drive south of Rotorua on the North Island. Like Rotorua, Taupo has its own small collection of hot springs, but for reasons that I never bothered to uncover, the town manages not to smell like a high school boy’s locker room after wrestling practice. After extended hemming and hawing, I concluded that I would never forgive myself if I left New Zealand’s milieu of adventure sports, without having done something that didn’t scare the living ca-ca out of me. I weighed my options. While there was certainly copious ground level excitement to be had, I knew deep down that I was going to have to separate my feet from the earth in some extravagant way in order to get the adrenaline spike that so many people swear by. I was left with two choices; a bungee jump or a tandem skydive. I have a fear of heights that is more or less incapacitating, so there was no question that whatever I chose, I’d need to bring smelling salts, a defibrillator and clean underwear.
I resolved to do the skydive for several reasons. For starters, for some reason, despite being miles further to fall, it seemed fractionally less frightening. The thing about being that high up is you can’t actually see the ground, which is probably why I have no fear of flying. Also, being bound in a heavy harness and having a grizzled skydiving veteran spooning me seemed a bit more secure than just having an over-sized rubber band wrapped around my ankles. Finally, when you bungee, ultimately the onus to leap off the platform is entirely on you. A few smug staff and gawkers stand behind you and count backwards from five to one and then you are responsible for taking that twisted step that goes completely against every natural instinct. When you tandem skydive, once that plane door opens, the whole thing is out of your hands. Your buddy scoots you to the threshold and heaves the two of you out into the clear, blue sky. Any last-second protests or misgivings you might voice are lost in the wind-scream and engine noise.
For some reason tandem skydiving in Taupo is cheaper than anywhere else in NZ, which only served to cement the decision. I made the booking through Dive Taupo as soon as I arrived at my hostel. The only space they had for me was for a 7:45 pick-up the next morning, which suited me perfectly. I would get it out of the way first thing, without having my knees knocking all day in nervous anticipation. However, I didn’t figure on staying up half the night listening to my brain roar, running through the entire dive scenario over and over, focusing mainly on all the things that could go wrong.
I was up at 6:45 and sitting out in front of the hostel by 7:30, waiting for the complimentary limo ride out to the airport. I was joined by an Asian guy who was smoking profusely and appeared as if he had been drinking all night and had not yet been to bed. At 7:40, I decided a last minute pee was in order. I was gone for less than a minute. When I returned the Asian guy was gone. At 7:50 I decided to call the office to make sure that my dive hadn’t been cancelled due to weather. They were surprised to hear from me. According to the limo driver I was sitting in their car, on my way to the airfield. Some quick sleuthing revealed that the limo had pulled up to the curb, the drunk Asian guy apparently thought to himself “Eh, why not?,” climbed in and off they went without me. Even though it had happened just minutes earlier, the limo couldn’t turn around and collect me without delaying the morning jump. Dive Taupo begged forgiveness and re-booked me for a 1:00 p.m. jump. I was very put out. In my philosophy, getting up at 6:45am after less than five hours of sleep for no reason ranks on the Discomfort Scale just below emergency hemorrhoid surgery. It was now 8:00 a.m. and people were getting up and crashing around the hostel, so going back to sleep was impossible. Moreover, now I had to fill five hours of jittery anticipation without having a nervous breakdown. I decided to calm myself by taking the Huka Falls hike, which snakes along the ice blue, clean river, passing a few hot springs, before terminating at the Falls.
I ran across a few Maoris taking an early dip in one of the hot springs, but otherwise I had the entire path to myself. The walk to the falls was non-demanding and the beautiful rushing river succeeded in calming my nerves and irritation from the morning’s mix up. After less than an hour of walking I emerged from the foliage onto the Falls viewing platform. At the same instant a tour bus screeched to a halt in the neighboring parking lot and released 50 geriatric Germans, who swarmed me and jolted me out of my peace and solitude. I was jostled around as they took turns posing for pictures and pushing to the railing to get a better look at the substandard Falls. Huka Falls would have been more accurately named Huka 100 Yards of Mediocre Rapids, but I suppose if they called it that, people wouldn’t come to see them. There was indeed a falls of sorts at the end of the short rapids, but the drop was only about 10 feet. It was more like a “step down” than a “falls.” The chaos brought by the tour group was insufferable and I quickly departed, heading back into town to seek out food and Internet.
After consuming the lightest, non-puke-able lunch that I could locate, I hurried back to the hostel where I was successfully picked up by Dive Taupo’s limo at 1:00 p.m., accompanied by two hyper Israeli girls. At the airfield we were shown a promotional video to build suspense as they re-packed the parachutes for our jump, before ordering us into our gear. We were handed very unflattering jumpsuits and a life vest, which was strapped around our waists. It was explained that we would be jumping over the lake and the life vests were “just in case.” Then it was harness time. The harnesses were encouragingly thick, sturdy and they were tightened to a very reassuring snugness. My lead skydiver was a surprisingly young, blond Kiwi named Ted. Ted tried his best to sell me on the extra options that come with the dive. The personalized video is the big add-on. I had seen other dive companies that make videos by sending up a second diver who jumps ahead of you and films your dive from a helmet-cam. However, in what I assume is an effort to cut costs, Dive Taupo’s videos are filmed by one’s lead diver, using a camera with a fish-eye lens strapped to one hand. Aside from the unnecessary distraction of mugging for the camera, I didn’t want Ted to be thinking about anything other than me, the parachute and our collective mortality. Plus, it goes without saying that a video of me facing certain death was not going to be particularly becoming. I passed on the offer for still-photos for the same reason.
Once we were suited up, we set off for the little plane, where despite my insistence of no pictures, the crew decided to hold a photo session for all of us, in varying comical poses. Once that was out of the way, we were off. The plane was small and 12 of us had to squish into the diver’s hold, six jumpers and their corresponding lead divers. We had to virtually sit in each other’s laps to fit everyone in. I sat in Ted’s lap and one of the Israeli girls sat in mine. The girl had the seat directly next to the flimsy, plastic, transparent jump door, which didn’t help to calm her mounting nerves. She wrapped her arms around my legs and clutched my feet like her life depended on it.
Everyone in our group was jumping from 12,000 feet. One is given the choice of diving from 9,000, 12,000 or 15,000 feet, with the price notching up by NZ$100 for each increase in height. I had been previously coached that 12,000 feet was optimum. You get a 45 second freefall and four minutes of parachuting. Apparently, anything more than that is overkill, especially for one’s first jump.
When we neared 12,000 feet we donned our helmets and goggles and shifted around so we could affix ourselves to our respective lead divers. After the shifting was said and done, Ted and I were positioned to go first. I wasn’t sure how comfortable I was with this arrangement, but I didn’t have long to contemplate the ramifications. Ted whipped open the jump door and swung us around so that my legs were hanging out of the plane. My legs were immediately caught in the wind and wanted to tear right off my body. Just as I was turning my head to tell Ted that maybe my shoes weren’t tied tight enough to stay on my feet through this kind of turbulence, he gave me a hard pelvic thrust into the back and we were falling.
I am not ashamed to say that the first 10 seconds of the freefall were not especially composed on my part. Indeed, I screamed like I was going to die, simply because that moment was about as close as I have ever come to that sensation. Just out of the plane, we tumbled head-over-heels once, giving me a brief flash of the plane rocketing away, and then Ted righted us facing down, watching the Earth getting bigger and bigger. The wind-scream was deafening, my cheeks were rippling back toward my ears, my goggles were biting into my face and my eardrums were exploding from the rapid decent and air pressure change. Ted had to tap me three times in order to get me to move my arms out of the hug-yourself-jump-position and into the splayed-out-falling-position. At about the 15 second mark, my screams switched from bloody-murder to exhilaration. Ted and I did a few maneuvers, including a horizontal pinwheel spin and a Superman dive.
My main problem during the freefall was breathing, in that I couldn’t. I had my mouth wide open and even though air was rushing in, inflating my cheeks into tiny parachutes, for some reason I couldn’t get the air into my lungs. I learned later that it’s best to breathe through your nose during the freefall, but no one had mentioned this before the dive and it didn’t matter anyway because screaming like a little girl is not conducive to nose breathing.
Just as I was growing accustomed to the sensation of falling at 125 miles per hour, Ted popped the little slow-down chute and then the main chute a few moments later. The jerk-back that I was expecting was surprisingly mild. After politely allowing me a few moments to finish screaming, Ted had me adjust my leg straps so that I was in a sitting position and pull up my goggles so I could better appreciate the view. We slowly drifted back toward the airfield, with Ted executing occasional spiraling turns to accelerate our decent, while giving me a face-down, vertigo-inducing perspective of the ground, causing me to gasp even harder than I already was in my attempts to bring my blood-oxygen back to comfortable levels.
Finally it was time to land. Ted spun us one last time, speeding us up at a height that felt a little too close to the ground for comfort and then pulled up just before we crashed into the earth. This move created a split second, mid-air pause at which point we both planted our feet on the ground and the chute fell cleanly behind us. I was toast. I had been in the air for less than five minutes in total and had done absolutely nothing strenuous (except screaming loud enough for my mother to hear back in Minnesota), but I was completely spent. I figured I had probably run through about five years worth of adrenaline during the fall and it left me weak and shaky like I had just been chased 10 miles by ninja zombies with a taste for Norwegian rump. The other five diving pairs plopped to the ground all around us. The accuracy of the landings that these guys were executing was astonishing. We all ended up within about 30 feet of each other.
Ted had barely gotten us separated and the chute collected when someone was trying to hand me a beer. I was almost too discombobulated to remember that I hate beer. My beer was replaced by a glass of white wine and I slowly tried to pull myself together and remove my gear with unsteady hands.
All of us jumpers were weak-kneed, but euphoric. We traded dive stories as we consumed our drinks and waited for the videos and pictures to be processed. I found that I was still occasionally and involuntarily taking in huge gulps of air, like I was engaging in semi-strenuous exercise. The adrenaline hangover was profound. Although I wasn’t physically depleted, my limbs were numb and non-responsive. I felt that if I let my concentration slip for a second, I might accidentally drop my wine. Eventually the still photos from the pre-jump photo session and the landing were displayed on a large monitor. I was doubly relieved that I had opted to skip the video. Even during the relative calm and ease of the landing I nevertheless looked like I was about to lose all bowel control.
By booking my dive through the hostel, I was entitled to a free drink at their bar that evening, that did nothing to slow down my brain which was still humming five hours later. Three more glasses of wine did the trick however and I went on to spend the night regaling a group of young American women with my gutsy, heroic tale of adventure.