120mph… without a motor

This morning began gently enough with a stroll along what passes for a beach in Taupo. In fairness, it it a lake that we’re next to (the largest in New Zealand) and not the sea so it can be forgiven for not having miles of golden sands. We had breakfast at a lovely café (I had beans on toast – I’m really making up for the weeks in Asia without them) and bought packed sandwiches for lunch.

On the walk we encountered two particularly New Zealand examples of wildlife. The first was the “friendly domestic cat”. Unlike the UK where cats routinely have stones thrown at them by pathetic teenagers, the ones here always seem to love people. They also all seem to be built like little furry brick outhouses. This one was also unusual in that she was pure white from top to tail, and followed us for a good hundred yards, collapsing on the pavement at regular intervals to have her belly rubbed.

The second animal was the Tui – one of the national birds, alongside the Kiwi. The Tui is like a small blackbird with white puffs under each eye and the most bizarre song I’ve ever heard. It’s like someone’s got R2D2 drunk (possibly on the bird’s own-brand beer). It’s also akin to those annoying car alarms that rattle off umpteen different klaxon one after the other. Tweettweetwibblewibblebeepbeephoothootfaaaarrrrrt.

Now for reasons which will become clear very shortly, I’d spent the night praying for thunderstorms today. Anything involving massive cloud cover and the inability for aircraft to take off. Instead, I was lumbered with bright sunshine and clear skies. Further proof of the non-existance of god, or at least that he/she/it/them really has it in for me.

I didn’t want nice skies because I’d booked a sky dive for just after lunch and was looking for any excuse to get out of it. It turns out that Taupo’s about the cheapest place ever if you want a one-way trip in an aeroplane (i.e. up and not bothering with the landing bit). Lou had done a jump at Lake Waneka as she’d been told it was cheaper than Queenstown. Taupo was around 1/2 to 2/3 of the price, and included a t-shirt in one of the best packages.

At 12:30, I called the company (Taupo Tandem Skydiving) who inevitably confirmed that the skies were perfect and that my jump was on. My cunning ploy of taking a different road and therefore missing the airport failed – there’s only one road south out of Taupo and it goes past the damn thing. So we ended up there, signing things that said “It’s very difficult to sue anyone in New Zealand so if you die you’re pretty much stuffed”.

Good news is that on the weigh-in I found out I’m back to 75kg. By the time we took off, I think I’d been to the loo three times and I was nearer 70kg. I thought I looked rather natty in my jumpsuit, and it hid the stench (and stains) of panic rather well. We watched a safety video which made everything look so easy, got strapped into something that looked majorly kinky and wasn’t the least bit comfortable, and stood around like lemons for an hour waiting for our flight to arrive. It felt like five minutes.

Ever wondered what the condemned man feels like, walking to the gallows? Well, remove the safety harness and funky jumpsuit and that’s pretty much what was going through my mind. Patrik was my “buddy” for the jump and would have to put up with me strapped to his chest, screaming like a loon for about 45 seconds. I hoped he could cope without getting sick of me and letting go.

I’d opted for the 12,000 foot jump. The other alternative is 15,000 feet but I’d been told you need oxygen masks for the extra height and therefore my face would be obscured on any photos. Turns out this isn’t actually the case, but it’s too late now. We loaded up in the plane sat along two padded benches, backs pressed against our experienced (so we were told) skydivers and the door rolled shut. The propeller kicked in and the plane began to roll. Backwards. Well, actually, it didn’t. I just thought it had as I’ve never been facing the tail of a plane as it’s taken off before.

Patrik was superb. He explained everything on the way up; roughly how long each section of the procedure would take, what to expect, how to position myself and so on. Every couple of thousand feet he gave me an update and a reminder, prompting me to put on my helmet and goggles as we neared the 12,000 mark.

All of a sudden, the door opened. And hit me on the head. Great start. Thankfully only a glancing blow as it was a rolling door, not the usual huge airlock things you get on airliners. The first pair shuffled forwards they’re mad! to the edge of the doorway they can’t do that! It’s nuts! looked at the departure camera for a quick photo and vanished where’s the ground? They’re going to die!

Then it was my turn. I think at this point, my brain found somewhere safe to nestle near the pit of my stomach (itself relocating just underneath my Adam’s apple). Patrik shuffled us forward and I had no choice, damning the lack of friction on the seats, until I was perched on the ledge, feet dangling in the slipstream. Another nutcase in a yellow suit was stood to my left on the outside of the aeroplane filming my last minutes on this mortal coil.

I stared at the camera.

I tried to look cool.

I failed dismally.

The camera flashed.

We leapt.

For those who didn’t do physics, some figures for you. A falling object accelerates at 9.8 metres per second per second (or roughly 35km per hour per second) until reaching terminal velocity, at which point it’s going as fast as it possibly can within the Earth’s atmosphere. This terminal velocity is around 200km/h or 120mph. So essentially within 6 seconds of leaving that plane, I was going almost as fast as I’ve ever driven in a car. Only downwards. Strapped to a Swede with a silly beard.

Funnily enough, these numbers weren’t whizzing through my head as we sped earthwards.

The most coherent thought was “Best hundred pounds I have ever spent in my life.”

Once past the initial cries to every deity I’d ever heard of, the sheer rush blew every cobweb out of my system and opened all my senses to the utter madness of what was happening. It’s difficult to comprehend the speed you’re hurtling earthwards at as you have no point of reference. There are no crash barriers blurring to your sides, or anything in front for you to hurtle towards except the big green sphere which is so far away you can’t really tell that it’s getting closer.

All you can get your head around is the wind rushing past and the unutterably mind-boggling sense of speed. During all this, Patric was spinning me round in circles while the madman with the camera was lying on his back, capturing every expletive and whoop of joy as I hurtled towards the ground like a dragonfly playing chicken with a truck windscreen.

However, I had one up on the dragonfly. A Swede who proved to be slightly less insane than he had so far appeared by releasing a parachute at 3000 feet (or was it 5000? I confess I frankly didn’t give a hoot at the time) to slow our descent. The jerk was sudden but gentle, and Patric loosened a couple of the harness straps for me so we didn’t become too intimate on the float downwards.

We swooped, we whirled, dived and pirouetted. The view was utterly beautiful. I have never seen the earth from that angle before and it’s astounding how much you appreciate it with no aeroplane window between you and it. Then all too soon (except for my legs which were getting pins and needles) got to say “hello” to the grass again with the smoothest of landings.

I cannot remember ever having such a huge grin on my face. It took me two days to brush all the flies out of my teeth.

Back at the hangar, we checked out our exit photos and I declined mine as, frankly, I looked a prat on it. The video, though, is superb and will be treasured. Sadly, the CD full of photos I got was the wrong one (I’ve got 30 pictures of a very scared looking Irish girl instead) so I’m waiting for the correct one to be posted to me.

Bag of goodies in hand and donning my new t-shirt (“unbelievable the experience of a lifetime you have GOT to do it tandem skydiving in lake taupo new zealand i jumped out of that plane WHOAH!! AWESOME, what a rush”) immediately, I leapt heroically like a man reborn in to our crappy little car. Then sat and ate BLT sarnies.

Hey, I’m just a bloke at heart.

The rest of the day was just driving to Wellington (5 hours) then getting dinner in a Chinese for approximately nothing each. I won’t bore you. It all sucked compared to the skydive anyway.

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