Taupo, New Zealand
Posted on February 11th, 2005
Taupo is small tourist-geared town, just a short drive south of Rotorua. Though
it would have been a logical next stop after Rotorua, I had bypassed it on the
way to Napier, saving it as a layover point on my way back to Auckland, so that
I wouldn’t have to do the run all the way across the North Island in one
go. I had had enough of 12 hour bus rides back in Australia.
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 men’s
locker room after wrestling practice. After careful consideration, I had resolved
that I would never forgive myself if I left NZ without having done something
that didn’t scare the living ca-ca out of me. I weighed my options. While
there was certainly some ground level excitement to be had, I knew deep down
that I was going to have to jump from a great height in order to really get
the adrenaline going. So I was looking at either 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 head-to-toe
in a heavy harness and having a grizzled skydiving veteran attached to you seemed
a bit more secure than just having an over-sized rubber band wrapped around
you’re ankles. Finally, when you bungee, the onus to leap off the platform
is entirely on you. A few smug people stand behind you and count backwards from
five to one and you are responsible for taking that unnatural step that goes
completely against every natural instinct. When you tandem skydive, once that
door opens, the whole thing is out of your hands. Your buddy scoots you to the
door 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
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 as soon as
I arrived at the 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 mostly of course
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 skydive 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. A
quick cell phone call 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,
they couldn’t turn around and collect me without delaying the morning
jump. They begged forgiveness and re-booked me for a 1:00PM jump. I was very
pissed off. I don’t like getting up at 6:45 after less than five hours
of sleep for no reason. It was now 8:00 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 chattering anticipation without having a nervous breakdown.
I decided to calm myself by taking the Huka Fall hike, which would take me along
the ice blue, clean river, passing a few hot springs, before terminating at
It was so early that I was alone on the path. I ran across a few Maoris taking
an early dip in one of the hot springs, but otherwise I had the entire area
to myself. The rushing river calmed me and allowed me to clear my mind of being
nervous, pissed off and even collect my thoughts for my impending flight to
Singapore where I was to start my Southeast Asia adventure.
The walk to the falls only took less than an hour. Just as I emerged from the
foliage onto the Falls viewing platform, a tour bus flew in out of nowhere into
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 look at 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 Falls provided about 30 seconds of appeal before I fled in search of more
personal space. Back on the path, the calm was restored. I passed about four
people and zero tour groups on my way back to town. After a light lunch and
Internet business, I was back at the hostel, keeping a vigilant lookout for
my limo to the airfield. I was successfully picked up this time, accompanied
by two hyper Israeli girls. At the airfield we were shown a promotional video
as they re-packed the parachutes for our jump and then it was time to get 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 video is the big add-on. I had seen other diving companies
that makes videos by sending up a second diver who jumps ahead of you and films
your dive from a helmet camera. However, Dive Taupo were cutting corners and
the dive was actually filmed by your lead diver, jumping with a camera with
a fish-eye lens in 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 and the parachute. Plus, I knew full well that a video of me facing certain
death was not going to be particularly becoming. I passed on the still photos
for the same reason.
Once we were all 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 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, sliding
jump door, which didn’t help to calm her nerves. She wrapped her arms
around my legs and clutched my feet like it was a matter of life or death.
Everyone in our group was jumping from 12,000 feet. You are 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 get strapped 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 me through
this kind of turbulence, he gave me a hard pelvic thrust into the back and we
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 feeling
that sensation. The wind-scream was deafening, my face was rippling back toward
my ears and my goggles were biting into my face. Just out of the plane, we tumbled
head-over-heels once, giving me a brief flash of the plane rocketing away, and
then we righted ourselves facing down, watching the Earth getting bigger and
bigger. 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
My main problem was breathing, in that I couldn’t. I had my mouth wide
open and even though air was rushing into my mouth, inflating my cheeks like
balloons, I couldn’t manage to 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
I was screaming way too much for 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 allowing
me a few seconds to stop 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
spirals turns to accelerate our decent, while giving me a face-down spinning
perspective, making me 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 more time, speeding us up at a
height that felt a little too close to the ground and then pulled up just before
we crashed into the earth, which created a split second mid-air pause at which
point we both planted our feet on the ground and let the chute fall 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 run 10 miles. The rest of my group
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
Ted had barely gotten us separated and the chute collected when someone was
trying to hand me a beer. I was barely coherent enough 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.
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 still engaging in semi-strenuous exercise. The adrenaline
hangover was profound. Although I wasn’t physically depleted, my limbs
were numb and non-responsive. I was certain I would 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, which means that I was undoubtedly
in un-flattering hysterics during the free-fall.
Eventually we all pulled ourselves together, climbed back into the limo and
headed back to the hostel. Still utterly drained, I retired to the hostel’s
hot tub where I found myself in such a sudden, relaxed state that I nearly fell
asleep. I countered the hot tub lethargy with a cool dip in the pool and then
a vigorous shower. Despite it still being early afternoon, with my adrenaline-induced
exhaustion compounded by my insanely early wake-up, I decided that the day had
been action-packed enough and that I would sit on my ass for the remainder of
the day with a clear conscious.
The hostel bar’s happy hour and the free drink I was entitled to for
having booked a dive through them had me in a wine-soaked stupor before 10:00PM.
Unfortunately, while my body was entirely drained, my brain was still revving
in the red well after midnight. I lied awake for what seemed like an eternity
before I finally willed myself to sleep.
With another pathetic nights sleep under my belt, I embarked bleary eyed on
my bus trip to Auckland, where I had another sorry night of sleep waiting for
me before catching my plane to Singapore, the staging point for my Asian odyssey.