Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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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 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 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 the Falls.

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 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 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 dive.

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 each other.

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.

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©Leif Pettersen 2012