Jumping out of a plane

Trip Start May 18, 2003
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Monday, March 1, 2004

East Cape Tour - Day Nine!

Today was the last day of our East Cape tour. Instead of driving straight back to Auckland we decided to take a route through Taupo and Rotorua. Robert and I intended to do a morning skydive over Lake Taupo, so we all got up early at 6am. Sebastian was not going to be diving with us today, but he was happy to come along and watch us complete our first jumps.

The drive up to Taupo was very clear. There were not that many cars on the road at this time in the morning on a Sunday. When we arrived at the lake side town there seemed to be a sports event in progress, with some of the roads being blocked off. We had arrived in time for the early bird sky dive deal ($185 before 10am) but the weather was not looking too promising.

After confirmation from one of the companies (there are several sky dive operators to choose from in Taupo - shop around for the best deal) we realised that we would probably not get to dive today due to bad weather. It was not raining hard, but not clear enough for the skydiving planes to take off. With the rest of the day free we headed on to Rotorua to escape the rain. This was my first time in New Zealand's most popular tourist destination, and I was expecting the legendary sulphur smell to be more pungent and overpowering.

We visited the striking museum building and blue baths, but decided to spend the early afternoon at Hells Gate instead. This was a bit of a let down, as it was not as spectacular as some of the natural wonders dotted around Rotorua. The only interesting feature on the walk around Hells Gate was the hot waterfall, but it didn't justify the $16 entrance fee.

After coming back into town we went for an afternoon coffee in a café called the Fat Dog. I tried Spirilina for the first time here - a banana based smoothy with added algae/seaweed. It looks as green as it sounds, but is quite tasty.

One of the advantages (and disadvantages) of New Zealand's weather is that it is very changeable. Today this was going to work to our advantage because the skies appeared to be clearing up. After calling the skydiving company they confirmed that it was bright and sunny enough to resume diving - so we drove back down to Taupo!

On arrival at the small airport hanger we could not believe how busy this company was. The place was teaming with lots of professional tandem divers and tourists. Many people were diving today, Robert and I were scheduled for the last plane load and witnessed quite a few take offs and landings before it was our turn. There was a constant stream of people putting on gear, watching the instruction video, being filmed for their souvenir video and getting into aeroplanes.

When it was finally our turn to get ready (there were five of us in our dive) we more or less knew everything from having seen the video several times. With each of us having a tandem diver doing all the important stuff (opening the parachute, finding the landing spot) this was possibly the easiest way of experiencing sky diving for the first time.

We all were told to wear life jackets because of the proximity of the lake, and unfortunately I could not take my camera with me. Apparently at skydiving centres located away from densely populated areas it is still possible to take cameras up in the plane and on the actual dive, but they have had a few incidents with dropped items in Taupo. Just before pairing up with my tandem diver and getting on the plane I had another look at the people rolling up the parachutes on the floor. It was peculiar to think that the bundled up silk in one of those bags was going to allow two people to safely glide down to Earth from an initial height of twelve thousand feet.

The plane itself was quite noisy and uncomfortable. Forget about seats: the twelve of us piled into the fuselage and sat in two rows facing backwards on a couple of long foot-square rectangular pieces of foam. The plane did not have a proper door, just a roll down see-through cover, with a strategically placed digital camera to take exit photos.

Take off was a little rough and unspectacular, but as we climbed higher the views through the tiny windows of this small plane started to impress upon us just how fantastic the next ten minutes were going to be. We were about to jump out of a plane during sunset over Lake Taupo - a lake that is big enough to contain the whole of Singapore.

Finally we reached our height, the roller door went up and people started to jump out of the plane. Any loss in the sensation of how fast we were flying was quickly brought back as people sitting in front of me suddenly disappeared and became small coloured dots against the blanket of cloud. I was the last in the queue to exit the plane, and by this stage was grinning with anticipation.

When it was my turn to jump I swung my legs out over the edge of the hatch and waited for the signal. The very next moment I was falling through the skies...

The only straightforward way to describe freefall it that it is pretty much how you would expect it to be. Fast, windy, noisy and too short. A 12,000 feet skydive should give you 45 seconds of freefall, but I doubt ours lasted that long after watching the video. Perhaps our aeroplane didn't quite reach the target height. When falling, the sense of speed was exhilarating but there was no feeling of acceleration at the start. With a tandem dive there was little scope for manoeuvrability and directional steering. To really appreciate freefall I guess it has to be experienced more than once, as the sensations are so uncommon.

As we approached the clouds my tandem diver pulled the cord and we seemed to stop temporarily in mid air. The first thing I noticed after the initial jolt on my straps was how quiet everything now was. I opened my mouth to taste the clouds that still engulfed us...they were dry (actually taking moisture off my tongue) and contrary to logic tasted slightly saline.

The remainder of the time spent in the air felt very much like flying, or how I imagined flying would feel. The only sounds I could hear were other skydivers shouting out from their positions below me in the sky. The sunset looked glories from this angle, with it's reflection on the huge lake below. It's an image I don't think I will ever forget.

After about eight minutes of circling around we landed with ease, I just had to lift my legs straight in front of me and the tandem diver did the rest. Now the actual dive was over the hard sell began, starting with plane exit photos (on a floppy disk) at $20 each. A video of your skydive (PAL format only) cost around $150 and you had to order it before the jump. This was so a separate cameraman could jump with you and film your freefall. Some companies have the tandem diver doing all the filming but they generally do not look as good, as its all from one angle at the end of his or her arm. The other stuff on the video was some self promotional advertising and cheesy group footage before and after the dive. If you didn't pre-order a video of your dive you could still pickup a copy for $15, providing at least one person in the plane pre-ordered. Although your dive would not be on the video, it would have the group footage and be an alternative memento to the exit photo.

As this was not an early bird special (before 10am), the cost of the actual dive was $199, which they continued to reiterate as being the cheapest place to tandem dive anywhere in the world. This is probably true, but at a cost of being treated like one of literally dozens of divers coming through their doors each and every day. In the waiting area there was an article pinned to the notice board describing when one of their professional divers completed 200 tandem dives in a single day.

It was time to head back to Auckland, and as we drove back we reflected on the perfect road trip we had just experienced. We had packed so much into a week plus a weekend that it almost felt like a whole month had past since leaving Auckland nine days ago.
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