My partner Chris and I always knew we would do a skydive while we were in New Zealand because it was so affordable but the question was – where? We did plenty of research and settled on Skydive Fox Glacier because it would allow us to take in lakes, mountains, rivers, glaciers and the ocean while we plummeted to earth at 120 mph. We also wanted a smaller company that wouldn’t make us feel like we were just 2 more people being shoved out of an aeroplane on a conveyor belt.
The night before the skydive we wild camped in our van just outside of Fox Glacier township with a spectacular view of the mountains and the glacier itself, all of which turned rosy, glowing pink as the sun set. Skydive Fox Glacier were making their final runs of the day and we watched as skydive victims screamed towards earth (some literally) – the tiniest of dots at 12,000 ft. Already nervous, this sight almost made me think about cancelling the whole thing. What a mistake that would have been.
We woke early thanks to the antics of a gaggle of Keas – the wonderful but vandal-like mountain parrot. They had decided they were going to destroy the bags of our surf boards strapped to our van’s roof. The day was totally clear – perfect conditions.
A coffee and a croissant later and with my stomach doing somersaults already, we made our way to the skydive base where we met our tandem partners and were briefed and suited up. ‘Does anyone ever refuse to jump once they are up there’, I asked. ‘Sometimes’ replied Rod, who was to be strapped to me ‘but it’s quite rare’. I silently prayed that I wouldn’t end up being one of the rare ones.
Chris and I had opted to pay for a package which included photographs of our experience. The camera which was to take our pictures was operated by the pilot but it was actually attached to the wing of the plane. Our instructors made us practice the positions for getting pictures before we fully exited the aeroplane and it involved dangling. Now hang on – no-one mentioned dangling before….I wasn’t really keen on the idea of dangling!
The aircraft was tiny, allowing just enough room for the 4 of us to sit on the floor, one in front of the other with straddled legs. Chris and his instructor went in first which meant that I would be first out of the plane.
I will admit it – I felt sick. I was really frightened and the plane seemed to take forever to reach its 12,000 ft. If I asked once ‘how high are we?’ I must have asked 1000 times. My instructor, sensing my near panic, was wonderful – joking and laughing and pointing out the scenery to distract me. And it was heart achingly beautiful.
Suddenly the moment arrived and Rod leaned forward to open the door. I’m not sure whether I actually screamed it out or whether I just did so in my head – ‘don’t open that – it’s DANGEROUS!’ Now it seems comical – at the time not so much so. The sound and sensation of the air rushing in and past was almost overpowering. But there was no hanging around. Dangle – picture, picture – and out!
I know we turned at least 2 somersaults, I know I tried desperately to keep my eyes open as instructed, I know I felt the tap on my helmet which indicated I must assume the skydive position.
It was all so immensely, wonderfully, terrifyingly unlike anything that had ever happened to me before. Even sitting here now, writing these words, so long after the event, I still feel incredibly emotional.
After the initial few seconds of turning and tumbling and the time it takes to reach terminal velocity, it truly does feel like you are flying, not falling. There it all was underneath me – New Zealand in all her stunning glory.
Before I had jumped out of the plane, my over-riding thought was that I couldn’t wait for the moment when the parachute opened. Now, actually doing it, I remember thinking – I don’t care if it never does – it has been worth it. The parachute did open of course – far, far sooner than I wanted or expected – it had felt like 10 seconds not 45 (apparently a very common sensation on a first skydive when the senses are so overwhelmed they lose the ability to count).
‘How was it?’ Rod asked. Unfortunately the capacity for intelligent, coherent speech seemed to have deserted me and I am embarrassed to recall that the only word my mouth would form was one which couldn’t be repeated in front of my mother. He asked me several other questions on our float down but that one word was my only answer.
Tandem skydive landings involve lifting your legs straight, at right angles to your body and sliding in on your backside. We came to a complete stop. I sat there. Rod tried again with a question but it was no good – I still had only a one word vocabulary. With a chuckle he unbuckled himself and left me there. I’m not sure how long I remained in that position. It wasn’t just that I didn’t yet trust any of my motor skills to stand me firmly on my feet – it was that I wanted to delay the moment when the true world came crashing back in.
Something profound and life-changing had happened to me. Something gets stripped from you when you jump out of an aeroplane and fly above the earth; something which brings you to the absolute core of what is you, what is real and what really matters. At least that was the case for me.
I have never done another skydive since. I will. But for now I want to keep this precious memory separate…clear….mine.
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