The other day I messaged my best friend in Calgary to help me think of something to write about on here. She gave me two suggestions: the first was to start an angry protest against bronies (a bit controversial and unnecessary, though appreciated) and the second was to write about falling from a plane in New Zealand. As the title suggests I decided to opt for the latter. So… let’s talk about my skydive in Abel Tasman.
I had it in my head long before I left for New Zealand that it was something I wanted to do. I had never thought about skydiving much before in my life. Any thoughts I did have about it were along the lines of: skydiving is for crazy people, extreme dare-devils, adrenaline junkies, idiots, and people brave enough to potentially die early. So, not something I had EVER actually considered. Not seriously, anyway. To be blunt I was a bit of a wimp about the subject and would likely have remained so if I hadn’t met a particular boy.
Typical. “A boy came into my life and then I couldn’t help but jump out of a plane.” That tired old story, ya know? Riiiiiight. It’s true though. Sometimes it just takes meeting someone with a fresh perspective to make you think of doing things you wouldn’t have before. So this boy I met (who went on to become one of my best friends and eventually my boyfriend), mentioned casually in the early stages of us knowing each other that he had sky dived before. It wasn’t just ‘I went skydiving once on vacation’ (like me), no, he decided on his 16th birthday that he wanted to skydive and so took a course to become solo certified and start jumping out of planes… I mean, I don’t know what you guys did for your 16th birthdays but when I turned 16 I was still nervous to give presentations in front of the class let alone board a plane with a parachute on my back and jump out from 10 000 feet. Alone. He said he had finished about 80 jumps before selling his parachute to move to Toronto, and that’s not even a big number. His father, who decided to take up skydiving with his son, has something like 500 jumps under his belt, and my tandem master had 1980 + jumps!
But anyways, I digress. The way he spoke about sky diving made it seem like it wasn’t a big deal. “Tons of people do it”, he said. It was just so casual. Like listening to someone talk about hockey, only I was actually interested. I think this was the moment where the realm of sky diving made its transition in my head from ‘that thing that only crazy dare devils do’ to something I could potentially do. I became fixated with the notion of free falling through the sky. It’s really pretty poetic, don’t you think? You guys know how I love poetic. I became very preoccupied thinking about it. What would it feel like to fall through the air? Is it what flying feels like? What do people think about as they fall? Why do people do it? This is a terrifying thing, how do these people not realise??
At some point I made up my mind that one day in my life, one day soon, I would be a sky diver. I had no idea when but I knew without a doubt that it would happen. Eventually it occurred to me that if I was going to do it, I should do it in one of the world’s most beautiful places that I coincidentally would be headed to in a year’s time: New Zealand.
Fast forward about 10 months to when my father, brother and I are gallivanting around the NZ countryside in our camper van. Amidst the rolling green hills, the mass of sheep, and the impossible to pronounce Maori road names, I finally piped up to speak what had been on my mind for months and months.
“I’m going to go sky diving on my birthday next week.”
I remember my brother’s reaction very clearly. A very quizzical look crossed his face that I know he reserves for only those moments that ignite great amounts of skepticism.
“Actually?” he asked.
“Yes, actually!” I said with a defiant grin on my face.
Ha! Your wimpy little sister wants to jump out of a plane. Are you shocked? Yes, be shocked! For I am Heather and I am not afraid.
I affirmed my seriousness with confidence and gusto, though under the surface I was still asking myself the same thing. Really, Heather? Are you sure? If anyone is going to die sky diving it’s probably going to be you. But I just kept saying to them, yes I want to do this. Yes, I’m serious. Convincing them, but more convincing myself. I think I thought that once I said it out loud, I’d be stubborn enough to follow through even if I was trembling with fear when the moment came to board the plane.
I decided on Skydive Abel Tasman. I read the website and felt comfortable with the team. One thing stood out for me from their FAQ…
That’s pretty convincing isn’t it? Instills confidence, has a bit of humour to it. Yes, I liked this place. Hit by 3 busses in a row, hah. Not possible! I’m golden.
On the day we were meant to be boarding our ferry to the south island (and subsequentally heading to Abel Tasman which is on the tip of that island), the earthquake struck Kaikoura. I woke up that morning to an onslaught of messages on Facebook from friends in Canada asking me if I was okay. I was very confused to say the least. I made my way to the communal kitchen of the campsite and discovered that everyone had woken up with the same confusion as me. None of us had felt the earthquake. We were a long way away and safe and sound on the North Island.
We were told that ferries were suspended for at least a week. With our plans gone awry, we had to come up with a new plan of attack which consequently meant delaying my skydive, much to my disappointment as I had been building up my nerves. Later that morning I hopped across the road from the campsite to go get a coffee at the local cafe. After ordering I took a number and a seat, where I was told to wait and they would bring the coffee to me. 5 minutes went by, 10 minutes went by. No coffee in sight. 15 minutes, 20 minutes… they’ve clearly forgotten me, but I’m too Canadian to say anything so I just waited patiently and threw some longing looks in the barista’s direction. Sure enough she walks by me and goes “oh geez! I’m so sorry. I completely forgot your coffee!” Now, you may be wondering what the point of this story is when I’m meant to be talking about skydiving. Well, this happened to me 3 days in a row, in the same cafe, twice forgotten by the same employee and once by a new one, but MAN. Three times in a row? Totally forgotten? That never happens! That’s weird, am I right? (And if you’re wondering why we were even in the same place for three days in a row it’s because of an even longer winded story involving me cracking my head open on a rock, blacking out briefly, waking up covered in my own blood, being carried back to a hike entrance and whisked off to the hospital (all on my birthday) to determine if my brain was going to be okay. Spoiler: I was fine. Or at least no more out of sorts than normal.)
ANYWAYS, the point of the cafe story is that they forgot me 3 times in a row. Now remember the likelihood of dying skydiving, as per the Abel Tasman website FAQ, was the same as being hit by a bus 3 times in a row. To me these became the same thing.
Coffee forgotten x3 = getting run over by a bus x3
I’m going to die. Oh my god I’m going to die skydiving, it’s a sign! Also how did I smash my head open on a rock? Why was there an earthquake the day before I was meant to go?? I’m definitely being given warning signs. Do not do it. Abort abort abort. Just go back to wimpy life. It’s safe there.
Both the doctor I saw and my brother declared that I should 100% definitely not go skydiving on this trip because that’s just not something you do after smashing your head open. But to be honest, I felt fine after a couple days and I wasn’t going to let anything deter me from jumping out of that plane. I told them I appreciated their concerns but I was dead set on doing it. Luckily for me they respected that and supported my decision.
Fast forward six days and we were finally on a ferry to the south island. I had decided that night that tomorrow was the day. We would camp one night, and then drive over to Abel Tasman in time for the afternoon. Late that evening, I made a reservation for the following day at 2 pm (because apparently it’s no big deal to just book a last minute sky dive. Again, so casual).
I didn’t really sleep that night. I was excessively nervous and overly excited. I honestly couldn’t believe that I, Heather, was going to sky dive. This was a big deal for me, something I had been dreaming and fretting about constantly, and it was finally going to make it’s way into reality.
We arrived at the centre at my booked time and after hopping out of the camper van I looked around to see a completely vacant parking lot. Weird. I entered the building, butterflies literally busting out of my belly, and saw that there was almost no one there. I approached the desk clerk only to discover that they hadn’t even received my booking because I put it in too late. Seriously is this EVER going to happen?? Fortunately I was able to get a booking for that day, I just had to wait a couple hours before someone would be available to come tumble out of the plane with me… so very anticlimactic.
I know what you’re thinking… Heather how long can you write a blog post about sky diving before you actually talk about skydiving?
Okay, okay. I’ll get on with it…
After waiting around the drop zone for a couple hours people finally started to arrive. That tangible, tingly, buzz of energy started pouring in from a slew of apprehensive and eager first time sky divers which totally reignited me. After a few introductions, weighing in, and signing our lives away on a piece of paper (yeah yeah I die, my own fault, whoops), we were shepherded into a little cinema room to learn from an instructional video what was going to happen and how we should behave during the fall. I literally can’t remember a single thing about it. I do remember that after it ended we had to decide from how high we wanted to fall: either 9000, 13 000, or 16 500 ft.
Can you guys guess what I went for?
16 500 ft (duh)! All the way up, please and thank you! If I’m doing this I’m going as high as possible, falling as long as possible, and prolonging this sensation as much as nature will allow me. From that height you “enjoy a 20 min scenic flight, up to 70 seconds of freefall and then 3-5 min under the parachute.” Yup, okay, that all sounds pretty good to me.
It was time.
I was lead to the backroom of the centre where all the tandem masters were packing their parachutes and given my jumpsuit. After suiting up I was lead over and introduced to my tandem master, whose name was Scruffy. I stood in front of Scruffy and he stood in front of me, laying out all of the equipment that was paramount to hurdling us safely to the ground. As I was stepping through straps and being tightened into fancy foreign skydiver gear he was explaining the specifics of the process… telling me about my oxygen mask going up, what he needed from me during the initial jump (arms in, legs tucked behind), etc. All the good stuff. I was nodding with exceptional enthusiasm and paying diligent attention, trying to take everything in as best I could. But, to be honest, the whole thing happened so quickly that in the end I was basically just like…
yeah you’ve got this Scruffy. What a pro, I don’t need to do anything.
And honestly that’s pretty much true. The tandem masters take care of everything. They are trained to pack the parachute, operate the gear, strap you in, take you up in the plane, keep you calm and happy, jump out, get in proper position, pull the parachute, have fun with you in your video, guide you down to the drop zone and finally plop you safely on the ground… all in the span of a half hour. All you have to do is get strapped to them like a parasite and follow their instructions as best you can remember. You’re basically wearing this critical person as a backpack and hoping that everything goes according to plan.
I was trying to hone my concentration on feeling excited, breathing, and being hyper aware so I could take in the whole experience without letting fear get in the way. I’d say I was about 90% excitement and 10% fear at this point. Before I knew it the plane was ready and it was time to wave goodbye to my dad and brother, time to put one foot in front of the other and to follow Scruffy to the door. There were two other teams jumping with me, and the plane was pretty small, so we packed in like sardines in our jumping order. Scruffy and I were second and so we smushed up close to the pilot on the floor of the plane, Scruffy behind me and the first pair of jumpers directly in front of me. The hatch was closed and off we went, up and up and up into the sky. Headed for 16 500 ft.
It was an absolutely beautiful day; crystal clear skies, a gentle breeze, bright shining sun. I felt so lucky considering the amount of rain we had faced in the weeks prior, and I took in everything as we ascended more and more. Abel Tasman is a huge national park along the ocean, and from that height and by the grace of clear skies, I could even see Mt Taranaki on the North Island. All the way up I kept my breathing long and even, just looking out the window and enjoying the view. The higher we went, the higher my nerves, and the higher my excitement. It’s a pretty short 20 minutes cramped in that tiny plane, which is louder than you like, going higher than you realise, when you consider that the way back down is a pretty unusual plummeting. I was wearing my oxygen mask and thinking gee I hope Scruffy is definitely remembering to strap me to him. At some point I remember him saying in my ear “you’re strapped in. From here, you don’t go anywhere without me.” It made me feel a lot better.
Then the plane door opened in front of me, and that’s when it all really hit me… suddenly my fear and excitement could no longer be put into percentages because the intensity of both were just amassing inside me like they were forming their own little planet in my chest. Planet Holy shit, I am really doing this. It all becomes abruptly real when you look down and realise that there’s nothing between you and the earth from 16 500 ft but open air. The first team in front of me moved swiftly into position, and then poof, they were gone. Now it was our turn.
Scruffy and I inched forward like a pair of awkward siamese twins, him angling me to the door where my feet escaped and tasted freedom from the plane for the first time. I was held in position, my body perched to fall, my heart racing, my mind a flurry of anticipation. But I was smiling. He tucked my arms in, reminding me to hold them to my chest until I felt him tap me, giving me the all clear to release my arms and have fun. I think I said “yes, okay”, or something, but there was no real appreciation of his instruction to be had because I was preoccupied by the fact that I was dangling out of a plane door. He grabbed my head and leaned it back on his shoulder, we rocked for a brief second, I took a deep breath and then…
You can see in these pictures that, immediately upon exit, everything I had been told about keeping my arms into my chest went out the window and instead I just went woooooooooooooooo, and threw those arms up like I-just-don’t-care. I was out the door, my body desperately trying to orient itself by flailing around with poor Scruffy behind me. I can imagine what went through his head, ohp another flailer, hahaha. But he was such a pro, he just used his arms and legs to contain mine and held me together so he could orient us in the right direction.
I was falling, falling, falling, and wow… how do I explain it? It felt absolutely… breathtaking. Dazzling. Surprising. Exhilarating. It’s total weightlessness, a feeling of extreme liberty and freedom. In the span of milliseconds I had become a skydiver and it was such a rush of intensity I was hardly ready for it.
A lot of people I’ve talked to imagine that stomach-lurching sensation like going down a hill on a rollercoaster, but it’s nothing like that. I just felt the shock of the wind blowing against me, the surprising cold, the breath caught in my lungs. I was falling, yes, but it’s a bit hard to get perspective from up there because you’re so high up that your senses can’t make heads or tails of where you are and so you’re just a bit disoriented. But oh man is it ever gorgeous. Those 70 seconds of freefall were so intoxicating. I tried my best to take in everything around me and admire the scenery from the sky which is a bit hard to do when you’re up there and there’s a camera in your face, haha.
My photographer’s job was to get in front of me and encourage me to make silly gestures, blow kisses, look cool, etc. I mean… how am I supposed to concentrate on this when I’m falling through the sky?! Actually can we side track for a sec and talk about how amazing and crazy it would be if you were a tandem master or sky dive photographer?
What do you do for work? I throw people out of planes. Or I jump out of planes and take pictures of people.
I wish that was my job.
When the parachute finally caught us I was completely overwhelmed with gratitude and awe for the experience I just had. Being under the chute was mesmerizing and relaxing. Your body calms down and suddenly you’re just floating like a wish from a dandelion, gently descending. The earth was approaching, coming closer and closer, and I just exchanged little bits of conversation with Scruffy and enjoyed my limbs dangling in the air. It was all coming to an abrupt end and I felt that tinge of bittersweetness. On the one hand I was so glad and relieved that I survived, but on the other I really didn’t want it to be over already. So badly I wanted to hold on to that sense of complete freedom. Mere minutes had passed since I fell from the plane and, just like that, I was plopped down in the grass, safely on the ground once again.
All in all I call it a sweeping success. I was on such a high for days after. Honestly I could not stop talking about it… must have driven my father and brother crazy.
My dad gave me a big hug when it was all done and told me I was very brave.
I felt completely invincible. My face minutes after landing says it all. I love this photo because I can actually see the wonder in my eyes…
I had to snap about the occasion, obviously. 🙂 🙂
So there it is, my first (but definitely not my last) skydive experience.
If any of you guys have ever been, I’d love to know!
Thanks for reading xoxo
I know it was a long post ;p