(for the scared and inept)

I thought the day wouldn’t get much more traumatising after overhearing the following conversation on the bus from Fox Glacier to Lake Wanaka.

Driver: “All the animals you see in New Zealand were brought in by settlers — there are no mammals native to this country”

American tourist: “What about the sheep?”

Driver: “Yup, even the sheep — there were literally no mammals, apart from a few species of bats.”

Tourist’s husband: “So did they even bring the horses?”

Driver: “Yes, they — all the mammals . . . they brought all the mammals . . .”

Tourist: “But I thought kiwis were native?”

Driver: “Well kiwis are — they’re . . . they’re birds . . .”

As it transpired, this encounter served merely as an introduction to the nerve-shredding day that was to follow.

I was travelling on my own through New Zealand for two months, taking public transport, relishing my own company for once and spending happy hours staring through silent windows at the jaw-dropping scenery. At the Lake Wanaka hostel, I enquired of the owner, Bill, about the possibility of skydiving. I’d spent four days waiting for a break in the cloud cover at Fox Glacier but none had been forthcoming; so I’d cut my losses and headed south. Skydiving was sixth on my list of “must-do” adrenaline-pumping activities, and the fact that I’d crossed off the first five (zorbing, caving, black-water rafting, glacier walking, and white-water rafting) had suddenly bestowed upon it a higher prominence.

For me, it was a big step, asking if it were possible; for him, it was the daily grind. Explaining that the spaces got booked up pretty quickly, especially if inclement weather had postponed previous jumps which then got shunted forwards, he suggested I put myself down for the next day, so that I wouldn’t have to wait. A wave of nausea swept through my body and I began jabbering “Should I? I mean, yes, I want to do it, but tomorrow? That’s very soon, that’s very soon, it doesn’t give me much time, gosh, I’m not even sure I want to do this, oh my god, should I? Should I? I think it’s probably — yes — I think — ok, yes, sure, sign me up, sign me up, sign me up”.

Bill left to make the necessary phone call, and I made myself a cup of tea. No sooner had I taken a sip from my mug, than Bill was back.

“Hey Robyn, they’ve got a place now, if you’re interested?”

Spitting tea over my trousers, I looked up in astonishment. “Now? What do you mean, now?”

“As in, right now. The bus is in town. They can pick you up in five minutes. The weather’s perfect. Do you want to do it?”

I stared at him, open-mouthed. Suddenly, reality hit home. Sure, this was something I’d always said I wanted to do, but in that “I’d really like to visit the International Space Station” kind of a way — not something I thought would ever happen, that I would have to actually do. It was a distant hope, a vague intention, a half-formed, insubstantial consideration that I might, maybe, one day, possibly debate doing . . . it was a claim which made me look brave and worldly, which scared my mother, and helped underline the “couldn’t give a shit” attitude I tried so hard to cultivate at the tender age of 22. It was all very well talking big to those sexy extreme-sports enthusiasts I encountered in NZ hostels, stating boldly that I would simply love to jump out of a plane with only a thin strip of nylon holding me up, but it was quite another to make that step, to pay the money, to actually get in the plane — to actually get out of the plane. The decision seemed to last forever. I gazed, torn, at Bill’s expectant face. Should I? Shouldn’t I? Here was the million-dollar question. Did I dare? Was I brave enough? Would I regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t?

Of course I would. I put down the mug. “Yes. Ok. Fine. Why not?” I stammered, much less resolutely than I intended. Looking slightly surprised, Bill went back into the office to confirm, and I staggered into the dorm to find some appropriate footwear. I was still in my travelling clothes. I hadn’t even opened my rucksack. I’d barely been there an hour. I suddenly realised what I had agreed to do and the panic set in.

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my GOD” I spluttered, doing up my trainers with shaking hands and wondering if I would ever see England again. At that point, another girl walked into our room. She looked in amazement at my very visible fear, and asked what was happening. “I’m doing a skydive. Now. I just agreed. They just signed me up. They had a space. They’re picking me up in three minutes. A skydive. Now”. She looked thoughtful. “Do they have a space for me?” she asked, before going to find out. They did. Before I knew it, we were both in the van, being driven away from the hostel, away from safety, away from sanity, away from my insurance details.

Denise was a 30-year-old nurse from the States, and she had never done a skydive either. But her “stupid ex-boyfriend” had, and her intention was to jump higher, faster, longer, over better scenery, and this was the perfect opportunity. She was excited, anticipatory, and enviably calm, whilst I was sinking further into paranoid terror as we drew closer to the base. My usual ability to chat incessantly was reduced to a few muttered expletives on a continuous cycle. No other thoughts could be formulated in my brain, which was completely overwhelmed by the unnatural intention I was forcing it to accept.

Our arrival was a blur, and I could barely get my body to cooperate with simple commands like “sit down”. We were shown the introductory video. We were presented with the waiver (“I accept that there is a risk of permanent injury and death”). I agreed to do a 12,000 ft jump (3,650m) with a handicam video recording — when the tandem master has a camera strapped to his wrist. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted my incoherence or fear at 12,000 ft on permanent record, but then I figured that it was the only time I was likely to do something as unbelievably stupid as this, and that I might as well have lasting proof of my temporary loss of sanity. Denise, of course, was taking on the highest challenge — 15,000ft — but I felt that 45 seconds of freefall was quite enough to be going on with.

I handed over my debit card. I stared, unseeing, into the aircraft hangar where someone was packing parachutes into backpacks. I remember thinking hazily “I hope he’s done that before”. We were presented with our jumpsuits. My heart was in my mouth. A tall man with odd trousers which covered the front of his shoes strode towards us holding two harnesses. He introduced himself as Henk, Denise’s instructor, and thrust a video camera into her face. “Hi Denise, I’m Henk. How are you feeling today?” Denise, camera-shy, answered his questions somewhat perfunctorily whilst I stood to the side, unable to make any witty comments or hilarious asides; unable, in fact, to draw substantial breath. I half-struggled into my harness, my motor skills severely impaired by the lack of oxygen to my brain. A smiling, enthusiastic man bounced towards me, also brandishing a camera whilst introducing himself as Eugen, my own tandem-master.

“And how are you feeling today, Robyn?” he asked cheerily. The lump in my throat got bigger. I tried to smile and produced a grimace. “I don’t know” I whispered. “Do you have anything to say to your friends and family?” he prompted. “No” I squeaked desperately, “I have nothing to say”. I tried to make him see that this wasn’t normal — that I should be verbose, descriptive, expansive, that I should be able to wax lyrical on any subject, but that all power of speech had abandoned me completely. “That’s very unusual for me” was all I was able to offer in explanation, in protestation, in apology. Sensing that I was in the introductory throes of a panic attack, he put aside the camera and began to tighten my harness, managing to be simultaneously thorough, professional, and sympathetic to my paralysing fear. Once he had finished, I excused myself and, ignoring the suggested dose of four drops of Rescue Remedy every few hours, emptied half the bottle onto my tongue and gratefully felt the burning sensation reminding me that I wasn’t totally numb.

We were being shown the correct position to adopt on the edge of the plane and what to do once we were out. We were told the most important rule: smile and have fun. I wondered briefly if I would ever be able to smile again. We were given gloves, goggles, a final tug on our harnesses, a pat on the back. We were being led on to the tarmac. Eugen was filming the walk and the beautiful weather; perfect for skydiving. I was hauling myself up on the plane. It was a tiny propeller-driven affair, with nothing in the cabin but gym-mats on the floor, and enough space for the four of us and possibly two more besides. Eugen sat behind me and I crouched, features frozen, by the door. He’d barely sat down as the plane started to move; it was on the verge of taking off before he closed the door and got me to sit down in front of him, facing Denise and Henk who lounged on the floor behind the pilot. Denise looked excited, delighted. I wished I could mirror her emotions but I felt only cold, brain-numbing dread of such intensity that I had never, ever experienced before. Behind me, Eugen was attaching our harnesses together, briskly clipping, snapping and clinking various pieces of metal and material to each other, and cheerfully pointing out the vista outside the plane. I was sitting next to the door, which was almost entirely clear perspex, offering an incredible view of some of New Zealand’s most stunning scenery, but I couldn’t appreciate it. My mouth moved, but no sounds came out. I closed my eyes. Denise laughed. “Are you praying?” she asked, not unkindly. “I’m not religious” I managed to get out, despite simultaneously thinking that of all the times to start believing in God, this was perhaps the most opportune.

Grey-faced, mute and rigid with indescribable fear, I wondered whether I would have the gall to open my eyes on the way down, lose my stomach like on a roller-coaster, or scream in terror until I reached the ground. The mountain-tops, so distant from the ground, had not only passed us by, we could look down on the top of their peaks. We were above the few wispy clouds which spotted the turquoise sky. Gently, Eugen pulled my hat onto my head and clipped it under my chin, placed my goggles over my eyes and checked that I had done up my gloves correctly. Before I was really aware of what he was doing, he had opened the door. My life started to flash before my eyes. The last few seconds were a blur. We were inching to the side of the plane. I was gurning for the camera on the wing. I was adopting the correct position; legs tucked under the plane (UNDER THE PLANE?), hands on my harness, head back on Eugen’s shoulder. The last instructions were uttered. The propellers whirred. I fervently considered taking up religion. Then suddenly — we were out of the plane.

What shocked me most was that it didn’t take any time to get used to. Instantly, I loved it. All my fears seemed to have vanished, quite literally into thin air. What had I been afraid of? What exactly had been making me so sick with worry? This wasn’t just fun; this was the most incredible experience of my entire life. Whistling through the air, I shrieked as I had thought I would; but rather than the sounds being screams of agony, I felt only euphoria. The 45 seconds zipped past faster than the mountain tops were rushing forward to meet us. The exhilaration was intoxicating, the sheer joy, the utter, unbelievable, overwhelming freedom, the beauty of the landscape, the lakes, the mountains, the fields, the vastness of the world . . .

All too soon the parachute was being deployed. I wished I had taken the 15,000-foot option. But the following five minutes in which we surveyed the ground from the air, with a strip of nylon keeping us from crashing headlong into it, were almost as fantastic as the freefall. I felt invincible. I knew nothing could touch me. I wondered why it had taken me 22 years. I vowed to do it again as soon as possible, to make up for all the wasted opportunities so far.

I’m sure Skydive Lake Wanaka have had first-timers who were far more adventurous than me. I expect they’ve seen freefallers who twisted and turned and flipped their way through the oblivion of open sky, whilst I simply dropped, directly, astounded, but ecstatic. I’m certain they’ve had people who’ve piloted their own parachutes, who’ve performed acrobatic maneuvers and dramatic feats of strength and agility. I’ve no doubt that people have cried with joy at reaching the ground, clung on so tightly to the arm of their instructor that they’ve cut off their blood supply, had endless witty repartee with the cameraman and displayed the perfect parting shot and quick-fire responses to give their DVDs that little extra edge. I was probably quite boring in comparison. I jumped, I landed, I had little to say for myself in between. I was yet another first-time skydiver with an instructor who had done this thousands of times before. Despite this, Eugen wasn’t patronising towards my almost incapacitating fear, and he didn’t laugh at me as I struggled on to the plane (and, indeed, out of it). Although he must have been through the rigmarole countless times, he appeared to remember well the feelings I can only imagine he, too, experienced the first time he leapt out of an aeroplane into sheer nothingness.

As we floated towards earth, he asked me how I felt. “That was brilliant! That was brilliant!” I gasped, my delight clear and palpable, once more capable of speech, though with a still somewhat limited vocabulary. He swung us around and spun us down. I screamed. “Are you all right?” he asked. “Yes! These are happy screams!” I shouted back. I was barely half way into my jump yet I knew, without a doubt, that was something I had to experience again, and as soon as possible. The harness dug into my legs and the cold air caused my teeth to ache, but I didn’t care; the scenery around me was beyond spectacular, but I was barely aware of it. Ultimately all I could think of was the unbelievable, indescribable, beyond ecstatic knowledge that I had jumped out of a plane . . . and bloody loved it.

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