ANDREW WESTBROOK was all cocky about jumping out of a plane for a second time, until he threw up…
I’ve skydived once before, meaning that as I pull on my jumpsuit, I feel calm. Cocky almost. After all, I know what to expect and can well remember how much I’d loved it the first time.
But stepping onto the tiny plane, everything changes. The terror takes hold as we head slowly and shakily up to 14,000ft. Below us we can see the Tully River, an endless line of beach and the sparkling ocean, dotted with the Family Islands and the Great Barrier Reef itself.
I still find it hard to control The Fear in these situations. I know it’s perfectly safe (well, sort of). And that I’m going to love it. But for some reason, however, my bastard brain insists on turning me into a demented wreck whenever I’m about to jump into thin air.
Anyway, with The Fear just about under control, the door flings open. The deafening whoosh means just one thing… My time has come.
Edging over to the gaping hole, my legs dangle through and I look down. Even second time around, I’m in
complete disbelief as I watch the world rush past between my legs. But suddenly we’re gone and it’s rush hour. I woop and yell, scream and grin like a man in a padded cell. It’s even better than I remember.
This time I have another skydiver jumping with me as a cameraman. He flies in and out, we play around pretending to swim through the air, or grabbing hands, while we drop towards the ground like stones. It’s
brilliant fun and, not being quite so overwhelmed by the experience second time around, I take in just how
stunning the view is as I plummet Earth-bound. It’s as good as any scenic flight I’ve ever taken, except this time I’m the aeroplane.
Then the chute opens and my instructor turns viciously to the left and right, spinning us down towards the beach like the most evil rollercoaster imaginable as we suddenly dip towards the beach and feel sand beneath other feet.
I’m back on solid ground, wandering if I’ll still be scared the third time. No doubt my stomach will… it lasts half an hour before I throw up on the street.
The damage & the details: Jumps with Skydive Mission Beach (Ph: 07 4068 9291, www.skydivemissionbeach.com.au) cost from $249.
We started at an exhilarating pace, riding low and feeling the surface bumps as we sped out across the Harbour. Random angles took us past the Opera House, onwards towards Manly, left to Kirribilli House and back towards the bridge. I took in all the views as the boat navigated sharply around other vessels. This was Sydney Harbour at its best and we were flying free, tailing ferries and jumping in their wake.
Turning to the east we passed Rushcutters Bay, Rose Bay and Watson’s Bay. Mansion by mansion we passed the homes of the who’s who crowd until we were far from shore. Turning to yell above the wind, the driver called to hold tight. With that he dropped the throttle and we flew forward at an even faster pace, skimming above the surface so we barely touched the water. The speedo read 80mph. Then from nowhere came a quick succession of massive slides, 360 degree spins and powerbrake stops just short of other vessels. I pulled my belt tighter and sank further into my seat.
”Yell something.” I had no idea what the driver was saying above the wind, and I was in the front. Dropping the throttle even further there came a series of wild zig zags that sent the boat careering on its side, kicking up great walls of water that came crashing down upon us. It was obviously a finale.
Heading back into Middle Harbour at a more amiable speed, we pulled up close for a drive-by of Fort Denison, the old convict jail (now used for dance parties).
Back on dry land with sea-soaked hair and white knuckles, I was tingling. It was more thrilling than I had anticipated and certainly a better ride than the ferry.
The experience: Oz Jet Boating. Prices start at $55.
You can’t have the complete Gold Coast experience without going surfing – or should I say having a surf lesson? After all, aren’t I guaranteed to see those golden beach babes? If the students weren’t going to be hot and spunky, then surely the surf instructors would be. Right?
When Scotty arrived at the hostel to pick up his students for the day, I was proven correct. Hello! But could he back up his good looks and charm with his surf teaching skills? Yep. He guaranteed that we’d all stand up on our boards not just once, but several times during our surf lesson, even if we’d never surfed before. And that’s exactly what happened. All of us were standing on our boards and riding the waves like pros in no time. Okay, okay, maybe just semi-pros.
It was a struggle because being the lazy git that I am I had no strength in my arms to paddle out and big waves have a tendency to swallow little people like me. But Scotty always had my back and even though I was falling off my board more times than I was on it, he had a way of talking to his students that made you feel like you could join the pro circuit in no time.
And another thing: I stupidly forgot to bring my boardshorts so I only had an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny bikini to go surfing in. So what happened? My arse kept trying to eat my bikini bottoms and so half the time I was preoccupied with yanking it out. It’s not especially lady-like being face down on a surfboard with your entire arse on full display for your surf instructor. Scotty heard me swearing under my breath but all he said was, “Don’t worry. I’ve seen worse.”
It was the way he said it that made my embarrassment completely disappear and I was able to refocus on the next wave which I rode all the way back in to the shore. I’d say that’s a sign of a great instructor.
The experience: Get Wet Surf School, Ph: (07) 5532 9907.
Diving With Sharks
Fumbling with my weight belt and trying not to vomit, I contemplated man’s fascination with sharks. I was on a boat off the coast of Sydney preparing to dive with a shiver of grey nurse sharks. The ocean was rough and my instructor was telling me to move to the back of the boat if I wanted to vomit.
The attraction stretches far back into the jaws of time where myth, fact and superstition are punctuated with a fear of the unknown. The myth part is easily understood I thought, and myths are usually born of ignorance. And what about superstition? I didn’t pay any heed. Superstition also comes from a lack of knowledge, or in my case, from watching Jaws too many times. It was the fact part of the equation that disturbed me most.
Strapped up in my kit bearing the weight of my tank and dive belt, I didn’t think it was very likely I’d reach the back in time, so I vomited over the side.
There are two fatal shark attacks on average per year in Australia. “You have more chance of being hit by a bus on your way home,” yelled my dive buddy as he hauled me stumbling and retching to the rear of the vessel.
Staring down into the cool water off Maroubra Beach, I contemplated my fate. Sharks have been hunting in the ocean for 400 million years; they’re older than dinosaurs and as invincible as cockroaches. They have survived Ice Ages and meteor collisions – they’re not creatures to be trifled with.
“Scissor step entry,” called the instructor.
“Your buddy’s already in, stay with your buddy.”
Go to hell buddy, I thought as I scissored and surfaced.
Okay? Okay? Okay? We held our hands above our heads with thumbs touching index fingers. In diver-speak, this means you’re ready. Defying my urge to jettison my kit and scramble back aboard the vessel, I was surprised to see my own hands diligently obeying the codes set out in the diver’s handbook. My buddy grinned with a manic excitement. “Regs in mouths,” called the instructor. “Deflate jackets, going down in 3,2,1…”
Breathe. You have to remind yourself to do this underwater. Beneath the ocean’s surface everything was silent except my heart, beating like a massive drum resounding through my body with a vibration that would surely alert sharks all over the planet. Three metres… five metres… equalise.
At 20 metres below the surface we reached the bottom where the visibility was a brilliant 10 to 15 metres. My buddy, detestable to me a moment earlier was now my best friend. I latched on to him with a vice-like grip and together we swam across the ocean floor past the astonishing displays of fish and vegetation to the gaping mouth of the sharks’ cave.
There have been just a few moments in my life when I’ve had to seriously counsel myself against a rising, urgent panic – this was one of them. My instinct was to flee, to drop my weights and make for the surface as quickly as possible. To hell with burst ear drums and bubbling blood. There would be no time to equalise. Just get the hell out and write it all off as a bad experience. But sharks are excited by movement and instead, I froze.
From the blackness came the first shark, swimming directly towards me until it stopped and hovered right before my face – so close I could touch it. It stared at me, and then there were three.
The sharks marked their territory by swimming protectively back and forth in front of their cave below Magic Point. Neither angry or defensive, they reminded me of playful, intelligent puppy dogs. We remained still, kneeling on the sand until they seemed satisfied. Then they lost all interest in us and retreated back inside to their breeding ground. Grey nurse sharks are an endangered species and there are only a few hundred left on the east coast.
Turning to my instructor I saw the thumbs up signal. I had to agree it was overwhelmingly good. But then I remembered thumbs up is diver-speak for the resurfacing command. My heart relaxed as we began our ascent. Stopping to equalise five metres below the surface, I scanned the water for any sign of the magnificent creatures, but they’d vanished back into the depths where they’d continue to fascinate us for thousands more years to come.
The experience: PADI and Pro Dive.
They say that if you don’t jump within 30 seconds of getting out onto the platform, chances are you’re never going to do it at all. I had already chickened out on a bungy once before and I knew my mates would never let me live it down if I bailed again.
So the way I had it planned, I was going to get straight out there, countdown from three and go for it.
I can do this. Funny how things don’t tend to work out quite like you plan, eh? I knew it wasn’t going to be easy – I was hardly surprised when the nerves kicked in as soon as I saw the platform rising 50 metres out of the jungle at AJ Hackett’s Cairns bungy centre. I can do this.
I sat down, trying to steel my nerves as I watch one of the lads from our group jump. He’d been scared, but he’d done it without too much fuss. I can do this.
I was starting to shake as I went inside and got myself weighed. I was desperately searching for a way out, some kind of excuse I could use for not going though with it.
I wanted to buy myself some time, but all that now stood between me and that 50-metre drop was the climb to the top of the tower. I can do this.
My knuckles were already white by the time I finally made it to the top (I’m less than brilliant when it comes to dealing with heights) and my knees were shaking so much that all I wanted to do was collapse on the floor and scream and cry until someone carried me back down again. At this point, I reckon the odds of me jumping were about 937 to one.
I didn’t give a damn if I was never going to live it down – at least I’d still be alive and (let’s face it) backing out is a whole lot less embarrassing than kacking your pants. I can’t do this.
My turn. No… I don’t think I can do this.
I’ll just get strapped in, then I’ll see how I feel. My pulse races. The blood drains from my face. I am breathing heavily. I don’t think I can do this. Then I’m shuffling out onto the platform. What am I doing out here? I’m sure I just told myself I couldn’t do this. Maybe I was wrong? Maybe I can do this? I look out at the stunning views over Cairns, of the surrounding mountains and out to the reef.
There are two jumpmasters up there with me, and they keep telling me how well I’m doing. “If you just want to shuffle out a little further…” Shh. Just let me look at the view for a while and calm down, then I think I can do it.
I look down. Big mistake. My grip tightens. Actually I don’t think I can do it.
More deep breaths. Think about something mundane.
I compose a shopping list. Bread. Milk. Chocolate. Isn’t this a lovely view? I’ve stopped shaking, but my breathing is still laboured, my pulse is still racing and now my mouth is dry. But I think I can do this.
One of the jumpmasters holds out his arm for me again. This time I decide to take it. My palms are sweaty from holding on so tight to that metal ring, and my fingernails dig deeply into his arms, but at least I’ve left my security blanket behind. You know, I think I’m going to do this.
I look out at the horizon. I stretch my arms out from my sides. I take a deep breath. This is it. I’m going to do this.
I launch myself off the platform, and I’m falling, screaming, the ground rushing towards me at a million miles an hour.
Then I’m slowing down, stopping inches from the water, and heading quickly back up, still screaming. I suddenly remember to breathe. I close my eyes as I bounce up and down. I did it.
The experience: AJ Hackett Bungy Tower in Cairns, Queensland. For more information Ph: (07) 4057 7188, freephone: 1800 622 888.
Like two peas in a pod, we chucked ANDREW “problem child” WESTBROOK in with a problem croc…
Houdini swims past, just inches from my face. He looks me straight in the eye.
The piercing, almost dismissive, glance is clear. His teeth practically sparkle. I can almost hear him thinking: “I want to eat you.”
In case you’re confused, I’m not suffering a cannibalistic vision of the famous (and long dead) escapologist… not quite at least. I’m treading water in the Cage of Death, the welcoming name given to one of Darwin’s most nerve-jangling adrenalin thrills. The Houdini I’m sharing the water with just happens to be a giant saltwater crocodile, who would love nothing more than for me to escape the floating plastic box currently separating me from him.
It was hard not to suddenly feel very, very vulnerable as, dressed only in our swimmers, we looked down the ladder into the Perspex box floating idly on top of the crocodile pool.
Being the gentleman of course, I let my girlfriend descend first. Once inside we quickly got our bearings. The water was crystal clear and our vision through the surrounding plastic was perfect, although the massive scratch and claw marks left little doubt that some very big and very hungry predators had had some determined goes at getting inside.
Our box suddenly kicks into gear and we start rising into the air – we’re to be dropped into three separate salty pools for the best chance to see them up close.
Swaying in the warm tropical wind, we carry on to the furthest pool to take our first plunge. Underneath us lurks Houdini and Bess. Lady croc Bess, measuring in at just under 3m, is not what you’d call a small girl. But she looked tiny compared to her hulk of a man – Houdini
Weighing over 600kg and stretching almost 5m, there’s no getting around it… he’s a monster. Plus, as I was starting to regret having just learnt, Houdini was by no means just brawn, and had earned his nickname for a reason.
He gained his problem croc reputation thanks to apparently being an expert escape artist. Houdini managed to develop the knack of climbing into traps and eating the bait, before managing to then escape the trap. Just what you want to be thinking about while being lowered into his den…
And so, as we get dropped into the water, like lumps of bait towards a master magician man-eater, we start feeling a little nervous. The cage hits the water and it starts coming up through the floor, gradually submerging us into the world of the salty. Our safe haven keeps falling until we’re waist deep in water, Houdini’s water.
Snorkels on, we head down for a closer look. They’re hanging close to the wall, seemingly uninterested but keeping an observant eye on us, dreaming of a tourist sandwich. There’s no sudden rush, no snap of teeth or crash of hungry power – judging by the scratches, these crocs have clearly learnt the lesson. Instead, relaxing just a metre or two away from us, they watch, wait and send a little prayer to the crocodile gods that the cable holding us up will snap.
But suddenly Bess is on the move. Giving her man the cold shoulder she comes in for a closer look. She glides effortlessly through the water, brushing the cage while seemingly grinning at us.
Predictably enough, Houdini knows his place and sets off in pursuit. He slowly and effortlessly cruises up towards us. For such a massive animal, it’s incredible how gracefully he moves. He hovers, his huge head just inches from mine with only the plastic and a bit of water between us. There’s no doubt that without the plastic he’d be ripping me to shreds in a second. And would absolutely love it.
After staring us out for a while, he carries on past and is gone, leaving us buzzing from the experience.
The damage & the details: The Cage of Death at Crocosaurus Cove (Ph: 08 8981 7522, www.crocosauruscove.com) costs $120 ($160 for two people).
”Now this section is going to be really hard, but if you listen to me and do as I say as we go through the rapids, then we’ll get through it without falling in.”
The words spoken by our guide five minutes ago rang in my ears as I saw her fall off our boat and into the whitewater. The only chance of getting through the oncoming grade five rapids had just fallen off the edge of the raft. Cheers love.
The next minute or so is very vivid in my mind. The first bit of whitewater sent the boat sideways, the second sent it arse over tit. My girlfriend came crashing down on my head from the other side of the boat and then I magically became transported to the inside of a washing machine. But hey – now I can say I not only rafted grade five rapids but swam them as well.
If you hadn’t got the gist of it yet, whitewater rafting is an exhilarating experience. There’s something about trying to battle your way through the rapids and coming out triumphantly on the other side that gives you a real sense of achievement.
First of all, you have to battle against your natural instinct to just hang on for dear life. Grabbing hold of the boat means you’re not paddling; not paddling means you’re not in control; not being in control leads to the washing machine experience.
And there’s nothing quite like the threat of the washing machine to make a group of strangers bond very quickly. Your fellow paddlers become best pals very quickly, as you whoop, scream and yell encouragement at each other during the ride.
The only downside is that you don’t get much of a chance to take in the scenery. A couple of stops to talk tactics on the approaching hard bits was about the only chance I had to take in the wonderful surrounds of the river. But with the washing machine threatening another spin cycle, I thought it best to listen to the guide.
The damage & the details: Raging Thunder, Ph: (07) 40 307 900.