A TNT Travel Writing Awards entrant
Author: Tracey Price
I wake up just before dawn in Franz Joseph, Westland Tai Poutini National Park, a World Heritage Site in West coast New Zealand, South Island. It encompasses temperate rainforest, lakes and famous glaciers. It is springtime. Rain has fallen continually for 5 days. This is not unusual due to the proximity of the Southern Alps and the prevailing North Westerly winds. But forecasts today say rain will not fall, which is a fortunate prerequisite for this morning. However, I’ve slept badly and have a sickening sensation within. I bite the bullet. I’ve committed to facing my fear.
The seed for ‘extreme sports’ in New Zealand was planted with the commercialisation of the ancient Vanuatuan ritual known today as bungee jumping. 20 years on, New Zealand has a reputation for heart pounding, dry mouth encounters which can be endured and enjoyed through a multitude of activities in this fearless nation. It is in Aoetera, land of the long white cloud, that I challenge myself to a sky dive over Fox Glacier at 12,000 feet. Our chirpy Kiwi driver rolls up bright and early, to collect the damned.
During the 25 minute journey the driver narrates our fate. We’ll get a jump suit. We’ll practice some moves. The plane is a 4 seater. We’ll free fall at 200 kilometres per hour for 45 seconds. Our instructor will take care of everything. Once the parachute opens, he’ll control it, making turns so we may experience the G-force effect as we descend. Should anyone not be keen on feeling the G-force, we should let our instructor know. Nervous chatter pours out and my fear reigns supreme, subdued temporarily by a song, Sex on Fire. The driver turns up the radio and I focus my attention on the rising sun.
We arrive at a homely, friendly place. A cat and dog meander around, unfazed. We all laugh at the toy like yellow plane under the corrugated iron shelter. We sign a disclaimer. We meet 2 instructors, men in their fifties, strong, serious, mischievous Kiwis. I identify the one I trust, eyeball him and blurt out “Am I going up with you?” He instinctively replies “‘Yeah darlin'” without a hint of condescension. We all practice the ‘banana’ demonstrated by him. “Curve backwards without bending your knees, that’s it darlin’ you got it, the girls know what they’re doing, boys you’re not doing the Haka! Don’t bend your knees! push your dangly bits out as far as you can and make a banana with your back, yep that’s better, you’ve got it, alright who’s going first?” It’s decided I should.
The engine starts, the door closes. I sit between the legs of my instructor. He is behind, buckling, attaching and tightening things, insisting I’m going to love it. I ask how long he’s been doing this, he replies 30 years. I say it must be a bore humouring scaredy cats like me. “Quite the opposite darlin’, you’ll get more out of this than anyone else I’ll see today.” We climb high. I see virgin white snow between jagged rocks. This is Mount Cook, Aoraki, the highest mountain in New Zealand and we are almost eye level with the peak. The sky is flawless blue against perfect white, morning sun floods in.
We’re nearly at altitude. My brain does not, perhaps cannot comprehend it. He fits my eye mask and hat, points the camcorder at me for a few last words. I can’t. He whispers words one might use to reassure a frightened infant. The plane lurches. My stomach churns. He shouts ” We are at 12,000 feet and we’re going sky diving!” he whoops and cheers. The door flings up, deafening gushing air engulfs us all, I swing my legs round so they hang outside and I do the banana. “Look at the camera and give us the thumbs up eh?” My eyes locate the wing camera and surprisingly I deliver the gesture. “Good on ya darlin’, OK I’m counting down from 3…”
When fear becomes futile, liberation blooms.
He didn’t count out loud. I feel his weight suddenly. This is the best. It’s like falling through a dream. The body turns. The plane under carriage gets smaller. We face down. 3 taps to the head signal to uncross the arms, stretch them out. There is the unearthly feeling of flying and floating. Laughing out loud turns the face to jelly; it wobbles and contorts to alien shapes. Breathing could be done through the nose as mouths seem unable to close again when opened during free fall.
The body plummets but the mind stays still, absorbed by the moment.
The parachute snaps open. The harness strains, now shooting upwards, I scream, legs flailing. The vast red canopy steadies, there is an illusion of being stationary. Then utter silence and views of ocean, shore line, green landscape. Suddenly there’s whooping and cheering and “How’d ya like that Tracy?” I respond, blabbering with euphoria. It’s a while before I register the camcorder still in my face. Now I want to feel the G-force. Like an excited child, I make the request. Later I would be told the screaming could be heard back at base.
We practice the landing position. Soon I feel the skidding of thick cotton overalls against grass. With weak legs I stand, making predictable, happy sounds. My instructor says in legitimate jest “There it is, oh my god, oh my god. The ‘oh my gods’ are back in town!” I step aside and watch the next guy land. We have a few minutes exuberant celebration then pile in the car and drive back to base where the others await their turn. I seek out my instructor. He’s busy re-packing the parachute. I hang around him like a puppy wagging it’s tail. “You’re a different woman now ain’t ya darlin’?” I conclude that indeed I am. As they say in New Zealand, sweet as… sweet as.