On Monday evening, we arrived at Abel Tasman National Park in time for a beautiful sunset, which we neatly missed due to a lengthy and painful check-in at our hostel in Marahau. My successful application to sleep in a ‘plush’ $20 tent (won in a quiz set by driver Hoff) was quickly upgraded to a $30 hostel room. While spacious, the four-bed tent also provided custom-built 2* accommodation for several thousand mosquitoes. The camp bed had terminal rust and looked as though it would either crumble or snap shut, locking me inside.
It was all a bit too real. Norwegian Nina and I dragged our packs through the darkness to a cabin at the opposite end of the site, which smelled strongly of damp. When I crawled into bed at 4.30 after Nina’s birthday party, it was to pull a duvet over my head that smelled as though someone had died under it. A while ago. By drowning.
I was beyond caring by that stage. Having spent the evening drinking red wine and a lethal punch concocted by Hanson, who had acquired three litres of Captain Morgan at Wellington airport, I slept soundly for all of 3 hours. At 8 a.m. I had to get up to walk 11.5K along the coast to Anchorage with the extremely well-slept and loquacious Eva, where we would meet a catamaran to take us back to Marahau.
I probably wouldn’t have drunk so much or stayed out so late if I hadn’t booked a skydive for the following evening. This wasn’t strictly planned. When bad weather afforded us a reprieve in Taupo, I had resolved to jump instead on my birthday in Queenstown. The idea was appealing for a number of reasons. Dying on my twenty-fifth birthday would make my dates easy for the stonemason. The weather in Queenstown wasn’t guaranteed to be clear on 1 March. Finally (and most importantly), 1 March was ages away.
This comforting state of apathy was destroyed by the blindingly good weather in the north of South Island. If Picton was warm, Marahau was veritably tropical, and I acquired an elaborate new set of tan lines during the morning hike. My skin tone, incidentally, has only just stopped attracting amused looks from other travellers, though most are still impressed by my ability to read a book by the glow of my inner arms.
Hoff had been insistent that potential skydivers should not delay but sign up as soon as possible during good weather. If you’re going to throw yourself into the void from a great height, you might as well have a good view, and New Zealand’s changeable weather won’t guarantee a clear sky. I mentioned that I might be interested. Hoff indicated that he might accompany me using his free drivers’ privilege. A deal was struck as regards the holding of hands and I was signed up for my first tandem skydive.
I tried to put the jump out of my mind as much as possible, referring to it as a ‘shopping trip’ and glugging the aforementioned medicinal rum punch on Tuesday evening. On the day, the awesome views of the Abel Tasman coastline, Split Apple rock and a healthsome swim helped to distract me both from the shopping trip and a not insignificant hangover. Nevertheless, with only three hours of sleep under my belt, it was with a distinct lack of GSOH that I received the news that Hoff wouldn’t be jumping alongside me after all. But by then the boat had reached Kaiteriteri and I was whisked away to the Abel Tasman Skydive Centre.
Much of the rest is a blur. I know that I didn’t cry. I didn’t hyperventilate. I just went very quiet and conducted all necessary communications in monsyllables from the introductory DVD onwards. This educational programme was primarily designed to to sell more DVDs and set footage of attractive, adrenaline-flushed young people jumping out of planes to generic extreme-sports music.
I must have looked pretty grim by the end because the lady from the desk came and put her arm around me. Then she took advantage of my fragile mental state and sold me their complete package for $499. The package included the dive, 50 photos, a DVD and a ‘free’ T-shirt. (For $499, my T-shirt is not complimentary. It’s a slap in the face.) I only really wanted one photo, as proof, but as this cost only $30 less than the full package and would still require a cameraman to jump out with me, it seemed silly not to get the whole thing (think of the T-shirt!). I did have the option to take my own camera on a cord under my jumpsuit, but given my ability to lose my possessions anywhere (including in an otherwise empty hostel room), I thought this unwise.
As the most nervous punter, I was offered and accepted the chance go first. As soon as they had a firm yes from me and a signature on their legal disclaimer (‘warning: you may experience injury and / or death’), I was whisked away to don an unflattering jumpsuit, harness and Biggles cap. The plane would be shared with a couple of giggling Kiwi girls, their instructors and a solo jumper.
Despite my mounting panic I found time to become concerned about my own diva-like entourage comprising instructor James and cameraman Kevin. It seemed terribly self-indulgent to have all these people there just for me. When Kevin canvassed me for my opinions while still on the ground, I had to resist the urge to tell him it was really all right, he shouldn’t worry about me, and if he could just be a bit quiet now that would be really, really good.
I was last to board the tiny, rickety plane and sat between James’s legs, ready to be secured to his harness. We took off and began to gain altitude, and, as we were forced into the back of the plane, I became acutely aware of crushing certain tender parts. James was either very polite about it or had lost all sensation by this, his eighth jump of the day.
The view must have been amazing, but I was in no state to appreciate it. Inside the plane, Kevin seemed very keen for me to be making a thumbs-up sign at every available opportunity. The thumbs-up sign does not make a regular appearance in my personal body language vocabulary. It seemed frankly bizarre that I should have been expected to incorporate it into this, the most terrifying experience of my life to date. Still, I went along with it once I realised it was the only way to stop people gesturing in my face.
After about ten minutes, James asked me to put on my cap. After another five minutes, during which I become increasingly preoccupied with the idea that he might forget to put my goggles on, James informed me that we would be exiting the plane in around 90 seconds, and put my goggles on. I felt the first stab of real, blind panic. The door was opened. The DOOR was OPENED. In a PLANE. Right NEXT to me. The slight man in his thirties who was jumping solo took a final look at his altimeter, swung his legs over the edge, and plummeted like a fucking stone.
This is the first time D For Dalrymple has dropped the F-bomb. I don’t do it lightly. These were 20 seconds of pure, primal fear, and the air around me turned a vibrant shade of blue. Kevin clambered out of the plane and clung on to the door. James instructed me to shuffle over, and was obliged to physically bump me along with his crotch when I decided that my current spot was perfectly comfortable, thanks. The wall of the plane was carpeted. Isn’t that strange? All of a sudden, my legs were over the side, and then I was over the side, hanging in my harness, totally reliant on the four clasps attaching me to James and his parachute.
This is where my memory cuts out and I have to refer to the DVD. There’s no sound, but a surprising clarity of visual detail. James points at the camera on the wing, instructs me to wave, and I very clearly tell him to fuck off. And then we jump.
I have patchy memories of the landscape lurching up and changing to sky and then land again, my mouth becoming dry, and feeling for my ring to check it was still on my finger. On two occasions Kevin floated up to incite me to make further thumbs-up signs and to shake my hand. It’s hard to punch someone in the face at 13,000 feet but I gave it my best shot.
The free-fall supposedly took 50 seconds, but seemed much shorter. With a whoomph and a sharp tug on our harnesses, the parachute unfurled and we came to what seemed like a complete halt. Kevin shot past us in freefall to be ready for our return to the airfield.
There was a sudden and complete silence which was broken when James told me he would loosen my straps for the glide to to earth. Reminded of the intimate nature of our aerial partnership, I was all to eager to agree. There was some fiddling and, without warning, I dropped 4 inches. For a split second I was certain that I was going to die, but when I opened my eyes, I was still attached and all was well. I looked down.
The landscape below had ceased to be a large blunt thing hurtling towards us, and was transformed into a endless vista of unutterable loveliness. You have no depth perception above 5000 feet, and all fear vanished. It all seemed strangely filmic: perhaps the only way my brain could understand the things it was seeing James pulled cords on each side of the parachute to direct our movement, and pointed out features of the landscape as we soared above them. There’s no other way of seeing that view. A part of me suddenly understood why people skydive. It’s not just for the adrenaline. It’s to know what it’s like to fly.
After five minutes of blissful floating, we landed smoothly a few feet from where we’d taken off. I babbled a bit to camera and hopped off to be de-suited. I waited a while for the adrenaline to kick in. Nothing. Drank some water. Still nothing. I collected my DVD and was driven back to the hostel. Had a shower. Had a beer. Waited a bit more. Nothing. I felt distinctly underwhelmed. Despite having faced and survived the greatest fear I’ve ever felt, I experienced no euphoria, no epiphany; nothing except relief that the biggest obstacle I would face that evening would be of the small winged and fanged variety.
I suppose that’s what high expectations do for you. I like to keep mine nice and low, so I’m always pleasantly surprised. If only I had saved my low expectations for Barrytown.