Monday, August 07, 2006

Sky Diving over Cairns

August 5th, 2006:

For my last day in the Cairns area, I decided I'd try give myself a fall, a big fall, a fall from a plane thousands of feet above ground. Yes, it was time to try: Sky Diving!

The hostel had a variety of brochures for Sky Diving companies, but the one that stood out was "Xtreme Skydiving". Formally known as "Paul's Skydiving", this company has been in operation since 1989, is the original operator in the area and has a team of experts with over 95,000 jumps between them: as the brochure put it "there {was} no decision to make" and I phoned up to make a reservation.

As I was flying back to Sydney later on the day of the proposed jump, a critical factor for me was time: would I be able to complete the mission before time ran out? The receptionist promised me that if I went on the 8:30AM flight, I would be back to my hostel within 2 1/2 hours which fitted perfectly with the schedule and so with no more excuses I booked myself in.

There were four of us rookies taking our first jump today, and we all nervously met up at the "Xtreme Skydiving" office. With all of the tourist activities I have done over the last five months there were mostly groups of friends with only a few individuals, but it was interesting to see that there were no groups of friends in this case, only individuals: perhaps this is an activity where it is tough to find whole groups of friends willing to go, leaving it up to the (clearly crazy :) individuals...?

Preparation for the flight took place surprisingly quickly. Paperwork was filled (the usual dangerous activity disclaimers needed to be signed) and then we had a harness fitted around each of us. We were all doing tandem jumps (meaning that we were jumping while attached to a more experienced guide) and so we were introduced to our guides for the day. Mine was a British bloke from near Cambridge who had a dark sense of humor: while checking my harness he joked: "Hope I haven't missed anything... Well I guess we'll find out once we are up there!" :). Our guides also had us practicing the various moves we would have to make while in the air (such as practicing the classic sky diving position: flat on your tummy, arms stretched out to the sides and legs arched back upwards) and also the landing position we would have to take at the end. Within ten minutes of arriving we were all climbing into the van and heading off to the Cairns' airfield, all of us wondering what we had gotten ourselves in to...

On arrival at the airfield, we found the plane was already warming up. The plane seemed impossibly small, and resembled a slightly elongated two-seater which was supposed to fit all four of us newbees and each of our guides. Having seen plenty of WW2 movies where the parachuters are seating in their plane ready to be dropped into France, I was expecting sixty years of progress to provide a nice comfy plane: the reality was slightly different and if anything the WW2 paratroopers flew in luxury(!) (except for the conditions outside for them, needlesstosay) Seats? What are they?! We roughed it in our plane by cramming into the small interior which just about fitted us all in. The plane was only wide enough for one person so we sat in a line with each of us first-timers sitting between the outstretched legs of our guides.

I was last in and so was right next to the door of the plane. The door, from floor to ceiling was composed of see-through plastic and as the plane took off and started to climb, nothing of the view outside was left to the imagination. The first three thousand feet were the most nerve-racking with everything on the ground getting smaller and smaller very quickly. My guide and I were continuing our dark jokes which helped distract from what was about to happen and by the time we reached our jump height, everything below looked surreal-y small and looked more like a picture/painting.

With Sky Diving, there are four main heights you can do it from: 8,000ft, 10,000ft, 12,000ft and 14,000ft. It seems that above 14,000 the reduced oxygen can become a problem so 14,000ft is seen as the limit. I figured if you're going to do it, you might as well do it right and so went with the highest option.

Once we reached 14,000ft, the door opened and it was time to jump. I was by now securely attached to my guide and as I was right next to the door there wasn't far to move to get to the jump position. We slowly moved to the doorway, through which a gale was now blowing through. Then I sat on the ledge of the doorway which my legs dangling outside and my arms and face outside the plane being blown by the icy hurricane strength wind blowing along the length of the fuselage. My guide edged me a bit further out so that he could get into the right position and I found myself teetering on the edge of the door ledge fighting the suction of the wind blowing past and also fighting the instinct to move back from the big drop down to the ground far, far below...

"Go!" was the next thing I heard and we fell out. Before going up the guide had asked me if I wanted to do any aerial acrobatics and in a moment of bravado I had replied "why not!", so as soon as we left the plane we started doing frontal somersaults and while keeping my eyes open I could see the land below switch with the sky above. Again, and again we flipped over and and over and after half a dozen flips we flattened out in a freefall. We were both in the classic skydive position by now and the wind screamed past us as we plummeted for about a minute. Exhilarating is the word to describe the freefall: the wind is so strong that the skin on your face straight away gets pulled back, any other exposed skin gets instantly chilled and you find yourself suddenly aware of gravity's inexorable pull dragging you down while the wind screaming past leaves you in no doubt that you are falling quickly!

After about a minute, the guide tapped me on my shoulder and as I crossed my arms in front of my shoulders he released the parachute. I was expecting a painful sudden jerk, but instead it was more of a smooth stop as the canopy unfurled and then we just seemed to hang motionless in the air. We were both buzzed after the excitement of the freefall and even though everything on the ground far below still looked too small to be real, I'm sure the people in a nearby matchbox-sized farmstead heard us :) The jump site we had gone for was just outside of Cairns, and the crystal clear viewing in every direction displayed the green sugarcane farmlands and rainforests directly below with Cairns city further out next to the blue sea in the distance with small islands dotting the bay. The view was amazing. The gently parachuted fall lasted a couple of minutes and the guide gently tugged the left and right handles attached to the parachute to change our viewing angle while he described the local landmarks. After a bit he asked if I wanted to spin a bit and as soon as I uttered the word "sure!" he yanked on the right handle and we suddenly started spinning insanely quickly in circles to the right. He then yanked on the left handle and we quickly stopped, only to start spinning to the left: the spins were disorientating and if you go sky diving yourself in the future, and you have a weak tummy, you may want to skip this bit...

By now, the ground was getting closer and it no longer unreal: it just looked like everything was getting bigger very, very quickly. We made sure to avoid a high-tension power cable tower below (that provided lots of jokes for our continued black humor :) and once we cleared the tower it was time to adopt the landing position. If you are landing by yourself you can land standing upright, but when in tandem it is far, far safer to land in the seated position. So, with our legs up we glided over a sugarcane field which had recently been harvested and the discarded sugarcane stalks provided a soft landing for when we touched down.

The rest of the tandem groups landed shortly afterwards and even though one of the other first-timer's was South Korean with poor English and another was Japanese and had no English, it didn't matter: we all had no problem communicating our excitement(!) Even the guides who have jumped hundreds of times were all buzzed and were happy that each of us had given it 110% and that there had been no problems.

So, it seems that I have found another activity that I will have to try again. The only thing with these new activities (scuba diving & sky diving} is that they are somewhat expensive: today's experience, though it only lasted minutes cost 270AUD, so its unlikely that I will be trying it often. Nevertheless, even if I never get to do it again, I'll never forget my first sky dive.