So, skydiving. When I came to New Zealand, the maddest thing I could possibly think of was a skydive. The idea settled at the periphery of my plans, a tiny string floating in the corner of my eye. I’m not one for extreme sports, but it occurred to me that I should probably make one exception. And what better exception than the most expensive, most insane option of them all, especially for someone who’s terrified of heights. So that was that.
We arrived in Wanaka at 2.30pm on 23rd February, having driven almost three hours from Mt Cook. After much research, we’d decided this was the place we wanted to skydive, and accordingly had arranged to stay in the town for three days. When we arrived, it was incredibly hot and we wanted a rest. However, the weather looked good, so I phoned the skydive place, just to enquire as to when they could fit us in. How about this afternoon at 4pm? said the cheerful lady down the phone. She correctly interpreted my silence as sudden all-consuming panic. But why not? Like taking off a plaster, or submerging yourself in cold water, or eating twice-boiled sprouts, sometimes you’ve got to stop thinking and just get on with it.
So less than two hours later, we found ourselves in the hangar of Skydive Lake Wanaka, sitting through a briefing in a cutesy room made up to look like an aeroplane. The warm, relaxed demeanour of the staff served in stark contrast to the horrifying form they made us sign, waiving their liability in the event of our death from turbulence, wind sheer, equipment failure, mechanical malfunction or human error. It also reminded us that we should make sure our insurance covered us for extreme sports. It didn’t. I should point out at this juncture that skydiving is very, very safe. After a disaster that killed nine people in 2009, skydiving in New Zealand became subject to new, super-strict regulations, and there’s just been the one death in the last five years. Admittedly, this death actually was at Skydive Lake Wanaka, but it wasn’t their fault. (A contract camera flyer broke regulations and jumped without the automatic system that deploys the reserve chute in case of emergency).
Oddly, I wasn’t scared. Not really at all. At first, I was incredibly excited, and then, as our wait time grew to over an hour and I burned off all the nervous energy, I just felt exhausted. Eventually we were called to have our jumpsuits and harnesses put on, and I destroyed Molly at table football and fretted about needing the toilet while we waited for our plane. We met our tandem instructors, who would be securely strapped to us throughout the flight, and then we were bundled aboard the tiny, orange plane. There were about ten of us on the plane in total, squashed together on wooden benches, with literally no room for any more people, or indeed seatbelts.
Still hardly any nerves, and certainly nothing compared to what I’ve felt before taking an exam or attending an interview. Just a returning sense of excitement, and a deep-seated feeling of relaxed fatalism: unlike an exam or an interview, this had nothing to do with me. It was all out of my hands, and the instructors were brilliant at making us feel that they had it under control. As the plane spiralled into the sky, my instructor pointed out lakes and rivers through the tiny windows, and then, when I thought we could go no higher, he tapped me on the shoulder. We’re half way up, he said. Okay, a few nerves.
Two hours of waiting, fifteen minutes of flying, and suddenly the plane slowed, as if coming to a halt in mid-air at 12,000 ft. Beneath us, clouds and distant, oh-so-distant fields. The side of the plane clanked open like a garage door. They had prepared us for this moment. We’ll shuffle together to the edge of the plane. You sit with your legs hanging out over the side. Hold onto your harness, do not hold onto the plane. Put your head and legs back, and when you’re in the correct position, I’ll push us off. Once we’re in the air, keep your head and legs back and try to breathe normally. Do not hold your breath. Do not let go of your harness until I tap you on the shoulder. Then you can spread your arms out. Hold this position until the parachute deploys.
My instructor and I were second out of the plane, and I heard Molly’s scream as she disappeared over the edge. And now, at the moment itself, the single instant of what should have been total terror – just pure elation. Not a single care in the world. It was all too surreal, too overwhelming, as if it couldn’t possibly be real. Like playing a silly game. I sat on the edge of the plane with my legs dangling over the edge, and I couldn’t stop smiling.
We drop. For two heart-stopping seconds, that feeling of falling, a totally all-consuming moment of disbelief at what you’ve just done as you spin helplessly through the air. And finally… OH MY GOD, I’M FLYING. Joy, exhilaration, a deep desire to laugh and just keep laughing all the way down. Indescribable. And, oh fuck, I’ve forgotten to breathe, quick, head back, breathe, breathe (you can see this in the video!). The air is bitterly cold. You’re simply too high up to care about the fact that you’re falling at terminal velocity towards the ground. Vertigo doesn’t, can’t, manifest. The ground doesn’t exist; it’s a joke. It’s almost like swimming.
The parachute blossoms and you jerk to what seems like a stop, the earth still a faraway fantasy. Slowly your brain starts to piece the last 45 seconds together, mentally taking it all in for the first time. Stunning, glorious views. You can speak. Mostly all I manage is holy shit. It takes about four minutes to glide to the ground, and still no fear of heights appears. We do loops and turns through the air, and my instructor teaches me how to land (yes, the first time this is explained is while we’re parachuting to the ground). Do not put your feet down until I tell you, he insists sternly, as we sweep above the road and the hangar and plummet towards the grassy field that marks the landing zone. It’s incredible to me that skydiving can be executed with such pin-point precision. The land rushes towards us and my instructor shouts Stand! And somehow we manage a standing landing, a comparative rarity amongst first-time skydivers (mostly you land on your arse).
And it’s all over. Two hours of waiting, fifteen minutes of flying, forty-five seconds of falling, and a few minutes parachuting down. The friendly staff give us a free t-shirt for having had to wait so long, and then we get to laugh at our photos and videos. Before I went for it, I would have insisted that skydiving was something I’d only ever do once in my life. Now? Hey, want to do one with me? After all, if I can do it…
And if you really want to laugh at me…
In my day, the Twitter-friendly philosophy of #YOLO was expressed most succinctly by Robin Williams in Dead Poets’ Society. His character, inspirational teacher John Keating, implored his students to Seize the Day, preferably in Latin (Carpe Diem). The importance of taking risks is undeniable, but the idea has been somewhat hijacked by the short-term, thrill-seeking, responsibility-waiving, consequence-denying selfishness of so much of modern society. Taking risks doesn’t have to be about quitting your job, travelling to the other side of the world or jumping out of planes. It could be committing to build a life with someone, or starting an enterprise for something you deeply believe in, or sacrificing your own short-term happiness for the benefit of others.
I’m quite defensive about this point, because as it turns out, I quit my job, travelled to the other side of the world and jumped out of a plane. This is just one of infinite paths of equal weight; it has no intrinsic moral value. If hopefully it isn’t timid, then neither is it brave. If it isn’t to be condemned, then neither is it to be commended. This is a wonderful year, the easiest possible year to not regret, but my hope is that it will help build in me a long-term ability to live in the present and not dwell in the past, a neural construction that will reach far beyond the immediate thrill of, oh let’s say, skydiving.