S is for Skydiving

Literally the first thing on my Die Die Must Do bucket list is skydiving. It’s probably the first thing on a lot of people’s bucket lists, and for good reason. I mean, if you can somehow convince yourself into jumping out of a plane from a height of 14,000 feet, you can convince yourself to do pretty much anything, right? Well, last year, I got to check that particular item off my bucket list, and it was pretty darn awesome.

To be honest, though I’d written it down on my bucket list, I wasn’t really expecting to go skydiving anytime soon, and I certainly wasn’t planning any trips around it. Then an opportunity came for me to visit Australia, and as my housemate (G) and I were planning our trip, we came across lots of itineraries that mentioned skydiving. Then we looked up skydiving, and a lot of places mentioned Wollongong (a coastal area just south of Sydney) as being a fantastic place to do it. Even though the price was pretty steep, it was too tempting an opportunity to let slip, especially when Sydney was already part of our plan. So before we could overthink the situation and talk ourselves or each other out of it, G and I bit the bullet and booked ourselves a slot with a company called Skydive the Beach.

That was the easy part. If overthinking is an issue before you decide to skydive, it’s nothing compared to the stuff that can go on in your head in the duration between clicking that button to pay your deposit and actually doing jumping off the plane. Our brains are very well-suited for coming up with half-baked worst-case scenarios, most of which have no basis in solid reason and which probably defy the laws of physics. Here’s what you should actually do in that interim – talk to people who’ve done it. You’ll see they’re still well and alive, they’ll convince you it’s actually no big deal, and you’ll feel a little better about the whole thing. Here’s what you shouldn’t do – look up skydiving videos on YouTube, because you’ll inevitably come across one titled “HORRIFYING SKYDIVING MID-AIR COLLISION!!!”, and even if you don’t actually watch the video, you’ll be traumatised for days after.

Anyway, G and I managed to spend the month or so in between booking our trip and the actual day in relative peace. Our trip went well, Melbourne providing lots of good weather (0 degrees Celsius!), great sight-seeing and fantastic food. We’d arranged for our skydiving experience to happen the morning we arrived in Sydney after an overnight train from Melbourne (probably not the best idea, on hindsight), so even before we were fully awake, we’d set off with all our luggage on a two-hour drive to Wollongong. The upside to the long trip was that we got some rest in the van, and that by the time we reached Wollongong, it was bright, sunny, and (most importantly) a crisp 15 degrees.

After a quick check-in and signing of forms (“I understand that if I die here today, it will be because of my poor life choices, and not the fault of the company that helped me execute those poor life choices”), it was time to be prepped. We were given jumpers, gloves and harnesses to wear (harness-wearing is one of the few times it pays not to be a man), and told what to do once the plane reached expected height. Now, not a lot of these instructions made much sense without context, but no-one dared to say anything, so we just nodded our heads like good students, no doubt secretly wondering if not asking for clarification was what was going to get us killed. We were then each introduced to our tandem partner, the experienced instructor we were going to jump out with, and who, almost literally, would be holding our lives in their hands. (I made sure to try and bond with mine so he would value my life a little bit more than if we were total strangers. Which we were.)

Then it was time to head out on another 20-minute van journey to the air base that held the planes that we would be jumping out of. If you’ve ever been on one of those little domestic flights that carry only about 20 people and rattle like crazy in turbulent weather, you will still not be prepared for how absolutely tiny skydiving planes are. This one did not look like it could fit more than 5 people, but somehow, 14 of us managed to squeeze in, and I do not think the cliched phrase “packed like sardines” would be inappropriate to describe the situation. There were no seats, just two wooden planks that we straddled like they were benches at the park, huddled so tight one behind the other that I literally didn’t know where to put my hands. I settled for the backpack of the dude in front of me, and got promptly told off (albeit kindly) for touching (and possibly tampering with) his parachute. Egads!

And then, almost improbably, the plane took off. I alternated between looking out of the (slightly grimy) window at the beautiful view of the coastline and back at G, who was sitting on my left on the second plank, wearing a half-excited, half-crazed look that I’m sure my own face was imitating. About 10 minutes into the flight, when the plane slowed slightly, I looked out, and realising I couldn’t make out any specifics below other than, you know, the ocean, I took a deep breath and steeled myself.

This was it.

Oh, no, wait, it wasn’t. My instructor cheerily announced that we were at 6,000ft, and while my brain wasn’t exactly functioning at maximum capacity, I was still able to calculate that we weren’t even halfway up to the height we were going to jump out of. At that point, I sort of mellowed out, content in the realisation that I would not feel a thing if I hit the ground after falling from any height beyond that.

After another 10 minutes or so, when the instructors started fidgeting with harnesses, tightening straps and adjusting their GoPros, we knew it was actually time. There was a huge rush of sound as the plane doors opened and the wind came blowing in, and having been squeezed way into the back of the plane, I watched the other pairs drop out one by one. The only thing that registered in my head was that they weren’t dropping straight down, but sideways, as though the wind was knocking them off track. When my turn came, I hooked my legs around the opening as instructed, and waited. A few seconds later, my instructor gently leaned on me, my legs unhooked and we tumbled out into the air.

Falling from a height like that, it’s not a feeling that’s easy to describe. I was dreading that stomach-in-mouth feeling that happens when you fall from more reasonable heights (like in bungee-jumping, I would imagine), but it’s hard to mentally process actually being above the clouds – there’s a sort of dissociation from the whole thing. I did want to scream, but the second I opened my mouth, air rushed in, and I couldn’t make a sound. The wind was howling in my ears too (I’m sure at least 40% of the sound was my own blood pumping in my head) and I guess in the midst of all that sensory overload, it’s just hard to comprehend that you’re falling. It sounds cheesy, but for those 60 seconds that you’re free-falling, it actually does feel like you’re floating, albeit with a ginormous wind machine aimed right at your face.

All too soon, it seemed, my instructor pulled on the parachute, and a quick jerk later, we were gliding smoothly over the ocean, low enough now to see things clearly. About 5 or 6 minutes later, we landed, and even that was smooth – I was told to raise my legs up when we got close to the ground, so we slid neatly onto the grass in sitting position. No drama, no fuss, just adrenaline pumping through the veins and my brain telling me it was done and dusted. My instructor gave me a high-five and a pat on the back, and that was it – I had jumped off a freaking plane and survived.

I made a point in my bucket list post about how skydiving is probably easier than bungee-jumping, and having done the former, I still think that holds true. I know people who want to skydive, but are too scared to, and I want to assure them that there’s nothing to fear. It takes courage to take the step that sends you plummeting face-down into an abyss, but not so much to just let someone push you off the side of a plane. All you need is a trusting personality, an ability to hold back tears of fear (I’m not sure they’d be all that comfortable when you’re falling at 200km/hr) and a face that looks good when it’s being stretched and twisted by strong winds.

Trust me, if I can do it, anyone can.

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