Published: September 30th 2008September 29th 2008
It is a well known fact that backpackers in New Zealand are expected to do some truly terrifying things during their stay. So with a very short time in New Zealand we got straight in there and found an activity that is possible on even the shortest of timeframes. Our decision to go skydiving over the Bay of Islands was made even easier because of a promotional rate making it the cheapest place in the country (NZ$199). When in NZ, the combination of an adrenalin sport and a discounted price means you have no option if you have any kind of self-respect. I've wanted to skydive for years, so I was surprised by how nervous I was shortly after booking it. I blame it on my confused adrenalin history. As a small child I went on a pirate ship at a theme park and screamed and cried from start to finish (very annoying for everyone else, I'm sure), I clung on to my dad whilst my mum screamed at the operator to stop the ride, and I've harboured a not-altogether-irrational fear of them ever since. Give me a rollercoaster ride and I'll be angling to sit in the front carriage and
sticking my arms in the air during the drops. I bungee-jumped in Australia three times in the same day, I loved it at the time, but the memory of it fills me with a sense of dread. I can conjure up that lead-weight-in-the-stomach feeling at the mere memory of it and doubt I would have the guts to do it again. So, it was never a given that I would enjoy skydiving or would even actually manage to loosen my grip on the sides of the plane.
We went with a small operation in Paihia (Bay of Islands) whose tiny plane meant that we had to go one at a time. I rushed to go first (so that I wouldn't have a heart attack from nerves in the meantime) but ended up being third. We watched the sky nervously for the first skydiver. After 20 minutes or so, a tiny plane-shaped cut-out appeared in the sky. A few minutes later a blob fell out of the cut-out and plummeted to the earth. My brain thought 'that'll be you soon' in a suitably dark fashion whilst I tried to out-think it with cheery but utterly unconvincing thoughts of how much
fun it was going to be.
When the first skydiver made it to earth she had a massive grin and assured us it wasn't really scary, just fun. Welcome news. The second guy was also smiling but said he'd felt like he couldn't breathe because the force of the air hinders breathing somewhat. Unwelcome news. When my turn came around I was fairly calm and actually managed to enjoy the flight up to 12,000ft. We rose above the countryside and then out over the stunning Bay of Islands, then up above the cloud level, then up a bit more... and then some more. At the shout from the photographer, Peter, it was time for me to sit on my instructor’s lap (!) while he did the very important job of attaching us. I had to suppress the urge to check the straps myself (as if I would have had a clue what I was doing). At another shout, I put the goggles on and tried to remember what Jari had told me. Peter opened the plane door and the tiny plane was filled with rushing wind and impending doom. Jari shuffled us to the door and I swung my
legs out over the wheel as instructed and tried not to look down or think about what could go wrong. It was a bit horrifying. Seconds later we were out of the plane and free-falling, and I wasn't screaming, but 'whooo-hooooing' and loving every second. We fell through a cloud and I felt the turbulence and all the tiny rain droplets on my skin. Then there was the beautiful view of the countryside stretching out in all directions. Moments later Jari successfully opened the parachute (thank you, Jari) and with a large amount of relief I felt the pull of the parachute as it stopped our freefall. Then we just cruised whilst I laughed somewhat hysterically. 'You want some turns'
asked Jari, 'yes please!'
I shouted like a little kid, and we swooped through the air with ease. We neared the ground, still moving alarmingly fast, 'Ok pick up your feet!'
shouted Jari. Easier said than done when you’re flying along harnessed to someone else. Luckily I managed to lift them high enough and skidded along the ground smoothly, as opposed to breaking both of my legs. I did a new-born-calf impression as Peter helped me up, and then it
was Paul's turn - he was playing it cool but, you know, I'm not so convinced:)
Whilst we were in Paihia we took a boat around the islands in the hope of finding some dolphins. We hadn't been out long when our boat's 'friendly competition' called through on the radio to let us know they'd found a pod. We headed over and found a pod of at least ten dolphins frolicking in the water. Dolphins really are expert frolickers. The boat became just another playmate in their game as they swam under, around and alongside it. They cruised on their sides to get a better look at us ohh-ing and ahh-ing landlubbers. We were treated to a few particularly ecstatic dolphins leaping out of the water and doing flips. I love the way they look like they're grinning.
Unfortunately we couldn't swim with them because there were some babies in the pod. The guides told us that when the babies find a clumsy, two-legged dolphin amongst the pod they are so fascinated that they lose their interest in food. Not wanting any little ones to go hungry we stuck to admiring them from the boat, but
hopefully they'll be a next time when we can join in the fun.
During our short time in New Zealand we were also keen to go to the Poor Knights Islands (a top scuba-diving site) and we also wanted to get some horses and go galloping along a beach. Unfortunately our wallets were haemorrhaging notes as it was, and even just sleeping and eating seemed painfully expensive after so long in Asia. We had to control the excited-kid-in-a-sweet-shop syndrome (a.k.a. excited-adult-in-New-Zealand syndrome) and be satisfied with the skydiving and dolphins. It's hard not to get a little greedy in the NZ playground.
Whilst in Auckland we took a boat out to Rangitoto. The Auckland area was formed (not too long ago) by volcanoes, and Rangitoto was the last of the islands to explode from the sea only 600 years ago. No one lives there fulltime; there are just a few batches (holiday homes), lots of walking trails and a whole heap of volcanic rock. We went to the summit of the volcano for great views of the crater, the island and of Auckland. There were hardly any people about and we wandered around the coast, all
wrapped up and loving the lack of humidity, which had been a constant, steamy presence since Vietnam.
We also got the ferry to Devonport, which is described as small and quaint. It did seem to be exactly that, with no chain shops or restaurants, just small quirky places which you may have found in England / central Auckland 10-20 years ago. We found a pub (not a bar, not a cafe, not a restaurant... an actual public house), which seemed to emit a glowing light that only got stronger as we drew near. Inside we found beer on tap, a wine list, a roaring fire, bar stools... and other signs of great civilisation. I haven't seen the inside of a real pub for 17 months (I've been in a few pale imitations), and being English, it was quite a moment.
We also spent our time in Auckland doing other things which delighted us no end but were really quite mundane. I can quite happily say that I am now sporting some new clothes which weren't designed for someone five inches shorter than me, nor make me look like a Khao San Road lifer. I've been eating such culinary
delights as fish and chips and meat pies and most importantly I have savoured the local wine on more than one occasion.
In between all this frivolous consumerism we also managed to take in a bit of culture at the Auckland museum. It was excellent; my mind hardly wandered at all which is high praise indeed. The volcano and Maori exhibitions were particularly good, and we watched a 'cultural performance' which was very well-done. Normally I would avoid a 'cultural performance' as it sounds like a bit of an oxymoron to me. Fortunately this one was done with a sense of humour and they showed you weapons, dances and songs whilst explaining how and when they were used and the significance. They finished with the legendary Haka war chant, which would have sent me scampering back to my boat without a moment’s hesitation.
New Zealand has been too short but we know we'll be back, hopefully with work visas and a plan to stay for a year.
First though, it's time to take a little look around South America.
Hasta pronto! (the photos lost quality after uploading to the blog - I haven't started taking blurry, pixelated pictures, honest!)
There are more photos below