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Published: March 26th 2009
We pack quickly and quietly in a nervous silence that was only briefly broken by a lame comment about fatality and fear that was followed by a nervous laugh. It was early and I had slept surprisingly well forcing the fear to the back of my mind with the help of a few beers and spirits, something that my aching head now regretted. We drove through quiet streets into town passing a few joggers who were oblivious to our fear. I parked in the underground car park and we walked into town in search of breakfast. We both felt unable to sit still at a cafe table and wait for service so with time ticking on relentlessly we settled for a couple on banana energy boost smoothies. The young man behind the counter was obviously hung over and moved like a wounded tortoise around the kitchen wincing and then grinning to his colleagues. I paced up and down the street outside as Lou sat staring into the middle distance deep in thought. The wait was excruciating but at last the smoothies were ready. The young man took great care in wiping the overspill from the side of the cup, slowly moving the cloth around the rim the smoothie juice ridding the crest of the cloth in a futile attempt to avoid obliteration. Eventually we were given the smoothies and we walked up the street towards the meeting point just as the van sent to pick us up passed us and parked. 'There is still time to run' I quipped but we both new that we would not, we were going down this road that we had chosen now whatever the consequences. The driver of the van was a cheerful chap from the midlands in the UK and chatted to us enthusiastically about 'back home' and the time he was spending in New Zealand. We picked up a blond woman who ashen faced and trembling got into the van. We exchanged plesantries then I started rambling about anything and everything to fill the silence and distract us all from what lay ahead. It was a forty five minute journey and I ran out of things to say after twenty so we sat in silence looking at the beauty of the world around us, the clear cold blue of the lake, the soft bow of a tree branch and the dependable ground that we were meant to walk on. Good old dependable Terra Firma. The van turned off the road onto a dirt track which we bounced along for about a mile before it ended at the airfield. The grass was green and the sky clear and blue the weather was not going to stop this, I could with just a word but I did not.
We were welcomed into a little hut with friendly confident and easy smiles where they sat us on a sofa to watch an orientation video whilst we signed our lives away on a waver form that informed us that in the unlikely event of anything going wrong there was little point in us suing as they were well protected by New Zealand law. The risk was ours. I handed over my valuables which were placed into a blue mug for safe keeping. I was partnered with Taff who once lived in Breckon on the Welsh border. He was about half my size, I could have carried him on my back had my legs not felt like jelly. Taff seemed well experienced and talked me through what was going to happen and what I should do. His instructions were clear and I was going to follow them as precisely as was possible. Time seemed to now be speeding up thrusting us forward and I was thankful that there was no pause for thought as after our brief instructions we were put in jump suits, harnesses, given a life jacket, helmet and gloves. Lou was partnered with a tall aging hippy with long curly blond hair and light milky blue eyes. He wore flares and had an easy way about him when he joked about impending doom. The other woman was jumping with a crazy eyed Eastern European chap who joked that his star spangled super trainers would save them should both the primary and emergency parachutes fail.
We were led over to the Cessna aircraft and loaded into the tiny plane four of us on the bench and five on the floor. The guy facing me closed his eyes lost deep somewhere in prayer or meditation. The jump masters grinned as the rest of us exchanged nervous looks and weak smiles. It was shadowy and dark inside the aircraft everything muted in grey and blue. The area that we were jumping over was called Paradise which seemed poignant. Taff chatted to me about the landscape that was getting further and further away below us. I fained interest and looked across at Lou who at ten thousand feet look as scared as I had ever seen her. I took her hand and smiled. I seemed unable to stop smiling at everyone now perhaps I though that if I was a nice bloke they would not throw me out the plane. At eleven thousand feet I asked Taff if it was time to start screaming. He said no that not to worry, he was jumping and as I was attached to him I would be going with him. 'Ah good' I lied. At twelve thousand feet the door to the Cessna was senselessly thrown open and the two guys doing solo jumps leaped out without thinking too much leaving a gap through which I could see the earth far, far below. Next went the camera man followed by the blond woman attached to the crazy eyed, magic trainer jump master. There was now only the pilot Lou and I and our jump masters in left in the plane. 'I am actually going to have to do this' I thought. Lou and I exchanged a last look and struggling for something more profound and reassuring to say I wished her good luck. Her jump master shuffled her over to the gapping doorway and moments later she was gone. Taff asked me to move towards the door he mentioned that I would have to let go of the bench that I was gripping with white knuckles. We moved across to the doorway and I swung my legs out of the plane looking down once more to the earth a terrifying distance away. I have never been so scared in all my life. We rock back wards then forwards like a lamb to the slaughter I was obedient and completely compliant with this stranger in who's hands my life I had placed. A moment later we were out of the plane and falling. I screamed for a good few seconds then shouted a few expletives. The message slowly reached my brain that I was not dead, things had changed and I was still in peril but actually, all things considered, I was OK. We were falling at about two hundred kilometres an hour. The rush of air was incredibly powerful, there was a loud roaring turbulence that seemed to be holding us up as we pushed against it. I looked out across the mountains and into the far off distance I fancied I could see the curvature of the earth. The intensity of the colours were heightened in fact every sense seemed to tingle, heightened and more alert than ever, I felt like I was flying. With arms out at ninety degrees bent again at the elbow to ninety degrees I had a go at steering. The slightest movement of the little finger altered our direction and angle of decent. Everything was perceived in fine detail amidst a massive adrenaline rush. My brain was scrambling to make sense of what was happening unable to process the experience but at the same time I was ecstatic in the pure and clear moment. The experience entirely unclutered by any past or future. I was free of everything, falling and flying, screaming through the sky enjoying the greatest thrill of my life. It lasted only forty five seconds but seemed like a mini eternity. Taff tapped me on the shoulder to indicate that he was about to pull the cord that would hopefully open the parachute. 'Oh shit' my brain was once more flooded with doubt and fear that it would fail. It did not and as the shoot opened out our decent slowed so that we seemed to be shooting back up. This sensation levelled out and we drifted down towards the ground. There was some slackening off to be done and as Taff loosened the straps I dropped about a quarter of an inch, not a pleasant sensation. I involuntarily let out a 'Woe' as if it would help. 'It's OK I've got you' Taff said. I looked down at the others drifting below us. Taff asked me how I felt about the experience. I think 'The most fucking amazing and exhilarating thing that I have ever done' was as eloquent as I could manage. Quite honestly the feeling is almost impossible to describe. Taff handed me the secondary steering lines to the parachute and as I pulled one way we turned to the left and pulling the other turned us to the right. I felt quiet safe drifting down towards the ground it all seemed quiet simple and matter of fact now. Lou drifted beneath us and I waved. Moments later Taff asked me to lift my legs and we glided down to land on a bums and skid along the grass for about fifty meters before coming to a halt. Taff unattached himself from me as I sat there wild eyed trying to assimilate what had just happened. He helped me up and I started to thank him shaking his hand the grabbing him and hugging him like a long lost brother. I thanked him again I felt like he had shown me something so special, he had taken my body and brain places they had never been before and for that I will be eternally great full to him. I walked over and gave Lou a hug her eyes were still running from the rush of air, she smiled back at me as understated as always.
We walked back across to the cabin and got out of our gear. My hands were shaking and my brain was still racing. I had a huge grin slapped on my face which did not subside for a couple of hours. I think the fear that was almost terror before the jump, the rush of the free fall and then the relief at the end was the perfect mix and I would like to start every day with the same feeling. I asked the hippy jump master with blond hair if he still got a buzz from jumping. 'Are you kidding?' he said 'best thing in the world!'
'Does anyone ever change their mind when they are up there' I ask.
'I wouldn't know because 'No' just sounds like 'Go' up there' he smiles. I look at him and in his eyes I can see that he exists in a slightly different reality to mine. He is so calm, his brain regularly flushed free of stress with huge quantities of adrenaline. He does up to fifteen jumps a day, what a way to live your life!
I thank Taff again before we set off on our long drive down to Milford Sounds. My mind free of it's usual noise and clutter I relax back and enjoy the world.
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