October 17, 2008
Relativity is a strange beast. For example, when you’re falling, traditionally you think of it as the earth’s gravitational pull dragging you down, or, at a larger scale, the combined forces of the entire universe pulling you towards the ground of the nearest massive body. But, from the frame of reference of your body, you are pulling the universe.
This week, I went and gave the universe a couple of tugs. I went skydiving and bungee jumping.
Queenstown is nicknamed the adventure capital of New Zealand, since it has so many extreme experiences to offer, all in a magnificent scenery of mountains, lakes, fjords and nothing but blue skies (well, almost nothing but, close enough).
And for some reason, I was feeling mighty brave, or mighty stupid (or was it drunk?), and I signed up. You only live once!
It’s my turn to fly
First up: tandem skydiving from 12000 feet. The first thing you do after paying is get a very quick briefing about how it’ll work: you get driven out to the airfield, suited up, go up in a tiny turboprop at 1500 feet per minute for about 8 minutes, and then… Well, you sort of take the direct route back to the airfield, at a terminal velocity of 200kph.
All of this is done with you strapped into an instructor, and a photographer/cameraman jumping shotgun to take souvenir shots in freefall. Incidentally, the cameramen are the most insane skydivers I saw that day: because they have to land well in advance of you to get your approach and landing, once your parachute opens they keep diving, open lower, and then keep diving like complete nutters even with the parachute open, expertly pulling back at the last minute for a smooth landing. Real pros.
Anyway, after the briefing, you get to fill in a form attesting that you are indeed clinically insane, and that you will not sue in the unlikely event that you should suffer injury, or worse, “Ground-induced Sudden Deceleration Syndrome”. Way to build up trust there. You also get a few minutes to get to know your asylum inmates for the day, chat about past experiences, and so forth. At this stage, you’re rather calm, because you’re in a rather normal looking back room of the Queenstown NZONE store, with both feet on Terra Firma. The jolly conversations go on as you’re shuffled into the minibus and driven out, past Queenstown airport, out to the tiny airfield that the company operates.
There, you’re split into groups of three, as the plane can only hold three tandems + photographers at a time. I was to go up in the third batch, and so got a moment to reflect, as the first group was suiting up and observing the folding of the parachutes, on my situation. It’s around that point where it starts to dawn on you: what the heck am I doing?
Your mind then goes off on a bit of a wander, while in the physical world you get called up, don the suit and body harness, and get a briefing on the procedure and correct posture for freefall. A few minutes later, the plane returns from its previous run, and seven of us (3 tandems and a single photographer - I’m the only one who requested pics) squeeze into the back of the turboprop, and before you know it, we’re airborne.
Now, at this stage, your mind comes back from its little spot of wandering, and makes a few pointed remarks. Such as “Hey, the door is a sheet of plexiglass, you can see right out”, “Wow, look at the landscape” and “Gosh, we’re going awfully high, aren’t we”. While you’re going over that and the implications, your instructor straps you together, and goes over everything again, while the photographer takes a few preliminary shots.
After that, your mind goes through another couple of observations.
Hey, that red light above the door just went on.
Hmm, it’s gone green.
Oh, he’s opening the door. It sure is windy out there.
Wait, where did the two blokes in front of me go?
Just to let you know, you are aware that you’re edging towards that windy place with no floor, right?
Hey, are you sure this is a good ideaAAAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaa….
And you’re in freefall. Forty five seconds of indescribable bliss on top of the world, looking out to the horizon and making faces for the camera, one hard tug, and another couple of minutes to float down to a smooth landing.
And, just like that, it’s over. I am aware that I spent almost this entire post describing everything but the skydive, but it’s just another illustration of relativity: time is not an absolute. It will crawl by achingly slowly, making seconds seem like hours, and then a whole minute will flock by when you’re not looking. The way I describe it is the way I experienced the passage of time. But those forty odd seconds being a bird above everything else, they were worth all that buildup.
Unfortunately, something in the photographer’s camera (they strap the camera to their helmets, and take pictures by biting a mouthpiece shutter release) jiggled a bit just after the jump, so I only got a picture seconds before the jump, followed by a large batch of “Error 99”. Bah. Fortunately, I’d also asked for a film, and the video camera didn’t pack up, so I at least got the video (which I haven’t watched yet, my macbook’s DVD drive being potentially damaged, I don’t want to risk it).
So, there you have it. I loved it.
A couple of times while driving around on various tours, I passed Kawarau bridge, just off Queenstown. Historically, this bridge facilitated access to the city in the early days of the colony. It’s also the locale where A.J. Hackett invented the first commercial bungy jump, and subsequently made a fortune on it. It also so happens that the Kawarau river, 43 meters below the bridge, is famous under another name: the river Anduin in Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring. In fact, just 100 meters upstream of Kawarau bridge is where the Argonath scene was shot.
Actually, during a Lord of the Rings tour, I stood on the ridge that you see just behind the Argonath. And no, they’re not actually there, to my great disappointment.
Anyway, the concern of this post is not that bit of the Kawarau river, but rather this bit.
Because of various bus timing issues, I had an extra day (today) in Queenstown, with nothing particular planned. So, again, being very brave/stupid/drunk, what else to do but to sign up to jump off Kawarau bridge?
Again, the day starts with meeting your fellow inmates as we climb onto the minibus that takes us out to the bridge (25 minutes out of Queenstown). None of us have done this before. For some reason (I can’t imagine what), we don’t talk much about bungy jumping. But our driver fixed that for us, stopping briefly at a lookout to let us see someone else jump. Well, not really jump as much as go limp and fall off in his case, no style. We’re told we should do better.
Follows a quick briefing by our driver before we head in. Most of it just logistics for bags and checking in and stuff, but Rule One stuck with me: The longer you stand there, the harder it is to jump. Mmkay, I’ll remember that.
As luck would have it, today they’re filming for a new promotional video, so we get to walk in past a couple of cameras before reaching the check-in desk. Sign the certificate (interestingly, they didn’t tell me that on the other side of that certificate is the disclaimer of liability in case of injury, which you agree to when signing), get weighed, hop onto the bridge and get in line.
First observation: Well, it sure looks higher from here than it does from the observation decks.
As they strap the harness on and attach the bungy cord, you realize the fundamental difference between tandem skydiving and bungy jumping: in a tandem skydive, you’re strapped to your instructor, and he sits on the plane ledge just before the jump. You’re already dangling in the air by your straps at that point, and have no say in when, or whether you jump. In bungee jumping, you stand there, on the edge, looking down, and you have to jump.
As AJ Hackett Bungy co-founder Henry van Asch says: “Bungy is actually about challenging yourself, we never push anybody off. People have to find it in themselves to jump off the bridge”. That is probably the single biggest difference between the two: with skydiving, once you’re in the plane, you might as well sit back and enjoy, there’s nothing else you can do. With Bungy, you can turn back.
But, hey, how often do you get a chance at a tug at the universe over the river Anduin? Plus, the operator behind you provides the countdown, you just have to jump at “one”. So, a quick (nervous) smile at the camera, arms wide, head up, Three, two, one, BAWAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaa…
(I have better photos from their cameras, but the digital versions aren’t online yet, so I made do with this shot from mine, taken by another jumper)
Also a very powerful experience, if short. The split “oh shit” second just after you’re no longer balanced (and so are going whether you’ve changed your mind or not) lasts an awesome eternity, and then, again, that blissful freefall, sadly only for a few seconds this time. Looking back, my swan dive isn’t as good as it could be, I should arch more and keep the legs straight (which is hard given how they strap you in), but I’m rather proud that I actually did dive, rather than just seize up and fall off the ledge as some do.
Plus, after that I got to sign an agreement to give permission to use my jump in their new promotional video! They asked everyone, so I may just end up on the cutting room floor, but I daresay that my jump wasn’t that bad an example of a decent first-time jump, so who knows.
So, there you have it. Two epic adrenaline rushes to cement in the memories of the magnificent West Coast, before heading on to Dunedin tomorrow, Scottish township along the eastern coast of the south island.