Taupo, on New Zealand’s North Island, is one of the best places in the world to throw yourself out of a plane, if you are so inclined. Safety, professionalism, breathtaking views, and competitive prices combine to make tandem skydiving a popular activity here.
From the moment you arrive at your hostel, to the moment you leave, most of your conversations will touch on this topic: “Have you done a tandem jump yet?”, “Are you going to do it?”, “What company are you going to do it with?”.
The decision to tandem skydive
It was right there on my itinerary: “Taupo: do tandem skydive”. By the third day of my stay, I had done my research. There were basically three reputable companies that offered similar services for similar prices. They appeared so similar that I ended up picking one based on the design of their brochure.
The next step was, well, committing myself to the deed by actually booking and handing out my credit card. It was now or never. Tomorrow would be my last day in Taupo, and I had to book today so I could jump tomorrow. I sat in a park across from the skydive office and pondered some more.
Back when I was 17, I had begged my father to sign a form (and fork out some money) so I could attend a skydiving class offered by a company that came to my school advertising their courses. My dad flatly refused. I figured I would get to do it eventually. But now, 29 years later, my spunky self was nowhere to be found.
Finally I crossed the street, walked into the office, took a deep breath and signed on the dotted line. My credit card was charged NZ $339 for the jump. Later I paid another NZ $185 for the photos and a video (optional) for a total of NZ $524 (or about $367 CAD at the exchange rate of 2009). One more decision that influenced the price was the height of the jump: 12000 feet (4000 metres) or 15000 feet (5000 metres). I was told that at 15000 feet you’re high enough to see the curvature of the Earth, while at 12000 feet you’re not. So I booked 15000 feet. It also gives you some extra free fall time!
The day of the jump
Here’s what happens the day of the jump. You’re picked up in a mini-van and driven to the company’s office, at Taupo’s Airport. You’re weighed, briefed (a 5-minute video), and suited up in a beautiful red jumpsuit. You also get a cap to cover your hair, and goggles to cover your eyes. You don’t want anything to dangle.
Then you’re marched with four other victims (I mean, customers) to the small plane. Each person is accompanied by their tandem jump master, as well as a camera guy for each person who paid for photos/video. Everybody crams into the tiny plane in a pre-arranged sardine pattern (based on weight). You sit back to front with your instructor who uses the flight time to hook up his harness to yours, as well as adjust your cap and goggles.
A tandem skydive is a really brainless exercise. Anybody (with normal mobility) can do it. The tandem master handles all the equipment and makes all the decisions. He is equipped with a main parachute and a backup parachute. You, on the other hand, have none. You are dead weight. This realization made me ask Jonathan multiple times to please make really really sure he was attached to me. I don’t think I’ve ever been more keen to be attached to a man in my life!
After about 25 minutes, we had reached our altitude and the door opened. And then it all went very fast. We were the second team out. As we sat on the floor of the plane, with our legs dangling in the void, I was asked to turn my head to the left for the “exit picture”. This picture (which costs $25) is a close-up that’s supposed to show your expression of pure terror for posterity. Mine shows a rather manic smile.
Then you fall for a full minute before the parachute opens. The photographer falls along with you, facing you, and the camera attached to his head takes a picture every second. He also has the video camera attached to his head. You can see most of the still photos in the video below (including the infamous “exit shot”).
So, what does it feel like to free-fall from 15000 feet? Imagine that you’re sticking your head out of a car window while the car accelerates to 200 kilometres per hour. Now replace your head with your entire body, and imagine that you’re moving vertically instead of horizontally. It’s cold, it’s windy, and it’s hard to breathe. Moving your limbs feels like you’re swimming through molten lead. It was an interesting experience but not really my cup of tea.
If you tend to get motion sick easily, like me, you may want to ask your tandem master to hold off on the spins or any other “fun” tricks while you free-fall.
As soon as the parachute opens, you flip to an upright position. The cold, noise and pressure stop. You’re floating through the air peacefully, and can admire the landscape. That’s when I realized “Doh! I forgot to notice the curvature of the Earth!”. The nice floating part lasts about five minutes. During this time, it is quiet enough to converse with you tandem master, and learn how to steer right or left. Then, for the last 20 seconds, the ground is coming at you really fast. Jonathan made a few turns to line ourselves up properly, and we touched down.
Landing in a tandem jump is actually pretty easy. You just need to lift up your feet while your tandem master puts his feet down, and when told to, you put your feet down and take a few (wobbly) steps. Some people just crumple onto their ass. It’s all good. Mission accomplished!
Have you done, or would you like to do, a tandem skydive?