New Zealand, Skydiving & Bucket lists

For as long as I can remember, skydiving had been at the top of my bucket list, and I was set on crossing it off the list in no where else but New Zealand.

For a crowded room, the silence is unbearably loud. I sit down next to a guy whose face is as straight as a ruler. Next to me is clipboard with some forms I need to sign.

Are these the only two forms I need to fill out?

"Yep, yes just those! Have you ever done this before?"

No, I never have, but I have always wanted to. It has been on my bucket list for ages to skydive in New Zealand, and it is a part of a review I am doing for work.

I soon learn that his name is Don and he is from Canada. He is an older fellow, probably in his mid 40s, and he looks to me like he could have played football at a university back in the States. He is tall without being too broad yet sturdy enough to look like he is as powerful as a train - fitting, because he later tells me he is a train driver.  He is high off adrenaline and fear - he has never done anything like this before in his life.

He will be joining me for the morning's jump: A 15,000 foot skydive over Queenstown with NZONE Skydive where we will plummet down toward the earth, overlooking the Rermarkables mountain range and Lake Wakatipu.

"I figured go big or go home, right? But now I am thinking - what the hell am I doing?!" Don says with a nervous laugh.

NZONE Skydives offers three dive heights: one at 9,000 feet, another at 12,000 feet and the highest at 15,000 feet. The first commercial tandem skydiving company in New Zealand, NZONE Skydive was established in 1990 and has since jumped over 250,000 passengers.

There are around twenty or more of us sitting in the shop on Shotover street in Queenstown. Everyone looks equally unable to properly express the concoction of emotions boiling deep in their bellies.

We watch of video of other skydivers to see whether we are interested in purchasing our own videos and having a cameraman accompany us on our dive. No questions asked on my end: This was an experience I had been waiting for, and I wanted to be able to re-live every minute of it.

Moments after, we are filing on to a bus, headed out to the skydiving base.

I do not quite remember when my obsession with sky diving for the first time no where but New Zealand started. I could have easily done it in Australia over somewhere beautiful like the WhitSunday islands, which is one of the most photographed places on the planet; but no, my head, heart and bucket list were set on New Zealand, and they would stay that way.

We arrive at NZONE's base, and still I feel as calm as the early hours of the morning.

I am putting on my gear when I meet Derek Melnick, the business development manager at NZONE Skydive. A South African who has been living in Queenstown for nearly eight years, we talk about a bit about skydiving, about traveling and about National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen.

I am not nervous yet. I don't know why. Maybe because I have been wanting to do this for so long. 

"That's normal," he says to me. "It will hit you when you are on the plane, and then you will think, 'What am I doing?'"

I meet my tandem skydiver, Matej Saksida, who is from Slovenia and is a seasonal skydiver in Queenstown. He has spent the past four summers here and plans to come back for many more.

He helps me get into and check all my gear - a jumpsuit, a harness, a hat, goggles, some gloves and other equipment to secure my safety but make me feel as heavy as an anchor. Still, I am not nervous.

"You should be good," Matej says.

We walk over to the model of what the edge of the seat will be like when we open the plane door.

"Now, when we jump, your legs go over this step. Hold on to the harness, and we will jump. When I tap you twice on your shoulder, then you can let go and put your hands out. While we are diving keep your body in the shape of a banana, okay? Legs together and curved up, back arched. A banana - got it? When we go to land, you will just put your legs out straight."

Got it.

My photographer, Ricky, is a Kiwi and comes over to take a short video of me pre-jump. My hair is in pigtails, and I instantly want to take them out to avoid looking like a 12-year-old, but the camera just rolls and I start talking.

Before I know it, we are headed toward a small prop plane that looks like something out of my history books. It is pearly white with wings that come out of the roof and has racing strips across it. The engine is loud and cancels out any in-depth conversation. The other jumpers and their tandems divers are already sitting on the plane. Matej, Ricky and I sit in between one another's legs, with Matej at the back and myself in the middle.

The plane takes off, and still I do not feel nervous. I sit there and drink in the beautiful sights of Lake Wakatipu and the mountains that hug its glacial waters. The plane sounds like it is on the verge of bursting.  Up we go, Ricky continues to take footage of Queenstown, me, our flight.

We reach 9,000 feet, and the first set of divers get ready to head out. The creak and cries of a garage door lets out as the cameraman throws up the plane door, and he then pounds his divers, then Ricky and Matej, making the symbol for "hang ten". It looks like a ritual handshake made before every jump. He hops out on to the step of the plane. This is when it hits me.

What is he doing? Holy shit - he is like hanging out of this damn plane.

The diver and her tandem diver scoot on to the edge, and within the blink of an eye they just roll out.

Matej has me hop on to his lap and checks my equipment. Tightens my hat, my goggles, my harness. Pulls a strap here, a strap there. It feels like we are ready to go.

We carry on to 12,000 feet, and two more divers and their tandem divers roll out.

And then it is my turn. The door rolls up, Ricky pounds me, then Matej, and then Ricky is hanging out of the plane.
I am putting on my gear when I meet Derek Melnick, the business development manager at NZONE Skydive. A South African who has been living in Queenstown for nearly eight years, we talk about a bit about skydiving, about traveling and about National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen.

I am not nervous yet. I don't know why. Maybe because I have been wanting to do this for so long. 

"That's normal," he says to me. "It will hit you when you are on the plane, and then you will think, 'What am I doing?'"

I meet my tandem skydiver, Matej Saksida, who is from Slovenia and is a seasonal skydiver in Queenstown. He has spent the past four summers here and plans to come back for many more.

He helps me get into and check all my gear - a jumpsuit, a harness, a hat, goggles, some gloves and other equipment to secure my safety but make me feel as heavy as an anchor. Still, I am not nervous.

"You should be good," Matej says.

We walk over to the model of what the edge of the seat will be like when we open the plane door.

"Now, when we jump, your legs go over this step. Hold on to the harness, and we will jump. When I tap you twice on your shoulder, then you can let go and put your hands out. While we are diving keep your body in the shape of a banana, okay? Legs together and curved up, back arched. A banana - got it? When we go to land, you will just put your legs out straight."

Got it.

My photographer, Ricky, is a Kiwi and comes over to take a short video of me pre-jump. My hair is in pigtails, and I instantly want to take them out to avoid looking like a 12-year-old, but the camera just rolls and I start talking.

Before I know it, we are headed toward a small prop plane that looks like something out of my history books. It is pearly white with wings that come out of the roof and has racing strips across it. The engine is loud and cancels out any in-depth conversation. The other jumpers and their tandems divers are already sitting on the plane. Matej, Ricky and I sit in between one another's legs, with Matej at the back and myself in the middle.

The plane takes off, and still I do not feel nervous. I sit there and drink in the beautiful sights of Lake Wakatipu and the mountains that hug its glacial waters. The plane sounds like it is on the verge of bursting.  Up we go, Ricky continues to take footage of Queenstown, me, our flight.

We reach 9,000 feet, and the first set of divers get ready to head out. The creak and cries of a garage door lets out as the cameraman throws up the plane door, and he then pounds his divers, then Ricky and Matej, making the symbol for "hang ten". It looks like a ritual handshake made before every jump. He hops out on to the step of the plane. This is when it hits me.

What is he doing? Holy shit - he is like hanging out of this damn plane.

The diver and her tandem diver scoot on to the edge, and within the blink of an eye they just roll out.

Matej has me hop on to his lap and checks my equipment. Tightens my hat, my goggles, my harness. Pulls a strap here, a strap there. It feels like we are ready to go.

We carry on to 12,000 feet, and two more divers and their tandem divers roll out.
And then it is my turn. The door rolls up, Ricky pounds me, then Matej, and then Ricky is hanging out of the plane.

I am so bad at following instructions, I think. I hope I do this right. I did not really understand the feet comment.

One of my personal flaws is never wanting to deviate from absolutely exactly how the instructions are put in front of me, and they need to be clearly defined, which one of the reasons why I find cooking so stressful (like - how finely are we supposed to chop when a recipe says chop finely?).

We scoot our way over to the edge of the plane, and all I can see are the hues of deep earth jagging up toward the sky at us.

Just like that, we are off.

And for a moment I feel like I go blank.

I definitely screamed some variation of fuck as we jumped out and fell through the air faster than I have ever gone in my entire life - 200 km per hour to be exact. I find myself freaking out that I will choke on all the air that is flooding my lungs and nostrils. I try so hard to catch my breath, but as we continue the air is like a deluge that just will not stop.

Matej taps my shoulder, and I can barely concentrate on lifting up my arms. Are they up? Are my hands out? I am overwhelmed with all that is going on and all that is happening.

Ricky is across from us, taking photos, reaching out to grab my hand or give me a pound. I can only imagine what my face looks like right now, I remember thinking. Why the hell does he look so normal?!

We continue to fall for a total of 45 seconds, rushing down toward the lake and the mountains below. You know when you have those dreams where you are falling fast, fast, fast forward and down until you wake up in a panic?

When I think back on it now, I can not believe I fell through the sky for nearly one minute. It did not process or register that for that solid minute, I was on top of the world, rushing down toward it with my arms wide open (and a very unattractive face on) - ready to take it all for mine.

Once we reach our 45 second free fall, Matej pulls a chord, and the parachute shoots up. We are practically seated now, paragliding our way down to the base, circling and spinning over the raw, vibrant beauty that is Queenstown.

I do not know which way to look, because everything about the glide down is commanding my attention. I find myself hypnotized by the dizzying spin on the ground below.

We land, and Ricky rushes over with the camera.

Oh my god it was so hard to breathe! That was awesome, though.

And it was. The only other adrenaline activity I have ever done was canyon jumping in Switzerland, and both experiences give off such a different energy.

With skydiving, you do not have a second to think before you are falling through the air, because the tandem diver makes your decision for you. Tandem skydiving is an incredible experience for those who want to live on the edge but need that extra push and motivation to make it happen. You get high literally and figuratively, and though for me it took a moment to realise just how truly crazy it was, the feeling of accomplishment has you beaming with pride at the end.

The big question - will I do it again? I guess we will just have to wait and see what opportunities and cravings come my way.

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