There was never a bucket list. And, even if there was one, I wouldn’t voluntarily put jumping off a plane on it. From the time I can remember, I have suffered from a somewhat incurable fear of heights that I had to be arm twisted by my family or friends to even ride a Ferris Wheel. Which is why when people talked about striking stuff off their bucket list, I chuckled at them under my breath. How convenient! No bucket list, no pressure!
So when I entered NZONE Skydiving at Queenstown, I wasn’t apprehensive or worried. I was confident that no one could convince me to jump off a plane from 15,000 feet. No matter it was tandem and there would be a trained jumpmaster harnessed to us, I simply wasn’t up for it and wasn’t ashamed to admit that the only reason was fear. I strained my eyes to look up at the sky and saw a few successful skydivers landing. Everytime someone landed, there was a little jig, some screaming, some hugging, some fistpunches in the air. “Tacky!” the cynic in me screamed.
Then came this grey-haired and extremely fit man with a warm smile plastered across his face. Derek Melnick was the business development manager of NZONE which meant his job was to sell the idea od tandem skydiving to as many people as possible. And,
I must say he is pretty good at his job, because this is the man who changed my life. I did not pick up the forms that Derek laid out on our table and wasn’t even paying attention to his briefing. From our group of five, only two were ready to sign those forms which were basically to make sure that in case you die, NZONE will not be held responsible. What a great way to start a nice sunny day at Queenstown–by signing what could be the ticket to your grave and attesting that you and only you are responsible for your foolishness.
Derek caught me smirking at the forms and he looked straight at me and said, “Monty, if I do not convince you to do it, I will quit my job, I will do anything you ask me to.” I smiled confidently and said, “Let’s try that!” He took us in and showed us a few videos about the history of skydiving and NZONE. A series of pep talks followed. “Would you want to be the only one left behind, when your friends land and jump in joy?” Derek asked me. “Would you want to go like ‘I could have done it, I got the opportunity, but I didn’t take it because I was too chicken?” The word chicken did stir me up and by now I knew I wanted to try it but I was too scared. I tried speaking to my friend Prasad Patil who had signed up for the jump. And his words totally converted me. “You are in two minds because there are two people in you–a brave person and a timid one,” he said. “If you decide not to do it, then you are letting the brave one down.” That was it. I grabbed the forms and signed it before I could change my mind. They checked our weights and we were ready to go.
That was when I started paying attention to the briefing which was being given to us. “Embrace the fear,” shouted huge posters that covered the reception area. The week before we were there, a 96-year-old woman had jumped. Thirteen-year-olds have done it. Imran Khan and Sonam Kapoor had done it. Mrs. Dhoni did it. Derek tried it all to put us at ease while we waited. On the other side of the room, some big built men were packing parachutes. A few others were getting ready for their jumps and talking to the nervous first-timers who were waiting for the experience of a lifetime.
A slideshow of mugshots of the tandem masters gave us info about how many times each of them had dived. The numbers ranged from 1500 to 25000 jumps. Derek explained to us that ony after a minimum of 1000 solo jumps is a jumpmaster allowed to go for tandems. He detailed the kind of technology they worked with. The nervous me could only pick up a few adjectives like “foolproof”, “top-notch” and “world-class”.
In 15 minutes, which felt like almost two hours to us, we were called in to be harnessed. Our names were pinned on to a board along with the names of two other people. “One of them is your tandem master and the other your photographer,” said Derek. At this point I would like to make it clear that the Kiwis are a camera-crazy population. Any attraction you go to or any adventure sport you do, you will get a photo-video package which will feature everything–before, during and after the experience. So with each team, a photographer jumps with us for the sole purpose of clicking our pictures and filming the experience. Derek also wooed us with the certificate of ‘successful completion of skydiving’ that NZONE would issue to us after the jump.
It came as a pleasant surprise that Matt Schreurs, my tandem master, was incredibly good looking. I confided all my fears in him as he began to harness me and Matt just smiled. He took me aside for a set of instructions and said, “Once we are up there and if you don’t want to do it, trust me I would never force you to. But I will try my best to convince you.” Caue, my photographer joined us, and filmed us while Matt explained to me that I would have to keep my body in the banana position (hips extended to the front with head and legs arched back to look like a banana). “If you are scared of heights, do not look down, look at Caue and he will make you smile,” said Matt. Caue smiled in agreement.
After a short video interview where Caue asked me how I was feeling and I replied “Very scared!”, we were walking to board the flight. The flight, which had shark teeth painted on it, was not your regular one and would take off the runway in a matter of a few seconds. Matt kept me busy enquiring about the Indian cricket team’s loss in New Zealand as we reached the aircraft. We had to step in on our knees and crawl according to the order in which we were going to jump off. I had told Matt that I wanted to go second, so we got in the plane second last. Inside the aircraft, the tandem master would sit with his legs extended and you have to sit in front of him in a similar way. Caue kept smiing at me and clicking pictures while Matt started pointing at the mountains and the lakes describing to me the geography of Queenstown. “My heart is beating too fast, Matt,” I told him. “That’s fine, we just need to make sure that it stays there,” he replied with a smile.
Finally the time for us to jump had come and the door of the aircraft was pulled up. A sudden gush of wind came in and the first team just flew off in no time into the sky. Caue stepped out of the aircraft and was clinging on to its door to photogrraph me and Matt and I were at the door waiting to take the plunge. I did not dare to look down and as instructed concentrated on the faces Caue was making at me. I smiled for the before-the-jump click, Matt rocked both of us and 3..2..1… we were gone!
Frankly I do not remember what I felt at that very moment. When jumping from 15,000 feet, the free fall lasts for one whole minute. But just like Matt had told me earlier, it didn’t feel we were falling, instead it felt like we were flying. There was wind gushing in my face furiously and I was scared I wasn’t breathing. Just then Matt tapped on my shoulder which was a sign to let my hands go off my harness and spread them out. And there came Caue right in front of us, making faces at me yet again, to capture it on video. Caue held on to my hands and we did a little merry-go-round in the sky and without a word he left my hand. I could see him flying away, far, far away from us. For the first time then, I looked around. The Remarkables stood tall and surrounded the crystal clear waters of the lake, and we were flying above it all. What a sight!
Matt opened the parachute and we sailed smoothly guided by the wind. He started talking to me and explained to me what constituted the breathtaking view that I was looking at. But I was just screaming at the top of my voice saying, “I did it! I jumped off a plane from 15,000 feet!” I could see the large green ground where we would land in another four minutes. “How do you make sure that we will land there?,” I asked Matt. “I have my controls,” he said. He pulled some lever and we went right and at another pull we were going left.
Now there was a problem. I did not want to land. “Let us stay here for some more time,” I told Matt. He laughed. I could see my group landing one by one while Matt chatted with me and showed me the height we were at on his digital wristwatch. Suddenly, there was a slight wind and Matt warned me that it would be dangerous to stay in the sky for long. And, we landed! Caue, who had already landed, came to me with the camera and to my dismay I also did all the victory stuff that I had earlier rolled my eyes at. I screamed, hugged Matt and Caue, and couldn’t stop smiling.
“The more scared you are, the more you will take back from the experience,” Derek had told me before I had left for the jump and I couldn’t agree more. Although the only thing you really have to do is show the courage to sign those forms and just follow all the instructions to the T, you do come out of the experience thinking that you have achieved the greatest thing in your life. And now if you ask me, I would say, “Tandem Skydiving? Oh! What a cakewalk it was! Just bring it on!”