8 years old again, I’m shivering with excitement and fear – and more than a little cold – standing at the top of a monstrously tall flight of metal stairs, ready to throw myself down a mysterious dark tube that threatens to gobble me up forever.
Or at least this is the strongest memory that comes to me as I wait in the back of a small plane, in one of two rows of people ready to throw themselves out of a window at 14,000 feet. And it feels crazy to be there at all – when it would have been so easy to stay at ground level, but now that I am here, I know I could never forgive myself if I chickened out.
You might not think skydiving had much in common with the water slides at Coral Reef swimming pool in Berkshire, but they resonate with the same excitement and fear. And I know I’ll feel proud when it’s all over. But now that I’m 31 I’m very aware that this should be fun, and that’s it going to be exhilarating.
And, even if I do die, it’ll be over quickly. I’ll see the ground coming and then… Nothing. The universe stops.
Fortunately though, I don’t die. In fact my tandem skydiving partner is extremely experienced and the company with which I am jumping has a flawless safety record. So perhaps that’s what I needed when I was 8 – someone strapped to my back.
I’d heard a horror story about misplaced straps removing vital male body parts when they’re improperly placed – so to break the ice I admit this to my tandem buddy: “I’m mostly worried about my junk.” Perhaps he’s heard it before as he replies, “I’m not paid enough to worry about that.”
The wait is probably the most nerve wracking as the plane slowly climbs; slicing through clouds and building up more and more height. After a while the distance becomes surreal, fortunately, and any gain in height becomes somewhat inconsequential as it’s simply a different extraordinary view above Byron Bay.
Then my partner instructs me to put on the eyeshield, tightens the straps that connect us, and one of the crew-members at the front opens the sliding door revealing perilous views below. There isn’t much more of a wait as two, three pairs throw themselves out, and I see Laura tumble away… And then, on edge, we start edging towards the edge.
I was told that as the tandem front-partner, you hang out of the plane awkwardly before you both spin off, but that point seems to take no time at all, as we’re hanging out, then twirling into oblivion straight after.
There is a brief moment of serenity, the split-second after we separate from the plane, then my partner stops our spin and we face right towards the ground, and then the wall of air hits… And I yell out as I’m attacked by atmosphere, and experience free-fall as I plummet towards the Earth, but it doesn’t feel like I’m falling – just that the ground is growing gradually amongst the tumult.
This part is difficult to remember and feels like it lasted next to no time at all – but I’m told there’s approximately a minute of free-fall. It starts cold but then seems to warm up – am I being heated in the atmosphere, like a spacecraft returning to Earth? Before I can consider it for long a tap on my shoulder tells me we’ll open the parachute as my partner Adam pulls on the necessary levers – and a surprisingly gentle jolt yanks us backward to slow our descent, and brings complete serenity as the rush of air is quickly replaced by a calm flapping of blankets in the air.
It’s beautiful as we glide left and right – and observe the model world below us. It reminds me of a brief glider flight I had years ago, but now I’m in the open air as well. We practice me lifting up my knees as we come in to land, and the planet eventually comes to meet us in a similarly gentle landing. Adam lowers me onto my bottom and I hop up, giddy with excitement and adrenalin.
I look around and find Laura who is also regaining her bearings, and we share a smile as we’re both glad – not just to have survived, as we knew how many safety procedures would be in place – but happy to have not walked down the metal stairs, childish stares judging us, but to have thrown ourselves down the water slide with full gusto.