When you’re about to leap from a tiny plane, the emptiness that fills your head is surprising. For me there was space, and a lot of it: 4200 metres of clouds, peaked green mountains and the vast blue Pacific Ocean below, to be exact. As our open-door Cessna 182 rose higher and higher above Cairns and the first intrepid jumpers hurtled face-first out of the plane, I was surprisingly calm. Before I could even think about what I was doing we had reached the maximum height and it was my turn to jump. Without thinking too much about the consequences, I found myself bounding out of the plane and flying at 220 kilometres per hour through the air.
At that speed, which is incidentally also known as “terminal velocity”, it’s a struggle to keep your mouth closed. Air crams into every orifice of your face, and your eyes bulge and water from the pressure beneath your goggles. But my mind felt surprisingly clear, until … wham! It all hit me. My very competent instructor at Paul’s XTreme Skydiving, who was strapped unceremoniously close to my back, shouted into my ear over the blaring wind: “Look at the plane!” Initially unable to figure out which way was up and which was down as we rolled ninja-style through the air, I located it, now only a small speck metres above us. “Woohoo!” I screamed, feeling much like Patrick Swayze in Point Break.
Don’t get me wrong. I am by no means a daredevil. I tried bungy jumping a few years ago and could barely pull together the courage to get off the board. I then screamed so loudly that even the instructors joined my friends in paying me out long after we had returned to the base. I still have tremors thinking about plunging off that stupid tower! And jumping from a plane was never at the top of my to-do list, but when I bought a jump as a surprise for my husband’s birthday, I decided I should take the plunge too.
Skydiving is different from any other extreme sport. It’s vastly exhilarating and delightfully peaceful. It’s difficult to think of any other activity that pumps as much adrenaline through your body as the freefall. That’s the 10 to 60 seconds (depending on the height you jump from – the higher the jump, the longer the freefall) during which you plummet out of the plane before the parachute opens. “At 4200 metres you freefall for 60 seconds at a speed of around 220km per hour,” says Phil Onis, director of Sydney Skydivers (he has just done his 26,000th jump).
Once the instructor pulls the parachute, it’s a four- to five-minute gentle cruise back to earth. I didn’t find the parachuting part scary, especially after the freefall. Rather, it allowed ample time to appreciate the magnificent views of the Great Barrier Reef and the maze of green and gold sugarcane fields below.
Skydiving is extremely energy burning. “There’s a lot of adrenaline going through your body,” Phil Onis says. “When doing the freefall course, people can often only do two jumps in one day. They feel tired afterwards.
“Someone who is very fit might be able to handle more jumps, but it takes a lot out of you and is very active – getting out of the plane, freefalling, parachuting, the landing roll – it all burns a lot of calories.” Skydiving burns 962 kilojoules (230 calories) per hour for an average 65kg person, according to fitness website, The Daily Plate Calorie Counter.
Skydiving improves confidence and helps you to overcome fears. It builds upper arm strength in controlling the parachute as well as the big muscle groups in the lower body for landing. Lugging the gear around also burns fat.
Is it dangerous?
“We don’t tell anyone it’s safe,” Phil Onis says. “But anything adventurous has underlying dangers: surfing, rock climbing, and so on. The most dangerous part is probably driving to the centre, though.” With two serviceable parachutes, in case the first chute doesn’t open, and an automatic activation device so the second chute opens automatically if neither parachute is deployed, chances of an accident are slim.
How to get started
- Beginner skydivers start with a tandem dive.
- To parachute alone, do the Accelerated Freefall Course; initially the freefall part of the dive will still be with the assistance of two instructors.
- You can dive completely solo after completing the International A Licence and doing a minimum of 15 jumps.
- Most popular tourist destinations offer tandem skydiving.
- A jump from 4200 metres costs around $350.
- You can pick up second-hand gear for $4000 to $6000, but that doesn’t include the course and jumps.