Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Travel Experience Worth Remembering - 10. Paragliding

10. Paragliding – Queenstown, New Zealand

During the summer of 2012 I went to New Zealand and Australia. I spent about 7 ½ weeks camping in the North and South Islands of New Zealand along with my brother. It was my sixth continent to go to and 25th and 26th country to visit. I probably had some of the best memories of my traveling life during this journey. Obviously Lord of the Rings played a huge part in choosing to venture to this portion of the world, but there were many other reasons as well. For one, I had never been. That was reason enough for me to go, but during my other world travels over the year I have met a number of people that have been to New Zealand or were from there. I had only heard great things.

I wanted to see for myself what was so great about this country. I have to say that after spending an extended period of time there that it ranks as one of my favorite places on earth. Although we didn’t see everything, we saw an awful lot. New Zealand isn’t that big of a country so it can be navigated rather quickly, but to really enjoy all that it has to offer takes time.

Of course when we went it was their winter time so a number of the ordinary things one might want to do weren’t available or were limited. That didn’t hinder us though. We still found plenty of exhilarating things to do. However, in order to do the things we wanted to do we had to pay quite a lot of money. New Zealand is in no way a cheap country. Not only was the flight expensive due to the distance we had to travel, but food, activities, gas, rental car, and everything else added up. Luckily we were camping and that saved us a lot of money. Even if it meant freezing our butts off at times. It was all part of the adventure though. The average temperatures ranged from 15 to 40 degrees for most of the South Island, about 5 weeks. It was cold. It snowed. It rained. It was windy. But it was worth it.

My goal going in was to spend about $4,000 on this trip, but to truly do everything we planned that was going to be tough. I blew past that pretty easily. It ended up costing about $5,500. I never fully added it up because I didn’t want to be reminded of what I had just done with my money.

Every moment in New Zealand was awesome in some way, from hiking, to camping, to sitting in a car for hours driving to our next destination, but a few in particular are the most memorable. One of the places I had looked forward to most was Queenstown. It is in the southern central part of the South Island and a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Anything you want to do that involves danger, excitement, or anything else you can imagine is located in this beautiful mountain town. There is rafting, ziplining, hiking, boating, Lord of the Rings tours, paragliding, hanggliding, jet boating, skiing. You name it, you can do it there.

We spent three days in Queenstown, and liked it so much we returned for a second stop as we headed north after spending a few days in Milford Sound, another highlight of the trip. While in Queenstown we did jet boating, essentially riding on a speed boat down a shallow river in a gorge at speeds of 80 mph. We also did some hiking and a short toboggan type of ride.

The thing that stood out most to me though was paragliding. I had wanted to do the whole time, but as we got closer and closer to the day of reckoning I started having second thoughts. Not only was it expensive, $190, but it was also dangerous. The thought of it sounds awesome until you realize exactly what you are doing, flying through the air thousands of feet up with attached to some stranger. Sounds fun, right?

We decided we would do it. We came all this way for adventure and we planned to find it. We went to the travel information office in town and booked our spot for the following day, $190 down the drain. We went about our business for the rest of the day in anticipation of what was to come the following morning.

We had to wake up early the next morning to do another activity we had booked, jet boating. It too was expensive, $115. It was well worth it though and a thrill in itself. After we completed our jet boat we made our way back to town to catch our shuttle to the top of the mountain we were going to jump off of. Yep, that’s right. Jumping off a mountain, what a great idea this was.

We arrived at our pick up spot and a few minutes later a van pulled up. We jumped inside and started our 30 minute drive to the summit. Along the way we stopped to pick up our two guides. My brother and I would each be attached to a trained professional as we made our descent to the landing zone. I have no recollection of the two guy’s names, but they were both cool guys. We also picked up a hitchhiker that was going to snow board at the same mountain we were heading too. It was the first day the mountain was open for the season.

Along the way we were told a little bit about what to expect. It was pretty cloudy and cold outside and slightly breezy at times. They told us we would most likely get to jump today, but nothing was definite. Even the slightest bit of wind can alter plans and navigation. They only go when the weather is suitable due to the fact that they have someone else’s life in their hands. After about 25 minutes we made it to our jump zone.   

It was too windy at the originally planned location so we had to jump slightly lower. At first I was a little disappointed, but once you realize how high you still are it made no difference in the end. The takeoff area was covered in a thin layer of ice and snow. We got our helmets on, strapped into the carriage and were ready to go. I had my gopro on to film the whole thing. The guide also had a gopro on a stick which allowed for some filming and photographs along the way.

I was all strapped in and ready to go. My guide was about a foot taller than me so it made the takeoff a little awkward. Andy was the same height as his guide. I was told that when he said go to start running as fast as I could towards the edge of the cliff. I was thinking that doesn’t sound like a good idea. Luckily the cliff wasn’t straight down. It was slightly slanted.

I’m strapped into this little soft seat to the chest of this guy behind me holding the ropes to his parachute – a parachute that he just bought and was taking out for its first flight. Another thing to be great news in my mind. Run towards that cliff strapped to a strange guy that does this daily for fun on slippery ice and snow with a parachute that has never been tested before. What could go wrong?

Oh yeah, he also asked if I had ever done something like this before. I said no. He said he hadn’t either so it should be fun. Of course he was joking, but it was funny.

We were ready to go. I started running towards the cliff. Actually I took about one and a half steps and felt something pull me back. Next thing I know my feet are off the ground. I’m in the air. Oh my gosh is what I was thinking. We were flying! It’s like being on a rollercoaster, butterflies in your stomach, amazement in your eyes. Other than that it’s indescribable. You just have to experience it to understand.

We were about 3,000 feet above the trees and valley below. Around us we were surrounded by snow covered mountains. It was slightly cloudy and extremely cold, but it didn’t detract from the experience at all. Before I was a little nervous about the whole thing, but now I was just thinking how awesome this was. I wanted to do this every day of my life. I wanted to take lessons and buy a parachute myself. This would be the life.

I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire time. I was trying to just focus on this moment and nothing else. I didn’t want to think about the weather, the price, what I would need to do later that day. For this instance nothing else mattered. I was a bird in the wind. I just wanted to get the full experience and see all that I could. It was amazingly awesome. Not many things in life can compare to this feeling.

The landing zone was about 5 miles away and we could see it in the distance. It was a large smiley face next to a small building in a valley surrounded by nothing. I had gone first so I didn’t know what to expect with the landing. Andy was able to see what we did to get an idea of what was going to happen. The takeoff and flight had gone smoothly, but the landing is the hardest part.

As we prepared to make our decent the guide told me to lift my legs straight out so they wouldn’t drag on the ground and we wouldn’t trip and fall. In my mind I was thinking we were going to go sliding down on our butts across this grassy patch and everything would be ok.

As I’m preparing for this psychologically we started to turn a little, then a little more. We were circling the landing zone. Then all of a sudden we started rocking violently. This was it. We were 100 feet off the ground and going in for a crash landing. I was literally parallel to the ground looking faced down. I don’t know how we didn’t just lose all the air in the parachute and fall like rocks to our death. We quickly jerked back up right. Then again we swung around.

This went on for the next 30 seconds to a minute. Obviously we were doing this on purpose, but it was nothing like I was expecting.

I had just been thinking what a nice, comfortable, uneventful ride this was. Then out of nowhere we were in a death spiral. We finally straightened out again and I lifted my legs when instructed. We came in going about 15 mph or so, at least that’s how fast it felt. We hit the ground with a thud. We didn’t slide, run, or anything. We just hit the ground and stopped right in our tracks.

I had my legs outstretched so I fell to my butt. The guide was just standing there. I was thinking to myself what happened? We didn’t go anywhere. Either way we were safe on the ground. The entire ride lasted only about 10 minutes, but it was worth every second.

A few minutes later Andy landed. They slid much more like I was expecting too. They actually tumbled around. We both purchased the videos of our rides from the gopros that the guides had. We then loaded into the van waiting for us and headed back to town.

Our adventures for the day were over. It was an awesome experience and we were alive. I was ready to spend another few hundred dollars just to do it again. 

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