Monday, November 19, 2007

skydiving, volcanoes and more...

Lake Taupo is actually a very large crater full of water - and one that could erupt anyday. Like Yellowstone in America, it is well overdue an erruption - and one would change the face of the planet forever.

Odd then that it should be such a calm and peaceful place. A lake where boats zip across the placid waters, kayaks occasionally plough back and forth and all of it serenely overlooked by the three volcanoes in Tongariro National Park.

Perhaps not so odd then that I should chose this place to jump out of a perfectly good plane at 15,000ft.

But this is what I did. After staying the night at a very basic but free and idyllic campsite on the edge of town, I was whisked from the centre to the airport by limo. Here, I saw Hayley and Russ - a couple we'd met along our travels - who were also risking their necks. Kath and Alex drove up to watch the fun from the ground. Wise.

I was partnered up to Mike, a sturdy Kiwi who'd worked in Evesham (few miles from the parents) a few years back. He helped me into a blue sortofa boilersuit, harnessed me up, gave me goggles, a hat, gloves and an oxygen mask... hang on?! An oxygen mask...??!!

Well, into the yellow and blue plane we got. I was attached to Mike as we sat down by a complicated sortofa strap system. We were right at the front, next to the pilot, but facing backwards on long wooden benches. We were at the back because only two of us were 'silly' enough to jump from 15,000ft (the others opting for 12,000ft).

Then it was up, up and away... the small airplane rising swiftly (an odd sensation when facing backwards) and we rose high above the lake, banking into it as we rose higher and higher.

We were getting alarmingly high and at around this point, they opened the doors and off pinged the first two or three tandems. Until one guy couldn't go. His hand was welded to the bar above the door. His mind would just not let his body go.

We slammed the doors shut and banked sharply - going around for second shot. Again, he could not do it. Hayley's instructor was shouting at the guy's tandem partner to get out of the way. I was beginning to think I could not take banking again and all this waiting... I was beginning to get nervous. He moved back - they were not going to jump. Hayley was soon out of the door.

Suddenly the door slammed down again and Mike was telling me to put the oxygen mask over my mouth as we climbed to 15,000ft.

As Jen, a 70-year-old hero of a woman, moved forward to the door, so Mike and I inched forward.

Then she was gone. I was last. Mike was shifting me towards the door. I wanted to grab something, anything but realised just seconds from my hand becoming fixed to that bar that I had to grab the straps of my harness or the same would happen to me... Sat on Mikes lap I was shoved to the door where he sat at the edge - my legs dangling into the rushing wind - it was bloody breezy up there and freezing cold.

Everything looked very, very small below.

And then he pushed off from the edge and I was screaming as we plunged towards the ground. Arms out, head eyes kept straying to the very small lake below us - which was rapidly getting larger. I looked over to what could have been snow-capped volcanoes, or clouds... Who knew. It was blowy and fast. The wind, the air was whistling past me.

Over 60 seconds of freefall but it went so fast. Then there was a tug. We stopped abruptly. And there above us burst a bright red parachute. We slowed. It was quiet.

I was moved into a sitting position by Mike and slowly we turned on the thermals. Mike directed the way we soared and we swung out over the lake.

Then, we turned back towards the airport and slowly, and gracefully came in to land. Softly, gently with hardly a bump. Amazing.

No rest for the wicked however. That afternoon, after a peaceful lunch by the lake, we drove towards the mountains and to the village of Whakapapa, on the slopes of the volcano.

For the next day we were to attempt the Tongariro crossing - a one day serious alpine hike, tramp over the Tongariro volcano.

Tuesday dawned cloudy and damp. The shuttles to the start of the route were running but they warned us to be prepared. We had seriously rugged up and borrowed thermal waterprood trousers, bought thick gloves and had supplies of food and water to feed a small army.

The man at the campsite thought we were crazy. "I'd only go if I wanted to prove to myself I could do it in bad weather," he told Katherine. But the forecast was worse for the following day - so we set out determining to turn back if the weather turned bad.

It was very cold and grey but we trudged up the steep sides of the mountain - battling fierce winds up the Devil's staircase into the south crater. Snow capped peaks were visible through the swirling mists. It was surreal.

We started to climb the ridge of the red crater and met up with a hardy, older Scottish couple who advised to keep left to avoid being blown into the depths of the other crater. It was a little scary but we all ploughed on together. We neared the top of that ridge - the point of no return - and were surrounded by cloud. We crossed another ridge where the wind whipped around us. Sheer drops to either side. It was more frightening than jumping out of a plane.

And then the clouds cleared as we slid down the soft sands on the other side. A blue lake in the distance over the main crater was revealed and, below us, three small emerald-green lakes. The snow-covered sides of the crater were visible and the sun shone down just long enough for us to have a snack.

Then we ploughed on through snow and rocky ground. We ate lunch and the wind and clouds returned so that, even next to it, we couldn't see the blue lake any longer.

We walked on past small glaciers and ridges of snow and then down a winding tracks through the bush and into the forests below. It was a full-on day-long walk. It was around 5pm by the time we returned to our car - we had left it at 8am.

That night, snow fell around the campsite and we awoke to a winter wonderland. Blizzards raged on the moutainsides and we could no longer see the peaks. So off we trotted south towards Wellington (returning twice for lost things) where we met up with Russ and Hayley again and had a few days chilling at a backpackers, going for a few drinks and seeing a live band or two, walking along the harbour and looking over the city from a high viewpoint.

On Frida, we took a ferry across the Cook Strait with Russ and Hayley - leaving behind the north island for the rest of the trip.

The last hour or so of the trip was idyllic as we cruised through the Queen Charlotte Sound. Still waters, high green mountains on either side of the channel and blue skies...

We spent that night at a DOC (dept of conservation) campsite next to one of the inlets in the sound - a peaceful spot haunted by weka birds and ducks and which we had virtually to ourselves.

Saturday, we took a bus trip of the wineries of Marlborough - where they make my favourite wine - Sauvignon Blanc. We tasted Cloudy Bay and Villa Maria and several boutique wines, had a wonderful lunch at Hunters winery and returned feeling happy and a little giddy! So far, so good. I'll update with more news soon...

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