That time when I jumped 12,000 feet from a plane...
West Coast, New Zealand
Before I start, I'd like to apologise for the time it's taken to update this blog. We're talking well over a week here. I had visions of my Mum starting a missing persons campaign back home. Fear not people, I'm alive and well. Being on the Kiwi Experience means you are shepherded out of each hostel at 7am in the morning for a full day of activities, and there's always something on in the evening, so finding the time to put pen to paper, or in my case 'thumb to touch screen', is tricky. It's not that I haven't had anything to write about either. So much has happened, something rather life changing in fact. I will reveal all later on in the blog. Right now I'm on the bus from Kaiteriteri to Westport, giving me approximately three hours to get writing. I think I'd better get started then shall I?
You'll be glad to know I made it onto my bus this time. The first trip was departing from Auckland to the very Northern tip of New Zealand, starting in a place called the Bay of Islands, before heading on up to Cape Reinga. They call it the winter-less North as it stays relatively warm all year round, yet the forecast for when I was there made Blackpool's climate seem positively tropical. Some of the people on the bus complained of the stormy weather. I was more distressed at the thought of having to don my Primark waterproof again.
It was when we left Auckland where I was first able to catch a glimpse of the beautiful countryside New Zealand has to offer. Whether it was coming from the dry and arid surroundings of Australia, I don't know, but it really struck me how green and lush the hillsides looked. We drove past a place called Sheep World, an adventure park dedicated to the things, where the owners have specially bred their sheep to be pink. It was quite the sight staring out of the coach window seeing the hills dotted with hundreds and hundreds of bright pink wooly balls of fluff.
We arrived in the Bay of Islands at around midday and all checked into the hostel. The first guy in my dorm that I got chatting to was Dom. When I asked where he was from, he replied,
"The ghetto mate. Cambridge". From that moment I knew he'd be a good laugh to travel with, and I was right.
It was piddling down with rain, and with most of the activities cancelled due to the adverse weather, we all decided to get the ferry to nearby Russell. It is here where you can find the oldest licensed pub in New Zealand. Riveting stuff, I know. We had one drink each in there before getting the next ferry back.
Since the Bay of Islands is at its best in the summer, being near the beaches on a dark, dreary autumnal day made everything seem rather bleak. We drank that night in the hostel and got chatting with everyone else on the coach. There was Will, Andy, Tim and Mark from Bournemouth, Tasha from Kent, Maddie from Somerset, Michelle Funk (coolest name ever) from Canada, Ree and Becca from Brighton, and Darren & George from London. Right now it's only me and Dom left on the coach from the original group, but I'm pretty sure we will meet up with them all again at some stage.
The following day was the optional trip up to New Zealand's most accessible northerly point, Cape Reinga. On the way we stopped off in a Kauri tree forest. Some of the trees are more than 2000 years old, and according to the driver, there's a Maori myth that suggests that by hugging one of the trees the person will be blessed with good luck. Seizing the opportunity, I found my tree and hugged the life out of it. My wish was for sunny weather, and I tell you what, those Maori's were onto something. Within about thirty minutes the sun was cracking flags. The driver took us along the 90 mile beach before stopping at the sand dunes where we were to get involved in a spot of sand boarding. I'd never sand boarded before, so to say I was bricking it would be an understatement. The dune was that steep that you couldn't see to the bottom once at the top. Biting the bullet, I picked up my board, took a Linford Christie-esque run up and belly flopped onto the sand, plummeting down the dune at what seemed like 100mph. It was so much fun, even if I did fall off twice and graze my hip. That's nothing though. Our driver informed us afterwards (thankfully) of all the injuries sustained on the dunes over the years.
"There's been some reeeal beauties. I broke my ribs on that very dune last year bro. One guy even broke his neck". These Kiwi's have a screw loose I tell you.
A one hour bus ride later and we were at the tip of New Zealand, Cape Reinga. We took lots of photos of the lighthouse and spent the rest of the time shivering in the rain. The day was then rounded off with some fish and chips, or 'fush and chups' as the Kiwi's pronounce it. They were sweet as bro'.
After a quiet night in the hostel bar, it was time to drive back down to Auckland. We were only staying there for one night as our bus travelling south to Hot Water Beach was to leave at 9am the next morning. That night Liverpool just so happened to be playing Everton in the last derby of the season, so me, Dom and a few others went to the local sports bar for some 90+ minutes of inevitable disappointment. Next season will be our year guys, you heard it hear first.
Somehow making it to the bus in time, we loaded our bags and picked our seats for the journey south. Sat near the front was Stacey, one of the gang from Australia. I had no idea she was going to be on the bus, so it was a lovely surprise seeing her.
Our first stop was a place called Thames, named after Captain Cook thought the river here reminded him of the Thames in London. It was here where we were able to stock up on food and drink. I was particularly happy with my purchase of King Shag, the cheapest, dirtiest bottle of wine I could find. One week on and my body is still just about getting over it.
A short journey later and we were at Cathedral Cove; a pretty looking beach on the east coast of the north island. Our driver, Mac, got everyone to strip to their shorts, form a line and run into the sea. It was so cold that I genuinely fear that I won't be able to have children anymore. It was ok, I thought, as we had the prospect of digging our own hot pools on the Hot Water Beach.
Since the low tide time was at 10pm, we had to dig our hot pools in the pitch black. It was pouring down with rain too, meaning the walkway to get to the beach was like an ice rink. I stacked it, although that bottle of King Shag could partly be to blame. Digging for the pools was mildly enjoyable, given the initial novelty of discovering the hot water underneath. The water was bleeding boiling though. I was tap dancing like a young Bruce Forsyth just to avoid melting my ankles. Walking back to the hostel, cold and wet, Dom summed it up perfectly,
"We may as well have filled up a couple of kettles and poured it over our legs boys".
The next leg of the journey was a short drive south to a place called Waitomo, home to one of New Zealand's main attractions, the glow worm caves. When booking onto the Kiwi Experience, I wanted to book onto activities that were completely unique to the country, so when it came to booking for the caves I opted for the full monty. The package was called the 'Black Abyss', which included a 58 metre abseil, a zip wire, tubing in the pitch black glow worm caves, and climbing and sliding down waterfalls. It was a wonderful thing to be able to access such a special environment and take part in all of the activities. The highlight for me was when the instructor asked us to turn off our head torches and look around. Thousands upon thousands of glow worms graced the walls of the cave, transforming the rocky formations to the most beautiful night sky in the world. The instructor then started singing a Maori hymn. It helped that has voice was fantastic, but in the pitch black, with just the glow worms providing the light, and the echoey acoustics of the cave, it was the closest thing to a spiritual experience that I've ever experienced.
Our hostel in Waitomo was another holiday resort. The accommodation is much better here than in Australia. I'd say its more flashpacking than backpacking, but I'm not complaining. Me and Dom were upgraded from our twin room to the disabled room after our door lock broke. For the first time since travelling I got to stay in a double bed. The ensuite bathroom was huge too. You could have cartwheeled in the shower it was that big. I do hope that they awarded us the room for the hassle that the broken lock put us through, and not that they thought we genuinely needed the provisions of a disabled room.
The next day it was time to wave goodbye to our five star room and hop on the bus to Rotorua, the smelliest place I've ever been to (asides the time I had to share a bathroom with my friend Les in our second year Uni house). The reason why it's so smelly is that there is a lot of geothermal activity within Rotorua, giving the air that eggy, sulphur smell.
That night we had all booked onto the Maori cultural evening. I'd heard great things about it, especially the all you can eat feast at the end of the night. As a backpacker, the prospect of having anything other than instant noodles is a bonus, let alone a never ending feast.
As a rule, one of the group had to be elected as chief. Someone who could then be in charge of our tribe. Someone strong and gutsy. A true, natural born leader. Built like a Belarussian female discuss thrower, André from Sweden was the natural choice. He made such a good chief as well, from taking part in the Haka to getting everyone chanting on the bus.
The village itself was very interactive. There were games we could all take part in, there was a one hour Maori concert, and last but not least there was the feast. Wow. I don't think I've ever eaten so much. The food was cooked underground in the traditional Maori way. There was chicken, lamb, fish, potatoes, bread, loads of other vegetables, and for desert there was pavlova. I think we all had food babies by the end of it all.
It was great learning about New Zealand's indigenous people. Although there is still tension over land ownership amongst other things, Maori culture genuinely seems to be celebrated here; a stark contrast with the relationship with the Aboriginals in Australia.
With another unsociably early start the next day, it was time to visit Taupo, dubbed the adventure capital of the north island. Now do you remember me saying something life changing happened to me here in New Zealand earlier on in the blog? For those that know me, I'm sure you'd all agree that I'm not great when it comes to rollercoasters or anything that involves any sort of potential danger. The teacups in Disneyland Paris is about as white knuckle as I get. This can all go out the window now though, as I, Charlie Whitfield, skydived. I jumped 12,000 feet out of a plane and survived. You could pick between a 12,000 feet or a 15,000 feet drop, and with the former being about $100 cheaper, I opted for the smaller drop. I say smaller, it's still about 50 seconds of free falling, and it was 50 seconds of sheer awesomeness.
We were picked up from the hostel at 8am by the skydive company and driven to the location, for what seemed like the longest journey of all time. I was really nervous at this point. What on earth was I doing?! What sort of a plonker would pay to be thrown out of a plane?!
Once we arrived, we were shown a video and were asked what sort of package we wanted to purchase. I picked the free fall video option, where as well as my tandem partner there would be another diver to take pictures as I fell. In no time we were in our jumpsuits and ready to board the plane. I had a guy called Joe as my dive partner, and he knew just how to scare me.
"Is this your first time diving mate?"
"Don't worry bro, it's mine too. We'll get through this".
Once up in the air, I'm not sure if it was that I had resigned to the fact I was going to be jumping, but I felt really, really calm. I know. Calm! Well, there was one moment when Joe told me we were only 3,000 ft in the air, with another 9,000 to climb. We already looked high enough, but there was only one way out now, and that was down. Since I weighed the most out of the plane (it was me and a load of girls!), I was to jump out first. My instructor Joe counted down from 10, and on zero the door opened. I will always remember that moment. Just looking down at how high we were. This was it. We waddled over to the door. My legs were then dangling out, with the wind blowing in my face. Joe then started rocking me back and forth, counting from 3, 2, 1...and then I was flying. The sensation was so surreal. It was like I was floating. It didn't feel like 50 seconds either, and I didn't want it to end.
Once Joe pulled the parachute, everything seemed to stop. The wind was swapped with complete silence, and I was able to take in the amazing views of Lake Taupo and its surroundings. Joe carried on with the teasing too.
"Hey Charlie bro, there's a couple of threads loose on your harness. If it falls off just grab onto my arms ok? Don't let go".
In what felt like 30 seconds I was back on the ground. I can honestly say it was the best thing I've ever done. To tackle my fears and jump out of a plane was a big, big achievement for me. Don't worry Mum, the next Felix Baumgartner I am not. But would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
This is the end of the Kiwi blog part one. I will post the second chapter within the next few days. I'm having an absolute blast here. I've met some brilliant people, most notably André and David (the crazy Swedes), Connor and Casio (the Irish lads), Rory (the other Irish who has been telling me all sorts about being a journalist), Alex the smooth French guy, Ollie, Ben and Rob from London, Dom from the ghetto, and Stacey from Leighton Buzzard. We are all on the same bus until the end, with just under 2 weeks left of the A-team. It'll be really sad to leave here, but I know full well it's going to be a blast in the mean time.