After arriving in Cairns on Saturday night, SCUBA diving on Easter Sunday, getting to the rainforest on Monday, and trying to get out of the rainforest on Tuesday, the excitement was certainly not over yet! While Devon chose SCUBA diving for her spring break activity, Erica picked Jungle Surfing. I was determined to go skydiving.
I woke up at 6:30 a.m. to shower, get dressed, and eat brekky before Jump the Beach picked us up at 7:40 a.m. It was a two-hour drive from Cairns to Mission Beach. Along the way, we signed our lives away for the third time in four days. We tried to get a little more sleep to help us get through the day, but there was little hope of comfort in those shuttle vans.
When we arrived, we signed in and were shown the DVD and photograph options to document our experience. The woman at the desk asked if anyone knew that they definitely wanted a solo camera guy to jump out with them because there was a spot left on the plane that was about to depart. Devon’s friend Steph was with us and knew that she wanted this kind of DVD footage. Before we even signed in, Steph was leaving the ground. We were each assigned to groups. Devon, Erica, and I all chose the most expensive option — for another guy to jump out of the plane with us and our tandem diver to take a video of the freefall and take pictures. He would have a video camera recording the jump from the side of his helmet and right on top of his head was a regular camera. The camera had a cord that the diver put into his mouth. When he bit down on it, the camera on his head would snap a photo. Since the cameraman was an additional passenger in the plane and there were only two cameramen available, the three of us had to split up.
I volunteered to go alone because I knew Erica was a little nervous and Devon had jumped out of a plane before. I thought it would be best for them to stick together. I got placed in the group before theirs, but we still had a couple groups before us. We also had the option to jump out of the plane at 11,000 feet with a 30-second freefall or from 14,000 feet with a full minute freefall. When we booked this trip, I found a new favourite phrase: Go Big or Go Home! If I was going to jump out of a perfectly good airplane, I was certainly going to do it right!
After we were checked in and settled financially with our requests, they took the remainder of the group down to Mission Beach to see the other groups land. Steph landed before we got there and the tandem divers and the second group were already headed back to the airport. Devon braided our hair while we waited to leave and keep it out of our faces during the jump. Erica took a pen so we could write a “$orry, Dad” message on her arm. I liked the idea and wrote Go Big or Go Home across my knuckles! We strolled along the beach a little and a couple Swedish and Danish boys actually went swimming while they were waiting.
When it was my turn, I headed toward the van to head back to the airport when the driver asked for my name. I told him and he informed me that I had been pushed to the last plane. I figured I’d be jumping with my friends then, no problem. Then he asked where Devon and Erica were. I pointed them out, and he called them into the group to jump in my place! I was even more anxious this time, but made friends with the others who were stuck waiting as well. Andreas and Adam were the blond- haired boys who went swimming earlier and they would be jumping from just 11,000 feet. They seemed relatively nervous. I didn’t feel nervous at all, just pure excitement (seriously, I’m not just trying to sound tough!).
We finally saw a tiny white plane far above us, from which tiny white dots escaped. We could see the six jumpers in their freefall. After a minute, we saw their parachutes open up and it took them several minutes to land on the beach. As soon as she was out of her harness, Erica ran toward me. I wasn’t sure if I was about to get hugged or tackled, but she thanked me for talking her into this whole thing. (Her pictures are hysterical with the most terrified look on her face getting out of the plane!) I could not believe that in just a little bit, I would be one of those white specks in the sky!
I got into the van and was joined shortly after by one of the cameraman on my left. He took the video camera from his helmet to review the recording. He showed me while he watched and I recognized that it was Devon! I got to see her video and photos on the way back to the airport just minutes after she landed on the beach. I told him he did a great job capturing it and he asked for my name. I told him, and he said he was going to be filming my exit too! His name was Rory and I had no doubt that the product would be worth every penny I paid to document this adventure.
When we got back to the airport, the workers there repacked the parachutes for the tandem divers who found the people they were jumping with. Igor introduced himself to me and put the harness on my back and strapped my upper thighs and waist. Because of the area over which we were jumping, we were also required to where a life vest around our waist. Once we were all buckled in, we got down on our knees for an instruction on how to position ourselves in the air, arching back like a banana. We were to hold onto the straps that came over our shoulders until our tandem diver tapped our arm. At that point, we would spread our arms wide. Igor also picked one of those pink drop flowers from the tree nearby and told me it was a freefall flower. He stuck it in my braid before we set off.
After I was prepared for the flight, Rory took me aside to film a brief interview before takeoff. I told the camera where I was from, what I was doing here, and how excited I was to jump out of a plane at 14,000 feet. It was at this point that Rory asked me how I felt about falling at 120 mph. That was the first I heard of how fast we would be going and you can see my surprise in the video. Nonetheless, I had wanted to do this for the longest time and now I was finally getting the opportunity to do so. He asked if I had any last words for friends and family back home. I replied, “I love you all. You all think I’m crazy and this is why!” We snapped a photo before boarding the plane.
Inside the cabin, we all straddled long benches with our tandem instructor behind us. Once we were settled, they clipped our harnesses together. Igor explained to me the pressure reader he wore on his right wrist. It let us know what altitude we were at. The climb to the sky felt like the longest initial journey up on the first hill of a rollercoaster, when the anticipation builds and your stomach turns over. We had already passed a cloud layer so I looked down at Igor’s wrist to check our height, thinking we were almost there – 3,000 feet only. Oh dear. My ears didn’t react well to the pressure since SCUBA diving. I had to keep equalizing again.
At 11,000 feet, there was a shift in the cabin, the garage-like door was pulled open and the European boys jumped out. As soon as they let go of the edge of the plane, they tumbled out of sight. Igor had been tightening our buckles, pulling me closer to him. He reminded me of the instructions I received on the ground. “Remember: one, two, banana. I tap, arms out.” Got it. Rory climbed over the others to get from the front seat of the plane to the back by the door before the girl in front of me was about to jump. Her camera man held onto the outside of the plane while her tandem partner scoot her forward and sat her on the edge of the floor. They rocked forward and disappeared. Rory poked his head out the door to film them exiting, and then turned the focus back to me.
Igor had gotten me down to the edge of the floor, feet hanging out in the open air at 14,000 feet off the ground. Rory was hanging on to the handle on the side of plane at this point. I blew a kiss to the camera and Igor tipped my head back to make sure I got into the appropriate banana position, hands on my shoulder straps. We rocked forward twice and on the third, fell right out of the plane. He toppled sideways until he released the little white freefall chute that maintained our stability for the minute in which we were falling freely. Rory swam through the air to get close to us, snapping pictures close up and from above. Then, we offered me his hand. Igor put my hand in Rory’s. We fell together at first, but then Rory let me go and sent us spinning around! We were far above the clouds and I could see through the openings the ocean, the beach, and the reef!
I saw Igor check our altitude and wave goodbye to Rory before pulling our chute. It was blue with orange stripes! Leave it to me to get a Bucknell coloured parachute! Rory let himself fall a little further and then pulled his chute, which is smaller than ours, getting him to the ground quicker so he could film my landing. On the way down, Igor pointed out the islands and the reef that we could see from there. Igor told me I could remove my goggles, but then my eyes started to water with the passing air drying them out. He also loosened the straps between us for a more comfortable float to the ground. My ears were still having problems adapting to the change in pressure, but I managed okay. I was much too distracted by all there was to see from whatever altitude we were at. It was absolutely breath taking. The thrill of the initial fall was gone, but this feeling was just as stimulating.
We would be landing in an alternate location because the clouds started to move in over the spot where the others touched down. I lifted my feet as instructed and put them down when I was told to do so. We landed perfectly on our feet! With Rory an arm’s length away, camera recording! He asked me briefly about the experience and I said it was awesome! He asked for any last words, so I put my knuckles together to complete my message and shouted “Go big or go home!” Igor also pulled the flower from my hair. The drop part had been lost in free fall and only the body of the petals remained.
We went back to Tully Airport one last time to pick up our DVDs and diving certificates. It was difficult to sleep in the van on the long ride back, but the seat was too small to be comfortable. I ended up taking a nap in our room instead once we got back while the others showered. We went to Domino’s for dinner for a little taste of home and a cheap meal. Steph, Devon, Erica, and I sat outside on a bench eating our pizzas and sides. I got mine with pineapple, as per usual. Afterwards, we walked a few blocks further into the heart of the city to get dessert from Dolci and Gelati. I ordered Tim Tam and Oreo and both were delicious. I talked to my mom again to let her know that I survived and after some souvenir shopping, we headed back to the hostel to watch our DVDs on the computers there. We went to bed early again. Even though it was vacation, we had a lot planned!
I woke up at 6:20 to do my regular morning routine before we departed on the NJoy! shuttle to the Reef Fleet Terminal at 7:15. We didn’t have to check in for our boat until 8:00 but it was better to take advantage of a free trip across town. Devon actually forgot her camera battery and walked back to the hostel and back to the docks in 45 minutes. We had to sign a paper, not for our lives this time, but rather to accept that fact that we knew that no food or drink was available on the island apart from the lunch which was included in our daily travel. We paid our $5 levy per person to the women at the desk and followed her directions to the dock from which our ferry would be leaving for Fitzroy Island.
The sun was teasing us as it peeked around dark clouds. There were some blue skies with fluffy white clouds in some places and in others, darkness that was not so promising. When we first arrived, there was a very light misty rain coming down, the kind in which you wouldn’t bother opening an umbrella even if you had one. When it was time to board, we got on the boat and climbed up to the top deck to find some seats. The deckhand, Scotty demonstrated the safety procedures as Captain Wayne described them from below on the microphone. It would be a 45-minute ride out to the island and while we were hoping to enjoy the view and weather from the top, it began to rain about a half hour into the trip. We sought refuge in the cabin and stayed there until the ferry was docked at Fitzroy.
Fitzroy Island was part of mainland Australia until the waters rose and separated it. Since then, coral reef has grown around the island. We would have access to the entire island for the day with some hiking trails, beach, snorkelling gear, a glass bottom boat tour, paddle skis (kayaks), and Nudey Beach. Of the island’s 339 hectares of land, 326 (94%) is protected and managed National Park. The population of the island at this time is about 20 workers who are trying to refurnish a beautiful resort that was abandoned about a year ago when the owner went bankrupt. Other than the employees of the new owner, no one lives on the island.
Since it was still raining when we left, we sat in the lobby of the open resort and snacked while we waited for the sun to burn the clouds off. When the rain finally stopped, or at least slowed, we walked over to the Beach Hire Hut to discuss our options for the day. We handed in our forms and got snorkel gear to use for the day. We made conversation with the Scotty and Wayne, who said they get bored all day when everyone else was off adventuring. I joked that they should get a puzzle or board game when Scotty produced Jenga from under the counter. Three intense and heated games later, Devon lost twice and Scotty suffered a rather epic defeat. We had a little while before the glass bottom boat tour would begin so Erica, Devon, and I took some kayaks out. While we explored the island by water, Scotty prepared the boat for the four of us. We were the only three to sign up that day… (our 177-passenger ferry only brought a dozen or two dozen people out to the island). When Scotty was ready, we joined him on the boat with our cameras.
He had a lot of interesting information to teach us and Erica was teasing me about not bringing my notebook (I write EVERYTHING down, you don’t think I remember all this stuff do you???)! The island is about 10,000 years old and the reef has been dated back 6-7,000 years. The water temperature fluctuates between 19-29 degrees Celsius. There isn’t much on the island, but the resort is expected to reopen within a month after the workers finish the finals repairs and preparatory construction. That is expected to draw more tourism back to the area.
Scotty didn’t know the exact scientific names for all of the corals, but their common names instead — tabletop coral, stagger rod coral, spaghetti coral, and that one that looks like a brain? Brain coral. I joked that I could be a marine biologist, too! Coral apparently has a slimy coat that contains SPF to protect it when the water level drops. The visibility was kind of low because of all the rain, but I managed to take a video through the glass. You can hear Scotty’s Aussie accent describing some of the corals you see.
When we got back to the island, we collected our lunches from the beach Hire Hut and found a spot on the beach to lay out since the weather had cleared. We ate ham, cheese, and tomato on a roll, a little chicken and lettuce wrap, an apple, granola bar, raspberry flavoured water, and another bottle of spring water. We applied our sunscreen, especially because we were more north and especially close to the Equator, and accidentally fell asleep. Erica and Devon got a nice burn on their backs and I, too, got a light burn on mine.
When we were ready for a break from the sun, Erica and Devon suited up in stinger suits to go snorkelling and I choose to take the kayak back out instead. The lazy bums hung on to my boat as I paddled over to the rocks so they could see some reef. We returned to the beach area shortly after, turning our gear back over to Scotty and Wayne. The beach in this area, by the way, was entirely made up of coral. It hurt to walk on barefoot, but the Aussies seemed to be used to it.
The guys recommended the Secret Garden Walk for the remainder of the time we had on the island so we took their advice. It was really muddy from all of the rain, but it was quiet and green and quite peaceful actually. There were a few little streams rippling through the land and we returned the way we travelled in. When we got out, we could either go back to the resort area and the dock, or to Nudey Beach. We choose to continue our adventure.
Nudey Beach was named originally after an English family with the last name, but it has since evolved into a beach for sun bathers who do not want tan lines. The walk there consisted of a lot of stone steps and installed wooden stairs, but the views along the way were beautiful. I spotted a big white cockatoo in one tree, but it flew off before I could get a picture of it. The beach was pretty isolated and abandoned when we arrived. We explored it a bit and took some pictures before heading back to the ferry. None of us had a watch or cell phone, so we had to hurry, unsure of how much time had lapse since we left. Ending our vacation stranded on a barren island was certainly not preferable.
When we got back, the others had already boarded the ferry, but we weren’t holding up the boat by any means. Since the sky had cleared, we took seats up top again. Once the boat began its journey home, the wind picked up and some people left the top deck, but not people who were used to cooler temperatures like us. Scotty had brought up a giant chocolate bunny to share with the passengers. He offered it to us first. And after the few others that remained on the top deck had a go, he came back to offer us more before going back downstairs. Devon and I listened to country music on her iPod and Erica plotted her route back to the hostile as fast as possible. Erica’s friend and future roommate from Arcadia, studying at Griffith in Gold Coast, was in town with her parents for the break and they invited Erica out to dinner.
Devon and I took our time walking back, stopping at a chemist along the way. We were trying to diagnose some painful bites on Devon’s hip as those from sandflies or bed bugs. We stopped at Dolci and Gelati for a snack before dinner and passed a Mexican restaurant on the way back to the hostel where we agreed to return to for dinner. Erica was headed out as we returned and took showers and cleaned ourselves up too. Devon and I did a load of laundry with our still damp and now musty clothes from earlier in the week. We got a taste of home (well, North America, anyway) at Montezuma’s.
We returned to the hostel after dinner to dry the laundry and check our emails. When we went back to the room, I did some writing and got ready for bed. Devon packed for her early morning departure to Gold Coast where she was meeting a friend from UQ and her family for a rugby league game. I was asleep around 9:30, before Erica returned. Devon left at 3:30 a.m., five hours before I woke up.
Erica and I had to change rooms again in the morning because we would save money by moving to a twin room now that our third person had left.
We packed our things up again and shifted to a room down the hall, #1. Once we were settled in, we went next store to the bakery at Woolworth’s Grocery store for brekky. We ate our apple scrolls and muffins on a bench in the park across the street. From there, Erica and I wandered through town, shopping for our significant others at the Australian surf company stores and the like. I bought some board shorts for myself along the way. I caught up with Paul on the phone, too. Erica and I found a mall to explore as well. There was a jewellery shop in the centre that caught my eye. The owner told me that his items were not priced for tourists, but rather, for locals, so I was sure to find a good deal. I fell in love with a ring which had five opals varying in colour set into solid silver. I still love the two big jewellery purchases I made in Europe and thought this would be a great souvenir for me. By inquiring about a possible student discount, I saved an extra $10. It wasn’t much, but every little bit helps! Erica and I also managed to return to Dolci and Gelati before we went back to the hostel.
We put on our bathing suits and booked an airport shuttle for the morning. We set out to the Lagoon, a giant pool on the Esplanade, and stopped at Macca’s for some snack wraps to hold us over until dinner time. We laid out our towel by the sandy entrance to the pool, near the big silver fish we saw pictured on so many Cairns postcards. We generously applied our sunscreen and laid down to relax. When the sun began to melt out of the sky, we looked around the local markets. There, we found a food court at which we could eat dinner. I got a Caesar salad and fruit salad from the Healthy Gourmet Grill and both were delicious. Afterwards, we followed some flashing lights to what we discovered was a casino.
Our day had been long and we had some packing to do before our departure in the morning so we decided to head back. On the way, however, we had to take advantage of our last opportunity to enjoy Dolci and Gelati (yes, that was the fourth time in three days). We decided to take the shuttle back this time instead of walking. After showers and reorganizing our things, we were in bed by 9 p.m.
I woke up at 3:45 in the morning to get dressed and pack up. We brought our sheets down to the desk as instructed and retrieved our $20 deposit from the room key. The 4:30 a.m. shuttle to the airport was a few minutes late, but we got to the airport, stood on the queue, checked in, passed through security, and found our gate by 4:58 a.m.! I love Australian airports! We found a cafe for brekky and wandered around a shop or two before it was 5:30 and time to board our plane. By 6 a.m., we were headed back to Brissie.
Spring break did not appear too promising at frist when we landed in wet season. We were worried that the entire week would fail our expectations, but we learned that under the water and in the rainforest, the rain could only add to the experience. By the time we really needed nice weather, the skies were kind enough for us to enjoy the second half of our week in Cairns. It was a nice break from the repetitive class schedules that were growing dull back at Uni.
We also met some of the coolest people this week, including those who swim around one of the world’s greatest wonders for a living, those who clip carabineers to people surfing the canopy of the rainforest for a living, those who jump out of perfectly good aeroplanes for a living, and those who play Jenga in a Beach Hire Hut to pass the time on an abandoned island for a living! These aren’t jobs that require rigorous years of Uni work, either. I’m certainly not planning to throw my education away, but this week has certainly taught me that there is much more to life than work. Whatever job I end up with, I realise now that I need to LOVE it in order to be happy.
By this point, we were nearly halfway through the month of April and as I calculated, I had 23 days of class remaining in my semester abroad! That’s only eight weeks of classes! Time is certainly flying! I miss home, but at the same time, I’m not rushing to get back.
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