Well, we definitely discovered who the loudest snorer was last night: Celestina. Captain America and his chauvinistic ways was already wearing thin with some of the other Stray travelers, and we weren’t too sad to see him get off the bus in Rotorua.
This morning we were woken up by Uncle Boy’s choice of rousing music: Abba’s Greatest Hits. I woke up to a chorus of “Mamma Mia”, and wondered what the hell was wrong with me for me to be dreaming of Abba songs while sleeping in a Maori marae. When the music switched to “Dancing Queen”, however, I knew my subconscious wouldn’t be that cruel.
Today will go down in memory as the most adventurous of my life: if I end up topping today, I have a feeling I will not live to tell the tale. This morning I went white-water rafting with Kaitiaki Adventures on the Kaituna river, a Grade V river complete with a 7 metre drop over the Okere Falls. As luck would have it, I ended up sitting in the front of the raft next to one of the guides, so I was first in line when we plunged, nearly vertical, into the basin at the bottom of the falls. Combined with the shin injury I sustained helping load the raft into the river (I was accidentally pushed by the raft off the concrete platform), I consider today to be a day of body abuse.
|Approaching the falls... yikes!|
|Over we go... I'm on the left, in front.|
This isn’t to say the rafting wasn’t fun: it was! There were two boats out at the same time, so we got to watch the other rafters do everything we did (and marvel at our mutual craziness). In all, it was great, splashing, wet fun. I find it amusing that I had never worn a wetsuit until my surfing lesson on the 31st, and now today was the third day in a row I found myself strapped, packed, and otherwise stuffed into one. I have all sorts of pictures from the rafting that I will have to upload (any photos uploaded at this point would be an achievement, really).
After we finished rafting the Kaitiaki Adventures bus drove us back into the town of Rotorua, famous for its geothermal activity (if not for the pungent smell of sulphur that permeates the city). Back on the Stray bus, we headed south for the city of Taupo, stopping at Waiotapu Thermal Mud Pools and a hot river along the way. There is something surreal about seeing boiling mud burble and splatter out of the ground in a mucky, steaming pool. Equally surreal was the hot water river we got out and waded into; it’s indiscernible from the photos I took; but the water is as warm as a jacuzzi tub (although a little bit murkier).
Our last stop before Taupo was the Huka falls, New Zealand’s most visited tourist attraction, where the Waikato River (the country’s longest river) surges from Lake Taupo and heads on its 425km journey to the sea south of Auckand. About 200 000 litres fall over the 9 metre falls every second: enough to fill five Olympic-sizes swimming pools per minute!
Once we arrived and settled into our hostel in Taupo, I and seven other people from our bus embarked on what was likely the biggest thrill of our lives: skydiving! Yes, I, Carolyn Taylor, went skydiving. My guide and tandem was a man named Chris, who was very kind and relaxed, which was an excellent fit, as I was surprisingly calm and in an excellent headspace (my biggest worry was about my slowly-receding head cold, as it is not advisable to jump with clogged ears or a stuffy nose). Skydiving is something I have wanted to try since I was ten years old and saw it on a Bill Nye the Science Guy episode, and today I got my chance.
I opted for the full-meal-deal, as it were: a skydive from 15 000 feet (over 4 500 metres), with a personalised DVD, still photos, and a t-shirt. The DVD is made from a camera attached to the wrist of one’s tandem guide, so it actually films one in free-fall and parachuting in the sky. We even got to pick the music used in the DVD background!
Sitting at the edge of a plane over 4.5 kilometers up in the air, at an open door, knowing one is going to jump out and plunge toward the ground, accelerating to a maximum rate of 200km/hr sounds somewhat terrifying, but I have to say I was extremely calm. I don’t now if it was the lack of oxygen (they did give us oxygen for part of the ascent) to my brain, but I think I was simply resolved this was something I really wanted to try, and I trusted Chris’ experience as a skydiver to keep me safe. The scariest moment was actually the instant we left the plane and started to drop: the acceleration is intense, and one is spinning and tumbling around, losing all sense of up and down, while the air whips by fast and fierce enough to spread your cheeks out like a chipmunk. I didn’t scream, or make any sounds; I was too enthralled with the experience. Once terminal velocity is reached, it really does feel like you are flying.
Sixty seconds of freefall does indeed feel like a lot longer; when Chris pulled the cord to release our parachute, it felt like we were being abruptly pulled upward, though in reality of course we were simply rapidly deaccelerating. The problem with the human brain is we have no adaptation to perceive distance above about 1000 m, so it didn’t feel like we were moving in the vertical plane at all until Chris pulled the parachute. Likely the most surreal moment was just gliding around, gently letting the parachute do its work and bring us safely back to earth, enjoying the spectacular scenery of the New Zealand landscape spread out below us. Featuring prominently in this was Lake Taupo, formed by the largest volcanic eruption in recorded human history in 180AD (Apparently it affected sunsets in China, and made the explosion of Krakatoa look like a pimple). At 606 km2, it’s the largest lake in New Zealand. Chris let me try my hand at steering the parachute by pulling on the leads on either side; steering capability is definitely a plus, as I didn’t want to end up landing *on* the lake!
We landed with a gentle bump on the grass just outside Skydive Taupo headquarters, and then our group of four (Emma, Lettie, Mike, and myself) relaxed and tried to let our ear pressures return to normal (mine still hasn’t, almost five hours later), and lay on our backs on the grass, squinting up at the sky, trying to see the second group of skydivers plunge toward the earth. Already the experience was beginning to fade, becoming more dream like and surreal, which I suppose is understandable, as our poor brains tried to process what the heck we had just done to our minds and bodies. This is why we all have the DVD of the experience, so we can relive it over and over again. :-)
I must be off to bed; tomorrow the fit among us hike the Tongariro Crossing, voted one of the best one-day hikes in the world. It’s 20-something kilometres, however, so I definitely need my sleep to be rested and prepared (it is 11pm now and we leave at 7am. Ugh). When I look back at what I did today, I think I must be going slightly crazy, but as the slogan at Taupo Skydive said, “Fear is temporary; achievement is permanent”. Well said.