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Falling like an Angel

I am not sure how the idea snowballed. It started with my 16 year old twin daughters Harriet and Phoebe mentioning that they would like to do a tandem skydive each after their GCSEs. Probably it was then me that chipped in with a “why not learn to do it properly?”, and contacted a couple of skydiving schools in the UK. They were friendly and helpful, but then I thought about the vagaries of the British weather, talked to some skydivers at work, considered that we might as well make a real holiday of it . . .

Photos: Debbie McEvoy

. . . and ended up at Ramblers Skydive Centre in Toogoolalawah, in the stunning Brisbane Valley in Queensland. We were booked on a 20 jump training course, with free “motel style” accommodation actually on the drop zone. “Motel style” means what appears to be a hut on stilts from the outside. On the inside, two clean sparsely furnished but modern rooms, a cooking area with one electric ring and a ‘fridge big enough for a couple of the numerous kangaroos that grazed the dropzone, if you folded the tails up first. Oh, and a toilet and shower, but sharing with two teenage girls meant that I never actually experienced the inside of the latter. Fortunately the nearby toilet blocks (converted shipping containers) contained the world’s best showers. Well, they were the best showers in the world once you worked out which cubicles had the hot and cold taps labelled the wrong way round. The other peculiarity was the warning posters pinned to the inside of the lavatory doors, with headlines like “Premature opening can be fatal” and “Low hook turns not only impress, they also compress, fracture, maim, kill . . .”. Clearly, constipation would not be a problem here.

And the jumping? Well, it had not occurred to me that I would be terrified at first – hey, I’m not scared of heights . . . so I wasn’t really prepared for the sensations as the pilot turned into wind at 14,000 feet and throttled back, and the red light came on. A valley below, lakes to the south, mountains and ocean in the distance. The roller door was opened. The prop blast of cool air (not cold – it might be two and a half miles up, and the middle of winter, but this is Australia!), the noise of airflow and turboprop making conversation impossible. Shuffling towards the door, limbs stiff with horror, gripping the edge of the doorway for fear of falling (what?), shamed by the supreme confidence with which my sixteen year old daughters had stepped nimbly eighteen inches to the left, from standing on carpet to standing on air. I screamed out my exit drill at maximum volume to give myself courage, and jumped.

Photos: Debbie McEvoy

My instructor Paul (“Dredgie”)’s mantra was that “it’s a good exit if you can read what’s written on the bottom of the aircraft wing”. Well, it was my sixth jump before I even saw the outside of the aircraft, let alone a wing or anything written on it. It was about that time that I stopped hating jumping and started to enjoy it. By jump ten or eleven I was totally hooked, adoring it, and determined to improve. The jump, the slight feeling of falling as you accelerate from a horizontal 100mph to a vertical 110, fading away in a few seconds, as if God had reached out his hand and caught you. The silver aeroplane disappearing into a flawless blue sky, tiny dots detaching themselves and falling after you. The joy of realising that you can fly, turn, dive and manoeuvre. The 4g of jolting deceleration and loud smack as your canopy open above you. After checking that all is well with the canopy, looking for the dropzone . . . . . find the town, then the showground (a distinctive oval), the sewage works and then the runway, all in a convenient line. The canopy ride down to land on target, a white ‘X’ in the kangaroo grazed paddock. All the landings videoed for an evening debrief over a cold beer. Or four(ish).

We were jumping from 14,000 feet and opening our canopies about a minute and ten thousand feet later. At each jump our initially pitiful attempts at stability improved as we started on the long road of progression from falling twitching sacks of potatoes towards sky god status. The initial AFF jumps are made in company with two instructors, then with one. Stage 9 and after, you’re on your own.

Photos: Debbie McEvoy

The standard of skydiving instruction was extremely high and, if ever there is a global shortage of enthusiasm, Rambler’s instructors will be a rich vein to mine! By and large, the same instructor stuck with each of us through the course, with the occasional swap around for a different perspective. Phoebe mainly jumped with Debbie McEvoy, niece of the Chief Instructor and founder Dave McEvoy (‘Macca’). It was Debbie’s daughter Jordan, aged 6, adorable in uniform of green gingham dress and green bush hat, arriving at the drop zone after school to see her mum, who challenged me when she spotted me rummaging in one of my daughter’s bags. I told her that they were my daughters – she paused, placed her hands firmly on hips, and with a triumphant tone told me “but you’re too old to be their dad!”. And she whupped me at foozeball . . . .

The main aircraft used at Ramblers are a pair of turboprop Cessna Caravans, popular with skydivers due to their power and climb rate, which gives you more time jumping and less time sitting in the back. As the Ramblers website puts it so poetically, a Caravan ” . . climbs to jump height like a homesick angel!”. The Caravan also boasts a nice large door and the ability to carry 17 jumpers in “comfort”. Well, relative comfort – 17 people wearing jumping kit and sitting on the floor in an area the size of one and a half double beds are never going to be entirely comfortable! Oh, and farting – we blamed the altitude but fear contributed.

So the holiday was a brilliant success. I loved it. My daughters loved it. Since returning we have jumped here in the UK, after a few hours ground training on the different kit and procedures used. We are looking forward to going back to Ramblers next year to really rack up our level of experience and skill.

Photos: Debbie McEvoy

Apart from the jumping, there was Australia, or more strictly speaking that slice of south Queensland that we were able to see in a couple of non-jumping days. The Brisbane valley is perfect for horse riding and gentle exploring. Apart from the ubiquitous kangaroo, we saw koala, including a mother and baby – the latter just a perfectly formed miniature of its parent. There is also the Sunshine Coast an hour’s drive away, complete with natural attractions such as fantastic surfing beaches, and man made ones such as Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo. Coolum Beach and Noosa were stunning, but on the whole that stretch of coastline was the only thing that fell short of our expectations. The beaches and climate may be perfect, but parts gave the impression of being over developed. Marginally further afield, there was whale watching and camel safaris and, beyond that, true wilderness.

The holiday also changed my relationship with Harriet and Phoebe. I remind myself frequently that my 16 year old daughters are now responsible enough to leave an aeroplane at 14000 feet, freefall for a minute, deploy their canopies correctly, find their way to the drop zone, land safely, and deal with anything unexpected that occurs along the way . . .

The cost of skydiving courses was less in Australia than the UK. With flights from Heathrow to Brisbane via Bangkok with Thai Airlines (perfectly adequate and, at the time we booked via Dial-a-Flight, by far the cheapest) the cost of the whole holiday was very little more than doing 20 jumps in the UK. Go on, do it. You know you don’t want to. But it may very well change your life. And you come back with holiday photos and videos that you friends are relatives will actually be interested in!

Return flights to Brisbane are offered by several airlines, including British Airways, Qantas, Thai Airways and Cathay Pacific. Currently, the best deal of GBP 550 + 53 tax is being offered by Singapore Airlines. 24 hour or longer stopovers are an option, and where you want to visit will influence your choice of airline!

Photos: Debbie McEvoy

The three of us were booked on a 20 jump “Addiction” package. This was the “biggest” course offered by Ramblers, which ranged from single jump packages upwards. Stage 1 only of the AFF (Accelerated Freefall Course, which requires the successful completion of nine training jumps), theory and one jump, costs AUD 300. The “Introduction” course, consisting of three AFF stage jumps over 2-3 days is AUD 750. The “Completion” package – the full nine jump AFF course over 4-5 days is AUD 1,765. Our “Addiction” packages of AFF + 11 ‘fun jumps’ were AUD 3,100 each. Accommodation on the drop zone is included in the various packages.

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