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A Life-Changing Trip to Queensland, Australia

Sometimes you’ve got to conquer your fears — even if it means putting your trust in a parachute

an illustration of two kangaroos looking at a figure parachuting near two green hills

Illustration by Chris Lyons

Everything in my body screams, “Don’t do it!” I am about to jump out of an airplane, so my breath grows short; the distinct thud of my heartbeat is pounding in my ears. A thin, cool breeze blows in my face, an undeniable reminder that nothing separates me from the ground 15,000 feet below. My hands, resting at my sides, seem to have a mind of their own, moving to grab the sides of this wide-open door and thrust me back from the edge and into the safety of this small propeller craft.

A couple hundred kilometers in a camper-van driving across Queensland, Australia, have brought me to this precipice, outfitted in a flight suit and parachute. Jump? The abyss awaits. All others on this skydiving adventure have made the leap; I am last. Hesitation keeps me in place, until the dive instructor strapped to my back says firmly in his Aussie accent, “Are you ready?” I’m not. But in just a few moments, I’ll be dropping like a stone, engaged in a strange midair wrestling match over my eyeglasses.

Time to walk the talk

One of the ultimate thrill-seeking experiences, skydiving is a feat about which I regularly talked a big game: “Oh, I’ve always wanted to do that,” I’d say in casual conversation, when talk turned to adventure travel experiences. Truth be told, I hadn’t come to Australia’s lush tropical rainforest to plummet from a plane. I was born with a healthy fear of heights. For me, even a high-altitude hike would raise adrenaline levels, and more than once I can recall getting dizzy just stepping to the edge of a hotel balcony.

Skydiving, however, is in a class by itself. Jumps typically reach a velocity of about 120 mph but can accelerate to 200 mph if the diver isn’t in a spread-eagle position. A typical drop is almost three miles, straight down.

When we do something thrilling, a few things happen in our bodies, a natural reaction developed over the millennia, says Kenneth Carter, M.D., the author of the 2019 book Buzz!: Inside the Minds of Thrill-Seekers, Daredevils, and Adrenaline Junkies. “As you can imagine, there are some evolutionary advantages to getting your body prepared to fight, flee or freeze during stressful situations,” he says.

Research has shown that thrill-seekers generally experience less stress and anxiety in their lives, he adds. A study from the University of California, Berkeley took and analyzed saliva samples from students. “They discovered those who experienced the awe of a thrilling experience had lower levels of the chemical that promotes inflammation,” he says.

What’s more, says Kayt Sukel, author of The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution, and Chance, reasonable risk-taking is good for us. “It helps the brain learn new things. Think about it: How do we learn much of anything?” she asks. Of course, not everyone needs to engage in adventure sports to get these benefits. “For some, healthy risk-taking may be trying a new entrée at your favorite restaurant,” she says.

Impulsive action

When I awoke that morning in Cairns, considered the gateway city to the Great Barrier Reef, I had no idea just how far out of my own comfort zone I would travel that day. Under a hot sun, I wandered the sultry waterfront and tourist-attracting shops in the central business district. I was enjoying an early lunch outdoors when I saw the sandwich-board sign set up on the sidewalk.

Curious, I investigated. A cheery young woman sitting behind a tour desk explained that this skydiving business didn’t require any prior experience or even lessons. “You just show up, and they’ll take it from there,” she smiled. “You could even jump today.”

I made a snap decision to do it. She gave me a set time at a small airstrip a couple hours away, and I climbed into the boxy camper-van I’d rented for my trip and set out to face my fears.

The adventure begins

Lumbering through sugarcane fields past the blue waters of the Coral Sea, I’m running late. When I arrive, the staff, clearly running a clockwork operation, assures me I still have time.

When I’m given a tablet to sign a waiver, I’m also given a choice: Jump from 14,000 or 15,000 feet? “Go big or home,” I tell the team, forcing a little bravado into my slightly shaky voice while opting for the higher altitude.

“Step here,” they say, pointing to a Super Dave Osborne-style flight suit, and within seconds I’m fully outfitted. My tandem instructor, Rich, introduces himself and gives me a few tips, which I forget immediately. Having noticed that I’m wearing eyeglasses, he issues this warning: “Those will fly right off your face.”

I had planned to put in my contact lenses, but the aircraft is already waiting, with maybe a dozen other jumpers ready to go. Rich hands me a stopgap solution, a strap to affix across the back of my head to the arms of the glasses to keep them in place. Very aware that I’d recently lost my backup pair, and that I wouldn’t be able to see well enough to drive my camper-van away if I lost the ones I’m wearing, I tighten the strap as firmly as possible.

Two skydivers fall from a white propeller plane against a blue sky

Courtesy: Tim Johnson

Travel writer Tim Johnson and his tandem skydiving instructor, Rich, fall 15,000 feet.

No backing out now

We stride through a grassy field and board our plane, engines already firing on all cylinders. The interior is hollow, no seats, and Rich and I slide all the way to the back, the rest of the jumpers filling the cabin ahead of us. Vroom — we bump along the dirt strip and lift into the air. Rich shows me our constantly climbing position on a big, round altimeter strapped to his wrist. I ask many questions. My guts flutter. My heart pumps like a jackhammer. Will I freeze, or take flight? No question that now flight is the only option.

I’m the only diver on the plane who opted for the higher altitude, so I must watch everyone else drop off the side, one by one, which proves slightly excruciating. Shimmying to the edge — just like that — they disappear.

Finally, Rich and I are alone in the cabin and the plane climbs that final thousand feet, the symphony of my senses reaching the height of its crescendo, my entire nervous system bathed in cortisol. We move to the edge. He reminds me once more to keep my arms fully extended until we pull the chute, to help control the pace of our free fall.

The clouds below form a white, puffy floor, every few moments breaking up to reveal a patchwork of vibrant green fields and little white dots that must be homes. The gray lines of roads are thin enough to be threads, pulled by a mad tailor. A shimmer of blue, just beyond, the beginning of the Pacific, the Great Barrier Reef unseen below. Are those kangaroos I see over there?

A dopamine high

We go! The thrill hits me immediately and the rush is overwhelming. That feeling of letting go, the release of anxiety, the scream of the air roaring past my ears, the total and complete elation of free falling, my smothering worries from just a few seconds ago gone with the wind. My arms are wide open, all 10 fingers pointed to endless horizons on both sides.

And then, it happens: My glasses start to fall off. It starts with just a little wiggle, but within a few moments they’re really starting to move, the strap around the back proving little help against the force of all that rushing air. Instinctively, I pull my hands in, grabbing at the eyewear, determined to hold them to my face. Rich responds, doing his best to muscle my arms back out, shouting that we need that extra wind resistance. Focused on one thing — not losing those glasses — I don’t respond right away, but Rich keeps at it, pushing me to re-extend my arms, an unintended tussle above the clouds.

I finally do as I’m told and let go of the glasses, just hoping I don’t lose them. I remain in the moment, soaking up the elation and the dopamine. Rich pulls the cord, and I exhale when the parachute opens. The free fall only takes about 60 seconds — although it feels like forever — and we glide the final distance to the ground, maybe another five minutes, executing a choppy but safe landing.

In that moment, feeling the glow of a safe arrival back to Earth, I don’t know if my brain is more plastic, but my legs certainly feel like rubber. I wear a goofy smile, one attributable to a natural high. It will remain on my face all day.

Did I push myself outside my comfort zone? Certainly. Create memories? So many, a one-in-a-lifetime experience. Learn any lessons? A bunch, especially the value of taking a risk and facing fears, always a reminder that bravery can be a reward in itself. I shake Rich’s hand, climb into the camper-van and make trails. Glasses? Still right there on the bridge of my nose, helping me see the way down the road, and reminding me that, sometimes, you just need to go ahead and let go.

Travel writer Tim Johnson lives in the Greater Toronto Area. He has visited 145 countries on all seven continents and has contributed to Bloomberg PursuitsThe Globe and Mail and The New Yorker.

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