If you have a bucket list, Australia is one place that will help you cross off quite a few things off it. Given a choice between sipping champagne in the Whitsundays and getting a taste of the Tropical North Queensland Adventure experience, it wasn't too difficult to decide that you rather jump out of a plane and feel alive than relax in the lap of luxury for one whole week.
The group that would eventually be called the Death Cheaters first met as we got off the two-hour flight from Brisbane to Cairns. Joe wanted to do something uncharacteristic of him while his fellow Irishman Mic, who could pass off as a Sam Worthington doppelganger, was there because he wanted a taste of adventure. Gareth, the Welsh journalist from Scotland, had toured extensively and had jumped off a plane before but wanted to do it again, while 22-year-old Londoner Johnny hadn't done any of those things in the itinerary. Kiran, the only other Indian journalist in the group, showed up because she had no idea what she could write about lounging around on islands, while Cameron, the 55-year-old Kiwi, was just feeling as young as Johnny when it came to jumping off a plane. Bec, our babysitter from Tourism Queensland, had done it before and she couldn't wait to do it again. “It's like cheating death because if we tried doing any of these things without the right harness and gear, we would just die,” she said philosophically. And that's how the group came to be named.
We were all set to skydive in less than 48 hours once the plane touched down. Excitement, fear, anxiety, jetlag – it was a mixed bag of feelings but we all agreed that if we had to die, leaping off a plane was the way to go in style, simultaneously feeling right on top of the world and realising what a tiny speck we were on the third rock from the sun. So it wasn't too difficult to break the ice even if we were perfect strangers because we were all destined to leave together on a plane that would go up 14,000 feet and drop us down, one by one, thankfully with a professional skydiver in tandem.
Our first evening in Cairns, a city with a population of 1,50,000, was at the Tjapukai Aborginal Cultural Park (www.tjapukai.com.au/) where we had a date with the indigenous population. “It's hard for indigenous people to go looking for work,” says Dennis Hunter a.k.a Rainbow, one of the central performers and regulars at the park. Spread over 25 acres of tribal land in Caravonica Lakes, Tjapukai is about 15 minutes away from Cairns and the once barren landscape is now teeming with tourists as the park has managed to sustain itself and grow from strength to strength over the last two decades. “Just a brother holding everyone's hand together,” Rainbow tells us the story, after painting our faces with tribal art and a performance of dance and didgeridoo. During the day, the tourists are given spear- and boomerang-throwing demonstrations.
We get a wake-up call at 2.30 am to get ready for the hot air balloon ride with Raging Thunder (www.rangingthunder.com.au). By four, we are on our way to where the balloons would take off from – the Atherton Tablelands. There were two groups doing this adventure and the group going up second would chase the balloon with the group going up first by road. “I don’t have any control over direction,” our pilot Steve Hawke tells us. “The only control I have is over height. By manipulating the height, I find the right wind direction to take me where I want to go.” His brother is flying the other balloon. The flight is quite smooth and sturdy. Apparently, the weather here is so great for hot air ballooning that they only cancel maybe 30 days a year.
It's really like being inside ‘Up’, the animation film: the basket feels like a floor floating in the air as we catch a wallaby hop across and disappear between the trees over the Mareeba valley. We also manage to get ourselves a thrilling landing right beside the road with a trailer slowing down on spotting a huge balloon right in front of it. It takes about 12-15 people to pack up the balloon and load it, as we realise, as Steve asks us to earn our breakfast with champagne by giving a hand.
The thing about the Tropics is that you don't know when it would rain and when the water levels become too dangerous for tourists. So our white-water rafting plan is pushed to the next day and we get our shirts dirty by taking quad bikes, the all terrain vehicles, for a spin over the slushy dirt tracks. Running into a tree, finding ourselves in a bush, pushing a ATV out of a hole, getting shoes soiled – it’s all a matter of routine. Mic topples the bike and lands on his back, his favourite white shirt now dirt brown. None of my everyday biking experience turns adequate for this terrain and I decide to sacrifice speed for control. Meanwhile, the other half of the group at Blazing Saddles (www.blazingsaddles.com.au) decides to be with nature and go horse-riding.
How do you clean up at the end of it all? Help yourself to a full blast of water with the garden hose. We had asked for adventure, didn’t we? This was just the beginning. After a sleepless night, we would be on our way to take the ultimate leap of faith — out of a plane.
(To be continued)