A few more off the bucket list

Last updated 10:02 02/09/2013
Fairfax Australia

Helen Pitt ticks off an item on her bucket list with a fall through the sky over Cairns

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Over the years, editors have sent me on some hair-raising assignments; to the Bosnian War in the former Yugoslavia, and Tahiti to cover the French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll.

But when the travel editor asked me to go skydiving over the Great Barrier Reef, it was probably the biggest test of my professional career so far.

This was the sort of adrenalin-fuelled adventure that would be on the bucket list of many travellers. I just don't happen to be one of them. Adventure holidays and I don't mix.

A Swedish toboggan trip once ended in a surgical ward, after my leg collided with a pine tree. A weekend horse riding in Victoria also resulted in a broken bone.

But I put my reservations aside and decided I had to build up to adventure in baby steps. Like many travellers to far north Queensland, not long after I arrived in Cairns I found myself white-water rafting down the Barron River.

I fell out of the boat on the first rapid. "That wasn't too scary," I said, as my fellow rafters heaved my life-jacketed self back into the boat. In fact, it was kind of fun.

Next day we headed to Atherton, for a spot of mountain biking in the surrounding hills. The bike trails around Atherton have already made it a cycling destination.

As a regular rider to work, this was a part of the adventure tour that didn't phase me. How wrong I was. I was gripping on to my bike brakes in white-knuckled fear, as we bounced down ravines and up steep embankments.

Indeed, the path was so treacherous one member of our party fell off her bike and broke her leg (confirming every fear I'd had about this trip in the first place).

Before I let my mind play "I told you so" tricks, I climbed into a four-wheel-drive, bound for Cape Tribulation. Jungle surfing through the Daintree Rainforest was a crucial next step, confidence-wise.

The "Warning, crocodile" signs as we waited for the punt across the Daintree river set the tone for this remote but beautiful place.

We were bundled into a bus, driven up a steep hill, geared up with helmets (painted with fellow thrill-seeker names such as "Rambo" and "Lara Croft") and attached to harnesses.

Next thing we were swinging Tarzan-like through the rainforest. The wire ropes stop at five tree platforms and it was at the highest, about 23 metres in the air, I realised I was having the most fun I'd had in years. On the last zipline I found myself swinging upside down like a bat.

"If I can do this surely I can skydive," I said to myself. Stand-up paddleboarding that afternoon on the clear but crocodile-infested waters of the Mossman River only strengthened my resolve.

Now it's the next morning and on the drive to the plane I plan to jump from, I yawn constantly.

"Nerves," explains my helpful dive master, Bob from Botany.

Next, I find myself spooning with strangers, straddling a bench in the plane, my body harnessed to Bob, and breathing heavily into the ear of a skydiving stranger in front.

As we fly to 4200 metres for the jump, Bob starts his schtick of bad jokes, and there is a stream of nervous laughter (not from me, I am too terrified).

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As he readies the wrist camera to film me, he says: "Scream, because at least you'll open your mouth and breathe."

This is useful advice as I am already hyperventilating. Before I have time for second thoughts, or to even remember his instructions (cross arms, head back) he pushes me out of the plane and I am freefalling, screaming my lungs out. I'd like to say I enjoy it, but all I am thinking is "this must be what it feels like to have a heart attack"; there's also the dryness of my mouth, and it seems the entire Earth's atmosphere is pressed against my chest; then the whoosh of the parachute opening; then silence.

Suddenly, we begin to swirl like a seagull in the slipstream. Then I start to relax and take in the view, the beautiful blue blur of the barrier reef, and the green of Mount Bartle Frere, Queensland's tallest mountain.

Looking down I realise far north Queensland is a sort of paradise with scary things - I'm not talking crocodiles and cassowaries, but white-water rafting, jungle surfing and skydiving.

Landing (the most dangerous part) is mercifully completed without broken limbs.

The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism and Events Queensland.

STAYING THEREPeppers Beach Club, 123 Williams Esplanade, Palm Cove. peppers.com.au/beach-club-spa.

QT Port Douglas, 87-109 Port Douglas Road, Port Douglas. qtportdouglas.com.au.

THRILL-SEEKING THERE White-water rafting, ragingthunder.com.au.

Mountain biking, tablelandadventureguides.com.au.

Jungle Surfing Canopy Tours, The Snake House, Lot 2 Cape Tribulation Road, Cape Tribulation. junglesurfing.com.au.

Stand-up paddleboarding, windswell.com.au.

Skydive the Reef Cairns, skydivethereefcairns.com.au.

MORE INFORMATION tq.com.au

- Sydney Morning Herald