Look before you leap
No-one tells you about the "cottonmouth". They rave about the rush; the views, the tricks and the adrenalin spike for the hour after you land, but never the cottonmouth.
Plummeting from 16,000 feet at around 200kmh with my jaw ajar in terror, the desert condition of my mouth is now entirely predictable. The minute-long freefall is such an overload it's probably best my vocal functions are rendered useless beyond the occasional yelp. Maybe the oxygen masks they give at 10,000 feet are something else entirely.
Ryan, the rowdy Yank I've trusted my life with, points his little GoPro camera at me and asks, "What do you think of my office?" It's of a series of questions he asks for the souvenir video, along with a photo taken every two seconds to capture every view, frightening facial expression, death spiral and flip (which is good because my memory will be too shell-shocked to retain the two flips we exit the plane with).
The white-knuckled haze of the ride up and cottonmouth on the swift descent mean I provide no witty commentary for the camera.
The fact that Ryan has more than 8000 jumps "successfully" (read: he is still alive) should be more comforting as we plummet to the ground. Logically, I have pretty good odds to be successful jump number 8001, but, then again, jumping out of a small aircraft high above Earth is not really the bastion point of logical thinking.
Having tired of death spirals Ryan turns geography teacher for the final seconds of freefall and his office view rivals no other: Clouds scattered around us, the islands in the bay, a cruise ship rounding Cape Brett, the Hokianga harbour glistening and Ninety Mile Beach and the Tasman beyond. If it weren't for the adrenaline and my peaking anxiety levels it would almost be a relaxing panorama.
He pulls the chute. Pink and brown hues return to my knuckles. Hold the eulogies, please. Ryan senses my relief. "You know Josh, in some countries journalists get pushed out of planes without a parachute."
He hands over the parachute reins and lets me steer for a while as Kerikeri's vineyards and orchards come into view. We dip, swoop and drop suddenly. My stomach again leaps to my throat; they have got to know each other far too well in the past few minutes.
As we come into land, I can't stop grinning. Ainslee, who I last saw disappearing into the stratosphere minutes beforehand, has one to match. A wide, manic grin common to adrenalin junkies, even temporary ones. We may have high-fived.
Our jump is easily the best story of the day among the dozen people on the twilight kayaking tour we take that night. It's certainly a change of pace. Tyler, who runs the tours with right-hand man Cam, has realised the basic principle of kayaking - it's fun until about three hours in, when your soggy palms are blistered and your back aches.
Unlike the safety briefing at Bay of Islands Skydive, this one is fairly simple: "If you flip over and fall out off your kayak, just stand up," explains Tyler, as at low tide the estuary is only two feet deep.
At our starting point, the pounding Hururu Falls and mossy rocks ensure plenty of multi-kayak pile ups and men overboard. We clamber and bum-shuffle for photos under the falls as the sun sets, before paddling down the river as the light fades.
"Oi! Careful!" I blame the darkness when I paddle right into a local's flounder nets. I can make out a "damn townie!" grimace. After our "safari", Cam hands out pumpkin soup as we pile on board a converted oyster barge and make a quick exit. Well, as quickly as an oyster barge will allow.
Oysters from nearby Orongo Bay are mellower than their cousins from Bluff, so I'm disappointed the season has just ended when I ask for them at 35 Degrees in Paihia, post-kayaking. The over-water restaurant's menu was recently designed by TV chef Michael van den Elzen, but the offerings are higher-end than at his Food Truck Garage in Auckland's CBD. Having missed out on quality local delicacies we instead opt for quantity - a seafood platter, which includes smoked kingfish, tuatuas and fat, juicy scallop-crusted hapuka.
Ainslee's pork belly comes with apple fritters so light and fluffy we might have hurtled through them during our freefall. Having seen the expansive bay from 16,000 feet we can appreciate the twinkling lights of Russell that much more with a glass of Northland's Chambourcin red.
Sunday begins with coffee, but that's where the similarities with my usual routine end, as we scramble aboard a vessel to find some locals to swim with. But pods of common or bottlenose dolphins prove elusive and four hours later we have had an extensive voyage around the Bay of Islands, while the percentage of backpackers sleeping off their hangovers on board has risen steadily. As we pull into Russell our deflated guide says: "If it's any consolation, we saw about 150 dolphins yesterday!" It isn't.
After lunch at the Duke of Marlborough, we strap on a tandem harness for a parasail - our mode of transport back to Paihia. "Look, the worst that can happen is that the rope snaps and you float gently down to some deserted island," consoles our driver. Actually, the worst thing that can happen is to accidently open the carabineer when attempting a flip high above the sea, flips he encourages us to do.
The sea breeze fills our sail, the winch unwinds and in seconds we are cruising at a height of 200 metres. Ainslee is keen to play trapeze acrobats, but I quickly counter with a lie about our centre of gravity being too low to rival a circus act. The view proves distraction enough and, unlike the day before, it can truly be appreciated when we're not hurtling towards the ground at breakneck speed.
We can see Robinson, Urupukapuka and Moturua islands sheltering bobbing boats in their bays. We dip, float, and accelerate on the whims of the wind and our driver, with even a few stomach-to-throat moments thrown in for good measure. Ainslee is getting her money's worth just listening to my ridiculous squealing and squirming. You'd think my fear of heights would be long gone following yesterday's jump, but no. I'm just getting used to it when we are reeled back in, our driver kind enough not to dunk us in the bay.
Bidding farewell to Paihia, I notice the empty bottle of Cottle Hill red we drank to give us a bit of Dutch courage before our skydive. Maybe that explains the cottonmouth.
The writer travelled with the assistance of Bay of Islands Destination Marketing.
GETTING THERE Paihia is a comfortable 3½-hour drive north from Auckland. Air New Zealand flies to Kerikeri up to five times daily.
STAYING THERE Kingsgate Autolodge, Marsden Rd, Paihia. Rooms from $117 per night. Ph 0800 652 929.
BEING THERE Skydive Bay of Islands, 182 Wiroa Rd, Kerikeri. Ph 09 407 7057.
Fullers Great Sights Dolphin Eco Experience, Marsden Rd, Paihia. Phone 09 402 7421.
Night Safari with Bay of Islands Cruise & Kayak. Ph 09 402 8555 .
Parasail Bay of Islands, Marsden Rd, Paihia. Ph 09 402 6068.
35 Degrees restaurant, 69 Marsden Rd, Paihia. Ph 09 402 6220.
- Sunday Star Times