New Zealand Adventure: Day 2 (Skydiving)

Queenstown, NZ -Day 2: Now, I’d be lying if I said that we were well rested and ready to go after the first night in our hostel. There was a club on the first level and our room was positioned on the corner right above the street. The night was filled with Euro-dance beats and inebriated youth shouting in all languages right outside our window. We awoke early and grabbed a coffee and a small bite across the street before heading to the Skydiving office for our pickup. Jacob and I arrived, signed our life away and picked out the skydiving package that we thought was the best bang for our buck. We went with a 12,000 ft dive (45 second free fall) with the picture package as an add-on. We loaded onto an NZone bus with maybe 10 other people and headed out of town towards the drop zone. The 15-minute ride was filled with silent anticipation for the most part, and then a few jokes were told to ease the tension, which helped.

This is one you don't read....just sign.

When we arrived at the NZone (Skydiving) complex, as you can probably guess by the pictures above, we were awestruck with the view that surrounded us. Jacob said that he was glad he waited to skydive, so that he was jumping in the most beautiful place on earth instead of a random flat field somewhere in America, and I agree with him completely. Before our jump we did some interviews on my phone (in case we died), and I played a game of ‘giant chess’ with our new Columbian friend Hector as we watched the group that went before us fall from the sky. I also got a chance to meet with a couple of Brazilians who had just jumped almost an hour ago and were waiting for a ride back to town. Our time was up, and our names were called. We went to the hanger and put on our jumpsuits and were given a very brief demonstration of how to contort our bodies like a banana during our free fall. Moments later our plane arrived and our tandem buddies grabbed us and we walked the long walk towards the deafening sound of our tiny fixed-wing airplane.

Let's do this!!

I can’t speak for Jacob (I think he was as nervous as I was), but I was attempting to put my mind somewhere else during the take off and ascension part of this journey. There were maybe 12 of us crammed into this little plane. While we were going up my dive buddy (Ed) was sitting with his legs spread open with me between them, basically sitting on his lap, as he strapped me to him. I was going to ask him if he was sure I was strapped in right, but I figured he’d done this a few thousand times and probably knew what he was doing. It took us a few minutes to reach 12,000 feet, but once we did, I realized that I would be the first to jump (after my photographer). Things got very real once the light turned on and the sliding door was thrust open. My adrenaline skyrocketed as Ed and I scooted towards the door. I put my feet out and strained to keep them together. I tucked them under the plane, put my head back, and leaned forward. Ed gave a few rocks back and forth, and we jumped right after my photographer.

Getting ready to bust through the clouds!

There’s definitely a strange vertigo feeling for the first few moments, and then falling through the clouds is a bizarre experience and kind of tastes like the smell after a heavy rain. Meanwhile, several other people have jumped above me, but Jacob and another person in our group had to go on another pass because the wind speed was picking up, and they needed to drop them back closer to the field where we would be landing. Jacob told me that he thought they were cancelling their jump because it was too windy, but then they opened the door again and got to jump. The whole time we were falling, we were captivated by the amazing sight below and all around us. Both Jacob and I were surprised at how it was somewhat difficult to breathe at times, and if you opened your mouth wrong, wind would gust in and steal your breath.

Peace!

After the 45 seconds of free fall and absolutely breath-taking scenery, Ed pulled the parachute (without telling me) and everything went silent. For the past several minutes I’d heard a noisy plane and then gusty wind blowing past my ears at a high velocity…but now, nothing. To be honest, I thought I was dying for a second because everything went silent and my photographer kept falling for a few moments. I understood later that he had to get down to the ground before us so he could take a picture of our landing. When we got closer to the ground, Ed told me to pull my knees to my chest and then stick them out straight for the landing. Ed steered the parachute like a champ and we even did a few corkscrew maneuvers before finally landing softly, precisely where we were supposed to. I was alive, and I was smiling. Adrenaline was still coursing through my veins as I gave random people high fives and strutted back to the hanger like Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible.

Legs up!!

Love ya, Ed!

Several minutes later I watched as Jacob went careening through the air with his tandem buddy and landed safely in the same field I had. He was smiling ear to ear and was just as happy to be alive as I was. Take a look at Jacob’s free fall experience below…

I love this picture, because it looks like he's in outer space!

Jacob's goggles flying off!

Goggles back, thumbs up!

Parachute pull

The group after us wasn’t able to jump because the wind speed was too high, so we were also grateful to be able to jump that day.

When we got back to town we grabbed lunch with Hector and reminisced about the time we all went skydiving and lived to tell the tale. We sat out at a restaurant that overlooked the harbor of lake Wakatipu, which was carved by a glacier. It is the 2nd largest lake in the Southern Lakes district, and is 400 m (1,225 feet) at its deepest point.

View from the restaurant

Jacob and I explored the town for a while that afternoon and then picked up the pictures of our skydiving exploits and headed to a famous burger joint in town named Fergburger, where the line from the restaurant to the sidewalk outside spoke for itself. The burgers where enormous and loaded with extras, and I honestly took maybe three bites before I got to the actual burger. Since it doesn’t get dark until almost 10:00pm we were having a rough time getting completely synced, but we both caught a quick nap and then checked out the club below our hostel, which was a fun place to people watch and to just meet people from all over the world. Jacob started keeping track of every country of the people we had met and spoke with, and by the end of the trip…it was impressive.

The one..the only.

Fergburger was PACKED!

We had an early morning ahead of us where we were supposed to go on a jet boat tour of Paradise Valley (where a lot of LOTR and The Hobbit was taped) and then take canoes back down the Dart River towards Lake Wakatipu, so we called it a night. We were lulled to sleep once again by Euro beats and overly loud laughter and chanting.

To be continued…

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New Zealand Adventure: Day 1

Hey everyone! Because Jacob and I have so many pictures between the two of us (more so Jacob since I dropped my phone in the Dart River in the middle of the week), and there were 8 days of adventures and funny stories in New Zealand, we thought it would be fun to split the days between the two of us. This first day will be a guest post by one of my best friends, Sir Jacob Matthews. This is based on a true story. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. Take it away Jacob… -Tom

Sir Jacob of the Matthews clan

So after watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy several years ago and seeing the epic scenery of New Zealand in the film, I vowed to one day have an epic quest of my own. It didn’t necessarily need to involve a ring, or me barely escaping dark forces, but it definitely needed to be filled with adventure. One thing I can say, is that New Zealand is known for adventure. In fact, Queenstown, NZ is called the “adventure capital of the world.”  My quest and dream to explore New Zealand came to fruition a week or so ago now as I met my buddy Thomas, who’s living in Japan for the year, “down under” for 8 days of awesomeness. The following blog posts are an account of our perilous journey across the South island of New Zealand.

Day 1: Getting there

First, to set the stage, let’s get acclimated to the Kiwi culture with some vocab words. We would hear the following words on a daily basis:

1. Kiwi – what New Zealanders call themselves, also the name of their national bird
2. Good on ya – good job/right on
3. Too right – sweet/cool
4. Sweet As – oh that’s cool
5. Mum – mom
6. Heaps – tons/ loads

Good… Now that we’ve all had our vocab lesson our journey was to take place on Dec 12, 2011. I was flying from Los Angeles. Thomas was leaving from Japan and we were to meet in Queenstown on the afternoon of Dec 14. First thing that blew my mind was the time difference. I left at 10:00 pm on the 12th from L.A. and landed 12 hrs later in Auckland the morning of the 14th. The fact that I completely lost a day was insane to me. Ironically the day I happened to miss was the 13th which, shout out to my mum, was her birthday. Oops sorry mum.

My flight was late arriving into Auckland and I knew it was going to be really close trying to catch my connecting flight to Queenstown. So I ran through customs in NZ, grabbed my bags, and started running the 10 min walk between the international and domestic terminals in Auckland. About halfway along my run I thought to myself that something was wrong. Upon looking around I realized that I had left my backpack at customs in the international terminal. Now, this backpack had my life in it…my wallet, my cash, my passport and my phone. Yep. Pretty much my entire identity. I freaked out and ran back to the customs office and knocked on their exit only door to beg for them to let me in and look for my bag. After knocking the officer came to the door and went and looked for my bag for me. About 5 long minutes later he opened the door and handed my bag to me. The only word to describe that moment was elation! Upon getting my bag back I began the 10 min run to the next terminal again…knowing at this point it was hopeless and I’d already missed my Queenstown flight. So I made it to the gate agent and they rebooked me for a later flight into Queenstown. I finally arrived into this small airport nestled in between lake Wakatipu and a mountain range called ‘The Remarkables”. I got my bags and walked around the corner and see Thomas sitting next to the rental car counters, looking as handsome as ever (edited by Thomas). We caught eyes, ran to each other, and had a nice little man hug. Very reminiscent of a scene from a movie…only there was no romantic Harry Connick Jr soundtrack. After our little moment, we got our rental car and proceeded out of the terminal to head to our hostel. The rental car was far more expensive than we had imagined, and we were feeling a little defeated and tired, but were determined to not let it ruin our day.

Driving on the left hand side of the Road:
Once we loaded all of our stuff into the bright red hatchback Toyota corolla we headed to check into our hostel in downtown Queenstown. Stepping into the car I knew this would be a very different experience. The steering wheel was on the left hand side of the vehicle. I drove out of the parking lot to hop on the road to downtown. I have to say I was doing quite well until we came to our first intersection. Which, by the way, isn’t 4-way stop intersections… it’s all roundabouts. Not quite sure who had the right of way I proceeded to go when all of a sudden I hear Thomas start screaming and bracing “shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot.” I look over at him and then back and quickly realize there is a massive truck headed at us. I sped up and we escaped death.

Checking in to our hostel:
Breathing a sigh of relief we parked the car and got checked into the hostel. Stepping on the elevator at the hostel the first people we met were these two Korean ladies. They looked at me and Thomas and thinking they are Japanese, Thomas tries out some Japanese on them only to realize they are Korean. She looks at us and says in English “are you togethaaa?” (in Asian accent) Trying not to laugh Thomas and I just look at each other, and Thomas looks back at the ladies and responds “yes, yes we are.” they got off the elevator and we died laughing. After dropping everything off, we headed to a local pub and played some darts for a couple of hours and Thomas slaughtered me. (edited by Thomas)

Finally, we made it back to our room… The adventure had definitely begun and it was beginning to sink in. We were jet-lagged and un-rested, so we rested up for what the next day had in store.

To be continued…

Special thanks to Mr. Summers for letting me be a guest columnist on his blog. Much obliged sir.


In the Lap of Luxury

This past weekend was the last of a four-weekend stretch of trips traveling to Kyushu to promote travel to the area. Like the three weekends before it, Kyushu stayed true to form and gave us even more memories to cherish. We visited Fukuoka and Kagoshima prefectures this time, which are actually a little distance from each other, and actually during the airing of these specials, we will let on that we traveled from Kagoshima back up to Fukuoka, with the other trips in-between, even though the ‘first’ and ‘last’ stops were actually done on the same weekend.

This time the early morning walk to my local train station wasn’t nearly as inspiring. I walked with my head downcast as the overly cool breeze cut through me and rain lightly drizzled down. I arrived a few minutes early again to get a light breakfast before our departure, and the beautiful girl from last weekend wasn’t there. I still took small bites to be safe. On the bullet train I looked out the window while Taka-san and I were discussing some plans on what we’d be talking about, and saw an overcast sky and low-setting fog laying like a blanket in the valleys, exposing the mountain tops. After getting the rent-a-car in Fukuoka we headed towards a Daibutsu (Giant Buddha). The journey to this statue was one of the most beautiful paths I’ve ever been on. I could go on and on about the attention to detail that the Japanese spend on their plant life and masonry, but I’ve done that before. The light rain and the fact that it was autumn and the leaves were turning and falling just added a whole new layer to how beautiful it was. The way the rain set on leafs and plants made me feel like everything was in high-definition. On the level right below the big Buddha statue I saw a woman with an umbrella praying in front of a statue and I literally almost knocked three people over scrambling to get a shot of it. It looked like something straight out of a dream, and I had to have it.

Here's the one.

As we went up the staircase towards the statue, I guess I didn’t really prepare myself for how big this thing would be. It was enormous. We snapped as many pictures as we could without getting our cameras or phones too wet, as the rain didn’t relent until we were on our way out, of course. Regardless, it was a massive statue and it was fun to see it.

For lunch we drove for a while towards the coast and met with some gentleman from the tourism department for the area and together went to a restaurant to taste-test some rice burgers. When we arrived at the diner just off the beach, I was shocked to see such large waves. When we turned into the parking lot I saw signs for a surf competition that would be held there the following day. The diner was surf/beach themed and had a great view of the beach. The rice burgers were delicious, and we did our standard: “Mmmmm, this is great!” for the microphones for our show, and then dug into the food with great haste. Next on the agenda was ceramics, which I was pumped for because I’ve only done it once, but loved it.

We arrived at the ceramics studio and were greeted by the owner of the studio and pottery shop. We wasted no time, and set up the sound equipment next to the spinning wheel where the clay is put. The potter sliced a chunk of clay out, kneaded it for about a minute and slapped it onto the wheel. He gave us a smirk. We all looked at him with faces that said: ‘Uhh, now what?!’ He laughed and sat down and did a demonstration of how to mold and shape the clay. He brought water from the bowl over to the clay, showed us what to do with each hand as the wheel spun, and put the finishing touches on his bowl he made for us. It was a beautiful bowl, and seeing it birthed in front of our eyes made it even more so. So you can imagine how we all shrieked when he slammed it onto the table and crumpled it, rendering it useless. Now, it was our turn. Both Taka-san and I both had our share of poorly made bowls and cups, and it wasn’t until the potter came back from helping customers to guide my hands during the last part of the cup I was making, that something came out right. He told us it takes about 3 years to become an expert potter using the technique he had showed us, and I believe him.

Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in 'Ghost'

After pottery we made our way to a local high point lookout spot complete with a pretty nice waterfall, and from this height we could see the coast where island after island jutted out of the water. I hate that I’ll never be able to take a picture over here that does a grand view any justice whatsoever. That night we headed into downtown Fukuoka and ate at a Yatai shop, which is an old-school tent style of mobile restaurant. Fukuoka is famous for them, and apparently they are endangered because the government has placed sanctions stating that once the shop owner dies, the shop can’t be passed onto anyone else. They also have very strict hours of operation, and several other laws they have to abide by just to exist because of possible Japanese mafia ties. It may be for this reason that people pack them every night to eat and drink and laugh with their friends. After eating we got onto a bullet train and headed to Kagoshima prefecture.

Inside the Yatai shop

First thing on the list Sunday morning was riding an old-fashioned train along the coastline. During the ride, we got an awesome view of Sakurajima (Japan’s most active volcano), spewing steam and smoke out into the air in the distance. When we arrived to our destination we did a quick taste testing at a sweets shop and then headed to another restaurant to do the same. Both places used local ingredients grown in the area in their foods. Once we were heavy with grub, we headed to a spa where we were going to get some interviews. This spa/onsen was famous for burying people in sand and having the natural heat from the ground rise up and steam them. Once I got undressed and into my yukata I headed down to the beach and was greeted by a man with a smile and a shovel. Now, I’ve never really had a fear of being buried alive, but once this guy started shoveling sand onto me, and I felt the weight, I winced momentarily. But…once I started to feel the heat, and listen to the waves crash against the shore, and close my eyes…I was in paradise. I could feel my pulse all over my body because my heart was working harder under the pressure of the sand. (Apparently, this is part of the detoxifying effects of being buried with hot sand. Your blood goes from a dark maroon to a brighter red afterwards as well)

Sakurajima smoking in the distance

I had already been under for 20 min, so the guy made me take my hands out to cool off.

After a good spell in the sauna and onsen and another shower, we were off to another beautiful lookout spot, where there is a shrine where people come to wish for love. I could see how being in such a beautiful place could make one want someone else to share it with. To our right, there was a mountain that came out of nowhere. There weren’t any other mountains around it, and people in the area called it a ‘mini Mount Fuji’. Every direction we looked, there was another view that took our breath away.

I’ve made numerous memories that you can’t put a price tag on during these business trips. I’m meeting interesting people, tasting delectable foods, snapping some fun photos, and gaining life experience that I wouldn’t trade. I’m seeing more and more of God’s creation, as well as learning about myself and what kind of man He has made me to be in the process. Having said all that, there’s no way to express how much I’m looking forward to seeing my family and friends when I get back home for the holidays…

…But first, 2 days in Tokyo and 6 days of adventure in New Zealand. Stay tuned…