An exciting year of globetrotting left Ismat Abidi looking for another way to get her adrenaline fix between work hours. Skydiving not only provided that, but also arguably the best way to experience the city of superlatives.
The best – and arguably bravest – way to see Dubai
"No no no no, I can't do this." There are not too many things that I would say no to. This, however, is a different matter entirely. I'm in a propeller plane hovering 3,960 metres above Dubai's Jumeirah Beach coast, about to jump out.
This isn't an emergency, this is purely for fun. Some "social jumpers" (yes, the term exists) enthusiastically leap out of the back of the plane and now it's my turn. I swallow my nerves and suppress whatever butterflies are left in my tummy. Skydiving has been on my wish list for the longest time and now that I'm here, the only thing left between gravity and myself, is succumbing to it. This is it. Jump.
Before reaching the exciting bit, I'll build up the suspense a little. Having just had, arguably, the most exciting year of my life, flitting between continents for months on end on a round-the-world trip, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, trekking, diving and rafting; my life post-September had taken a more subdued turn. Getting back into a nine-to-five work routine takes some adjustment. Adrenaline being my drug of choice for the year, I needed another hit.
I returned to the UAE to visit family and friends in the warmth of the December sunshine and wondered what I could do about my itch for adventure. A quick Google search later, and I found Skydive Dubai. It didn't take much thought before I picked up the phone and booked a slot as if I was booking an appointment with the hairdressers. Fear didn't even cross my mind until a few days before the jump.
Whatever you do to prepare yourself, don't use the Google search terms "skydiving accidents" or "death by skydiving". With hindsight, I would have looked up "amazing skydiving photos" to get me in the right mood. The stunning images displayed at the Skydive Dubai centre certainly do. I immediately feel the buzzing atmosphere when I walk in - adventure, sport, excitement and just downright cool.
I'm handed a four-page, double-column form setting out how no one else could be blamed (or be sued) other than myself if I die because of the dive. Though a slightly morbid thought and extremely unlikely, as I signed my life away, I begin to feel unsettled. Other jumpers that afternoon include some women visiting from Norway and an Etihad cabin crew member also jumping for the first time. She bluntly asks her instructor whether she could die. A minute later I find myself pouring out words of encouragement to a woman who works in the sky almost every day. I can do this, I think to myself.
Dan, my enthusiastic instructor, US-trained, seems experienced enough (more than 2,300 jumps), tough enough (he has spent some time with the US troops in Afghanistan) and strong enough to push me out of plane if I become reluctant.
"How many times have you had to use the reserve parachute, Dan?" "Nine times," he casually responds. "Nine times?" My next question was going to be what would happen if the reserve doesn't work but he read my face in time to stop this wild train of thought. "Wouldn't you rather jump with someone who knows how to use a reserve?" he asks. He has a valid point.
I desperately attempt to remember the instructions and safety brief while my mind wanders off to images of me jumping out of a plane. I'm sporadically visited by paranoia that if I forget the minutest of details, my life will be over. However, the very real nerves that I'm feeling are gradually overtaken by a rising sense of excitement and, eventually, washed clean away by the casual, friendly approach of the centre's instructors and staff.
I step onto the plane, eager to be harnessed to my instructor as quickly as possible. Two or three "social jumpers" join us. These adrenaline junkies have obtained their licences and now jump on the weekends for fun. I feel cowardly by comparison. Before I even realise that we have taken off, I can see the Palm below and the JBR skyline at eye-level. The social jumpers casually wave goodbye like they are boarding a bus and fall backwards off the plane, into the sky. It's right at this moment that I'm revisited by panic. "No, no, no, no."
But Dan has already strapped my harness to him and I don't really have any choice in the matter anymore. Head pulled back, I take a look at the sky and nanoseconds later I feel weightless as a cool strong breeze rushes over my bare skin. I open my eyes and let out a scream of pure thrill.
The air begins to roar around my ears and we're in total free fall for about one minute. Like on an extreme vertical roller-coaster, the rush is overwhelming. It's then that I begin to wonder when (and if) the primary parachute will open. After what seems like an age in free fall, I'm hoping that it soon will. We are, after all, heading straight down towards the sea. Of course, Dan knows exactly what we're doing. "Hang on!" he shouts. The parachute (thankfully) opens and I'm lifted upwards into the air before we begin gliding over the Dubai coastline.
The experience only gets better. In what feels like flying in slow-motion, Dan points out the Palm, the World, Burj al Arab, the Burj Khalifa and I spend the next six minutes or so appreciating the view and savouring the excitement now that the parachute has opened successfully. Dan and his colleagues are able to enjoy this view and the rush of the jump several times a day. I'm jealous.
I'm not ready to land but sadly the laws of physics won't allow me to fly over Dubai all day. I spot the Skydive Dubai sign on a small runway and a green landing patch nearby.
"You won't have to do anything when we land, just kick your legs back," Dan reminds me in my ear. The only way is down. I land clumsily on my knees and let out an embarrassing howl of delight and relief. I'm still on my knees, a bit stunned, when he asks: "Are you OK? Can you walk?"
"Forget about that, I want to fly now. How do I get my licence?" I'm on a high of exhilaration and joy for the rest of the weekend, toying with the fantastic idea of getting my licence and becoming one of those uber-cool social jumpers who had ducked out of the plane so confidently.
Of course, the embarrassing screams, the petrified facial expressions and the moment I took that leap of courage, are all caught on video and in photographs. A SkyDubai videographer jumps out shortly before you, wearing a camera on his head, capturing images of you in the sky with the Palm, the World and the horizon as a backdrop. I'm interviewed pre- and post-dive by my videographer, Rob, and the finished result is a fantastic memento and motivation tool: I'll watch it if I ever feel like I lack guts.
Dubai might not be the first place you think of when you wonder where to do your first skydive. My first thoughts were of New Zealand or at least a country with a more varied terrain. I ask Dan where his favourite place to dive is. Apart from his top spot somewhere in Holland, he insists that Dubai is pretty amazing.
Coming from someone who has jumped around the world, this is a very reliable recommendation. Where else can one jump offer so many superlatives: the tallest building, the warmest weather, the brightest sunshine, the biggest man-made island? If I join one frequent flyer programme this year, it will be with Skydive Dubai.
A 3,960m tandem dive with Skydive Dubai costs Dh1,700, including instruction, photography and video. Visit www.Skydivedubai.ae/first/ for more information and to book.