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Strange Geographies: On Jumping Out of Airplanes

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There is a town on the South Island of New Zealand where jumping out of an airplane is considered normal behavior, and doing so will raise nary an eyebrow. While my wife and I were in country last week, we spent three days in the adrenaline-fueled hamlet of Queenstown, where if skydiving doesn't tickle your fancy you can bike down a mountain from a helicopter, rappel down a waterfall, climb any number of steep rock faces, take the controls of a small aircraft for twenty minutes ("absolutely no experience necessary!") or participate any other number of "x-treme" activities which all claim to let you feel the icy hand of death on your shoulder without actually shuffling you off this mortal coil.

In retrospect, I probably never would've skydived anywhere else; the fact that travelers in New Zealand (well, not all of them) skydive before tea and a nap on Sunday and seem otherwise sane and slip the fact that they jump out of planes so casually into their conversations (girl in a backpackers' hostel: "how was your skydive today?" other girl: "fine, not as good as yesterday though") slowly lulls you into thinking that this is a relatively safe, everyday activity.

But even so lulled, I couldn't quite bring myself to book the skydiving days in advance, as we had done most of our other, saner activities. I would've dreaded it the whole trip. Instead, it all came about on a day I had convinced myself was going to be my quiet one, after nearly two weeks of constant activity and more than 2,000 miles logged driving around the country. I could feel my rope beginning to fray a bit; maybe I was starting to come down with something. I'll just take a drive, I told myself -- 45 minutes north of Queenstown is an impossibly beautiful little village called Glenorchy, which sounded like a pleasant, low-key day trip while my wife did some shopping and climbed outdoors (Not me, I said. I hate heights.)

Glenorchy was pretty as a postcard, but pretty dull, as well. I pulled into a cafe to get an espresso (a "short black," it's called in NZ), and waiting in line in front of me was a woman in a "Skydive NZ" jumper. I struck up a conversation. "Are you throwing people out of airplanes today?" I asked, as casually as I could. "We are indeed!" she replied, smiling.

She seemed so nice. She had a little dog with her, a Jack Russell, and she was buying a muffin. Feeling a little surge of madness, I said "How do I sign up?" "I'm going to the airfield right now," she said. "Just follow me!"
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It was that simple. I drove behind her for a few blocks and we were there, at a simple grass airstrip with a trailer for a "control tower," where a few twentysomethings were lounging outside on picnic tables. She took me inside, where I signed a ridiculously brief waiver. (It's nearly impossible to sue for damages in NZ anyway.) I told her I had done this on a whim, and suggested that since no one knew where I was or what I was doing, perhaps I should write my wife's name and that of our hotel on the back of the waiver. "In case of whatever," I explained. "Good idea," she said. Then I asked her when she wanted me to pay. "After," she said, which I found slightly comforting. She wrote my name on a whiteboard -- right at the top, first to jump -- and I went outside to wait for further instructions.
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I met a lanky American guy, who paused his iPod to talk to me. He had been in New Zealand for six months, taking advantage of the kiwis' "working holiday" program, in which visitors from relatively affluent countries are issued yearlong New Zealand visas that allow them to work, ostensibly to finance their ongoing vacations with occasional stints waiting tables or working at hostels. Or in this guy's case, jumping out of planes for a living. He was the skydive photographer, which meant he'd be jumping out of the airplane a few moments before me, with a camera strapped to his helmet and a remote shutter trigger in his mouth, which he could use to take pictures during freefall, with just the flick of his tongue. I wanted to tell him he was insane for choosing this as his job abroad, but instead we talked about Los Angeles, where I'm from. "My car's parked there," he said. "I hope it's OK." (Apparently he was gambling with more than just his life.) Then he told me that LA County boasts "two of the world's best drop zones," a fact I had been blissfully unaware of; unlike New Zealand, extreme sports aren't my town's main industry.

A Brazilian guy named CJ appeared and shook my hand. "I'll be your tandem partner today," he said, and took me to get suited up. It was pretty simple: I pulled a jumpsuit on over my clothes, donned a funny little hat, and he gave me a fanny pack. "What's in here?" I asked him. "Life jacket," he said. "In case we go into the lake." Then he smiled. "But don't worry, I don't feel like getting wet today." A Japanese kid walked up to us. "You jumping too?" CJ asked him. The kid nodded, though it was clear he didn't speak much English. "How high are you going?" CJ said. (You could jump from 9,000, 12,000 or 15,000 feet, depending on how much you wanted to spend.) The kid just pointed at the sky. "Top," he said. "Top."

Six or seven of us squeezed into a tiny plane. There were no seats, just two low benches, and no belts. Two of us were paying to jump, two were professional tandem partners (CJ for me, someone else for the Japanese kid), one was my photographer, and two were jumping solo "just for fun," which I took to mean that they were hitching a free ride, because they had their own equipment and were jumping solo, without jumpmasters tandemed to them. It was cramped -- CJ and I sat on the floor, our shoulders pressed against what seemed like an awfully flimsy sliding door. The plane rumbled to life, bounced down the grass airstrip and we were airborne.

By now I was almost used to this: at this point in my New Zealand trip, I had taken several small plane flights and a helicopter (often the best way to experience the remote backcountry), the only difference being that I was sitting on the floor with no seatbelt pressed against a door that, in a few minutes, was going to slide open.

We started climbing. CJ was keeping an eye on what looked like a big funny watch strapped to his wrist, but was actually an altimeter. It looked like we were really high. "Only 2,000 feet," CJ reassured me. We climbed further. Everyone on the plane got quiet, partly because the engine noise was deafening, and partly because this was the scariest part of the experience, even for skydiving veterans -- if you don't get a few butterflies in your stomach right before jumping out of a rickety airplane, what's the point?

I realized I wasn't yet strapped to CJ, who was wearing the parachute. Seemingly on cue, he reached around my midsection and clipped two lockable carabiners to straps on my jumpsuit I hadn't noticed before, then pulled the straps so tight I couldn't breathe for a second. "Too tight?" he asked. I glanced out the window, and saw the imposing mountains that ringed Glenorchy well below us. "Tight is good," I said. My photographer aimed his camera-helmet out the window and snapped this picture:
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I put on a pair of flimsy goggles. CJ slid the door open. The wind rushed in and I tried not to look out. The two solo divers squeezed past me. "See you on the ground!" I said, trying to sound calm. They smiled at me, then jumped:
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My heart was beating like crazy. Up to this point I had been trying to do some Zen deep-breathing, but that went out the window with the first jumpers. Now I was just trying not to hyperventilate. Then my photographer squeezed past and jumped, and CJ shouted "put your legs out and fold your arms over your chest!" I was on autopilot. I stuck my legs out of the plane. He grabbed onto the inside of the plane and counted down: "Three, two, one!" There is a picture of this moment, right before he propelled us into the void, but it is far to embarrassing to post. I look like I've just taken a bite of a lemon: my eyes are squeezed shut and my lips are pursed, as if I was trying to close myself off to the reality of what was happening.

Then he pushed off and we were falling, and the noisy plane engine disappeared above us, and for a moment I thought I would die:
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... but then I relaxed. CJ tapped me on the head and shouted "put your arms out, like a bird!" I did, and suddenly we felt almost buoyant, the wind rushing past us at an impossible speed but somehow lofting us as well. I started looking around: everywhere was beautiful, and the ground didn't seem to be getting closer to us very quickly. So this is what all the fuss is about, I thought. Then the photographer appeared, somehow, right in front of me. It seemed like he could fly. He took some photos:
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That rope coming off our backs is attached to a very small parachute, called a drogue. When you jump tandem, you're falling faster than if you jump solo; the drogue slows you down to "normal" freefall. A few moments later, there was a great shock and I felt myself being pulled upward as our parachute opened:
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... and then we were floating down at a much more relaxed pace. The wind no longer roared, and we started talking. I don't even remember what we talked about; it was small talk, and I was too busy looking around. Freefall from 12,000 feet had lasted about 45 seconds, and after two minutes of parachute drop, we were close to the landing strip again. (Happily, we wouldn't need those life jackets after all.) I saw the plane we had jumped from landing below us, and wondered how it had gotten there so fast. We landed, sliding horizontally along the ground on our bums as the parachute collapsed behind us:
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"Thanks," I said. "That was great!" CJ shook my hand, unhooked us, and I went to take off my jumpsuit. There was another planeload of jumpers to attend to, and he had other responsibilities. He would do this 12 more times that day.

I realized that the wind, despite my goggles, had blown out one of my contact lenses. I drove back to Queenstown with only one good eye -- in retrospect, probably the most dangerous thing I did that day.

You can check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

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10 Legendary (and Probably Made-Up) Islands
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Often, islands come to represent places of extremes: they serve as utopias, purgatories, or ultimate dream vacation destinations. When it comes to mythological islands, utopias are especially popular. The Greeks had their Fortunate Islands, or Islands of the Blessed, where the luckiest mortals whiled away their time drinking and sporting. The Irish had a similar concept with their Mag Mell, or Plain of Honey, described as an island paradise where deities frolicked and only the most daring mortals occasionally visited. 

But mythology isn't the only engine creating islands that don't actually exist—some of these legendary land masses popped up on maps after miscalculations by early explorers who interpreted icebergs, fog banks, and mirages as real islands. Some of these cartographic “mistakes” may have been intentional—certain islands depicted on medieval maps might have been invented so they could be named after the patrons who funded the explorations. Even explorer Robert E. Peary wasn't immune: Some say he invented "Crocker Land," a supposedly massive island in the Arctic, to secure funding from San Francisco financier George Crocker. Crocker Land didn’t exist, although that didn’t prevent major American organizations (including the American Museum of Natural History) from sponsoring a four-year expedition to find it.

Much like the fictional Crocker Island, here are 10 more imaginary isles, all of which have a place in world history, literature, or mythology—despite not having a place on the map.

1. Isle of Demons 

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Supposedly located off the coast of Newfoundland, this landmass (sometimes depicted as two islands) appeared on 16th century and early 17th century maps, and was named for the mysterious cries and groans mariners reported hearing through the mist.

The island was given a somewhat more solid identity after 1542, when nobleman and adventurer Jean-François Roberval was instructed by the King of France to found settlements along the North Atlantic coast. He brought his niece, Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, along for the voyage, but she began a passionate affair with one of Roberval's officers. Annoyed, Roberval put his niece (and maybe the officer—accounts differ), as well as her nurse, ashore on an otherwise unspecified "Isle of Demons" in the St. Lawrence River. Marguerite gave birth on the island, but the child died, as did Marguerite’s lover and nurse. However, the plucky Marguerite survived alone for several years, using her firearms against the wild beasts. After being rescued by Basque fishermen and returning to France, she reported that she had been beset "by beasts or other shapes abominably and unutterably hideous, the brood of hell, howling in baffled fury."  

Marguerite’s story appears in several historical accounts, including versions by Franciscan friar André Thevet and the Queen of Navarre. Still, the location of the “Isle of Demons” on which she landed has never been found for certain. Maritime historian and veteran Atlantic sailor Donald Johnson thinks he has identified it as Fichot Island, close to the Strait of Belle Isle at the northern tip of Newfoundland. Johnson notes that Fichot Island lies on Roberval's course, and is home to a breeding colony of gannets—a type of seabird whose guttural cries, heard only while breeding, may have been taken for the sounds of demons.

2. Antillia 


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Also known as the Isle of Seven Cities, Antillia was a 15th century cartographic phenomenon said to lie far west of Spain and Portugal. Stories about its existence are connected to an Iberian legend in which seven Visigothic bishops and their parishioners fled Muslim conquerors in the eighth century, sailing west and eventually discovering an island where they founded seven settlements.  The bishops burned their ships, so they could never return to their former homeland. 

According to some versions of the legend, many people have visited Antillia but no one has ever left; in other versions of the tale, sailors can see the island from a distance, but the land always vanishes once they approach. Spain and Portugal even once squabbled over the island, despite its non-existence, perhaps because its beaches were said to be strewn with precious metals. By the late 15th century, once the North Atlantic was better mapped, references to Antillia disappeared—although it did lend its name to the Spanish Antilles.

3. Atlantis 

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First mentioned by Plato, Atlantis was supposedly a large island that lay "to the west of the Pillars of Hercules" in the Atlantic Ocean. It was said to be a peaceful but powerful kingdom lost beneath the waves after a violent earthquake was released by the gods as punishment for waging war against Athens. There have been many attempts at identifying the island, although it may have been entirely a creation of Plato’s imagination; some archeologists associate it with the Minoan island of Santorini, north of Crete, whose center collapsed after a volcanic eruption and earthquake around 1500 BC. 

4. Aeaea 

In Greek mythology, Aeaea is the floating home of Circe, the goddess of magic. Circe is said to have spent her time on the island, gifted to her by her father, the Sun, waiting for mortal sailors to land so she could seduce them. (Afterwards, the story goes, she would turn them into pigs.) Some classical scholars have identified Aeaea as the Cape Circeium peninsula on the western coast of Italy, which may have been an island in the days of Homer, or may have looked like one because of the marshes surrounding its base.  

5. Hy-Brasil 

Also known as Country o'Breasal, Brazil Rock, Hy na-Beatha (Isle of Life), Tir fo-Thuin (Land Under the Wave), and by many other names, Brasil (Gaelic for "Isle of the Blessed") is one of the many mythical islands of Irish folklore, but one that nevertheless made several appearances on real maps.   

Like the Mediterranean's Atlantis, Brasil was said to be a place of perfect contentment and immortality. It was also the domain of Breasal, the High King of the World, who held court there every seven years. Breasal had the ability to make the island rise or sink as he pleased, and normally only let the island be visible when his court was in full swing.  

According to legend, Brasil lay "where the sun touched the horizon, or immediately on its other side—usually close enough to see but too far to visit." It first appeared on a map made in 1325 by Genoese cartographer Daloroto, who depicted it as a large area to the southwest of Ireland. (Later maps placed it farther west.) Its shape was usually drawn as a near-perfect circle, bifurcated by a river. Numerous explorers searched for the island, and some, including Italian navigator John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), even claimed to have found it. 

Today, scholars think Brasil may have been a reference to Baffin Island, or to now-sunken lands visible only when sea levels were lower during the last Ice Age, or else an optical illusion produced by layers of hot and cold air refracting light rays.  

6. Baralku 

Among the indigenous Australians of the Yolngu culture, Baralku (or Bralgu) is the island of the dead. The island holds a central place in the Yolngu cosmology—it's where the creator-spirit Barnumbirr is said to live before rising into the sky as the planet Venus each morning. Baralku is also the spot where the three siblings who created the landscape of Australia, the Djanggawul, originated. The island supposedly lies to the east of Arnhem Land in Northern Australia, and the Yolngu believe their souls return there after death.

7. Saint Brendan's Isle  

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This piece of land was said to have been discovered by Irish abbot and traveler Saint Brendan and his followers in 512, and to be located in the North Atlantic, somewhere west of Northern Africa. Brendan became famous after the publication of the Latin Navigation of St Brendan, an 8th/9th century text that described his voyage in search of the wonderful "Land of Promise" in the Atlantic Ocean. The book was a medieval best-seller, and gave the saint his nickname, "Brendan the Navigator." The island was said to be thickly wooded, filled with rich fruit and flowers. Tales of St. Brendan's Isle inspired Christopher Columbus, among others, and had an important influence on medieval cartography. Sightings were reported as late as the 18th century.

8. Avalon 

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First mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia regum Britanniae, Avalon is the place where the legendary King Arthur's sword is forged, and where he is sent to recover after being wounded in battle. The island was said to be the domain of Arthur's half-sister, sorceress Morgan le Fay, as well as her eight sisters. Starting in the 12th century, Avalon was identified with Glastonbury in Somerset, in connection with Celtic legends about a paradisiacal “island of glass.” Twelfth century monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have discovered Arthur’s bones—although later historians believe their “discovery” was a publicity stunt to raise money for Abbey repairs. 

9. Island of Flame 

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the Island of Flame (also known as the Island of Peace) was the magical birthplace of the gods and part of the kingdom of Osiris. It was said to have emerged out of primeval waters and to lay far to the East, beyond the boundaries of the world of the living. Associated with the rising sun, it was a place of everlasting light.  

10. Thule

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For the Greeks and Romans, Thule existed at the northernmost limit of their known world. It first appears in a lost work by the Greek explorer Pytheas, who supposedly found it in the 4th century BC. Polybius says that "Pytheas ... has led many people into error by saying that he traversed the whole of Britain on foot … and telling us also about Thule, those regions in which there was no longer any proper land nor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three of the consistency of a jelly-fish in which one can neither walk nor sail, holding everything together, so to speak." Later scholars have interpreted Thule as the Orkneys, Shetlands, Iceland, or possibly Norway, while the Nazis believed Thule was the ancient homeland of the Aryan race.  

Bonus: People Used to Think California was an Island  

Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, many Europeans believed that California was an island. Like other islands on this list, the place was reported as being a kind of paradise. In fact, the name "California" first appears in a romantic novel penned by Spanish author Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo, who described it as an island filled with gold and precious gems, populated by a race of Amazons who rode griffins.  

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Five Years via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
The Town Built On Asbestos (Population: 3)
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Five Years via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Welcome to Wittenoom, Australia, where the weather is beautiful, the scenery is unparalleled, and toxic substances seep from the earth.

Located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, Wittenoom was once one of the top blue asbestos mining locations in the world, causing families to flock to the area for jobs. Also known as crocidolite asbestos, blue asbestos was a valuable commodity used for fire protection in ceiling tiles, insulation, electrical work, battery casings, and more. But it was also an incredibly dangerous one—all types of asbestos can cause fatal illnesses, but because crocidolite fibers are as thin as a strand of hair, they’re easily inhaled and may be responsible for more deaths than any other type of asbestos. In Wittenoom—where workers once held asbestos-shoveling contests, and families thought it safe to let their kids play in the stuff—thousands of former residents have died from asbestos-related causes.

The mining industry in Wittenoom was halted in 1966, not necessarily for health reasons, but for economic ones—the company which owned the mines was $2.5 million in debt. Health concerns weren’t really addressed until the late ‘70s, when the government started taking steps to shut the town down completely. Buildings were demolished, the airport was closed, and residents were urged to leave. By 1992, less than 50 citizens remained, and by 2007, it was down to eight. Today, just three brave souls still call Wittenoom home.

Why would three people stay in a town that’s still riddled with cancer-causing materials, a town with no electricity or water, one that has literally been erased from maps by the government because of the danger it poses? They all have different reasons.

Peter Heyward, a resident for more than two decades, stays for the nature and the “silent stillness” of the surroundings. “The hills, the plains, the openness, the quiet. I love the country," he told Australia's The Age in 2007. Since so many buildings were razed, he now has a perfect view of Hamersley Mountain Range.

Mario Hartmann stays put largely because he was unimpressed with the amount of money the government offered to buy him out—$40,000 plus $10,000 in moving costs: “What can you buy with $40,000? They'll have to offer $400,000, what it takes to buy a house somewhere else.”

This year, Lorraine Thomas, a 30-plus year veteran of Wittenoom, told WA Today she refuses to let the potential presence of asbestos scare her away. "It's only the dust that's dangerous," she said, a threat she believes has dissipated after the mines' closures. An official report begs to differ, calling the risk to tourists (of which there are still up to 40 a day) and residents alike "extreme."

Neither Thomas nor her fellow residents have any illnesses relating to the asbestos that still looms large in the area.

For a closer look at the ghost town's holdouts—filmed when there were still eight people residing there—the short documentary Wittenoom is worth a watch:

Wittenoom from Caro Macdonald on Vimeo.

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