Landing Off the Map—Jumping Into Exotic Locales
Photos courtesy of Donald Schultz
Born in South Africa, 31-year-old Donald Schultz, star of Animal Planet’s “Wild Recon,” is an internationally known expert on snake venom. He started with an internship at the world-famous Fitzsimons Snake Park in Durban, South Africa, and found work in the United States at the Veterinary Specialty Hospital in San Diego, California. But beyond his work with snakes, Schultz also had aspirations of bringing his adventures to the public with a TV show. Since harvesting venom from the fangs of deadly snakes and swimming in shark-infested waters wasn’t spectacular enough for the TV show Schultz envisioned, for extra effect he decided to skydive into his remote locales.
When Schultz first pitched the idea of the show to TV executives at Animal Planet, he was met with blank stares. He kept at it, though, with tales of skydiving, scuba diving and exotic animal handling. Once they understood the concept of bringing animal stories and adventure to the public, they got on board. Three months later, in late 2009, Schultz made his first skydive for the show over the coast of Australia. A relative newcomer to the sport (he started jumping in 2008), he’s logged nearly 300 jumps, many of which required a special set of skills to accomplish. “I’ve been around the world twice collecting samples and data,” he says, “including South Africa, Tanzania, Mozambique, Swaziland, Jordan, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Costa Rica, Belize, Bahamas and the U.S.” And he’s made unique skydives in many of those distant countries.
Since “Wild Recon” is a TV show that seeks out exotic and rare animals in the most faraway corners of the world, reaching many of those obscure locations is not quite as easy as going to the local 7-Eleven®. In the absence of paved highways or even dirt roads, trekking through the desert on an ATV or skydiving into the target area may be the most practical and, needless to say, the most fun way of going about it. Besides, Schultz has a flair for showmanship, and what better way to start an episode than with a dramatic skydiving entrance?
In a foreign country, simply skydiving at a drop zone, never mind into the wild, can be a troublesome experience in its own right. Though an up-to-date USPA license and a current logbook will get you on a load in many countries around the world, there can also be numerous complications and logistics to consider. Of course, being the host of a show with a name like “Wild Recon” can help pave the way. The “Wild Recon” staff assists Schultz with arranging the jumps and then drives trucks or ATVs (depending on the terrain) to meet him at the remote locations once he’s jumped in.
Croc Jumping in Sri Lanka
The island nation of Sri Lanka has been torn apart by three decades of civil war between the Liberation Tigers and government troops. An obvious casualty of the unrest has been the tourism industry. The government has also banned sport skydiving outright, concluding that rebels and terrorists might paratroop in to stage a sneak attack on the presidential palace. Not to be deterred, Schultz contacted Malraj Kiriella, the director general of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, who referred him to the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF). He explained the objective of the show to the SLAF Parachute Training School Commanding Officer Harischandra Herath and made some real progress. After three weeks of legal wrangling, the Sri Lankan government finally allowed him to take to the skies. According to Herath, it was the first civilian skydive in Sir Lanka’s history.
Once Schultz and crew arrived at the SLAF base, the paratroopers turned out to be a friendly bunch of guys who were keen to check out Schultz’s sport gear: an Aerodyne Pilot canopy in an Icon container. After completing some paperwork, Schultz and some of the SLAF members finally rode to altitude in a Jet Ranger helicopter. The airmen’s approach to parachuting was very military and not subject to deviation. Their eyes bulged when Schultz hucked a gainer off the skid at 6,000 feet AGL and tracked over some of the most inhospitable terrain in the country.
The predetermined landing site was on the narrow banks of a murky lake swarming with about 150 crocodiles. The winds were strong and gusty that day. When Schultz touched down, the wind abruptly grabbed his chute and started dragging him toward the water. After a short fight to collapse the fully inflated canopy, he made the decision to cut it away. “I thought it was better to chase my main than to get chased by hungry crocodiles,” quipped Schultz.
Skydiving Down Under
Australia’s airspace is governed by its Civil Aviation Safety Authority, and the “Wild Recon” crew found that getting its permission for an unusual skydive was a little tricky. In the end, it took mentioning that their show is something similar to what Australian Steve Irwin used to do. The Crocodile Hunter’s legacy pulls a lot of weight in that part of the world, and the next day, the permits for two separate jump locations appeared out of thin air.
Between Port Douglas and Cairns is the tropical spot of Rachet Bay, known more for its sandy beaches and hairy surf than skydiving. “Wild Recon” was able to line up a Robinson R44 helicopter and scope out a good landing area. After Schultz jumped and was safely on the ground, it was all business—tackling kangaroos and an occasional emu, and chasing venomous sea snakes. All the venom and DNA that Schultz collects from various locations is used for research, generally for pharmaceuticals and for preserving endangered species.
The second Australian site was in the far-northern Queensland town of Mareeba. “Wild Recon” was able to charter a couple of general aviation-type ultralight aircraft from Adventure Microlights for Schultz’s three jumps. Although every seat is a window seat, the ultralights are not really designed for an easy midair exit, since there’s no step or perch on the outside for a jumper’s feet. Schultz’s first attempt, from 3,000 feet, was a little sketchy and a real learning experience. But he figured out a way to exit—rolling out and falling away—making the next two jumps much smoother. The terrain around Mareeba is lush jungle with mango orchards and sugar cane fields. The edge of one of the sugar cane fields made for a perfect landing area.
At Home in South Africa
Even though he’s a world traveler, Schultz has several home DZs, including Pietermaritzburg Parachute Club, outside of Durban. When an episode took “Wild Recon” to South Africa, the skydiving process was tremendously simplified. Instead of waiting weeks and dealing with government bureaucrats, he could stroll up to manifest and climb on the next load. Another benefit was that he was jumping with like-minded friends and not just confronting an assortment of hostile animals alone. The challenge for the show was how to best film it. With the crew choosing a camera angle to play tricks with the viewer’s sense of reality, they caught Schultz swooping along the boundary of the landing area, creating a distant, otherworldly effect.
For one episode, the crew was working in the arid desert region of Jordan, the home to several species of vipers and cobras. They had worked out a plan for a hot-air balloon jump onto the desert floor near the borders of Israel, Jordan and Syria. However, the area is a political and military powder keg and, unsurprisingly, a virtual no-fly zone. Complicating matters was an airshow in Syria that was tying up most civilian aircraft. After a whole lot of phone calls and e-mails that led nowhere fast, it was clear to the “Wild Recon” folks that there would be no jump for this episode. You can’t win them all.
Schultz is comfortable milking a Gaboon viper or an African forest cobra for their venom or wrestling a Bahamian reef shark to extract a biopsy—all in the name of science. However, “Wild Recon” differs fundamentally from other animal adventure shows because it has a serious scientific aspect to it. It may be deceiving, but the basis for the shoots is to go out and collect samples for research. Of course, if you’re a self-professed animal adventurer and adrenaline junkie, it doesn’t hurt if someone else is picking up the tab for some of the most extraordinary, off-drop-zone skydiving adventures in the world.
About the Author
Hal Streckert, C-35945, is from San Diego, California. As a weekend fun jumper, he has logged more than 400 jumps and has jumped in five countries— Australia, Germany, Mexico, New Zealand and the U.S.