I was working quickly to get my parachute open and camera ready as I exited the helicopter over the headhunter village high up in the mountains in a remote region of East Irian Jaya, New Guinea.
The winds were howling and my parachute was backing up quickly over a river next to the village I was to land in. The area was a small enclosure of grass huts beyond the river. I had to make a dead center landing in the middle of the village so the start of the movie would be exciting!
How I landed the movie role
After I won the World Skydiving Championships, (the first U.S. woman to do so,) I started receiving offers to take part in different extreme sports films and gigs.
One was to join an expedition with several other women who were also world champions in different extreme sports. It would be the first-of-its-kind extreme sports expedition into East Irian Jaya, New Guinea, a closed country at the time. Our specialties were skydiving, white water river running, and mountain climbing.
The Plan was Epic
The expedition would start off with me training the other women how to skydive. Then our group would parachute into a remote village in New Guniea and surprise the natives.
After our arrival, we were to make a deal with the tribesmen to carry our mountain climbing and river running gear through miles of jungle to a never-before climbed 17,000 ft. mountain. After we scaled the mountain, we were to white-water raft down a river through headhunter villages to the ocean where we would be picked up by our crew.
What a crazy idea.
And the Hollywood producer and his wife were the only video operators.
I thought it was laughable! Because it was.
I had mixed feelings about taking part - and I would only be paid $500. I was told the real payment was the big damn deal and honor of just being invited.
Meeting the Producer –
I met the adventure producers at their home in Hollywood. They were a rather impressive husband and wife team traveling the world producing movies for a variety of brands, mostly for National Geographic.
Though somewhat intimidated, and not sure I wanted to go, I signed on. We would leave in less than two weeks.
Our first challenge: Arrive in Jakarta, Indonesia and clear customs with about 200 pounds of river running, mountain climbing and parachute gear!
About 20 hours into the trip - while being held over in Singapore, Hollywood (the nickname I gave the Hollywood producer because he was like a meme of the typical ugly American) told us he was working with a lawyer friend in Jakarta who made a deal with a customs officer to get our gear through customs.
The exchange was guns, drugs, and pornographic movies! I also learned that our expedition plans were illegal.
I was incredulous as I saw Hollywood become more and more the Ugly American. I sort of panicked and did not know what to do.
Arriving in Jakarta, we were exhausted. The airport was full of officials with machine guns due to the political unrest in the country at the time.
And they were eyeing everyone.
It was crowded, hot, and humid.
Hollywood told us to sit on top of our mountain of gear just coming through baggage. In the meantime, he would search for the customs officer he was to make the trade with.
I can’t even describe the fear.
Here we were, four girls sitting on top of rafts, parachute gear, mountain climbing gear, food, and other rations as we waited to see what would happen with Hollywood’s brilliant plan with customs.
We were glaringly obvious to the military roaming the customs area.
After some time, Hollywood came back and said he could not find the right customs officer. At this same moment, Hollywood’s lawyer friend came storming through the airport door motioning with his hands to stop everything. The friend quickly informed Hollywood not to talk to any of the customs officers, as the right guy was not on duty that day!
The lawyer friend had caught up with Hollywood just in time.
The lawyer switched to Plan B – he used fake paperwork. The ink was literally still wet.
From this moment, the expedition started going downhill. We were held up in Jakarta for weeks, trying to get paperwork to travel into New Guinea, still 2,500 miles away.
Hitching a plane ride to New Guinea
True to his nature, Hollywood decided we would just skip the legal paperwork and go without it. His mission then became to find any small aircraft flying in that direction and beg our way on board.
Within the week, Hollywood managed to find the first plane headed to East Irian Jaya with room for two people. He decided his wife and I should go first.
We would be traveling on a small aircraft called an Otter, along with about 20 Indonesian construction workers.
The plane was the worst piece of shit junk airplane I’d ever seen and was nowhere near safe. As we loaded, it was over 100 degrees. We sat on the tarmac for over an hour, with the workers shoved right up next to me. I’d never before had a panic attack, but I did now - I was ready to claw my through the side of the airplane.
I was so done and started to leave the airplane and quit the whole trip! But it was too late. The plane took off down the runway. The flight would take us 2,500 miles across the ocean - a plane with no instruments or flotation gear.
Halfway to New Guinea, we landed to overnight on the island of Biak, an old World War II base with a few old Quonset huts to stay in. My room was small, with a single dim light bulb hanging from the ceiling and a hole in the floor was my toilet. I stayed awake all night, ready to attack the first construction worker who came through my door.
The next day, we made it into Jayapura, East Irian Jaya, where we stayed for another two weeks while the rest of the team was still in Jakarta trying to find another plane coming our way. It’s now been over a month and we have not even started the filming.
Every day, Hollywood’s wife and I would sit at the little airport, waiting for the others to fly in. When a plane finally arrived and they were on it, the tension in the air was so thick that success of any magnitude for this expedition had become a remote possibility.
Suddenly, one wrong word was said, causing Hollywood and his wife to get into a huge yelling match. It turned into an all-out drag-down fist-fight to the end. No kidding. It was brutal.
And the beautiful native people were standing there in horror, watching the fight like it was a western movie. I was so embarrassed.
Now, we were pegged. We had flown into the country illegally in an under-the-radar sort of thing. Now everyone in this small village and country knew we were here.
Next Challenge; Get to the village of Wamana to start the expedition –
Thankfully, the missionaries Hollywood hired were cool people. I immediately liked them because they flew airplanes and helicopters.
They quickly got us out of the village and flew us to Wamana four and a half hours away, into the jungle.
We arrived in a mountainous area that Hollywood had planned to use as the site for my jump. The natives there were still considered headhunters.
Over the next couple of days, the missionaries flew me up the mountain in their helicopter to search for the best landing area to parachute into. However, we did not get far before the Indonesian government radioed the pilots.
When we landed, the missionaries told us the government had learned about our illegal entry into the country and had instructed us to immediately fly all the way back to Jayapura.
No doubt, the local villagers announced our arrival after seeing the outrageous fist-fight.
Now, we had to fly back to Jayapura and face our charges
We were told to not even take time to collect our personal items! Four and a half hours back to Jayapura we went in a small Cessna 180.
When we arrived, we were immediately put into their prison house.
We sat there for days. The mice and mosquitoes were so bad that we were finally given a little tent to set up inside the room. It was kind of like being in a prison within a prison.
Next Challenge; Get out of Jail
The missionaries told me that the “General” for this area was in the military and had made a parachute jump at Ft. Bragg. Thank God, I thought. This could be our “get out of jail card.”
I requested to see the General.
With my request granted, I cleaned up the best I could and was escorted to his office. The general was totally cool. He was a little guy sitting behind a huge desk – he looked like he should be in the movie. We talked about skydiving the way fishermen tell fish stories. His English was good.
I shared how I wanted to make a jump in his country, the way he had when he went to the U.S. I let him know I realized it cost his country a lot of money for us to be there, and that we could arrange payment of our “expenses.”
Done! Hollywood made the payment I arranged and within 24 hours we were released!
Now, we had to fly the four and a half hours back to the jungle in the small Cessna 180.
Exhausted, we all got sick.
But, we had no time to lay around - I had to find the best village and terrain where we would make the parachute jump.
I found a feasible village, but every day it was so windy I could not let my teammates make the jump. After a few days, I just wanted to get on with it, and said I would go a lone as it was just too windy for the other girls.
Next Challenge; Make sure to get good video footage of the jump –
The helicopter pilots and I were ready to go. I got my camera in place while I made another quick safety check with my rig. As we flew out, I spotted my jump far beyond the village as the winds would be blowing me backward. I was apprehensive as I would normally never jump in these type of winds, especially for accuracy and hand holding a video camera.
When I exited the helicopter and opened my parachute, sure enough, the upper winds rapidly blew me backwards, even though a square parachute has about 25 miles an hour forward speed in zero winds. I had to act quickly and let my parachute go backwards until I got over the river, then turn around quickly and go downwind right into the center of the village.
I made it dead center and landed perfectly square on the target within the village. Another World Champion jump!
All the villagers gathered around. The women were wearing only grass skirts and the men just had gourds over their penises.
It was pretty cool! The villagers had no idea what a parachute was . . and who was I? My blue eyes intrigued them.
The next day when I left my little hut, there were hundreds of natives waiting for me. They followed me everywhere, wanting to carry my gear and touch me.
I thought the gentle spirit of the native people was so precious. It made me want to stay with the missionaries for some months, flying around in their neat helicopters and helping these people.
But Hollywood never sleeps.
Next Challenge; Climb the Mountain
Now, we had to switch gear and get our minds ready for the Mountain — a 17,000 foot technical climb that had never been achieved - because no one had ever been here for this purpose.
However, that morning as we were leaving our tents and gathering our gear, Hollywood discovered all of the production money had been stolen. We were not only in the middle of a jungle with few resources, but now also without money to buy our way back to Jakarta.
Of course, no one in the village admitted to taking the money. Getting it back was became a lost cause.
Just about that time, a big cargo plane flew into the field, carrying supplies for the village.
There was only one of these flights coming each month. I heard they would be flying back to Jakarta.
Since my parachute jump was done and we had to again split up for each person to get out of East Irian Jaya, it was decided I should be the first to go back and skip the rest of the expedition.
The others would have to do their time on the mountain and river, getting the rest of the movie footage.
Getting Home –
It was a bittersweet adventure. The movie should have been about what it took to make the movie - that is where the real story was.
I learned invaluable lessons I would never have learned without having to deal with all the challenges and personalities. But, the most important lesson I learned?
Don’t trust Hollywood!
This was my first expedition - which led me to spend the next 30 years being a nomad adventurer and entrepreneur.