Just about three years ago, I was driving from Franz Josef on New Zealand’s West Coast to Queenstown in a rusty, old, 1986 Toyota campervan. As I arrived in Queenstown, I viewed the emerald blue waters of Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding mountains for the first time. It’s a stunning sight, and one that drops the jaws of thousands of visitors to the Adventure Capital of the World each year.
Rounding the corner and pulling into Queenstown’s small, yet oh-so-busy town centre, I laid eyes on the tree-covered Bob’s Peak backed by the towering Ben Lomond. As is common on most sunny and calm days of the year in Queenstown, the skyline was dotted with no less than a dozen paragliders making their way slowly back to earth.
I’d like to say that I knew then that one day I’d be one of those paragliders, but that’s a lie.
No, I never expected I’d stick around Queenstown. Heck, I never expected I’d stick around New Zealand for now going on three years. Yet living in this small mountain town has resulted in me learning loads of things about myself. As someone who grew up in small town Iowa, hundreds of miles away from anything taller than a big hill, most surprising perhaps is my love of the mountains.
Somewhere in between landing a job with a web start-up and developing an addition to riding my bike and running in the mountains, I realized I wanted to learn how to fly. I flew tandem with Coronet Peak Tandems this past winter, and that was that decided –
I wanted to experience the freedom of flight.
I’ve spent the last three months dreaming of flying.
Watching videos, reading forums, talking to pilots and daydreaming from my desk watching paragliders flying above Queenstown. And finally, last weekend, I began the journey towards becoming a licensed paragliding pilot.
Learning to paraglide is a quick process. Or, to clarify, learning to paraglide under close supervision is a relatively quick process. Becoming an experienced and competent pilot who can fly in a variety of conditions will take years. The lessons I’m taking will result in me being able to fly solo without supervision, but it’s my understanding that as a paraglider I’ll be learning each time I step off a mountain and begin a flight.
For anyone unfamiliar with the sport, it’s worth noting what paragliding isn’t. It’s not sky-diving. It’s not base jumping. It doesn’t involve leaping off of cliffs. Paragliding is a form of free flight whereby the pilot is suspended below an inflated wing – its origins are rooted as far back as the 1960s, but paragliding in its current form started in France in the 1970s.
I began last weekend with an Introductory Day.
We spent a day learning the mechanics of the paraglider – what lines were what, what controls did what, how to understand the wind and read the weather conditions. Most importantly, we learned the basics that would hopefully remain engrained in our heads for years to come so we’d be safe, competant pilots.
After some time ‘kiting’ the wing, we were to have moved onto flying the “Beginner Hill.” A wee hill of only 50 metres – supposedly. Standing at the top looking out over the field below, I was convinced I was on the summit of Everest. Much to my dismay (er, relief), the wind had picked up and we were ‘grounded.’ The thrill of running down a hill and flying would have to wait.
As it turns out, I couldn’t handle the wait.
After 48 hours of waiting for the weekend, I took a half day at work and opted for a bright and early 7am start mid-week. A quick refresher reminded me of how everything worked and that was that – I was off to the beginner hill.
Taking off is a relatively straight forward process. After setting up your wing so you’re facing into the wind, you run down a moderate sloped hill with your hands pressed forward. As you begin running, the wing inflates and rises above your head. As you continue to run and use your controls (your breaks) to make sure the wing stays above your head, you find that you’re no longer running. Your legs are moving as though you should be, but you’re no longer on the ground. You’re flying. And it’s a beautiful feeling.
This video shows my first experience taking off on the beginner hill – if you can’t tell from the shrieks, I’m pretty bloody stoked.
High Flights from Coronet Peak
With two more 7 second flights off the 50 metre beginner hill out of the way, we made our way to Coronet Peak. From the green run, to the black. From the tricycle, to the unicycle. You’ll remember me mentioning above how learning to paraglide is a quick process. Coronet Peak sits about 800 metres above the Wakatipu Basin valley floor. In the course of an hour, I’d graduated from a 50 metre hill to an 800 metre hill – from a 7 second flight, to a 7 minute flight. See what I’m saying?
Most surprisingly perhaps, I wasn’t nervous. It’s hard to explain how you can feel so confident with an inflated paraglider above you – yet, after only a day and a half of training, I was ready for my first high flight.
It was, quite simply – incredible.
This series of photos shows my launch and subsequent first long and high flight. From here, I flew about 4 kms to the Flight Park. The entire flight I’m under supervision and radio support from the paragliding school’s instructors.
Run … !
And… I’m flying.
One flight down, 39 to go until I’m signed off to fly solo. I’ll keep you updated on my journey towards becoming a paraglider, so check back soon.
I’m learning to fly with the Infinity Paragliding School in Queenstown. Have you ever been paragliding? Let us know where in the comments section below.