If you want to skip the story and just watch the 4-minute video I made of my experience paragliding, scroll to the bottom of this post.
After Naomi’s adventure on a bungee trampoline Wednesday morning, I was scheduled for a paragliding flight that afternoon. I was really excited, as this is something I’ve wanted to do for years. I’ve always loved bits in movies or nature documentaries when the camera zooms over a landscape, and love the “Soarin’ Over California” ride at Disney’s California Adventure. I’d heard that paragliding is a bit gentler and less risky than hang gliding, since a parachute is a lot softer and more forgiving than the rigid frame of a hang glider, so I figured paragliding would be a good way to get my first taste of flying.
We’d tried to pick the best day that week, weather-wise, but in New Zealand the weather changes so quickly it’s very unpredictable. And wouldn’t you know it, the one day forecasted to be without rain that week, was the one day it did rain. But I didn’t let it stop me. And the flight was amazing!
There were a few options for paragliding in Queenstown – one from the top of the gondola here in town (so the flight was over cityscape), and another from nearby Coronet Peak (so the flight was over mountains, hills, streams and fields). I chose the latter because it sounded more beautiful. A van picked me up in town and drove me to the peak. Daniel and Naomi followed in our rental car, so they could watch me take off.
On the 30-minute drive to the peak, it was fun to talk to the others who came from as varying places as Switzerland, Korea, Sweden and India. I especially connected with the Swiss girl next to me, who reminded me a lot in personality, looks and of course accent, of my Swiss friend Annette – this girl’s name was even Anita! That was kind of funny. For both of us, it was our first time paragliding, and we were both excited.
It was raining when we left town, which was disappointing, but I’d decided I’d go rain or shine if the pilots deemed it to be safe. I’ve never been paragliding, so it’s not like I could be very disappointed since I have nothing else to compare it to!
When we got to the peak it was still raining. Not very hard, though. The only really bad news was that we were absolutely surrounded by clouds – it was just white everywhere, and you couldn’t see anything below. I didn’t even feel nervous about running off the side of a mountain because I couldn’t see anything below it! And the idea of running off a mountain is definitely something that I think should make me at least a little nervous. It didn’t take too long for things to get set up, and soon Daniel and Naomi arrived, also bringing Anita’s boyfriend in the car with them since he also wanted to watch. Some members of our group were signed up to hang glide, so the hanggliders were all set out.
I met my pilot, Petr. (That’s not a typo – I’m not sure where he’s from but there is only one “e” in his name!) He got my harness on, which was somewhat similar to a rock climbing harness… except it had a huge booty attached! Turns out this was my seat – kind of like a backpack but with a big pooch at the bottom, and once we were flying I was to squat back into it and sit in it like a chair. He told me that I would be in front (!) and would need to run quickly because if I didn’t go fast enough the parachute wouldn’t catch wind and we wouldn’t take off. No pressure! He said we’d just runrunrun, until we were running on air. That sounded pretty cool, but also a little scary. We did a practice run, which Daniel caught on video so I can forever remember how silly I looked, because I was trying to go fast but was mostly just bobbing up and down. Petr told me to bob less and pull more, like an ox pulling a cart. I tried that on our real take-off, but in the video I still mostly just look like I’m bobbing and flailing.
I was really glad Daniel and Naomi were able to be there. We told Naomi that I was going flying, and I was mildly concerned at how she would feel when she saw me run off a cliff, but hoped that Daniel could explain to her that I was having fun. Anita and I took a peek over the edge we’d be running off, and realized it wasn’t as scary as we initially thought, since it was actually a slope rather than a sheer drop-off, and it briefly leveled out about 30 feet below into another small hill. We also noticed that we were starting to be able to make out some things in the valley below, and some neighboring peaks, so the clouds seemed to be lifting a bit.
Within only a few minutes, Petr told me to come get strapped in. He said he could feel a gust coming, and before I knew it he was telling me to run – to the right, now more straight, now we’re at the edge of the mountain and suddenly there’s no more ground for my feet to run on! I don’t remember much else except that I could see all these trees and streams and farms below me. There was no feeling of falling or a drop, just a seamless transition from the earth being just below me, to the earth being waaaaaaay down there!
Then Petr told me to lean back into the seat and I got situated. I looked down and all I could see were beautiful green trees and mountainside! The view was absolutely gorgeous – we were soaring right over cascades, rock formations and wide green fields. The clouds were completely cleared below us, and my view wasn’t impeded a bit. There were however clouds behind the mountaintops all around me, which just made them look more mysterious and stunning since they are a deep black color and the contrast with the white clouds was incredible.
Midway through the ride, Petr asked if I wanted to steer a bit. “Um… Okay!” There were some straps hanging down that attached to the outer edges of the sausage-shaped parachute, so turning was as simple as lifting one hand and pulling down with the other. After I’d gotten the hang of it, it struck me somewhere in the back of my mind that if I pulled too hard on one side, the ride could go from pleasant to unpleasant, very quickly. But I didn’t let myself think about that for long.
I was surprised at how still it was up there, not windy like I thought it would be. And like I said before, there was no feeling of falling – just floating. Or rather, sitting, since the big booty attached to my pack turned out to be a very comfortable seat. It was actually kind of hard to realize that yes I really am up here in mid-air! It felt more like the time when I was 7 years old and got to sit on a stationary bicycle in front of a green screen at Universal Studios with E.T. in the basket on the front, while someone snapped a picture.
The one moment it finally did feel real – and my favorite part of the whole flight – was when Petr asked me if I wanted to take some sharp turns near the end of the flight. I said yes and whooaaaaaa! We were going 90 degrees to one side, then the other! Then I could finally see the ground below more clearly, and then too was when it really sank in: if not for this parachute and the strings holding me to it? I would be free-falling hundreds of feet to my death! That was scary and also thrilling.
Overall the words I would use to describe the flight were peaceful, quiet and beautiful. There were some thrilling moments – like taking off and also the sharper turns near the end. But overall it was a really restful experience.
I realized as we approached the drop zone (or, landing zone – this one happened to be a huge happy face mowed into the grass, visible from hundreds of feet in the air), that Petr had prepped me for taking off, but hadn’t said anything about landing. As we got closer, he told me to stick my legs straight out in front of me, and that we would just slide in on our bums. We glided closer and closer to the green fields and I saw hundreds of bright yellow dandelions turning up their faces to watch as we slid onto the ground. This was a special little piece of serendipity, reminding me of a painting I had done after a special experience with God 5 years ago, of something related to that experience: a little yellow dandelion watching a paraglider soaring in the sky.
All in all, paragliding was a great experience, and I am so glad I did it. I am so ready for hang gliding! – I would love to see more directly below me, and felt that my lap was sort of in the way of my view (when hang gliding, you stretch out face down as you soar, rather than sitting upright). I would also be interested to try gliding over a cityscape, and am curious how the experience would be different on a clear sunny day. Next time!
Oh and Naomi? Turned out she was not worried at all – she thought it was great! A few times since then we’ve even caught her running around the room with her arms out to the sides saying, “Mommy! Flying!” :)