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RETURN TO PARA-DISE

RETURN TO PARA-DISE

THERE’S nothing like the feeling of leaping off a mountain while strapped to three kilograms of fabric and a bucket seat and, as I looked down at the landing zone 550 metres below me, I had to question whether I was crazy enough to go through with it.

I’d flown my paraglider plenty of times before, off higher peaks and in worse conditions, but this was different. My heart was racing and my guts were churning. The hands that gripped my brakes were cold and sweaty, and it felt like my legs could give out at any time.

It had been a long walk to the top of Mount Royal, which stands guard high above Lake St. Clair, near Singleton, NSW. I’d had an hour to think about what was to come, and to convince myself to keep going. Terror mixed with excitement as I tried to build up my nerves for the biggest flight of my life. And now here I was, at the top of the cliff, waiting for the perfect gust of wind to come along so I could launch.

Someone called out words of encouragement, and I lifted my eyes to the sky, where half a dozen gliders were dancing through the air like oversized eagles. Despite the fear that blazed through me, I couldn’t help smiling as I watched them zip around, riding the winds. There’s nothing like it in the world.

I closed my eyes and told myself there was nothing to worry about, but it was a lie. Three months ago, this mountain almost killed me.

My adventures in paragliding started the way all the best stories do – at the pub after a dozen schooners. A mate of mine has been flying for years, and was showing me some photos on his phone. There he was zooming over cliffs, then landing on a tropical beach, then sailing silently through the sky as the sun dipped beneath the horizon. It awakened something inside me, a spirit of adventure that had long lain dormant, so after stumbling home I booked myself into a course.

I’ve always had a love of flying, but seeing as I’ve been blessed with neither wings, nor the funds to buy a plane, I was resigned to being grounded for good. But now I finally had the opportunity to take to the skies. Paragliding is a cheap and easy way to get into flying, but make no mistake, participating in this sport is certainly not a compromise.

On the surface, paragliders are completely different beasts to fixed-wing aircraft, although the joy they provide isn’t a world away. For those who don’t know what a paraglider is, they provide unpowered flight under a canopy (originally, parachutes were used, hence the name), with no rigid primary structure. The sport shares a lot of similarities with hang gliding, but paragliders are both slower, and far more manoeuvrable, allowing for an incredible feeling of control. With no engine to propel the glider, it’s as basic as flying gets – by catching thermals and reading the winds, it’s more like being a bird than being in a plane – and it’s absolutely fantastic.

It’s a sport for everyone, and even those lucky buggers who regularly fly fixed-winged aircraft could get a lot out of this more primitive form of flight. It’s not uncommon to see retirees and schoolteachers darting through the sky next to heavily-tattooed teenage thrill-seekers. It’s a sport that can be as exciting or as relaxing as you want it to be, so it appeals to all sorts of pilots. When it comes down to it, there’s a shared love that bonds pilots of all types. That feeling of freedom, of being in the air and away from everyday problems, of becoming more than just a man, if only for a few hours.

Paragliding courses generally take 10 days to complete, and there are dozens of qualified schools spread around Australia. I was amazed that I was already soaring off a cliff on the second day of my course, and flew off the top of a 500 metre-high mountain by the end of the first week. I loved every second of my training (alright, I wasn’t exactly cheering after landing in a bush on my first flight, but let’s forget about that) and soon after graduating I had my own set-up and was taking every opportunity to improve my skills. All up, the cost to get into the sky, including a full glider, licensing course and registration, came out at around $5000 – a fraction of that required by other aircraft – making it an affordable and fun option for those on a budget.

There are dozens of gliding clubs around the country, and the members of my local group welcomed me with open arms when I turned up to the first meeting. I instantly had people to fly with, which is really important when you’re starting out, and found myself in a strong and tight-knit community of pilots.

The next few months were brilliant. I travelled around New South Wales, launching from new sites and meeting fantastic people who are as passionate about paragliding as I am. This sport is about overcoming fears and limitations, self-belief and pushing the new limits, and is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. With paragliding, you have to back yourself, because that’s all that’s between you and the very hard ground hundreds of metres below. It’s about so much more than a simple thrill – it’s a way of life.

Which led me to Lake St. Clair, on that afternoon when everything went wrong. I’d flown there before and thought I knew what to expect – plenty of height, enough thermals to keep the ride going all day, and spectacular views over lakes and mountains to marvel at while swinging my glider around. I could barely sleep the night before, as my brain spun with the possibilities of what was to come.

The walk to the top was as tough as a two-dollar steak, but I didn’t care. Every step took me closer to flying, closer to those few hours I’d been looking forward to all week. One of the great things about paragliders is that they fold down small enough to carry on your back, meaning they can be hauled around the world – or up the side of a very steep hill – with little trouble. The blokes with me were obviously as excited as I was, and we laughed and joked, stopping only when the track became too steep and we had to concentrate on getting our breath back. When we reached the top, the sky was blue and the wind was perfect, and I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face.

As I unpacked my glider, one of the other fellas launched, letting out a delighted laugh as the wind plucked him off the ground and toward the heavens, where he spun and boogied high above me. It was a good day to be alive, and a great day to be flying.

Another one of my friends launched as I lay my wing out carefully on the ground. He shot straight up, then something unexpected happened. Instead of pushing out in front of the mountain, where it was safe, he started to slide behind it, towards the dangerous and unpredictable winds on the wrong side of the hill – known as being blown over the back. I knew something wasn’t right, and decided to pack up my wing and wait to see what was going on. But things weren’t going to end that easily.

A freak gust of wind smacked into me, inflating my wing and furiously dragging me back against the mountain. I tried to fight it, but it was no use – how was a 90kg man supposed to battle a massive paraglider wing that was being inflated by a 50km/h gust of wind? I went with it, trying to keep to the ground, then the wind flung me and my glider into the air, and I found myself 100 metres above the mountain, very much against my will.

Worse still, the power of the wind had caused me to become tangled in my lines, meaning I had no control over my glider. There’s no way to adequately train for an emergency situation like that, so I surprised myself by remaining calm and untangling myself from the ropes as I was being tossed backwards. When I was back in control, I breathed a sigh of relief, and actually thought I had a chance of guiding my glider down the hill to safety. But that was never going to happen.

The wind was just too strong, and I was still being blown back over the mountain, towards the danger zone. I needed to get down, and quickly, so I pulled the lines that extended to edges of my glider – a move known as Big Ears – immediately dropping me. I passed the top of the peak and the ride got rocky, but at least I was heading downward. I pulled the lines harder as the seething winds tossed me around, and the ground came closer and closer. I was going to make it!

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a barbed wire fence. It was big and sharp and ugly, and I was heading straight towards it, which left me with two options; keep heading down and risk tearing myself to shreds, or let myself be taken back into the sky and risk heading into the dangerous valley beyond and being slammed into the ground from 100 metres up. Deciding on the former probably saved my life.

My bare legs bashed into the fence, and the burs stripped my flesh as I flipped over it backwards and smashed onto the grass, miraculously avoiding knocking myself out. When I looked up through bleary eyes, I saw my wing clinging to the barbed wire fence, being ripped to shreds as the wind whipped around it. But I was on the ground, and I was safe, and that was all that mattered. The whole thing took maybe 30 seconds.

Two of my friends crashed into the same field and, thankfully, they made it down alright, too. They had nearly 1000 hours’ flight time between them, and neither had been in a situation like that. The only real casualty was my wing, which now had more holes than the plot to a Hollywood blockbuster and would take 12 weeks to repair. Twelve long weeks, which was long enough for me to contemplate whether I wanted to continue my odyssey in paragliding, and long enough for me to firmly answer that yes, I did. Because I love flying. I realised I had to return to Lake St. Clair, which I’d come to know as Lake Despair, as soon as possible, to face my fears.

So there I was, standing on the same spot on the same mountain, excitement battling fear at the top of the world. A gentle gust of wind hit and I lifted my wing high into the air, marvelling as it inflated above my head, big and green and – most importantly – no longer full of holes. In that moment, excitement defeated fear, as adrenaline surged through my body and I felt truly alive. I turned and looked out over the lake, shimmering half a kilometre below me, and I started to run forward. After a few steps, my feet no longer touched the ground, and I was flying. The wind took me up and I settled into my harness, trying to catch my breath. I was overcome by the beauty of the setting, and the wonder of flight. More importantly than anything, I’d come back to the mountain that had almost killed me, and beaten it. I’m a big, tough guy, but I’m not too proud to admit that I let a tear or two slip while I was up there.

And then it was on for young and old. I soared along the ridge, gaining impressive height while I sailed across valleys and surfed the currents. The glider became an extension of myself, reacting to my slightest movements as I whirled around high above the world. An eagle joined me, and for a few minutes we flew as equals, then it took off and I was joined by my friends. We chased each other through the sky, joking over the radio as we shared our common love. What had once been known to me as the mountain of death, was now nothing more than a playground.

Paragliding isn’t physically difficult, because the wing works with you, and I was able to stay in the sky for as long as I wanted, getting reacquainted with my glider. Every time I hit some rough air and was bumped around, I swore, but the smile never left my face for a second. It was just magic.

After nearly two hours in the air, I slowly wound my way to the landing zone as the sunset painted the whole world pink, touching down next to the glowing lake. When I hit the grass, all I could do was throw my head back and laugh as I looked back to the top of the mountain. I’d made it, and there would be no stopping me now.

That indescribable feeling of freedom is why we all take to the skies. It doesn’t matter if we fly light aircraft, microlights, helicopters, hang gliders, or paragliders, our eyes will forever turn to the heavens with thoughts of further adventures. For me, those adventures involve zooming around with only a handful of ropes and a bit of fabric keeping me in the air.

We all take risks when we fly, and I’m grateful that I’ve been given a second chance to do what I love. I’m going to grab every opportunity I have to fly, because there’s nothing like the feeling of soaring into the sky.

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