Monday, July 18, 2011

If You Had A Super Power, What Would It Be?

I know plenty of people who would say they’d want to fly. But what’s so thrilling about that? The wind in your face? The view of the ground as it moves past your line of site? The ability to perform beyond-human acts? I mean, some creatures get to fly all the time and I can’t imagine and eagle preferring to walk. So why is it so special to us?

It just is. (I know, so profound!)

[Mom, you might want to skip the next two paragraphs… or this whole post.]

For those adrenaline junkies out there (ahem, I may fit that category), there is an ever-evolving list of sports and activities to achieve that unique buzz. You can climb up cliffs, jump off of bridges, throw yourself into rushing rivers, run off of hills, slide down mountains, or even dive from perfectly good airplanes. For as long as I can remember, I have loved the thrill of these adrenaline activities. I always wish roller coasters lasted 10 times longer than they do. I love the feeling of conquering a high ropes challenge. When pulling me behind the boat, my dad knows I love when he takes a nice sharp turn to whip me around; I can’t get enough of the intensified exhilaration of carving the glassy water with my ski. When I take a good fall while leading a rock climbing route, it’s not uncommon for me to squeal with delight on the way down. It’s in my nature. I can’t experience that stomach-dropping-feeling enough! And I’m not sure I can explain why it feels so good. 

I suppose it is for this reason that I have jumped (literally, in some cases) at the opportunity to engage in several of the adrenaline activities NZ is known for (and some that just happened to crop up during my journey)! I’ve been rock climbing, caving, cycling, zorbing, rope-swinging, cliff-jumping, whitewater rafting, bungy jumping, and sky diving.

And now? I’ve been flying!

Nope, not in an airplane. I was out in the cool crisp autumn air surrounded by stunning mountains, twin waterfalls, a beautiful lake, and heaps of sheep; complete with a brightly colored parachute overhead! Instead of jumping out of a plane to get there, however, I simply ran off of a mountain!

I started working for Wanaka Paragliding a couple weeks ago as a Tandem Paragliding Assistant. I had found the position listed in The Messenger, a local advertising paper and applied on a whim. I had zero paragliding experience but was keen to get involved in the adventure tourism industry here in NZ.

My "office."

I picked up on my duties fairly quickly (after all, it’s not too hard to double check harnesses are done up, snap a photo, answer the phone if it rings, and drive a van down a mountain) but always felt a bit awkward when it came to reassuring passengers. Some get quite nervous and ask a lot of questions about the pilot’s experience level, what they have to do, what exactly it’s like, and so on. I found myself reiterating other people’s answers and explaining that the process is quite easy. But, inevitably, they would ask how many times I had been. Let me tell you, reassuring a passenger while in the same sentence admitting you’ve never tried it somehow feels a bit hypocritical!

Not  a bad office view!

It wasn’t that I didn’t have an interest in taking a flight, of course I wanted to! The problem was that I was there to earn money, not spend it! Well, due to a booking mishap, we wound up at Treble Cone (the ski mountain we fly from) with two pilots, one assistant, and zero passengers. So, instead of sending us home without pay, my boss decided he would drive the van and the other pilot, Rob, would take me for a flight (that way, Rob got paid and I got a free flight instead of pay). It seemed like a fair solution from my perspective!

A bit excited when I found out I'd be flying!

We drove up the hill that consists of at least seven switchbacks through sheep fields up a steep mountain (my mom’s favorite kind of road) to the launch site and set up the paraglider. Unlike skydiving, there is no packing of the parachute. Instead, you lay the glider out on the ground, spreading it out and tidying the lines so that it will lift up nicely into the air. The harnesses are huge and frumpy and hard to walk in; they go on like a backpack and secure to your legs and torso, with a huge air bubble under the seat! Rob and I suited up, and then he connected us to the paraglider. Our “assistant” (my boss) took the obligatory pictures and double checked we were ready to go. Rob has a fancy pole with a camera on the end of it so he can take some pretty cool shots during the flight. He set it up on video mode and, as an experiment, had me hold it in front of us during take-off!

Ready and waiting!

I had listened to the spiel many times before, so there wasn’t much time spent reviewing it with me. Once the wind was right (and we did end up moving about 50m to set up at another launch site to find the right wind) all we had to do was run off of the hill! Easier said than done? Not really. The parachute acts like a kite, so when you move forward, it takes on air and lifts up behind you. You have to power through to keep it moving forward, so the “run” is more like a power walk or slow jog with heaps of resistance! Once the glider lifted up, I could tell Rob was hanging in the air, but I was still running for a couple meters until we were lifted off the mountain. Easy as!

Away we go!

If someone is not so able-bodied, we offer an assisted launch where those of us on the ground help them along, taking some of the weight to make it easier for them to stand on their feet. (We did this the other day for a woman in her eighties who was quite gung-ho about going paragliding!) Assuming the passenger is sound on their feet and wearing sturdy footwear, the launch is not very difficult. I suppose the mental block of running off a mountain might get to some people, but seeing it happen so many times made it quite easy to do!

Once we were in the air, we shifted to settle into our harnesses (really more like a lazy boy after take-off!) and watched the world go by. Well, I suppose Rob was doing a lot more than that – controlling our direction, aiming to find thermal patches to give us more lift, taking pictures, and even steering us in circles to feel some g-forces! The flight was lovely. We sailed by the mountain with views of Mt. Aspiring National Park, Lake Wanaka, and the field below where we would eventually land. Rob took us over Twin Falls a few times – two waterfalls that give you a very different perspective from the air – and seemed to enjoy flying us around, telling me a little bit about what he was doing to control the glider and why. We watched a solo pilot in another paraglider explore the area around the falls, and head in for landing before we did.

Following our shadow...

The feeling of watching an approaching outcrop of rock glide by, the expansive, unrestricted view, and the wind in my face were all breathtaking. It was so peaceful to be up in the air, soaring around, and taking it all in! At one point I remember saying to Rob, “Wow. This is your job!” How awesome to be able to experience one of the most popular “super hero powers” on a frequent basis – and get paid to do it!

Well, we had to land sometime and Rob handed me the camera on video mode again to film it. He had me lift my feet so I could slide in on my airbag seat, and the ground approached us quickly. Before I knew it, Rob took a few steps on the ground, slowed down the glider, and our flight was over! There weren’t any gut-wrenching, stomach-turning, forget-to-breathe moments. We didn’t plunge towards earth at unnatural speeds. I didn’t ever feel like we were falling, or going to hit anything. It was easy!

The flight was absolutely peaceful and just a lovely experience. I’m not sure I’d even rank it up there in adrenaline-producing activities! It certainly didn’t give me a buzz anything like bungy jumping did! It was, however, a fantastic way to spend a sunny autumn afternoon!

After experiencing flight in a very up-close and personal way (without the barriers of an aircraft protecting me from direct exposure) I’ve decided I wouldn’t mind if one day I happened to reach super hero status and acquired the ability to fly!

Check out the video footage:

[Special thanks to Rob's photography/videography skills!]


  1. absolutely love your post hun- looks like fun, i will have to try one day. Lou xx

  2. Awesome, great pictures and video to get a taste.

  3. The Paragliding looks awesome! Lovely photos! Man i think i may be missing bizarre!


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