Whether you’re floating in the sky or hitting terminal velocity, these airborne experiences all require a leap of faith, writes Ben Groundwater.
“This is the purest form of flying,” says Curt Warren, double-checking his harness, glancing at the horizon and clocking the other gliders soaring high above us. “It’s sailing in the sky.”
It’s hard to argue with him. Our aircraft today is nothing more than a single wing, a beautiful curve of sailcloth and metal. There’s no engine or propeller. It is to flying what a yacht is to the boating world: a simple apparatus to exploit the forces of nature; travel at its most basic and serene. And we’re about to take off.
After one more harness check and another glance at the horizon, Warren gives the signal. Then the two of us begin running towards the edge of the cliff, faster and faster until the updraft catches the wing and we’re lifted off the ground and into the air – high above the ocean, high above the coastline, high above the earth.
For the uninitiated, this is hang-gliding. It’s a sport, a lifestyle and a community. For those gathered today at the top of Bald Hill Lookout in Stanwell Park, on the Illawarra coast about an hour south of Sydney, this is their life: riding the wind currents that buffet the cliffs below.
There are a couple of Qantas pilots who hang-glide here on their days off, Warren tells me. When they’re not in the cockpit of a passenger jet, they like to occupy the airspace above the escarpment in a glider. It’s an addiction to flight that’s shared by many, including a well-known Sydney architect who spends his leisure time sailing through the air. And a student who was born to fly. “He has dreams that he’s a bird,” says Warren. “He’d jump off the balcony with an umbrella if he could.”
And then there’s Warren, the owner of Warren Windsports and a hang-gliding instructor with thousands of hours of flying under his belt. Born in the United States, he transplanted his life from Florida to Stanwell Park in 2004. Today, Warren is taking me on a tandem flight, easing me into the world of hang-gliding while at the same time providing the best view imaginable of this stunning stretch of coastline.
“The scariest part of the flight is reading the waiver,” says Warren. “When I first started flying, I thought it was going to be wild, like a rodeo or something.
But it’s pure flying. You take off and you can stay up for hours. You can fly hundreds of kilometres in a hang-glider. You don’t need wind; you can use thermals. There’s lots of energy out there that an experienced pilot can harness.”
Warren has been flying professionally for 16 years and spends a good part of his life with his feet off the ground. His dad was an aeroplane pilot, he explains, but the beautiful simplicity of hang-gliding drew Warren away from powered flight. “So many things in life now are instant. But with hang-gliding, you have to take the time to get set up, you have to wait for the right weather conditions and you have to pack everything up again at the end. It takes work but it’s very rewarding.”
I can see the attraction. It’s almost silent up in the air, save for the light rustling of the sailcloth. From this vantage, I spot Sea Cliff Bridge on the most spectacular section of Grand Pacific Drive, which hugs the southern coastline for 140 kilometres. The Pacific Ocean sparkles far below.
The hang-glider is so simple, it seems like something the Wright brothers would have flown. There are no moving parts. Nothing computerised or automatic. To turn, you shift your weight to the side, pushing one wingtip down. To gain speed, you tilt the bar in front of the pilot towards you. To slow down, you push it away. To gain altitude, you search for the updraft from sea cliffs, or thermal currents, and ride them up towards the sky. That’s it.
“It’s not physically demanding at all,” says Warren. “It’s just sailing in the sky.”
Cruising the current that keeps us steady in the air, I take in the Royal National Park in the distance and look across to the eastern horizon before we eventually float back towards Stanwell Park village – away from the cliffs and that gust of air – and begin to glide in to the sandy landing strip below. Soon I spot houses, cars and people lying on the beach as we drop lower, still flying silently, before Warren tells me to lift my legs and we settle gently onto the ground.
That’s flying in its purest form. Sailing in the sky.
Other places to take flight￼
Australia’s windswept coastline and rugged hinterland areas are prime locations for those who fancy the idea of floating on the breeze with a hang-glider or paraglider (which involves being attached to a harness suspended beneath a parachute-style wing as opposed to the rigid frame of a hang-glider). It’s possible to do tandem flights at many places throughout the country or even to learn to take flight on your own.
At Rainbow Beach, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, flight instructor Jean-Luc Lejaille, from Rainbow Paragliding, runs tandem flights and paragliding courses over the beach and Carlo Sand Blow (always good for soft landings).
In Ballina, on the NSW North Coast, Poliglide offers similar flights over Byron Bay and Lennox Head. The school also holds courses for powered paragliding, or paramotoring, which is the same as regular paragliding, only with a propeller strapped to your back.
And for something completely different – but equally thrilling – the team at Active Flight, led by seven-time Australian paragliding champion Fred Gungl, runs tandem flights and paragliding courses above Victoria’s High Country near the town of Bright.
Jump out of a plane
￼If you’re an adrenaline junkie looking for something more extreme, cast your eyes to the sky. Up there – that tiny dot – is a plane from which you’re very welcome to jump out of. For the ultimate in iconic views, Skydive Uluru does tandem jumps above that big red rock in the Northern Territory.
Australia’s beaches are popular sites, too, for a parachute landing. In Queensland, you’ll see the Great Barrier Reef as you take the leap with Tandem Cairns, while Skydive Australia will have you freefalling over a beautiful stretch of ocean and sand in Byron Bay.
Western Australia’s Rottnest Island is an amazing backdrop for a jump with Geronimo, while, in Victoria, Skydive Australia takes thrillseekers out over the Great Ocean Road – providing a whole new way to see one of Australia’s most well-known destinations.
Jumping out of a plane is scary – don’t get us wrong – but it’s surreal, too. You’re so high up that it’s hard to grasp what’s happening to you. That’s not the case with bungee jumping. There’s a pretty serious “ground rush” when you leap off a bridge or tower and your face ends up mere centimetres from that ground.
Australia’s best-known place to take the plunge with an elastic band tied around your ankles is near Cairns with AJ Hackett. Not only does it offer a jump from a 50-metre tower in the middle of the rainforest, there’s also the pendulum-style Minjin Swing, which has jumpers reaching speeds of up to 120 kilometres an hour in 3.5 seconds.
Elsewhere, Funtime on the Gold Coast has the Slingshot, a sort of reverse bungee that shoots you (from your starting position on the ground) almost 150 metres into the air at 160 kilometres an hour. Hang on to your lunch.
For something more sedate, the Flying Trapeze Perth circus school offers “bungee trampoline”, which allows people of all ages to bounce seven metres into the air before springing safely back down to the ground.
￼There’s barely a person alive who hasn’t watched astronauts floating in zero-gravity space and thought to themselves, “I’d like to try that.” The good news is that at Questacon, The National Science and Technology Centre in Canberra, you can do just that – if only for a fleeting second.
One of the centre’s most popular attractions is the Free Fall, a six-metre-high slide that starts off vertical – giving a feeling of weightlessness as you let go at the top – then flattens out to horizontal, catching your fall and ending your brief foray into the world of zero gravity. Still, it’s exciting. And far less of a commitment than jumping out of a plane. ￼