So here I am, in the middle of Christchurch, New Zealand, in a place called Cathedral Square, trying to find my way into a city I barely came in, a day ago. It was around 11 o’clock in the morning and the square was filled with people visiting a trade fair. Comedians, little things for sale and a vibrant atmosphere of good time.
One of the things I planned to do in Christchurch was paragliding. Back in Romania, before I left, I made a list with all the potential paragliding companies I could work with. Among them there was one called Nimbus Paragliding. After five minutes of watching the crowd in the Cathedral Square, I decided to enter in the Visitor Center (something like the Tourist Center you can find in every decent city).
Setting Things Up
I sat in a queue for about 15 minutes. A lot of people were hunting activities and they seemed to have quite a hard time picking up the best one. Eventually, I came in front of a middle age lady called Jan.
“I would like to do some paragliding”, I said, “do you know a company called Nimbus?”.
“But of course, she answered” and she picked up a phone. She rang the guy in charge and asked if he can offer me a tandem flight today. Apparently, the guy was free. After a few more questions, Jan filled up a voucher and asked me to pay for the ride.
“He’s going to pick you up at 1:30 PM form the tram station, be there on time” she said and that was basically it.
I still had a good one hour to spend before 1:30 so I returned to the motel and left all my heavy belongings there. My laptop and all the chargers, for instance. Instead, I took a sweater and some sunscreen. From my previous visits to New Zealand I learned that every time you go out in the wild, sun screen is a compulsory item to carry with you.
At 1:20 PM I was in the tram station in the same Cathedral Square. There were a lot of vans already parked, waiting for their passengers. None of them was from Nimbus though. “Excuse me”, I asked one of the drivers, “do you know if this is the place for Nimbus vans too?”. “Of course, mate, it’s right behind us”. In the second row of vans, a little bit hidden by the crowd, I saw a white, little and kind of an oldish van with the Nimbus sign on it.
I went straight to the driver: “Hi there!” The 50-something, still green looking (like pretty much everybody in New Zealand) driver smiled at me and answered: “Hi, mate! You for the tandem flight?”. “Yeap”. “Hop in, we’re going there now”.
As I was hopping in the left chair (they drive with the steering wheel on the right in New Zealand), the first impression of the van being oldish, well, just vanished away. It wasn’t oldish. It was a wreck. But, surprisingly, this observation didn’t have any impact whatsoever on my decision. As I sat on the chair, I had my first stomach butterfly: “Shit, I’m going to really do this…”.
He started the engine and we left the parking behind us.
“Where are you from, mate?”
“Born in Romania”, I answered, “but travel a lot”.
The guy frowned for a second, like he was trying to remember something. Then he smiled and as he turned to me he said: “You’re the first person from Romania I ever met”. “You sure, mate?”. “Of course. I’ve never met anyone else from Romania in my entire life”.
As we were getting out of the city area of Christchurch, we started to chat a little bit more. It turned out that the guy was a programmer too and he was quite proficient in PHP. “That’s my second job, you know, I build websites and stuff like that. But I like to fly so much. I keep programming on the second place, but I don’t know for how long”.
At this moment I think I had the second butterfly in my stomach because I heard myself asking: “Is this paragliding thing safe?”
Steve (will call the guy Steve, for the moment) looked at me and answered in a quite relaxed voice: “Well, flying is perfectly safe, it’s the crashing that may be dangerous.”
The next moment I felt like the car windows are going to blow away, that’s how hard I laughed. And, from that moment on, the butterflies in my stomach went away for good.
In ten minutes we arrived at some sort of a mountain. The road became narrower and we started to face quite a bit of steep curves. We were going up pretty fast. There was no protection on any side of the road, but, somehow, I didn’t feel the need for one. The valley walls were quite steep and if the wreck we were into would fall over, well, that would have been really bad. Somehow, I had the distinct sensation that this won’t gonna happen.
Eventually, we arrived at a point with a little bit of a parking space and two small billboards confirming that you reached a paragliding take off place.
From the parking space there was a hill going down really slow and I knew that this was the place from where we’re going to take off.
As we parked, I saw a guy resting 30 meters down the hill. “Do yo know him?”, I asked. “Yeap, he flies too”. The guy approached and started to talk to Steve in a respectful voice. The language they speak in New Zealand has little to do with English, although it’s still advertised as such. Although I know they’re talking in English, I somehow have an incredibly hard time to understand what they’re really talking about. That was one of those moments.
I don’t think I understood more than “flew for two hours”, “a little bit of thermal” and “cool”. I asked Steve to translate this for me. “Well, it seems that there isn’t enough wind. If there’s not enough wind, we can’t take off. Are you in a hurry?”. I wasn’t, so we decided to wait a little, just to see if the wind will straighten up.
Meanwhile, the other flier started to prepare his glider. “Good, let’s how he does, and if he’s taking off, we’re flying too” said Steve.
The other flier seemed to do a good job, but Steve wasn’t impressed. “He’s not taking off”, he said. It certainly looked that he was taking off to me. A sudden intuition made me ask: “What is a thermal?”. “Well, when the sun heats certain spots, the air becomes hotter, creating ascendant currents. If you hit one of those spots, it’s like taking an elevator. You take off”. Now I understood what he meant my taking off. Although the flyer was certainly doing his moves, he wasn’t higher than 50 meters. “No thermals today?” I asked. “Nope, not too much”.
In 20 minutes the other flier landed. At this point Steve told me: “Look, I’m going to do a solo flight, to see how it’s up there. I’m going to the end of the valley, hopefully the wind will be more powerful there. Then I’ll be back to tell you if we can fly or not. Hopefully.” he added with a smile.
After Steve landed I went straight to him and asked if we’re going to fly. “But of course, get ready”. So, it was finally happening. Steve started to unpack the tandem flying glider and gear.
In a few minutes I had a helmet on and my own harness. Steve put me in position, which was basically head down to the hill. “Now, I will be staying at the same level with you, only with my back on the hill. I will lift the glider up. When I’m saying: 1, 2, 3, you run two steps and then you get back another two. That’s because you’re going to create tension in the glider. It will pull you back. You understand?”
“1, 2, 3” I thought, it’s not that bad.
“After that, I will rotate with my face downhill too, right behind you, attach myself to your harness and tell you to run. When you hear me “run, run” you go downhill with all your power, chest forward and try to jump into the valley. Don’t worry, you won’t fall down. When you feel the lift-off, pull yourself back into the harness seat. Hopefully, we will be up and flying at that moment. Everything clear?”
Didn’t looked like rocket science to me. “1, 2, 3 and then run, run”. Easy.
“Ok, let’s do it!”.
He stayed next to me, with the face back and with the hands on the gliders controls. “You ready?” “Yes”.
“1, 2, 3 now!”
I made three fast steps and then I felt like a hurricane was pulling me back. “Back, back” yelled Steve. I did 2 steps back. As I looked over my shoulder I didn’t see the glider on the hill anymore. It was up.
“Good, yelled Steve, I’m getting behind you now.” In just one move, he was behind me, attached my harness to its harness and started to yell “run, run”. All this didn’t take more than a second.
I pushed myself forward as far as I could and started to run. It felt like I had to carry a huge weight and like I wasn’t making any progress. After the first two, three steps it suddenly started to feel easier. Three more steps and then I heard Steve: “push yourself back into the seat! Feet up! Feet up!”.
Instinctively, I followed. At this moment, I watched how my feet were loosing contact with the ground. There was a huge second in which I didn’t realize what’s happening. There was a fantastic tension lifting me up but at the same moment my entire history as a walking creature was pulling me back to earth, in a desperate attempt to find comfort. I’m a walking creature, I don’t fly, my entire body seemed to scream.
I tried as much as I could to lose the tensions in my muscle and to avoid looking down to my feet. As I did this, I literally felt a huge part of me going slowly down, over my feet and into the ground. At this moment, what was left of me was flying.
That was a feeling I will never forget.
From that moment on, my history as a flying creature started to unfold incredibly smooth. I was watching the valley behind us and was feeling the wing above floating and carrying me. I had an incredible sensation of safety and deja vu. Like I did that before. After we had like 20-30 meters of altitude, Steve started to teach me how to steer the glider.
We were doing small “walks” on the sky, just like the other flier did, at 50 something meters high. When we reached the end of such a “walk” we usually lean to the left or to the right, and the glider was following. We were using the wind to help us turn around and change direction.
After 10 minutes of doing this, Steve yelled: “There aren’t many thermals here, let’s go to the end of the valley and hopefully we will find some.”
He steered the glider straight forward to the end of the valley. We were actually sailing this time, using the wind to push us forward. In a few seconds we flew like 500 meters in straight line. Once we reached the end of the valley, Steve tried again to put the glider under the wind, in search of some thermal ascendant current. As I was looking down to the bottom of the valley I saw a few abandoned cars. “Stolen and abandoned” explained Steve.
After a few “walks” on the end of the valley we finally catch a thermal. In fact we catch a few thermals and we started to lift off, but the higher we were going, the stronger the horizontal wind from the sea was becoming. We were starting to experience some strong bumping. To be honest, I quite enjoyed this. Apparently, Steve didn’t. We were like flying horizontally and then, all of a sudden, we were receiving a push from the bottom. The glider was actually stretching our shoulders up. But at the same time, these very ascensions had the tendency to switch the glider on his vertical axis. I could feel Steve fighting really hard on the controls to keep the glider steady.
“There is a combination of directional and ascendant wind”, he told me after a few minutes. “We’d better find a place to land”. “We’re going back?” I asked. “Nope, we’re landing here. You see that horizontal part?” “The one in front of me? Like right here?”. “Exactly. Hold on and run when you touch the earth. Don’t stop until I say so.”
In just a few seconds I saw the earth coming towards me. Steve was steering the glider down. I had some mixed feelings squeezed in those 2-3 seconds: my flying creature part was not agreeing to this, but my walking creature part was suddenly waking up, making me move my feet in the air, in the anticipation of the contact. The glider went ahead and down just like an airplane when it lands and then my feet started to move on solid ground. We were down.
“Run, run!” I heard Steve. I continued to run until I felt the tension from my shoulders going down to the point it disappeared. The glider was on horizontal position behind us. We landed at approximately 1 km from the place we were taking off.
That was it.
I left Steve packing his gear, and started to climb up the hill, with my own harness. It seemed so difficult to do this by walking. Only seconds ago I was flying over these hills. Now I had to walk my way up.
The rest of the day went ok. Once we were downtown, I had a short cup of coffee with Steve and chatted a little about business, blogging, programming and alike.
We parted ways as friends.
That was my first lesson of flying. The first from a long line. That I can tell you for sure. 🙂