Tag Archives: flying

Manilla Mayhem Part II: The Mayheming

With paragliding’s State of Origin Championship heating up, I knew I had to make the second day of competition a big one. After bombing out into a field of evil thistles on the first day, I needed a big flight if I was going to win the thing. But the conditions were rubbish in the morning, so I headed out into beautiful downtown Manilla to see what was doing.

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Manilla’s bustling main street

Manilla’s remote location makes it a prime candidate for rampant inbreeding, and I was expecting a horrible, rundown cesspit full of three-legged mutants who think ancestry.com is a dating site. Instead, I was treated to a delightfully prosperous little town complete with heaps of well-preserved buildings, a Chinese graveyard, and even a giant fish.

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Why would a fish need a walking stick?

The centrepiece of the village is the Royal Hotel, which has cold beer and and hot Indian cuisine (thanks to the lovable Sanjay, aka the Hyderabad Heartbreaker). The pub loses a couple of points for being covered in Parra Eeels memorabilia, but gains a thousand for having been owned by rugby league legend Dally Messenger. The Master was in charge of the place back in the early 1900s, and also introduced the great game to the region. I had a few beers in his memory over the weekend.

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Giz a beer, bro!

With the tour out of the way, it was time to head up the hill and write my name in the paragliding history books. The conditions were perfect and I launched into the bright blue sky with the rest of the Central Coast Guy Surfers Minsinks crew. This time, instead of sinking out into the valley, we all soared into the sky. We really did do it as a team, and I boomed into a massive thermal with Scotty and the Wheen Machine. We were 10 metres from each other as we spiralled in our column of hot air (that sounds like a regular club meeting) and gradually lifted up into the sky.

Ready to enter the record books

From 800 metres, to 900 metres, to one kilometre above the earth, we fought our nerves and defied gravity. I’ve spent a huge amount of my flying time within close proximity to Scotty, and it just felt right that the two of us climbed up to cloudbase together, peaking out at around 2100 metres. How high is that? Right, the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, is a frighteningly-high 850 metres tall. This is how high I was in comparison to that.

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I should be a graphic designer

The immense height we reached allowed us to push out into the valley and truly go cross country. With Geoff finding the thermals and leading us on, Philby, Wheen, Scotty and I broke boundaries and traversed mid-western New South Wales. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, covering the world from an immense height in a tiny seat attached to a glorified plastic bag. I made it so high that the temperature was close to zero and the world below me looked tiny, and I was amazed that I was able to take it all in and not be terrified. I’ve come so far as a pilot in the past year, and I didn’t wee or poo myself once.

My legs look great at 2100m

I was thrown around like a hated stepchild (how could I possibly know about that?) in some rugged thermals and landed 18.71km from launch. I’ve done a lot of things in my life, but flying that distance trumps everything. I never would have thought I could achieve that, and I sat in that field for a good half an hour, simply reflecting on what I had done.

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The rest of my team made it further than I did, and everyone busted their personal bests. I don’t like competitions and couldn’t care less about who I beat or by how much, but seeing everyone improve as pilots and push past their limits was awesome. It was brilliant to spend the weekend with such great pilots, and we’ll continue smashing the guts out of our personal bests in the future.

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Don’t land on a cow, don’t land on a cow…

Of course, Scott’s performance was aided by the fact a bunch of cops were waiting for him when he landed, so he did his best to fly back to his hometown of Bangkok. Sadly, he didn’t make it, but after landing he was chaired into a police car by a group of very impressed policemen. They slapped him high fives whilst returning him to a life surrounded by concrete. Well done, Scott! You might be able to do even better in fifteen-to-twenty years!

An unidentified individual reacts positively to his flight

The results of the comp came out that evening, but my team didn’t find out if we’d won because we had to perform at the Tamworth Entertainment Centre due to Slim Dusty cancelling a concert that night. I assume we won the State of Origin, but the true winners were the middle-aged sheilas when Geoff broke into a spine-tingling rendition of Gwen Stefani’s 2004 classic Hollaback Girl that had everyone in raptures. I can’t remember much about the rest of the night, but apparently I spewed in Lee Kernaghan’s hat, because the prick invoiced me for the cleaning bill the next day.

 

Thanks again to Tina Bednal for some of the photos. Yay!

Closer to the Sun

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Paragliding is cooler than a dog on a skateboard, and I’ve been doing a lot of it lately. Most of my airtime has been spent at Crackneck, on the glorious Central Coast of New South Wales. It’s been more fun than a threesome with Siamese twins.

I took this video on the last day of daylight savings, as the sun died on a memorable summer. I couldn’t hope to capture the fucking awesomeness of flying above Crackneck, but I hope this gives you some idea of the beauty of paragliding. Peace and fucking, homies.

Mr Flying Man

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I grew up on the hill above Forresters Beach, and one of my most vivid memories from that time is watching hang-gliders cruising through the clear blue sky while I played on the sand. I never grew up dreaming of flying, but those memories obviously had an effect on me, because when I got older and awesomer I started paragliding.

Thirty years on, I was looking down on that patch of sand I used play on, hundreds of metres beneath me. My first flight from Crackneck to Forries was mindblowing, and it was sweet to watch over the town of my youth while doing something I love. It was even better to be up there with great mates.

I’ve spent more than 40 hours flying that site over the past few months, and it gets better every time I leave the ground. More often than not, landing on Bateau Bay Beach attracts a throng of awe-inspired wellwishers who can’t believe what they’ve just seen. Usually, a plucky child will push himself to the front of the delighted crowd and say, “Mister! Mister! Are you Superman?”
“Almost, kid,” I’ll say while packing up my wing. “I’m a paragliding pilot.”

Here are just a handful of the thousands of exquisite photos I’ve taken during my airborne adventures above the Central Coast.

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Flying off Elliot for the hell of it

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There’s something brilliant about waking up in the country, and so it was with a smile on my face that I climbed out of bed to greet another beautiful Khancoban day. The birds were singing in the trees, the cows were mooing in the fields, and there was a violent domestic dispute in the caravan next door. But I didn’t have time to lay by the lake or call the police, because there was flying to be flown.

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“You’ll be going in the back of the van if you’re not careful”

I’ve never tried to fly cross-country in my paraglider, instead spending my limited paragliding career shitting myself closer to the coast, so it was with some reservations that I jumped in a 4WD and climbed to the top of Mt Elliot, which rises 900m above sea level. The view from the summit is spectacular, with epic views out over the sprawling Upper Murray Valley, with the picturesque village of Corryong in the distance. And there I was, getting ready to fly over it in my glorified plastic bag.

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A schnitzel sniffer takes to the skies

A bunch of sour-faced Germans were milling about on launch, complaining about Jews and stuffing their mouths with strudel. They looked at us like we’d crawled out of an open sewer and then started launching and spiraling expertly into the big blue. Their tour leader spat on the ground and sauntered over to me while chomping on a bratwurst.
“I am Klaus, greatest paraglider man in world,” he smirked, while sausage juice oozed down his chin. “Good luck. You will need it.” And with that he turned on his heel and goose-stepped behind a tree to have a leak.

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Sky Hog taking off

The world’s top cross country pilots can fly 500km or more, but I knew I wasn’t going to match that on my first day. Something around 300km would be a good start, I thought – maybe go for a few loops above Mount Koscioszko, then glide over to Melbourne for a coffee in one of their many trendy cafes. I strapped myself into my harness, trudged over to the launch, and then took off. I soon realised that I might not quite make it to Melbourne.

For people who regularly fly inland, catching thermals (giant columns of rising hot air, for those who aren’t experts on the lingo) is second nature, but as a cool coastie I struggled with it. Even with Geoff on the radio, I had a tough time seeking out the thermals, and when I did, they were so rough that I could barely suppress my childish sobs. I would’ve been better off with the violent woman back at the caravan park. I ended up bombing out down the bottom of the hill and almost landing on a cow, around 2km from launch. The record-breaking would need to wait.

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Geoff shows us how it’s done

I spent that night reviewing my GoPro footage, dissecting my GPS data, reading through in-depth thermalling literature and… nah, I just had a swim and a few beers, but by the next morning I was raring to go. And this time, things went a whole lot better. I launched and found a thermal almost straight away, managing to hang onto it until I climbed to over 1000m and pushed out into the valley. Things were starting to click, and cross-country flying was finally making a bit of sense. Melbourne was in my sights.

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That’s me!

I was contemplating the type of trendy coffee I would order when I started sinking out as I cruised along the valley. I was losing height quickly and found myself a nice, green field to land in. When I was a couple of hundred metres off the ground I hit another thermal, and was able to dance in the sky for another 15 minutes, hopping from field to field before finally setting down an incredible THREE kilometres from launch. As I pulled down my wing I heard a loud honking from the nearest road, and looked over to see a truckie waving his arms around and calling me a legend.

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“Yeah, I am a legend!” I thought as I swaggered out of the field, happy with my flight. As I climbed over the fence, Klaus pulled up next to me in an ominous black van and wound down the window. He looked at me with utter contempt, then spat into the dirt.
“You have already landed?” he sneered. “Pathetic.”
With little in the way of response, I shot him the one finger salute until he drove off in disgust.

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That tiny patch of grass up the top of the mountain is where I flew from

 

Of course, ‘Sky Hog’ Scotty had to go one better, flying all the way back to Khancoban and landing just outside the caravan park – an impressive distance of around 12km. The cheeky bastard even flew across state lines, which probably put him on some sort of government watch list. Not surprisingly, he was really happy with his flight.

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Come on, Scotty, you can look happier than that!

We celebrated with a swim in the lake and an astonishingly good meal courtesy of Ladda, the wife of one of our senior pilots, John. As the moon climbed over Khancoban and bathed the whole world in silver light, I had to admit that life can be pretty good sometimes. But it was about to get a whole lot better, for the morning would bring with it some epic flying.

 

Into the rape truck!

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After a week of brilliant flying in beautiful Candidasa, Bali, it’s time for the majority of the Cloudbase crew to pack up their wings and fly back to Australia. Me and Rich have stayed on for a few days, however, to continue flying in paradise with our mates Jules, Lewis and Dr Pete, a man best described as a ‘unique individual’ and one of the smoothest operators I’ve ever met. The flying’s been incredible, really tranquil and plenty of fun, and with nearly empty skies I’ve been able to work on my turns, chase thermals, and increase my confidence in the sky. It’s the happiest I’ve ever been with my flying, and I really feel like my skills have taken a massive step up – but things have been eventful.

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I’m even sexier at 700m above the ground

The day’s airborne adventures were cut short when a frighteningly huge storm cell rolled in, and we decided to head to the nearby Black Sand Beach for a few Bintangs, rather than stay in the sky to be tossed harder than a frustrated virgin’s pecker. After pulling off the best landing of my life (the words of advice finally worked, Mark!), it was off to the village’s tiny general store for the customary post-flight feast of icy cold beer and fried chicken skin. I’ve had some cracking afternoons sitting outside that general store, with friends old and new (and old and young, to be honest). Flying is brilliant and the ultimate drug, but the social aspect of paragliding is what really makes it the king of sports.

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It might be time to land

One Bintang turned into six, and soon me and the Hamster were becoming animated. I pulled out my phone and filled the dusty village with the feel-good beats of legendary 80s pop group Wang Chung, and we started boot scooting through the palm trees, which startled a group of small children who were using a dead chicken as a football. The locals had seen and heard enough (they must’ve been Duran Duran fans – there’s no accounting for taste) and ordered us into the back of a bright green truck with blood smears on the side. I yelled out to the driver to ask him what they usually carried in the truck, because it smelled awful.
“Mainly rice and rapist for execution,” he shrugged, and climbed into the front seat. He started it up and drove us away from the beach in a cloud of smoke while people danced around us.

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The locals didn’t chain Rich to the truck by his nipples, he just did it for fun!

As we bumped along the bumpy road the Indos raced out of their shacks to watch us cruising through the village. They laughed and cheered and threw flowers, obviously excited by the prospect of seeing a group of sex offenders get beheaded for their pleasure. Despite being in the back of the Gary Glitter Rape Wagon I felt like the queen, and waved to the little people as we passed. Unfortunately, bright green trucks designed for hauling paedophiles aren’t very comfortable, and were for thrown around as it bumped along the road. Palm fronds and electrical cables reached for us, and a moment’s lapse in concentration was enough to be beheaded by by a stray branch. I managed to dodge most of them, but then disaster struck. A jolt knocked me towards the back of the truck and a jagged palm frond lashed at my clothes and tore them off my body, leaving me rolling around the bed in my undies.

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This is why I’ve been asked not to return to Indonesia

Rich, never one to miss an opportunity to defrock, tore off his clothes and tossed them out the back, where they hit an unsuspecting motorcyclist in the face and caused him to crash into a stray dog. The truck driver had every reason to keep driving us to Kerobokan Prison, but thankfully he took us back to our palatial accommodation at the Puri Oka Hotel, before using a rusty machete to force us out of the back of the truck. The small crowd who had gathered around us slumped off in despair when they discovered we weren’t going to be executed for their entertainment.

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Jules was lucky to avoid losing his clothes in the tragedy

Despite being paraded around in the back of the Jimmy Savile Express, threatened and laughed at, it was one of the best days I’ve ever had, and another high spot in what has become one of the best and most insane holidays I’ve ever had. As the sun slid behind the horizon, we did our best to raise the stock price of Bintang and I did my best to win the heart of a beautiful young lady. What can I say, it’s a life…

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The walking cure for homosexuality

Sweet like Candi

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Candidasa is a mystical land full of ancient temples, turquoise beach, and angry monkeys, but the only way to truly appreciate it is from the air. This isolated collection of beaches along the Balinese coast have provided me with an aerial playground that has proven to be nothing short of mind-blowing and life-changing. In short, this place is fucking amazing.

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The launch is unusual in itself, because it’s located on a peanut plantation overlooking the sea. Locals chatter and laugh among themselves, while dogs root each other in the scrub. Once off the ground,the flight is as daunting as it is awe-inspiring, with the whole world opening up  beneath my glider.

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It’s a big hill that reaches far into the Oriental sky, and the ride up there took me over thick jungle and screeching monkeys. Far above me dozens of gliders soared through the sky, and it was a surreal experience making the slow ascension to the ‘bubble’ where they hung together at the peak of the world. It was truly breathtaking stuff.

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I’m not going to lie, I was absolutely shitting myself during my first flight in Candi. It took me half an hour to pluck up the courage to take my hands off my brakes long enough to turn on my vario. But despite feeling like it was my first flight all over again, that first climb to the roof of Bali is something I will never forget. It was epic, and truly life-changing.

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I got so much height that I made it to cloudbase for the very first time – and even swung my glider through the clouds a few times, which was a heart-stopping experience. Never have I been surrounded by so much beauty, with the freedom to explore it all (well, never outside of a Thai knock shop).

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The landing is on a long stretch of black sand, dotted with traditional fishing boats. There’s a tiny village seeming untouched by the western world, full of children who think dead chickens make excellent toys and topless women who are really good at balancing stuff on their heads. There are also icy cold beers, making it the perfect place to land (as long as it’s not on one of the boats).

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There’s only one way to celebrate such an epic day, and that’s with a dozen Bintangs and a bunch of good mates. There are plenty of great places to drink beer by the water in Candi, with all sorts of tiny bars and warungs. There are more restaurants in the hills surrounding and along the main road, where bars boast awful Asian cover bands with long hair and only a rudimentary grasp of the concept of music.

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I even got lucky with a big-titted local. She’s the quiet type and and a bit on the heavy side (and I also suspect she’s a stoner), but I feel like this could be the start of a long, loving relationship…

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Trees-ed to meet you!

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I haven’t received many standing ovations in my life. There was the time I came third in the under-8 boys mini tramp competition at Gosford Youth Centre a few decades ago, the day I came second in a pie-eating contest, and that’s about it. Even the ovation I received from impressed onlookers after scoring with a big-titted water nymph after paragliding didn’t really happen – I stole the story from my sexy Brazilian friend Ricardo, who can’t walk down the street without a conga line of  super models forming behind him.

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I should enter this shot in a photography comp. It would win and I could use the prizemoney to buy beer

So I was shocked but delighted to be met by roaring applause upon returning to my hotel tonight after another hard day of flying. Had I broken a long standing distance record? Had I impressed everyone with my aerial trickery? Maybe they were simply exhibiting belated appreciation of my dancing skills? Nup. I just landed my wing in a fuckin’ tree.

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Gettin’ higher than a first year yooni student

Unusually, it wasn’t a great day of flying. The Hindu Wind Gods must’ve slept in, and by 3 o’clock I was resigned to killing a few Bintangs and listening to the Raiders lose on the wireless. But when the wind did turn up, I was the hill, back to the setting sun and wing slicing through the evening air.

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Perfect form on launch (it’ not me, obviously)

It was a strange flight. There was a wedding going on in one of the hotels below, and if I’d flown any lower I could’ve zipped in and grabbed a canape and the phone number of one of the bridesmaids before scooting off. They decided to release thousands of balloons shortly after I launched, which created a wacky diversion for the crew. At least they didn’t release a whole bunch of doves.

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Heading for the temple

The ride didn’t last long (words the majority of my ex-girlfriends have spoken at some point) and I had to make a run to the beach after half an hour or so. It was a fun end to a brilliant week, and only a clean landing stood between me and a night of drinking icy cold Bintangs and dancing on tables while Indonesian men threw money at me with my mates. Just aim it at the huuuge patch of sand and we’re sweet.

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This is Rudi, an Indonesian dude who spent the entire afternoon taking selfies in front of us as we stood around. He probably has a photo of me and him as his Facebook profile pic

Yep, I ended up hanging my lovely wing over a bloody bush. It sounds a bit sexy, but it really wasn’t. While I wasn’t hurt, the bush was huge and spiky, and the lines of my glider were as wrapped up in it as a housewife is in the adventures of Ellen DeGeneres and her fellow gay ladies. It was going to take some seriously high-tech actions to get it out.

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Poor Kenny!

Enter Hamster and a styrofoam boat he stole off some locals and proceeded to destroy, and Jed with a massive length of bamboo that the locals probably use to beat infidels. As funny as the situation was, the boys really went out of their way to help me, which is just the way the paragliding community works, and I can’t thank them enough for it. Hamster, I owe you a beer or three. Jed, a Cornetto is on its way.

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Go, Hamster, go!

And so, when we turned up at the hotel, late and cut up and tired, the rest of the crew were washed and ready to head out – after letting me known how much they appreciated my efforts to wrap my wing around the biggest bush on the beach. It was embarrassing but also a great laugh, and a funny way to top off a day that showed off what paragliding is really all about – just getting out there and having fun with your mates.

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Photobombed by an albino

My wing was fine, which was just as well because the next day was to offer something very, very special.

Paragliding in paradise

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Forget about lying in the sun  and save the ladyboys for another day, because it’s time to get stuck into what I came to Bali to do – a shitload of paragliding. And thanks to the legends at Cloudbase and the Hindu Wind Gods, that’s exactly what’s been happening.

The skies above Nusa Dua have been swarming with gliders for weeks, and when our crew rocked up it made for a bloody awesome spectacle. There were as many as 37 pilots in the air at a time, and I’ve never even seen that many at the same time. Once I made it into the air, though, it was incredible, and I never wanted to come back down. I soared over resorts (I spent a lot of time above one in particular, because there was a really good-looking sheila lying by the pool), beaches and temples.

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There are also some mad Chinaman and kamikaze Japs flying around attached to glorified shopping bags, with little concern for their welfare. The same rules apply in the air as they do when driving – just stay the fuck away from the Asians, because they’re only ever a minute away from doing something stupid, and you’ll be sweet. While it took a bit of getting used to, learning how to fly in difficult conditions is important when it comes to becoming a better pilot.

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I’ve already clocked three-and-a-half hours of flight time over the first two days, which is mental, and that number is going to grow massively over the next two weeks. I’ve also made my first-ever top landing attempt (an utter failure) and my second (a massive success that brought tears to the eyes of all who witnessed it – and a few ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the local female paragliding groupies).

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Those watching on included a little Indo bloke who hangs out on the hill selling DVDs (of course), cigarettes (not surprising) and Viagra (whaaaaaaaat?) Honestly, mate, the last thing I want to worry about whilst avoiding suicidal Chinamen at 100m above the ground is maintaining an erection.

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After a very long day of flying, the crew piled into buses, Bintangs in hand, and headed back to our resort, where we had a quick splash in the pool and then piled back into buses, fresh Bintangs in hand, and rolled out to dinner. It was lucky the company was so good, because the meals took about an hour to arrive, and the bill about an hour and a half to settle. Ah well, it’s a small price to pay to be able to paraglide in such a fuckin’ great place.

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Lake St Clair Strikes Back

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I usually go camping alone, and end up with my pants off, dancing around a fire by myself. Occasionally I decide to be a bit more social and go camping people, which is exactly what I did this weekend, with a short jaunt to beautiful Lake St Clair. You might remember it from my near-death experience a few months ago.

In attendance were my brother ‘The Dagwood Daddy’ Ben, Wade, Mitchell, Dezza and Leon. Also in attendance was a heat wave that would melt the cock off a Greek statue, with temperatures hitting 43 before we even headed off. I haven’t been so warm since I decided to wear my doona to work.

Lake St Clair is home to some of the most magnificent scenery in Australia, with sheer, green mountains rising out of perfect blue waters. It’s remote and strange, quiet and perfect, and the camping ground is incredible. Not so incredible was the caretaker of the place, an obese slug with tattooed-on eyebrows and a serious problem with hording. She lives in a tiny caravan that smells of BO and dog shit, and I’m pretty sure if you looked closely you’d find bottles of urine stacked up in there.

The first night was just beautiful, as the sun slunk behind the horizon and the goon started flying. It’s an incredible part of the world, and it was lovely to watch the water turn orange and then purple and then black, as the day dribbled away. Music played and conversation flowed, and before I knew it, it was almost 5 in the morning, which was my signal to pass out under a tree with my trousers around my ankles. I guess it doesn’t matter who I go camping with or where I go, I always end up naked in public.

When I got up the next morning I was still drunk, so I did my best to polish off the rest of my cask before we all headed out in Wade’s boat. I’m not much of a fisherman (people who don’t eat land animals but eat fish annoy me, so I eat fish and not land animals, just to piss them off), so I went for a swim instead. The lake was dammed about 30 years ago, and the corpses of long-dead trees still poke out of the water, providing an eerie backdrop for a lovely splash. I even felt a slimy eel brush my leg, so now I know why none of my ex-girlfriends have enjoyed snuggling up with me in bed..

The weather turned and the wind picked up, so we beat a hasty retreat back to land, where I discovered my tent had collapsed like every boner in the room as soon as Penny Wong walks in. Actually, that’s putting it nicely, because the thing was fucked and there were poles pointing in every direction like a gang bang porno.

As I was trying to put the stupid thing back together, a fat, shirtless man wandered over to me with a confused look on his face. “Have you seen my wife?” he asked. “She was there when I left to go to the toilet, and now she’s gone. I think someone kidnapped her.”

He left before I could ask him what his wife looked like (if he was anything to go by, she probably hadn’t popped off to compete in the finals of the Miss Universe competition) and I went back to fixing my tent. Twenty minutes later, he was back, with a big grin on his face.

“You must’ve found your wife,” I said with a smile.

“Nah,” he replied. “I just realised she didn’t come camping with me.” And then he swaggered off into the sunset.

The second night was somewhat more reserved than the first, owing to everyone having hangovers. But we still polished off plenty of booze while the storm kept storming and my tent did its best to fly into the sky like some sort of oversized butterfly. My brother pulled out a box of frozen Dagwood Dogs and attempted to cook them on the BBQ, before finally deciding to eat the half-frozen and half-burnt. Finally, unable to polish off the last two of his eight Daggies, he threw them away, only for a couple of lucky possums to race over and tuck in.

The next day’s weather was as angry as a hungry stepmother, so we packed up early and got the fuck out of there. As we were leaving, the shirtless bloke stopped our car. “Fellas, can I just check your boot to see if my wife’s in there? I haven’t seen here all morning.” We floored it and got out of there.

The weekend ended with a much-appreciated bout of paramagliding at the beautiful Catherine Hill Bay. The conditions were poor and the ride was short (but enough about my sex life!), but after my flying troubles it was just great to get out there and fly through the heavens for a minute or two.

Just to float above shrubs, and dance in the air, and be away from troubles for a time. It really is wonderful. There were times when I thought I might not fly again, to have this short flight meant so much. And I didn’t end up with a barbed wire fence up my blurter, which is always a good thing.

Return to Para-Dise

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I wrote the following article for the October issue of Aviator Magazine Australia. It’s on the shelves right now, so go buy a copy!

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.

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