On nature’s breath: paragliding in Bali

By Caroline Pemberton 22 April 2015
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If you ever wanted to get a bird’s eye view of a tropical paradise, there’s an Aussie adventure company that offers a different perspective on Bali.

THE OCEAN BREEZE is a welcome relief, blowing the heat from my skin as I look over the cliffs of Nusa Dua in tropical Bali. I am ready. I lean my chest deeply into the gentle wind, throw my arms up and let my feet leave the ground. Empty space opens up beneath my toes but, rather than fall, I allow myself to fly.

My childhood dreams of soaring across blue skies are reality. My new bird’s eye view reveals a spectacular coral reef meeting a roaring surf break, a traditional temple perched atop a rocky outcrop hosting a Balinese ceremony and monkeys scampering and hollering in the trees below as my friends turn into tiny versions of themselves back on the launch.

Paragliding is a special experience; whether it’s your first time, your 50th or your 500th, there is something deeply moving about relying on nature’s breath to carry you. It’s a freedom that comes from flying without an engine, the thrill of taking off into empty space, a deep sense of joy and playfulness that comes from gliding like a bird.

A paraglider is essentially a nylon wing, which works by inflating cells to create pressure and an aerodynamic shape that generates lift. Be it riding a sea breeze or a rising thermal (bubbles or cores of hot air) this giant piece of fabric is designed to fly, and fly it does, often for hours and for many hundreds of kilometers.

The pilot (aka you) is suspended comfortably beneath the wing in an armchair-like harness and uses two suspension lines, called brake lines, to steer. It’s a beautiful, clever concept and with no rigid parts it is the most portable aircraft in the world. A full-size paraglider, (which roughly has a similar surface area as a yacht sail) harness and all the gear simply fold up into a rucksack. Throw it on your back and suddenly the sky becomes your playground.

One of the greatest draws to this adventure sport is its accessibility. While most people believe it’s a pastime only suited to adrenaline junkies, it is actually a gentle sport that is easy to learn and something that anybody with an adventurous spirit can take up. It doesn’t matter if you are tall, short, light, heavy, strong, weak or even slightly disabled, chances are you can still fly a paraglider.

There’s also the added bonus of it being a relatively inexpensive form of flight compared to other aircraft. Once your licensing and initial set up is out of the way, there’s no cost for going out for a fly.

Flying in Bali

Bali’s unbeatable coastal flying draws a motley bunch of pilots here every year to take advantage of the consistent trade winds and the perfect mix of sunshine, warm water and cheap beer. Many of the crew have been flying for over 30 years, some for just a few seasons, and quite a number stand fidgeting nervously, about to embark on their first solo flights.

They’ve all been brought together by High Adventure, an Australian paragliding school which combines students and gurus into a warm, supportive community to share knowledge, experience and a place where it’s acceptable to talk about nothing but paragliding for a week.

Lead by Dave Wainwright, a national champion, and backed up by accomplished head instructors Maderson Ford and Brooke Whatnall (a world ranking acro pilot) the school has taught more students than any other in the country. Based in Port Macquarie, NSW they run licencing all year round yet in August, when the winds are a little lacklustre on the East Coast, they base themselves in idyllic Candidasa and Nusa Dua, Bali.

“It doesn’t get better than sharing the sky with your friends above an unforgettably stunning coastline. The conditions, scenery and atmosphere of Bali are ideal for learning, but don’t blame us if it makes you want to quit your day job and fly forever,” laughs Brooke.

Licenced to fly

As a form of aviation you need a licence to fly a paraglider, and you also need to be registered with the HGFA (Hang Gliding Federation of Australia). The licencing course takes approximately 10 days, with students learning everything from aerodynamics, to how to identify, read and respond to the weather, as well as the road rules that apply in the sky. Paragliding, like driving, is as safe as the person doing it, so these lessons are not only fascinating, they are what keep you safe and smiling.

Maderson recalls a favourite quote that after 30 years of flying still rings true: “Once you’ve tasted flight, you will always walk with your eyes turned skywards”

Part of licencing is also learning to ‘kite’ a canopy, or ‘ground handle’, which is an imperative part of the training. Paragliders are very responsive but they can also be very powerful. In my case, I fly an extra-small wing, which is still 24 square metres, so you can imagine how strong it is when it is full of moving air. Learning to control your canopy is vital. With the ground skills mastered, students take multiple tandem flights where, with the safety of an instructor in the back seat, the controls are handed over.

First flight

Finally, when the rookies are ready to leave the roost, they are put under individual radio control and set into the sky on their first solos. Like remote control aircraft they turn left and turn right on the advice of the instructor and float about like colourful confetti before being talked into a soft beach landing. The ecstatic whoops can be heard for miles as everyone’s radios crackle to life with their delight.

Dave says helping his students fly for the first time is like “living my first flight, over and over again”. Maderson sums it up beautifully, saying, “It is a feeling that is inside your heart, knowing that you’ve helped them find the courage and achieve a goal that they really wanted to do, and seeing their little feet twinkle off the edge of the cliff and just fly off into the sunset with a smile. You can hear their happiness when they come back and land and they’re talking and talking all night. It’s just incredible to be able to offer and be part of that.”

Family of fliers

I have been a pilot for a number of years now, yet I still share that same buzz with the students. One of my favourite aspects of the sport is that it’s the perfect mix of adrenaline and relaxation. Regardless of the hours you accrue, you will always get a buzz from taking off or landing, but at the same time it’s a relaxing sport where you can sit back and chill in the quiet space of the sky.

I actually entered the sport to conquer my fear of heights and while I’ve found that the fear has never really gone away, the greatest gift paragliding has taught me is how to handle fear, how to manage and minimise it and how to turn it into a positive thing. My fear has made me a conscientious pilot and I still come back to High Adventure for ongoing support and tuition.

One of the greatest joys is being able to be continually mentored by exceptional pilots who over the years have become friends. Paragliding is like that; it becomes a family where everyone wants to see you succeed and will go out of their way to help you improve. As Maderson says, “Flying is 80 per cent about the people, it’s the community that you build around it that makes it unique.”

“There is a saying we all know, that the sky is the limit, but with paragliding, the sky is not the limit, it’s simply the beginning,” adds Dave. And he is right; there is always room to improve, always challenges to be set, and goals to be achieved. Whether you end up in cross country competitions, flying acro or just being a coastal cruiser, it’s not just an adventure sport, paragliding is a lifestyle.

My feet gently return to solid ground, my smile wide as I unclip my helmet. I’m handed a cold Bintang by the Balinese locals and down it slowly while thinking just how ready I am for another epic day tomorrow.

The essentials

Get into it: High Adventure is based in Laurieton, Port Macquarie, NSW and it runs two-day introduction courses where you can sign up and enjoy a tandem flight, receive personal instruction, the usage of gear and even have your first solo flight! And it’s free! There’s even optional accommodation.

For details on next year’s Bali course see www.highadventure.com.au