The weird, wonderful world of paragliders
Paragliding mixes technology and technique with stunning sights, but those in that scene will tell you it is the "weird and wonderful people" that makes the sport special.
In Nelson for the New Zealand Paragliding Open, a group of about 50 people were nestled on the top of Takaka Hill yesterday, ready to fly off the side - a decisive detail, according to Wellington pilot Kris Ericksen, who sits third equal in the standings.
"We fly off hills. People who jump off cliffs are called base jumpers. I have friends who do it, and you have to be certifiably mad, in my opinion," he said, looking out over Takaka Valley to the landing site 700 metres below.
The task was set and as the pilots plotted their course, sounding like a World War II Morse code communications room while inputting coordinates into their flight computers and GPS units.
Along with the instruments, the flight deck - a specialised lap pack - contains all sorts of necessary oddities. Space blankets, water filters, blocks of muesli and dental floss are commonplace. The floss, as Ericksen explains, is not for spells of mid-air dental care, it serves as a crucial safety feature.
"If I get stuck in a tree, I lower down the dental floss [to a rescuer], a rope gets tied to the end of it and I haul it back up, tie it on and climb to safety."
As well as contending with local flora, the bag of tricks can also be adapted get pilots out of sticky situations with native wildlife. When flying in Canada, Ericksen was told to have bear repellent on deck, and that was "no joke".
For obvious reasons paraglider pilots need to travel light. So, naturally, when Ericksen goes skiing - a typical companion sport because of the terrain - it is in his flight suit: "People thought I was a refugee from the 70s".
Bright purple ski-style suits were spotted on top of Takaka Hill yesterday, but unfortunately the flights were cancelled because of the wind direction pushing from the north. The forecast light southwesterly would have provided ideal conditions for a Takaka launch, pushing up against the hill adding lift along with sun-warmed rocks. But it wasn't to be.
Still, paragliding people are a glass-half-full bunch and almost 30 decided to head over to Kina Cliffs for a bit of fun, launching from the property of Open director Tim Brown.
Defending Australian champion Antje Daehler was among them, on her third trip to fly around the Nelson region. The top female paraglider pilot in Australia for three of the past four years Daehler has flown in two world championships; in Mexico in 2009 and Spain in 2011.
Select spots in her native Germany, Austria, England, Switzerland, Slovenia, Italy, France and California have all passed under Daehler's wing. Yet, of all the updrafts and thermal activity tapped into across the globe, Daehler said there was no place like home.
"I really love Wanaka. It is a special place with the view of Mt Aspiring, and all that," the pilot of 15 years said. "The people of the New Zealand paragliding community are exceptionally welcoming. But for me, Australia will always be the place for flying. Bright in Victoria is where I learned to fly.
"In Australia, we are often flying with eagles. It is just awesome when you fly with a big wedge-tailed eagle."
In a largely amateur sport, Daehler said the flying alone would not cut it for her. If that was all there was to it, she would not use every day of annual leave to get to one launch site or another.
"It is the combination of flying, the amazing places you go and meeting all these fantastic people that have, over the years, become friends. You meet a huge variety of really weird and wonderful people in paragliding."
Daehler uses positive visualisation to prepare for competition and she "won't put up with any talk about accidents" before a launch. The positive outlook seems to be a mint thread that weaves the eclectic group of people together. Daehler gave an anecdote that she thought summed up the attitude of many people in her sport.
"A friend of mine was flying, and we are rugged up because it is cold up there, you know - for every 100 metres the temperature drops about one degree. So my friend was flying and he dropped his glove, yeah.
"You know, anybody else would be sitting there cursing about dropping his glove, or whatever. But he was a very quick thinker and he took the other glove off and threw it after the first one.
"He thought: ‘Oh, well - if somebody finds the glove, it's better they find a pair'."
The New Zealand Paragliding Open continues at sites set around Nelson until Friday. Launch sites like Barnicote, Inwoods Lookout, Mt Blowhard, Mt Murchison, Takaka Hill are used, depending on which way the wind blows.
- The Nelson Mail