There is something disconcerting about having a form thrust under your nose to sign that contains phrases such as “…risk of death…”, or “…you waive all right to take legal action in the event of serious injury”. When you’re putting your name to this kind of paperwork you can’t help but think “Why on Earth am I doing this?”
I’ll tell you why.
I arrived in Rio the week before as the Carnival was starting to get into full swing. It was a balmy February and the Cariocas were filling the streets with music, samba and good vibes. It may have been the party atmosphere and the embracing welcome the city seemed to be giving me and my fellow backpackers, but something made me want to stay. I also had a lot I wanted to do in the city. In a week of all day fiestas and street parties I had completely disregarded all of the sights and attractions that Rio has to offer.
There was a flyer posted to the notice board in our hostel that had caught my eye. The company name printed across the top of it was ASA Delta and a closer inspection revealed that Delta were offering tandem hang gliding flights. Did I dare do it? I had fallen in love with the scenery of Copacabana and Ipanema – the long stretches of golden sand, lush green mountains rising from Guanabara bay and the sight of the iconic Cristo Redentor casting a watchful eye over the city from its hilltop perch. What better way to see all of this from high above, soaring over it all.
I made a casual enquiry to the hostel reception but in the back of my mind I made a few excuses, putting it off until I had built up the courage to pull the trigger and book the trip. The receptionist made the 2 minute phone call, put down the receiver and informed me that I would be picked up the next day, weather permitting. That was it, it was booked and I wasn’t going to back out now.
I was collected from my accommodation the next morning to make the 25 minute drive over to the hang gliding club in São Conrado. It was here that I signed away my rights and put my life in the hands of my instructor, Konrad, a national hang gliding champion and record holder with over 28 years experience. If I was going to survive leaping off the 512m high Pedra Bonita ramp with anyone, it was Konrad. We loaded back in to the van to drive up through the dense jungle of Tijuca Forest national park and up to Pedra Bonita.
The great weather had seemed to bring out all of the extreme sports enthusiasts in Rio. Instructors with their passengers were lining up to leap from the summit and I watched with interest as I got kitted up and Konrad checked the glider. I was bundled in to a harness that was slightly unforgiving in all the wrong places and a padded vest that made me look like I was heading out to diffuse bombs rather than have a fun day out in Rio. Often waiting can be the worst part of an experience like this, your mind playing out all the things that could go wrong or all the ways in which you could plummet to your death. Konrad explains to me how everything works – He will say ‘Ready’ and if I am still wanting to go through with this craziness, i’ll say ‘ready’ back. We then have to run, and I mean really run. “If you don’t run fast enough we will not get enough speed to fly” Konrad informs me. He punctuated this with the kind of hand movement you do to show a plane plummeting to the ground. My nerves were back.
One by one my fellow daredevils sprinted off the platform and I gradually moved up the queue until there was no one standing between me and the 512m drop. In all the waiting and safety checks my feeling of nervousness had dissipated and was replaced with a tingling sense of excitement instead. I had watched around ten gliders go before me and now I was raring to take the leap.
The next few seconds were a nervous blur. We stepped on to the launch platform, essentially a wooden deck less than 10m long, looking at the sharp drop ahead. Konrad gave a quick countdown, shouted “Run, run, run!” and I sprinted for my life feeling the ground disappear from beneath my feet and my legs left dangling into nothing. The glider dropped and my stomach felt like it was trying to escape from my mouth.
Once I felt the wind catch our wings and the glider take flight I was overtaken with a feeling of serenity and calmness. There is a peace to hearing nothing but the wind whistling past your ears, so far away from the bustling city below. In the distance I could see Sugarloaf Mountain jutting out of Guanabara bay and beneath me the hills and jungle of Tijuca national park. Rio de Janeiro is spectacular from any viewpoint but this is without a doubt the best it has ever looked.
I didn’t even have the feeling of adrenaline pumping through me any more, just joy and the sense of wonder at the sight of one of the world’s most spectacular cities spread out below.
We weaved left and right so that I could take in the vista, Konrad pointing out the sights. São Conrado is one of Rio’s wealthier neighbourhoods and we were flying high above the sprawling mansions of Brazilian celebrities and politicians. Before long we were gliding over the beach and then the sea with the triangular shadow of our aircraft bouncing over the waves. It was exhilarating.
The flight only lasted a mere 6 – 7 minutes but it felt much longer. Konrad made a sharp turn as we first circled and then descended on the beach. My legs were unfastened from my harness and we swooped down to approach the sand at a fast speed. I had to stretch out my legs and once again got ready to run as we hit the sand and the momentum left the glider almost instantly. So much so that all I need to do is walk to complete the landing. Thanks to Konrad it was pretty smooth.
It felt good to be back on firm ground but I couldn’t stop smiling. The adrenaline still pumping through my veins I couldn’t wait to sit on a solid chair and reward myself with a cold beer on the beach to bring myself back down to Earth.
Information and Tips
I took this trip with Konrad Heilmann of ASA Delta. He has 28 years experience hang gliding, is a certified level 5 Master Pilot, Brazilian Advanced Champion 2001, and is currently 13th place overall in the Brazilian Ranking. He was fast to email back to me with any questions I had and organising a pick up time with him was a breeze.
Flights start at around 8 or 9am each day, 7 days a week, depending on the weather but your instructor will be in touch to let you know what time he will collect you. The whole trip from pick up to drop off took around 3 hours.
Make sure you bring a form of ID such as a passport for registration at the hang gliding club.
The trip cost me US$ 219.00 or R$650 (Brazilian Real) and included 2 sets of pictures (from the front and side view), videos and transfer to and from my hostel. It’s recommended to book online as the company often offer a discount for prepayment.
If your flight is cancelled due to the weather you can rearrange or get a full refund. Chances are that you will be fine as about 70% of days are flyable in Rio.
What to Wear
It’s recommended that you wear comfortable clothing and if the weather is a little chilly, it’s best to take a sweatshirt. You’ll need to be wearing shoes that you are comfortable running in and that won’t fall off your feet (preferably trainers).
Have you ever been hang gliding? What’s the most adventurous thing you have ever done? let me know in the comments below.
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