Gone with the wind

Ben Stubbs runs off the edge of a cliff and doesn't look back.

My favourite film when I was growing up was Condorman, in which goofball Englishman Michael Crawford would dress in a yellow and red chicken suit with wings and leap from bridges and buildings, floating through the air to rescue his Russian damsel in distress. You could always see the cables attached to his wings but I loved it anyway.

Twenty years later, I've summoned the nerve to attempt my own Condorman stunt. There's no damsel in strife on the Eiffel Tower but that doesn't diminish the gravity of what I'm about to do. Standing on the edge of a cliff at Stanwell Tops, south of Sydney, I hold the nose of my hang-glider as a strong gust of wind blows in off the ocean, threatening to snatch the giant kite from my grasp.

With me on my maiden condor voyage is Curt Warren, a hang-gliding instructor with 16 years' experience and more than 7000 tandem flights under his belt. The morning is dark; grey storm clouds linger on the horizon, carrying rain. Warren says it's a perfect day for gliding. We fasten the frame together and he trusts me to clip the wings to the glider, an action that will determine whether we sink or soar.

Mercifully, there's no time to dwell on the ominous ledge in front of us. Warren attaches us to the safety line and gives me a piece of advice before we set off: "Run towards the cliff as fast as you can and don't stop until we're in the air."

Together we charge towards the lip of Bald Hill. I'm struggling to process the fact that I'm running off the edge of a cliff but before I can protest, we're flying above the Pacific Ocean.

We shoot up on a thermal and sail out above the open water. I breathe and look down at the ground far below. I kick my legs back so I'm hanging horizontally and rest my feet on the stirrup behind. Next to me, Warren is holding the glider's bar. He is snug in his custom-built gliding bag as he guides us out over the waves. Everything is silent, except for his cackle over the gentle whistle of the wind.

"Awesome, isn't it?" I nod, surprised by how stable the glider feels. As we soar along on the invisible pockets of air, Warren tells me hang-gliding is part science, part art. He obsesses over the weather, reading the conditions and the "energy" in the air to maximise his ride.

We climb to about 400 metres. Warren pulls to the right and we turn back towards the cliff. I notice the mangled remains of a car on the rocks as he pulls the bar in towards his chest. The glider dips slightly and we rocket through the air above Stanwell Park at 80km/h. I notice an erratic electronic beeping coming from the glider - is it meant to monitor my heart rate in case of emergency? Warren says it's a variometer, which measures our rate of ascent when we latch on to a thermal.

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The beeping steadies and Warren lets me grab the bar. He releases his hands and I'm on my own, steering the glider barely 10 minutes into my first ride.

The wind rattles along the fabric wings as I take control. It's not until I relax my arms that I can adjust the glider's movements. I pull my right hand towards my hip and we veer right. Pushing the bar away from my chest allows us to hover above a school of fish. To gain momentum, I imitate Warren's earlier movement and pull the bar inwards; we jet past another glider riding a thermal south towards Wollongong. We're surfing the wind, as Warren calls it. A Cessna flies above and I turn towards Bulli, Mount Ousley and the smokestacks puffing from Port Kembla. We skip between pockets of air.

Warren says hang-gliders can ride for hours on good thermals. He has flown 75 kilometres south from Stanwell Park to Robertson on a strong gust, though he says that's nothing compared with the world record set in Zapata, Texas, where a glider travelled 700 kilometres in 10 hours.

Warren has glided all over the world during his 16 years in the sport and says Australia has some great locations. He rates Stanwell Park, Lake George near Canberra, Tamborine Mountain in Queensland and Forbes in central NSW, which was the location of the 1998 world championships. Forbes is flat farming country, so to start the glide, riders have to be towed behind a micro-light plane to get airborne and catch a thermal.

Warren takes the bar again and we dip down towards the beach, curving sideways and zig-zagging across a gust of onshore wind.

My stomach rattles against my ribs as we drop in altitude. Warren smiles apologetically as he momentarily indulges in a more challenging manoeuvre. Our altitude continues to drop; rocks and trees gain clarity and I feel the speed of the glider once more.

We approach the beach like a shaky 747 as Warren dips the wings. He instructs me to lower my feet from their perch and I'm running before we hit the ground. Our feet touch the sand and we run for another 20 metres before coming to a stop. Warren grins and gives me a high-five as we unclip; he seems to have got as much of a buzz from the flight as I have.

We wander along the sand, past bemused sunbathers. Hang-gliding is still something of a sleeper in mainstream adventure circles. The film, Point Break, gave skydiving a huge popularity boost in the '90s, Warren says, when Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze leapt into cinemas. Standing in the shadow of my giant wings, I wonder if the same could happen for hang-gliding? Would Michael Crawford ever consider dusting off his suit for a sequel to Condorman?

Ben Stubbs travelled courtesy of Tourism NSW.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Stanwell Park is about an hour's drive south of Sydney along the Princes Highway. Hang-gliding takes place on Bald Hill, directly above the town.

Gliding there

Warren Windsports has a range of hang-gliding adventures from Bald Hill. A tandem ride costs from $220, taking off every day, weather permitting. Phone 0434 222 111, see warrenwindsports.com.au.

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