I was still in Antarctica, shivering in my parka and trying to catch a penguin, when one of my shipmates asked if I was going to try hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro. The idea of adventure and warmth was still far from my mind, but after he enthusiastically showed me his pictures and waxed poetically about it being the best thing he ever did, ever, I was sold. The idea of being sky high floating above the ocean sounded very appealing after a solid week of rocking endlessly in the frigid Antarctic waters.
Thus on my first full day in Rio, I found myself on Sao Conrado beach, signing my life away again in what was beginning to seem like an endless list of waivers. During check in, I learned my pilot was off with another client and I sat down on the beach, cocktail in hand to calm my nerves, to watch the paragliders and hangliders land effortlessly on a small strip of sand. Sky sports are a lucurative business in Rio; I was amazed at how many landings I witnessed in ten short minutes. One right after the other, perfectly choreographed, they would land on the beach, disassemble and be off with the next client in tow.
Starting out in Tijuca Forest
My guide collected me from the beach, giddy after an apparent perfect flight. We jumped in a truck and made our way into Tijuca Forest and up steep winding turns with amazing views over Rio. I marveled at the beauty of the city while my guide attempted to give me a quick history lesson on Rio de Janeiro. To be honest, due to nerves it all went right in one ear and out the other. Before I knew it we were there.
I was hoping that like with paragliding it would be a gentle glide off the landing pad and into the breeze. As I was weighed and fitted into a harness, I watched others lining up to go before me. My stomach dropped about as much as they did as they disappeared off the edge of the platform, falling before the wind finally caught their glider and saved them from a slow death. My instructor shook his head at these clumsy attempts while he explained the finer details of not getting us killed as we jumped into the sky with only a piece of metal and canvas to get us safely to the ground.
Run As Fast As You Can
I was to put my left arm around him and keep it on his shoulder. That was step one. Step two was easy – run as fast as I can. Apparently human nature makes us look down at the last possible second, right before you go off the edge. This results in either a tumble or a jump, both of which lose momentum and cause you to drop off the platform rather than smoothly glide.
I promised I would run like I was in the Olympics and asked him not so subtly how long he’d been a hang glider instructor. I was in luck when I learned my instructor had placed first in the international hang gliding championships a couple of months prior. To top it off, despite looking all of about twelve years old, he had over a thousand jumps under his belt. Slightly reassured, we went through three safety checks and then it was time to go. I tried to focus on the ocean in the distance and not the end of solid ground.
I wish I could say it is like floating on air, but my takeoff wasn’t. On the video later, it looks like we simply glided off the runway, on solid ground one moment and airborne the next. But as we left land I still felt that queasy sudden drop feeling. That what-on-earth-have-I-done feeling. Thankfully it lasted only a second and then we were stable and flying like birds.
Hang Gliding in Rio Tops it All
I’ve skydived in the desert and paraglided in the mountains, but neither came close to comparison to hang gliding through the jungle and over the ocean. We flew high over skyscrapers and the bustling city streets in Rio, literally soaring above birds at one point. The wind conditions in Rio meant that we were constantly being yanked this way and that, and my instructor was keen to have an adventurous flight, which meant lots of circles, swoops and quick drops. At one point he even handed me control of the glider, only to yank it back firmly under his hand when I managed to drop us several feet rather quickly.
Hang gliding flights in Rio typically last anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes, dependent on a number of factors including weather and your overall weight. Essentially the windier it is, the better, and the lighter you are, the longer you can go. With my tiny size and the ocean breeze coming in, I got to stay in flight for a solid eighteen minutes. Eventually it was time to take a quick cruise over the ocean and attempt our beach landing.
Unlike my paragliding attempt, we landed with ease, though I seem to be destined to be dragged along the ground in an unseemly manner for every adventure sport I do. Being back on the ground was both at once a relief and mildly disappointing. It’s easy to see how people get quickly addicted to this sport and the rush of flying.
After showing me the video of my flight, my instructor and I sat on the beach eating an acai cup while watching the madness that is Rio in the evening. As he brushed his hair from his sweaty forehead, I noticed a long scar running along one side of his face and asked him how he got it. He told me it was from a previous hang gliding crash in which he smashed his head into the ground unexpectedly.
I thanked him for delaying telling me that story and went back to my acai. It seemed a better idea than asking further questions.