“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float, to gain all while you give, to roam the roads of lands remote, to travel is to live!” – Hans Christian Andersen
One of the most adventure-filled places on earth lies in the South Island of New Zealand, in a magical place called Queenstown. I had always dreamed of going to New Zealand and in the fall of 2002 my husband and I went on an epic two-week vacation of the North and South Islands of New Zealand. We were still newly married and kid-free thus craving adventure and excitement. Despite being the bungy-jumping capital of the world, I had no interest whatsoever in trying this form of thrill-seeking. Instead, my husband and I decided on trying tandem hang-gliding. It would be our chance to fly like a bird, soaring off the tops of the Remarkables and experiencing the sensation of weightlessness, exhilaration and joy.
I should have been concerned when we were about to book our day of pure kiwi-style adventure in Queenstown and the tour agent informed us that the day before there was “a wee bit of drama“. But I was young, childless and full of that intense wild and crazy adventure that lead me to brush aside the fact that a woman and her “pilot” were in the hospital, barely alive, after crashing and free-falling thirty feet just after take-off on their tandem hang-gliding adventure. Apparently the bolts weren’t correctly tightened.
After careful consideration of all of Queenstown’s fabulous, adrenaline-pumping activities, we settled on hang-gliding and I had my heart set on it, even though the story about the accident was still promptly displayed in the papers. No it couldn’t happen to me? What would be the odds? We felt slightly reassured by our choice of a different company that according to our overtly friendly hotel concierge had a “no failure” safety record. I didn’t want to chicken out at this point but the thought of being that first failure was still lodged inside the back of my mind, eating away a bit at my nerves.
It was with this mindset and apprehension that Paul and I set out one early afternoon to Coronet Peak a world-class ski resort in the winter and the launching off point for our hang-gliding adventure in the spring and summer. Our van picked us up and drove us out of lovely, peaceful Queenstown and wove slowly up the mountainous terrain until we reached our destination: Our launching point at 3,800 feet elevation!
As we drove up, my stomach dropped. This time is wasn’t due to motion sickness but to pure fear, exhilaration and shock. I saw the mountain for the first time and tried my best to not cry. For some reason, I was picturing something a bit smaller, not this gigantic peak where sane people ski in the winter. What on earth was I doing? I tried not to panic and just sit there a smile as our driver talked about life in New Zealand and what a joy ride we were in for. Was I really going to go through with it?
I spent the last few minutes in the van barely speaking as my hands starting clamming up with perspiration. We pulled over to our launching point, right below the ski facilities, and my mind began to race. As we got out of the van, I realized with dismay that there was only one guy waiting there and he was the pilot. There was no backing out now. We were the only thrill-seekers and one of us was going to have to go first.
Was it because he loves me so much that he graciously offered to go first? Or was it because I was a selfish wife that would sacrifice his live over mine? Needless to say, I didn’t have to decide. As soon as the pilot asked us which one was going first my wonderful, loving husband Paul raised his hand. He would be the guinea pig. I was instantly relieved but then realized it would give me at least thirty to forty minutes to back out of going while I waited at the top and watched him go down.
After Paul had a brief training on hang-gliding 101, he was the courageous one and volunteered to go first.
Paul getting strapped in and practicing a few safety techniques with Steve, the Canadian pilot.
One of the coolest features of the hang-glider was that it carried a camera! Thus we would hopefully have amazing pictures of us hang-gliding through the New Zealand sky! Meanwhile more people arrived on top but they were with a different group.
So, what does it feel like watching the love of your life strap himself into a hang-glider (with some relatively unknown pilot who was in charge of his life) and jump off the edge of a mountain? Panic!
I gave him a kiss and told him to “have fun” and off they went, running strapped to the hang-glider and then over the edge. My heart pounded in fear and anxiety. I was nervous for his safety as it is not every day you see your husband jump off a mountain on a hang-glider, at least not my husband.
While he soared gracefully through the air, I marveled at the spectaular Remarkables behind me and saw the birdlike shape of the white hang-glider fade smaller and smaller into the distance. The fifteen minutes that it took to reach the ground felt like an eternity. I can honestly say that I not once felt calm until I saw the tiny, white hang-glider safely land far, far below.
The worst part after the sheer terror and fear that something awful would happen and my husband would crash, was the long, dreadful wait for my own turn. I was completely alone on top of Coronet Peak for over forty minutes, feeling an enormous range of emotions moving from excitement, anticipation, and shock (that I was actually going to do this!) to anxiety, stress and fear. It was ample time to change my mind. When I saw the white van pull up over the crest of the ridge and into the makeshift parking lot my heart dropped. It was my turn now.
I waited nervously for Paul to get out of the van and looked expectantly at his face wondering if he would have a look of elation or one of relief. Thankfully he got out with a huge, triumphant smile across his face.
“What was it like”? I questioned. “It was fantastic!” he beamed. “Was it stressful or scary?” I continued nervously. “Not at all!” he replied confidently. “It was so relaxing”. Hmmm….relaxing? I pondered. “Really”? I asked a bit doubtful. “Oh yes, it was incredibly peaceful” he responded confidently.
And that was enough to give me the guts and the willpower to fly like a bird….
Here I am with Steve, running as fast as we could before we leaped into the air and were flying like a bird….
“One, two, three….run!” Steve yelled. And with that, we took off together running as fast as we could and then jumped into the silent air to only the sound of my desperately beating heart and a muffled scream.
The first thing I did in the air was scream at the top of my lungs. I found my voice and poor Steve had to hear my screams almost the entire way down. As we leaped over the ledge, the current of the air lifted us up like a bird and we soared weightlessly over the reclining edge of the mountain and into the sky.
Here I am screaming at the top of my lungs!
I remembered Paul’s words about how “relaxing” and “peaceful” it was. Was he absolutely crazy? This was the most exhilarating, over the top experience of my life! There was absolutely nothing remotely relaxing about hang-gliding. It was the most insane, rush I’d ever felt. A feeling of pure elation, joy and absolute freedom.
Steve laughed and told me that out of anyone he has ever taken hang-gliding, that I was the most enjoyable passenger of all. It was people like me that made his job so fun.
Finally I stopped screaming and relaxed as much as I could at thousands of feet above the ground strapped into a hang-glider. I marveled at the sensational scenery surrounding me and understood at that moment where the Remarkables got their name.
Hang-gliding was the most surreal, exhilarating experience of my life. To fly like a bird, for just 15 minutes, was incredible.
Paul took this picture of me from above as I gracefully soared throughout the New Zealand sky.
Once I calmed down, I began to really enjoy the exhilaration of soaring high up in the sky. Steve asked if I wanted to take the reins and be the pilot. I instantly said yes.
The entire trip down took only fifteen minutes or so. As we approached the ground, Steve began circling the hang-glider just like a plane. Closer, closer, closer we came to the verdant green pasture and white van where Paul was awaiting my arrival.
Steve landed the hang-glider on a small makeshift runway. The landing was much bumpier than I anticipated but we made it. I survived.
And, just like that, my moment as a bird had ended. I waved my arms up for this photo finish and smiled triumphantly into the camera. I did it!
“Well…?” Paul asked with a smile in his eyes. “How was it?” “It was out of this world!” I beamed. “But there really wasn’t a single thing relaxing about it”. That is when his smiling eyes told me that he had told me a tiny little lie. “Hell no!” he said. “But if I would have told you the truth, you never would have gone through with it”.
I instantly forgave him and gave him a hug. He was right. I never would have jumped off a mountain strapped into a hang-glider if I knew the truth. But I am sure glad I did!
Would I do it again? Probably not…but then again, who would have thought I would have done it the first time.
Even the sheep were a bit startled to see a giant bird land onto the ground with one screaming American wanderlust attached.