VALLE DE BRAVO, MEXICO - Thundering rollers break from turquoise water onto an endless pristine beach of shimmering sand and massive dunes that seems to go on forever. Except for a small cantina and a tiny motel, this tranquil Mexican beach is practically untouched by tourism.
What a view, and what a marvellous way to start a hang-gliding adventure.
Instructor David Llewellyn has us (myself and fellow student flyers Adam and Prith, from Ontario, and Brian, from Holland) excited about our first flight. We’ve had lots of instruction and none of us appears nervous.
Soon, I’m gliding above the beach with a soft breeze kissing my face. The feeling of freedom is so exhilarating.
When it comes time to land, I gently glide to earth and the wheels touch first. But wheels don’t roll very well in sand, so the glider stops dead in its tracks and my face kisses the beach.
I curse while spitting grit out of my mouth. David and the others rush to my side.
“Are you okay?” they ask.
“I’m fine. Really,” I answer as I unhook and stand up, with a thin veneer of sand stuck to my sweaty face, making me look like a Mayan stone statue.
They all laugh as Adam shows me the photos he’s just taken with his cellphone. I laugh too, cracking my sandy mask.
By day’s end, though, we’ve all mastered the launch technique and are ready for bigger hang-gliding challenges.
Left: Karen Harder decided to see Mexico from a different vantage point. Right: Gliding is not for the faint of heart.
The next morning, we pack our gear and head into the mountains north of Acapulco. The drive along switchback roads carved into the sides of jagged rock is a visual delight. The majestic peaks are shrouded by white candy-floss clouds. Multi-hued laundry waves like flags from the flat rooftops on homes cantilevered over drop-away valleys.
We stop often to experience the culture of rural Mexico. Young women make tortilla shells as aromatic stews bubble in colourful clay pots. Herds of sheep tended by boy shepherds clog the roads.
It’s all quite magical.
Our destination is the picturesque town Valle de Bravo, where the central square is lined with stands holding pyramids of brightly-hued fruit. Stray dogs wander everywhere, gobbling up fallen crumbs.
We stay in a quaint family-run hotel in the centre of town and each morning I wander through the market, usually treating myself to a creamy, cinnamon-laced hot chocolate and fluffy farm-baked bun.
The next morning at 11, David gathers us for the drive to the launch site. As I stand over the precipice my stomach writhes.
We stand at the brink for a long time — eyes closed, holding the glider tightly, feeling if the wing tips are level. The treetop leaves rustle below and the waves of wind work their way up the steep hill. I time the lulls to judge when the next gust will reach the top.
When it comes time to launch, my hands are shaking, my knees feel like rubber and my mouth is as dry as the sand. I take one more look over the edge. The valley looks so deep!
“Relax,” David says.
As a gust of wind makes its way up the mountainside, I swallow hard and begin running. The ground falls away and I’m gliding over the trees 700 metres below.
Above: The views one gets while gliding is why the sport has become so popular.
“Whoopee,” I scream. “I’m an eagle!”
With majestic El Pinon, a gigantic rock dome that tops the neighbouring heights, on my right, I feel some thermal bumps but ride up to where the air is clean and calm. Below, El Pinon appears the size of a dime.
The sensation is something words just can’t explain.
Only an eagle, which appears out of nowhere and flies beside me for a few moments, knows the exhilaration I’m feeling.
I feel like I own the sky and I ride the winds until the thermal subsides and I start to lose altitude.
With the mountains all around me, I begin to distinguish farmhouses, cornfields, roads and the large gully surrounding the landing plateau. My ride is coming to an end.
The gorge below begins to suck me down but I keep control of my giant glider until I see the landing area.
“Turn! Turn!” Prith’s screeching voice over the radio warns me to prepare for landing.
Cutting short my downwind leg, I turn 180 degrees, my feet grazing the corn tassels as I glide onto the landing field. My wheels roll to a halt on the bumpy grass.
“I did it! I flew off a mountain!” I scream, and dance on the grass to celebrate my accomplishment.
Prith retrieves the camera from my wingtip and we watch a replay of my flight. I’m so amazed with myself.
My first hang-gliding experience was something so special. The flights were awesome; I got a taste of Mexico and its rural lifestyle; the camaraderie with my fellow gliders was something I’ll never forget; and I realized my dream of flying off a mountain. I’m in seventh heaven. •
Tips for hand gliding safety: 1 - Fly only with certified pilots. Ask the pilot about his/her safety record. See www.hpac.ca for information. 2 - If you are doing a foot launch, practice running on flat ground in tandem with your pilot. Once you begin the launch, there’s no turning back. Make sure you know what you have to do and feel comfortable about doing it. 3 - Be sure the pilot does a walk-around pre-flight safety check. 4 - Make sure your harness and helmet fit and all buckles are done up securely. 5 - A good pilot will explain every task he/she is doing. With a carabiner, the pilot and passenger will hook into two safety straps which are attached to the large metal keel of the glider. The carabiner gate must be screwed shut. The passenger will also be attached to the pilot with a carabiner and webbing. The pilot has a parachute. 6 - Never launch alone. There should always be an assistant to do a “hang check.” For this the pilot and passenger will kneel or lie on the ground while the assistant pulls forward the nose of the glider. This will suspend the pilot and passenger about a foot off the ground. This check is crucial to make sure that both people are attached to the glider. The assistant and pilot will then go through a verbal checklist of all safety precautions.