Picture a crisp, cloudless winter’s day above the Kaimai Ranges, and you are soaring hawk-like, thousands of feet above the green, bush-clad slopes. No noisy motors, just the wind humming keenly through the lines that suspend a large “kite.”
Welcome to the fly-like-a-bird joys of tandem paragliding, and one of the most thrilling, naturally-powered flights you’ll ever take. Mount Paragliding offers tandem flights – even on a fine winter’s day – above the ranges, in one of the Western Bay’s newest adventure activities.
Owner and Chief Pilot Wayne Roberts says if his customer is happy, and conditions are right, “I’ll try and get them to cloud base.” But on a good day, he’ll fly anywhere from 3,500 ft to 6000 ft – the highest altitude permitted for paragliders in the Kaimais. Tandem flights are quite feasible on winter days; you can still fit in soaring flights working the “ridge lifts,” as the wind is deflected up the hill.
The Kaimai Ranges are an especially awesome place to fly in summer when the thermals (columns of warm air rising) are at their best, says Wayne. When you get into one and begin rising at up to seven metres per second, it’s a “pretty good experience,” he adds with more than a hint of understatement.
The $180 cost of a tandem flight covers firstly, transport across the ranges to the takeoff spot – Swaps Quarry, accessed through a farm near Matamata. Customers are urged to take strong shoes, warm clothing, drinks and food. Mount Paragliding provides the rest - refreshments and safety equipment which includes a helmet, and reassuringly, a reserve parachute for the pair. And training, of course.
At the take off spot, the instructor goes through a launch drill briefing where the passenger is walked through everything that’s going to happen. This includes demonstrating the sort of walking speed needed before takeoff, and the feel of the harness pulling them from the front.
All equipment is re-checked prior to takeoff, and the passenger is urged to keep their weight forward, “and away we go.” Sometimes even a short synchronised run is un-necessary for the big rig to power up and pluck pilot and passenger off the ground. Then it’s just a matter of getting the passenger to lean forward – keep their weight forward so we’ve got a bit of momentum when needed, says Wayne.
Is a passenger who weighs in at 100kg or more too heavy for a tandem flight? Not so, as the kites are rated for different weights and in tandem flying, the pilots use a larger size canopy so they can carry a big variety of customers.
A paraglider is completely different to a hang-glider, he explains, which has bars and framing, and the pilot is slung underneath holding a bar for steering. The paraglider, with no rigid structure, is made of cloth and lines and is more like a big kite – with the pilot hanging underneath. The canopy is up to 42 square metres in size, long and wing-like, designed to glide rather than sink, in the manner of a parachute.
With a paraglider landings can be as gentle as walking out your front door, over a little step. “Sometimes with the kite collapsing you might fall over on your bum, or something. Nothing too major,” says Wayne. Depending on conditions in the Kaimais, a tandem flight might last for 20 minutes to half an hour, or longer. And yes, passengers are also supplied with a photo as a memento of their adventure.
Wayne Roberts is one of the most qualified paragliding instructors in the country, and safety officer for the local club. His background includes a decade of flying in various parts of the world, including Europe and South Africa, and guiding flyers in Slovenia and Austria. Trained by an Auckland school, he is also a skilled aerobatic paragliding pilot at the more extreme end of the sport. As an instructor with his own school, he tutors student flyers for their ‘pg2’, the intermediate qualification which allows them to fly solo for the first time. They are taught canopy control, one of the most important safety basics, as well as air law, principles of flight, and other topics.
His attitude to safety is to take every precaution to be as safe as possible. “Canopy control on the ground is the most important part of the training,” says Wayne, “because if you can’t launch efficiently every time, you get yourself in a lot of trouble.” That includes being dragged into bushes or worst case scenario, dragged off the front of the takeoff spot without your canopy fully inflated.
Popular local flying spots include Mauao, the peak of Mount Maunganui, although tandem flights are not permitted from the former volcanic cone. It’s one of Wayne’s favourite sites because it can be flown in almost every wind direction – northerlies, easterlies, and even sou-west for experienced pilots. The Mount is pretty safe he reckons, but no one is taken up there until they have the correct skills: it’s an intermediate rated site unless you are with an instructor.
Novice flyers often begin by jumping off the sand dunes near Tay Street, to first get a feel for canopy control. But at the dizzy heights of Wayne Roberts skills, you can fly 40 kilometres from the Kaimais out to Te Aroha, or out to Ongare Point past Katikati.
Now where are those thermals...