‘Don’t just vagabond,’ my friend Gonzo told me a few weeks before I left. ‘You’ve done that already. If you’re going away you should do something really amazing. Something you’ve always dreamt of doing.’
And so it was that I found myself late in the afternoon waiting at Malaga airport ‘in front of the three flags’ as the email had instructed, to get picked up and whisked away to a small Spanish country town called Algodonales – famous for three things: farming, guitar making and paragliding. Three guesses which one I was there for.
I had brought with me the vague idea that learning to paraglide would be similar to learning how to scuba dive: turn up, learn how to do a few different maneouvers, and voila! You can paraglide. Silly Des. I would learn very soon just how wrong I was.
There were 5 of us there altogether, with 2 instructors: Hokan, from Sweden, was the other complete beginner, along with me. Alex, from Belgium, was a qualified pilot but hadn’t flown in 7 years and so was doing the whole course again as a refresher, and Matt and Bob, from England, were qualified pilots who had first learned with Jose and Pablo (our teachers) and so kept returning to Algodonales to stay and practice with them.
Our first night – for Hokan, Alex and me – consisted of some basic theory. ‘This is paragliding’ explained Jose, and I nodded along, hiding my embarrassment at not actually knowing how it worked before I’d decided to commit to it. ‘The weather conditions aren’t going to be good later this week’ Jose finished, ‘so we’re going to change around the sequence of events a bit. Tomorrow, we’ll do some tandem flights.’
The morning came and I felt like I could barely contain my excitement. We drove up to the local mountain, Lijar, (roughly 1000m, in case you were wondering) just in time to see two other pilots take off in a flurry of colour. The view from the top of Lijar is fantastic – you can see for miles around, and at that time in the morning it was all so blue and magical.
Jose actually had to make us turn away from the surroundings and sit under a little patio just so that he was sure our attention wouldn’t wander while he gave us a quick run down of what we’d been doing. I was up first, flying tandem with Pablo. ‘What if I trip?’ I asked Jose ‘Or if I run too fast or slow for Pablo?’ ‘It’ll be fine’ Jose reassured me ‘Pablo will match your speed. When I say run, just run.’ I gulped. There was only so much space to run, and beyond that was a very rocky fall. ‘Relax’ I reminded myself ‘They’ve done this before, so if they say I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine.’ Plus I had great insurance. The wind came up, and we got into position ‘Ready?’ Pablo asked, ‘Run!’
We ran. And just as I thought we were going to go over the edge, we lifted off. A loud whoop escaped from my mouth as we went soaring off the side of the mountain. Just like that, we were flying. And what a beautiful flight it was. I wish I could have taken a photo from up in the air, because it was absolutely breathtaking. I’d thought the view from the mountain was good, but with Griffon Vultures also circling the mountain this was literally a bird’s eye view. There was so much – a lake, mountains, olive fields, towns, all under me – I felt like some kind of Queen of the air, surveying my domain. ‘You want to take the controls?’ Pablo asked ‘Ohh, yes please!’ And so with Pablo directing me ’90 degrees to the left, hold….. now 180 degrees to the right’ we headed towards the landing field, made a few figure 8s, and then landed at a run. ‘Good work!’ Pablo said ‘Tomorrow you can fly alone’. Wait, what? Surely, I thought, he’d gotten something wrong. It was one thing flying with an experienced pilot who lets you play with the controls when it’s safe and tells you exactly what to do – I most definitely could not, however, do this alone.
But I was wrong. ‘Usually we’d have more practice’ said Jose, ‘but there’s bad weather forecast for the rest of the week, so we’ll have to take advantage of what we have.’ So in preparation for tomorrow’s solo flight, we spent the rest of that day ground handling. What is ground handling, you may ask? ‘A little bit like my idea of hell’ I would reply – but I’m really just whinging because I wasn’t very good at it. We spent hours practising getting our gliders inflated, running with it above us, and then practising braking. It’s essentially replicating what you do in the air, but on the ground, and it’s a lot harder because you’re relying on your own speed to get the glider up, and you then keep it up using momentum and by playing with the brakes and risers. It’s a lot harder than handling the glider in the air – although a lot less scary and less risky.
The hot Spanish midday sun beat down on us, and I kept failing. ‘It’s not easy’ said Jose, ‘it’s hard work’. Damn straight it was. And frustrating, and demoralising too. I had as many failures getting my glider not to collapse off to one side as I had successes. In fact, I actually had a lot more failures. I could have cried with gratitude when we finally finished up and went back to do some more theory. ‘We fly solo tomorrow.’ Jose reminded us before we finished up ‘Unless you don’t feel comfortable enough?’ He looked at me pointedly. ‘I kept messing up my takeoffs’ I said, nervous ‘You’ll be alright’ he replied ‘We’ll have you on radio and we’ll tell you exactly what to do.’ There’s nothing that makes me hate myself more than when I wimp out of something ‘Okay then. I’ll fly alone’.
I kept waking up in the middle of the night. I had a strange dream in which I was wearing a skirt as we were about to fly (but no-one had noticed yet) and I desperately wanted some pants, but Target was the only place open. So, dream Des snuck off from paragliding to go to Target (I quite dislike Target so I’m not sure why it came up in my dream) and found a bunch of luxurious velvet pants (I have a thing for velvet) and was about to buy them when then the others caught up with me, angry because they’d missed their flight times, and Jose came and yelled at me and was very disappointed. What did it all mean?
When I finally got up in the morning, I felt like I’d spent most of my nerves during the night. I trusted Jose and Pablo. We went back to Lijar, and I went first, of course, because I was the smallest and the most vulnerable to changes in wind conditions. As Pablo flew down to the landing field ahead of us, Jose helped me get strapped into my harness and clipped two radios onto my shoulders. ‘Lean forward’, Jose reminded me ‘Like you’re pulling a car. Pull hard, then once the glider is above you release the risers and brake pressure. Okay?’ I nodded numbly. Jose grabbed the brake strings to help me get the glider up and I let go off the risers, held my arms out behind me, and ran…. and in a few steps the wind had picked me up and lifted me off the ground. ‘Sit into your harness’ came Jose’s voice over the radio. I pushed against the risers and sat back. I was flying! The comforting voices of Jose and Pablo came over the radios ‘left 90 degrees’, ‘right 90 degrees’, completely guiding my flight. And then, at the bottom, ‘now sit out of your harness’, and finally ‘get ready to flare…..NOW!’ I landed. I had done it. My first flight. No injuries, no nothing.
The weather the rest of the day too windy for Hokan, Alex and I to fly, although Matt and Bob got to have a few flights. We spent the day at the top of the mountain watching. It was like one of those GoPro videos, with all of these pilots chasing the perfect wind conditions who’d finally found it, here, and they were all laughing and excited and pumped up and going. There were a bunch of pet dogs, well accustomed to the paragliders, who were running around getting coddled and played with, and a Czech guy with flared red cords smoking pot, and there were dozens upon dozens of paragliders – and one hang glider – all taking off, filling the sky with a plethora of colours, circling the thermals for hours before they finally landed, quickly packed their gliders and hurried back up the mountain again. And we ran around, caught up in the atmosphere, soaking it all in and feeling like we were part of something amazing.
Our 4th day began with awful weather. Determined to fly, we drove two hours up to a place called Lucena. The wind was too strong, but there was a chance the weather would improve later in the day, so we spent our time till then ground handling…again. I felt like I really became an expert at untangling my ropes that day – although that was in big part due to the practice I got as a result of being so good at tangling them up in the first place.
We also learned how to build a wall, do a reverse take-off and a reverse landing. It was painful, to say the least. I struggled, thinking I would never get it, feeling more and more despondent and wondering why I’d ever wanted to paraglide in the first place. And then, miraculously, I did it! That success turned it from a futile, hopeless, depressing exercise to a labour of love – for a while. My failures still exceeded my successes but the difference was becoming smaller and smaller. It was still incredibly exhausting in the hot sun. I’d assumed it would be cold at this time of the year but it was the opposite of what I’d prepared for. Even up on the mountain when it was windy and while I was flying, a t-shirt and a jacket was enough. After that, on the ground, it felt like a t-shirt was too much. But that day had started off chilly and I’d made the mistake of wearing a woollen top, and I felt like I was slowly getting cooked.
Eventually, a little before 5pm, Jose’s binoculars were finally met with a welcome sight ‘Looks like the wind is down! Pack your gliders!’ We hustled. I balked when we got to the top. This was lower to the ground than Lijar, but it was a very short take off, and a steep drop. This was ‘I may not die if I mess this up, but my face will definitely get severely mashed up’. But there was no time to think, and having to go first again I needed to get moving so that the others could fly. It felt like just a few seconds in which we set up, and then I was off. The moment I got into the air was accompanied by the most wonderful sense of relief that I wouldn’t be needing facial reconstruction surgery.
We tried beating the weather by going to Lucena again but with no luck. We spent another half day ground handling, then with no wind to do even that headed back for some more theory. ‘Hopefully we can fly tomorrow’ Jose said, ‘we’ve done more ground handling than you usually do in this course.’ Hallelujah! ‘Although,’ he added, ‘you should practice your ground handling at home. Whatever you can do on the ground you’ll be able to do in your flight. That’s how you get really good.’ I thought I would mind it a little less doing it back home for only an hour or two at a time, maybe down at the local soccer field, instead of for half a day at a stretch under the unrelenting sun. There were no toilets around when we ground handled, so I tried to avoid drinking water to avoid having to go off into the bushes too often, and running around, thirsty and tired is not the most fun.
‘I know a special place,’ said Jose, ‘where hopefully we can go and practice. A secret place.’ And he did indeed. I can’t reveal the location, but I can tell you that it was in fields overtaken with thistles. It was full of small hills where we could launch, have short flights, and then climb back up again. This actually scared me, in a way that mountain flights didn’t. We were doing these without directions, and judging your approach yourself when you have such a short time to do the judging is a bit nerve wracking. The ground comes up so quickly, and you’re going so fast and my first time I flared too far off the ground and had my glider stall, flop forward, drop me like a sack of potatoes, and then drag me behind it. I’d been protected by my thick jeans and sweater and helmet, but it still shook me up. I focused really hard on my landings after that one.
If you’ve never run through a field of thistles, I envy you. We spent the day running through fields of thistles. Paragliding wings are incredibly resilient – the strings are so thin and the fabric so thin, and yet they survive being pulled around thistles and rocks. They’re far more resilient than me anyway. We’d fly down, then walk back up – the poor other guys had to do this with their harnesses and wings – which weigh 15-20k each. I didn’t, because Jose and Pablo would come down and carry mine up for me, which was super sweet and such a relief because I don’t think I physically could do it. I found it hard to climb up without any weights, through thickets of thistles and over little chasms in the ground which I had to jump carefully, and little ridges which I had to struggle to climb up. And yet the others did it uncomplainingly, again and again. After my five flights I was done, while the boys each did 8. Now that’s dedication. We all slept like babies that night
Sunday finally arrived – our last day of flying! – and it was forecast to rain. Nonetheless, we woke up at 6:30 for quick breakfast, then set off hopefully to Lijar again, fingers crossed. We were the first ones there and the conditions, to our delighted surprise, were perfect! And so we flew. ‘No instructions this time’ Jose said. ‘You know the flight plan, you know what to do. Head towards the landing field, then make your approach and your final.’ I tried to remember back to the first few days and the instructions we’d been given then. If only I’d paid more attention to what we were doing instead of to the scenery! But it was fine. It felt amazing to do those first two flights without instructions, and remembering back to the first flight I’d made off Lijar it felt like I’d really achieved something over the past few days. The second two flights were windier and more turbulent, with a little precipitation and Pablo helped us out a bit with our landings. ‘Now I can go nap’ joked Jose ‘you guys don’t need me anymore to get down the mountain.’
It was the perfect ending to what had been a very chaotic week. We headed back to Case Brigida, did the test and all passed. ‘You’re now all certified to fly solo under an instructor,’ announced Jose, ‘You just need to do your club pilot or ParaPro 3, get more hours, and then you’ll be able to fly solo anywhere. Although you should never fly alone – you won’t learn if you do, and it means there’s nobody to help you.’ We nodded enthusiastically. And then we were done.
What a day. What a week. I definitely need to do it again.