April 19, 1998 - The Remarkables, Queenstown
For many years I have had a hankering to try ballooning and hang-gliding. On April 1st 1998 I had my first opportunity to try ballooning. Less than three weeks later on April 19th, the opportunity to then try hang gliding presented itself. Here are a few notes and pictures to relate what happened, expanding on my diary of our trip.
Louise and I spent three weeks in the South Island during April 1998 - to attend Warbirds over Wanaka, and generally to see part of our beautiful country. Some time earlier, while doing my regular web search for New Zealand aviation related websites I had run across SkyTrek's website about tandem hang gliding, and thought it sounded like a neat idea. I emailed Paul Chisnall prior to leaving Hamilton and got a very friendly reply, basically saying give them a call if we got to Queenstown.
After the Wanaka show Louise and I spent a week travelling through the deep south (Dunedin, the Catlins, Invercargill, and Stewart Island - yes, all the way to Stewart Island even) before making our way to Queenstown - New Zealand's adventure centre. You can do lots of things elsewhere in New Zealand, but Queenstown has no shortage of ways to part you from your money in exchange for an adrenaline rush.
We arrived early after overnighting in Lumsden and found ourselves a bed at Bumbles backpackers (a very nice room actually). Next we headed off to the Station to catch our ride for the Dart River Jet safari. We had booked before reaching town. While waiting at the Station we browsed through the pamphlets and found we could book for SkyTrek there - so we did! Then we headed of to Glenorchy for our Jet boat experiences into the foothills of the Southern Alps. It was way cool, but that's not what this story is about.
The next day we headed out and spent the morning exploring Arrowtown, before heading back for our hang gliding expedition. We met the crew at 'NZ Shred' in downtown Queenstown. There we were introduced to Paul and Geoff, our pilots - and Carl who arranged all the other stuff. Along with us were two other would-be flyers, Robert (a German now resident in New Zealand) and his daughter Emanuelle. It seemed from the stories being swapped they were both keen on adventure activities. Robert had flown hang gliders in Europe, but this was a first for Emanuelle.
Geoff drove the van, and while we travelled I chatted to Paul about flying and his other activities. He even remembered getting my email! Paul has considerable experience and has competed actively overseas. He set up Skytrek in 1992, and seems very fortunate in working at what he loves. He is also very friendly and informative about hang gliding and the Queenstown area.
Skytrek make use of several launch locations depending on the weather, including Coronet peak and the Remarkables. Our launch site was on the Remarkables. The ride up was just stunning. We went up the skifield road to a point about 600m (2000 feet) above the valley floor. The views were brilliant. We stopped on a large level area just below a trig station on a ridge. Looking over the ridge was stunning - a large bowl leading into a valley which dropped to the Kawarau river below - a really long drop!
This picture doesn't do it justice, that slope in the foreground is quite steep. In the middle beyond Lake Wakatipu can be seen Cecil Peak. To the left the lake leads to Kingston, and to the right beyond the Frankton Arm, the lake leads out to Mt Nicholas, and the Thompson mountains. Our eventual landing site was in the green - two fields over from the river.
The gliders were unpacked off the roof of the van and carried to the ridge. They were then rigged on the gentle slope just below the lip of the ridge. This process reminded me of setting up a yacht, with the various stiffeners being inserted in the wings, and the rigging being set up. While this was going on, Carl got us to do some paperwork - signing our lives away so to speak. We also arranged for photos. Then we got to watch the glider assembly.
Robert and Emanuelle were first up - so after the paper work they had suited up and put on their harnesses. Once the gliders were rigged they were taken through the procedures. This involved what cues to follow, how to run together for the launch, how to hold the footbar, and where the passenger is to put their hands at the various stages.
Then it was up on the ridge to be harnessed into the gliders - Carl held the nose of the glider while the harnesses were checked. Louise and I got to watch all this - and think about what was to come. Robert and Emanuelle got away with their respective pilots without difficulty - and sounded pretty happy about it!
Emanuelle was away first with Geoff. These pictures show them getting airborne, and getting their feet into the harness. We watched them soar for a bit, before they dropped away into the valley. In the meantime, Robert got airborne with Paul - the last picture shows their launch. The pictures also show the amazing scenery into which we all flew - which certainly enhanced the experience! The grey skies indicate an approaching front - something we knew was going reduce flying opportunities later in the afternoon.
Carl took the van down to collect the fliers, while Louise and I sat out by the Trig to enjoy the view. Our seat was just below the ridge - out of the autumn wind, and in the sun. It was a truely lovely spot, with a view that can only be called awesome. These pictures can only give a small impression of what its like. Below us was the confluence of the Kawarau and Shotover rivers - so we watched the jetboats coming and going. Off to our right we could see out over Lake Hayes and to the Coronet Peak and Cardrona skifields in the distance. To our left we could see the Frankton Arm of Lake Wakatipu, and Queenstown. We could even see the planes coming and going from Queenstown airport. A NZ Falcon flew by at our level - the first bird of this type I've seen. Just the opportunity to sit and watch all this made the outing worth it - and we got to go hang gliding!
I found I was strangely calm waiting the flight - while Louise was starting to think this was a bad idea. We had mixed feelings about the returning van climbing up the mountainside - but once it returned things were all go.
Again the gliders were rigged. Carl fitted us out with our suits, helmets, and harnesses. Then the pilots ran us through the takeoff and flight procedures. Louise went with Geoff, and I went with Paul. We ran through the procedures several times on the slope away from the takeoff point. Hands on handles - step, step, run! Then it was up on the edge to lay down and check the harnesses while Carl held the nose. I thought I'd better check with Paul about weight limits - he said he'd taken passengers up to 118kg but that was about the limit. He seemed a little shocked when I pointed out I probably weighed over 100kg in the kit - maybe I don't look that big (I'm only 173cm tall) but I'll blame my stocky Cornish ancestry! All was well, so we stood up ready to go.
This would be a good time to point out where we were going. This view from the Trig shows the drop down to the landing location. The field across from where the road winding up the hill meets the road through the valley is the spot (as indicated by the arrow) - and from where we were starting, it looked an awful long way down!
Paul called release, so Carl let go and stepped out of the way. My heart was racing - suddenly I wasn't so calm anymore. Paul had us going and there wasn't time to panic - the glider lifted within steps (thanks to a good wind) and we were away! Just as well - I had the impression we were running down a cliff. Wow - my next impression was one of speed - my eyes were watering in the slipstream. It was easier than I expected to get my feet in the harness. Then we hit some lift - and I could feel it before Paul said anything. Then he warned me about 'funky air' and we hit turbulence. A couple of turns later I had my eyes under control - although it seemed my nose had picked up on the leaking idea. The view was just amazing - and the feeling was even better. The adrenaline had hit with a rush!
Paul went through the operation of the controls - then I had my hands on the bar. Pushing on the bar doesn't have any feeling of leverage - it seems weird, like there's no feedback, but I quickly understood its all weight shift rather than pushing. Then it was a few turns, and a smile for the camera mounted on the wing. That by the way is a really neat idea - I wanted to take my camera along, but it wasn't really practical - this way I got to be in the picture too! The conditions weren't really there for soaring, so we were descending into the valley, and out over the Kawarau river. Its amazing what you can see when you're not travelling at speed - we were clearly able to see the rings made by trout rising - so cool.
I found it quite hard to judge altitude until we were closer to the ground. Speed apparently was around 25kts. We pushed out to slow (scary) and pulled in to dive (scarier). The change in speed was obvious. Then Paul said he was going to stall the glider. I know in the early days of hang gliding this was quite dangerous, and my first thought was unprintable. I was terrified, but it turned out to be very straight forward - no wing drop or anything - just the nose going down and speed coming on again. The gliders are really stable!
By now terra firma was getting closer. Landing was straightforward - Paul pointed out our landing spot, and reminded me of the procedure. We came in over the river bluff and then a shelter belt and dropped easily into the field. With backs arched to lift our feet, we came in on the wheels until our feet dragged - just as well there'd been no sheep in that paddock recently! The rumble as we touched down was impressive, but the landing run was very short - and that was our flight over!
I had seen Lou from the air, just after she and Geoff took off - but mostly they were above us. Now Paul and I removed our harnesses and moved the glider. We could see the othe glider coming down the valley. They did a steep turn several hundred feet above us - and I heard Louise yell! It wasn't clear from the sound if it was joy or terror! Afterwards she told me that Geoff had asked if she liked roller coasters - and then done a quick dive and turn! Apparently it was a real buzz and she didn't remember making the noise. Their landing was quite a different approach - a quick turn into the field and down.
Then we helped pack up the gliders and waited for Carl to drive down and collect us. The picture on the left is the view back up to our launch point. We took off from just to the right of the little peak about half way up the mountain side (as indicated by the arrow). The Remarkables climb to over 2100m (7000 feet) above sea level - that's about 1225m (4000 feet) above the valley floor.
The whole experience was quite amazing - a couple of hours of quiet contemplation and 20 minutes of exhilaration! We were buzzing on the trip back into town - adrenaline is wonderful. So if you're down Queenstown way, give Paul and his mates a ring - I'm sure you'll enjoy the experience, or at least being able to tell folks about it afterwards!
My thanks to Paul Chisnall and the staff at Skytrek Tandem Hang Gliding and Training - both for the experience, and for permission to use the inflight photographs. Thanks Guys - I look forward to trying it again sometime!
© 1999 Phillip Treweek, all rights reserved