Flying High in Australia
By Troy Henkels
At 8000 feet my pulse stopped racing and I was confident I wouldn’t meet my fate. I finally felt certain that falling from the sky was no longer a reality. Altitude meant safety, and flying just below the clouds, I was safe.
In early December I left the darkness and bone chilling cold of an Alaskan winter, to seek warmth, solitude, and gain some perspective while traveling in Australia. I planned to explore the country for 8 weeks and do as much paragliding as weather would allow. Paragliding, the sport I had taken up several years ago, is much like hangliding, but simpler and less gear intensive. You hike up a mountain, lay out your wing, run off the hill, and fly like a bird. As a boy, growing up in Iowa, I had wildly vivid dreams of soaring over Mississippi bluffs on hot summer days. Paragliding has made that dream a reality and on lucky days one can not only soar, but also travel long distances riding thermals, much like hawks on lazy Midwest afternoons.
This trip, to Australia was necessary. I had found myself slipping into the doldrums of a routine lifestyle that beckoned for some disruption. Working a 9 to 5 job near a large population base, had taken its toll on my psyche. It was time for a break. I needed to find some solitude and regain perspective on how I wanted to live my life. Two months paragliding in Australia seemed like it might be a good start.
Matt, a fellow paraglider pilot and friend accompanied me for part of the trip, in seeking out the best paragliding spots around Australia. We found the best flying in a small country town named Manilla. In the middle of summer, in this part of the country, it is hot, very hot. Just sitting in the shade causes one to break out in a sweat. One of my journal entries reads: “The heat hits you like a wall and takes your breath away. There is no retreat until the late hours, just before dawn.”
Always by 10am we were on the local hill named Mt. Borah, waiting for the midday thermals to take over the sky and carry us to higher, cooler altitudes. My best day flying in Manilla is one I will not soon forget. It was to be the worst and best flight I’ve had to date. As with every other day, I dressed for cool weather, despite the heat, with hopes of staying warm if I was lucky enough to ride lift to the coveted cloud base. I set up my wing, checked all the lines and launched into a thermal that pulled me off the ground and took me straight up, much like smoke being sucked up a chimney. Within 15 seconds I was a hundred feet above launch. Suddenly, with no warning, my glider collapsed. I had unknowingly flown into some solid turbulence that turned my wing into a flailing piece of fabric. I plummeted back towards the ground as my wing oscillated wildly out of control above me. There was no time to be scared, throw my reserve chute, or really even react. Within seconds of impacting the ground, and a certain fate, my wing reinflated and corrected itself. I was just able to fly away from the hill with my heart racing. The entire episode lasted less than 10 seconds, but seemed like an eternity. Matt watched my near fatal accident from the ground and was in disbelief at what was happening and horror at what could have happened. Paragliding is an extremely safe sport, but since it involves foot launching a non-fixed wing aircraft, the wing, and consequently pilot, are at some mercy to the wind and atmospheric conditions. Although rare, accidents do happen.
When I was calm enough to start thinking again, all I could focus on was getting out of the sky and on the ground. Several minutes passed as I flew out to the landing zone. Just before landing I flew through a big, smooth thermal that took me up. I turned and stayed with the lift, circling its inner perimeter going ever higher, thinking all the time, what a shame it would be to pass up a nice thermal, despite my near death experience. I kept circling gaining altitude with each turn. In this sport altitude is safety. With altitude, if something goes wrong there is plenty of time to react and hopefully sort it out, and if not, throw the reserve. Earlier, this was not an option as I was too close to the ground for a reserve to do any good. Regularly now, I do potentially dangerous things that sometimes end up killing people. Early on in life, I realized I could stagnate and stay home and watch television or live life on the outer edges. I have always chosen the later.
I rode this thermal higher and higher and eventually topped out just below the clouds at 8000 feet. I had gained over 6000 feet of altitude! I flew with the wind searching for another thermal, slowly losing altitude until I caught another one and would continue back up to cloud base. This went on for hours. At one point an Eagle lets me know I’m in his airspace and almost thrashes my wing with his talons. He circles the sky with me for 10 minutes until I fly out of his territory. Several times I lose the lift and float ever lower, searching for a landing zone and dreading the inevitable hike back to the road system. Somehow though, I always find a thermal that carries me back up to cooler temperatures and safer altitudes.
My perspective is constantly altered when looking down on the world from high above, perched below a lightweight piece of fabric. The Outback is fascinating in its own right, but traveling above it in this style is an extraordinary experience. The landscape is like a painting that absorbs you. I imagine the Serengeti in Africa to be like this. Savannah, hot, dry, vast, quiet, and wild. I expect to see lions at any time, but of course never do. The hardworking farmers and ranchers that survive in the area are some of the most warm-hearted people I’ve met anywhere and certainly are not far off from my roots in Dubuque County.
In the end, this was to be my best flight ever. I spend 3 hours in the air and travel over 40 miles across Australia. Finally, late in the day, as the sun works its way to the horizon, pair of kangaroos watch and then hop away as I touch the ground.
Reflecting on such an eventful flight, I have come to realize that paragliding emulates life. Most days, as with most flights, things go wrong and some things go right. On some days you almost meet your fate and something is always learned, yet, in the end it usually works out better than expected. For me, I found this to be true, looking down from 8000 feet on a hot summer day in the middle of Australia. Traveling just below the clouds, I found the solitude and perspective I had been searching for and was glad to be alive and living life on the edge.
Troy Henkels lives in Eagle River, Alaska, is a 1985 graduate of Wahlert High School, and a 1989 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, and the son of Pete and Mary Henkels, of Dubuque. He writes about his adventures and experiences from around the world.
Originally published 2002 Telegraph Herald Copyright 2002 Troy Henkels