In New Zealand, a Soaring Success

Sunday, March 23, 2003

Step, step, run.

And with those three little motions off I went, over a rutted cliff, floating 2,500 feet above New Zealand, without an engine, safety net or evacuation plan. And why not? I was in the capital of dangerous sports, where tandem hang-gliding is deemed as safe and easy as flying a kite.

Queenstown is the birthplace of X-treme -- and its subgroup of X-tremely stupid -- sports. Here, in the southern region of South Island, you can find any sort of activity that involves flinging, flying, speeding or soaring -- or a combo. Indeed, the most popular adrenaline rush is the bungee jump: just you (upside down), a springy cord (stringing you up like a chicken in a butcher shop) and hundreds of feet of free falling. There's also abseiling, fly-by-wire, parapenting and canyon swinging. (Never heard of some of the above sports? Good. Ignorance works in your favor.)And then there are the "softer" sports, at least by New Zealand standards. And that's where hang-gliding fits in -- somewhere between hot-air ballooning and needlepointing.

When I arrived in Queenstown, I had not planned to partake of any of the hard-core activities pitched by the dozens of adventure outfitters in town. A previous hike that involved simply walking over a high suspension bridge shattered all bravado to test my nerve limits. Instead, my family and I decided to take it easy, maybe visit a vineyard, then rent a kayak for a paddle around Lake Wakatipu.

But then, on the drive back from a wine-and-cheese tasting outside of town, we saw what appeared to be a sky full of colored paper airplanes. As we drew nearer, the lilting triangles grew larger and, one by one, they alighted effortlessly on a green plot, gliding to a perfect stop.

Kayaking, ha! That's for water babies. I was going tandem hang-gliding. Where's the sign-up sheet?

Anti Gravity's ad-hoc office (to reach the bathroom, you had to duck under a curtain of drying laundry) sat next to the landing field, and we inquired within. No reservations were necessary, in every sense of the word.

"We're leaving in five minutes," said an instructor, who was rolling up a glider and packing up the company van for the next shift of fliers.

With little ceremony, I crammed into the van with about a dozen others, between a British man going to fetch his mother, who drove up the mountain to see him off but was too scared to drive back down, and a French gent eating a chicken sandwich. When we reached the top of Coronet Peak, which doubles as a ski run in the winter, there was no bathroom, no souvenir stand, no way out -- just a dirt patch and a big drop.

We suited up in helmets and brown padded jumpsuits that felt like an ankle-length umpire's uniform and were paired up with an instructor. Lucky me, my pilot was a strapping Swede named Anders, who was thick with muscles and would make a perfect emergency landing pad, just in case. After a quick tutorial (step, step, run -- that's about the extent of it) and a quick practice, I was strapped to Anders and the glider. Then, with two skips and a running hop, we were off and flying. Simple as that.

"So, how long have been doing this?" I shouted to Anders over the beeping wind gauge and the soft whistle of the air.

"About three weeks," he said. Beep.

Okay, so Anders was a kidder (truth: 10 years), but he was also a great teacher, allowing me to hold the triangular steering bar and turn us up into the mountains and down to the fields below.

"Want to try some acrobatics, like at Disney World?" he asked after we'd been soaring for about 20 minutes.

Sure, I said, imagining spinning tea cups -- and not the Tower of Terror's plunging elevator. With little warning, we shot straight up, zoomed straight down. My stomach lurched, my sunglasses slid down my nose, and I got a head rush. Could we do it again?

For the finale, we skimmed just inches above the earth, then gently rolled to a stop -- on Anders's belly. I survived without a scratch, or a grass stain. How's that for X-treme?

-- Andrea Sachs

There are multiple hang-gliding companies in Queenstown, New Zealand. Cruise through town and sign up through an adventure outfitter or follow the hang-gliders to their landing spot and see if they have a space. The region's biggie is Anti Gravity (011-64-3-441-8898,, which flies year-round; cost from $100. Info on Queenstown: 011-643-441-1800,

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