Flying high over Australia

Australia offers ideal conditions for learning to fly or perfecting your skills. Great lift, plenty of places to see and knowledgeable training are available to hang gliders, paragliders and ultra-lite enthusiasts. Take a flying vacation!

AA staff

magazinep>Anyone who has visited Australia will recognize as one of its most distinctive qualities a remarkable sense of space, a feeling of boundless horizons and vast open expanses. Similarly, anyone who has flown a hang-glider or paraglider will appreciate that the appeal of flying also has a lot to do with sensations of freedom and space — the fact that you’re soaring across wide open skies with the world spread out below you. So what better way of combining two great experiences than a flying holiday down under?
Professional operators there offer a wide range of packages, from outback safaris aimed at accomplished pilots to live-in beginners’ courses that cater to the complete novice. It’s something almost anyone can do. Whether you’re soaring over the bush, touring the coast or just getting the hang of basic techniques at a training hill, these sports offer extreme thrills and a unique way of seeing Australia; you’re drifting across the biggest sky in the world, accompanied only by the sound of the wind, and with a great continent sliding gently by below.

Over the big country

At first glance, Australia seems an unlikely soaring mecca because so much of it is flat. Don’t let that fool you. It is in many respects ideally suited for aerial adventure. First, this may not be the mother of mountain country, but overall there are more than enough bumps, hummocks and low mountains to provide adequate launch spots and good soaring conditions. The most popular flying sites are along the east coast where the Australian Alps and Great Dividing Range sweep up in a great arc of mountains and hills, but there are also excellent opportunities for soaring over the plains areas inland.

Added to that, the climate here is fabulous for flying: the skies are warm and clear; in the Australian summer, steady sea breezes bounce off headlands and ocean-facing slopes along the east coast to generate what’s known in the trade as “ridge lift” — the invisible updraft of air deflected off a slope that can keep paragliders aloft for hours; and at inland areas where there’s no ridge lift, the fierce Antipodean sun heats up the ground quickly to produce good conditions for thermal soaring.

Finally, hang-gliding and paragliding can take you over some of Australia’s most stunning scenery, from wild coastline to the Australian Alps and even the outback.

Roll up for. . .

Aerial safaris aren’t new. Australian pilots have been driving around their country seeking out prime flying locations for years. If you’re a qualified pilot visiting here and you’re hell-bent on going it alone, it’s perfectly feasible to bring your own hang-glider wing or paraglider canopy, hire a car and go exploring. However, the sheer size of the country means that without local knowledge you’re likely to spend more time driving than flying. Some of the very best sites can only be reached by four-wheel-drive, or require tow-launching. Just as bad, when you do find a reasonable spot, you may not understand the local conditions well enough to make the most of it. Obviously, what’s needed is insider knowledge.

The magical mystery tours

In addition to their regular on-site activities, paragliding and hang-gliding centres offer guided flying tours that allow you to travel around and experience a range of different sites. Apart from variety, these all-in packages offer full ground support: a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get you there, tow launch (where necessary) and pick you up at the end of each flight; an experienced pilot or instructor as a guide; and often equipment hire. This makes long-distance cross-country flights far more practical. Once you get used to reading the local conditions, you can expect flights of 50-100km on a paraglider, up to 200km if you’re on a hang-glider. Many packages also include accommodation (usually at campsites) and meals.

Most tours stay close to the east coast and the band of mountains that run parallel to it, although outback trips can also be arranged. You can travel along the coast from one ridge-soaring location to the next; you can head inland, into the mountains, to fly thermals; or you can combine the two. Tours can usually be tailored to suit individual preferences.

The experience combines great flying with the freedom and fun of being on the road. From the air, as you soar over farmland, bush or coastline, you appreciate even more the enormous scale and variety of the Australian landscape. When you’re on the ground, you’ll find these trips a great way of meeting Australians and sampling the vibrance of Australian life at road level.

There are so many good flying locations that it’s impossible to mention all the places you could visit, but a few areas do stand out. If you’re travelling through northern Victoria, don’t miss the opportunity to fly at Bright, a small town at the foot of Mount Buffalo in the Australian Alps that’s surrounded by ridges and offers superb thermal soaring. The best spot is called Mystic Bowl, a 500m-high launch site overlooking the training paddocks, where amazingly consistent thermals let you soar as high as 3000m before gliding down into the valley. The environment here is unforgettable, epitomizing the Australian mountain bush. You can expect to see kangaroos, wombats and even wedge-tailed eagles.

For an equally memorable but quite different experience, take a trip up the coast of New South Wales. With its long, wild beaches and rugged bluffs, it has some of the most stunning coastal scenery you’ll find anywhere. The smooth, steady airs which blow in off the sea create predictable, safe conditions for soaring. If you’re really into it, you can even continue up into Queensland on an epic 14-day trip that covers the best sites along 1500km of coast. You start in Sydney and finish at Rainbow Beach, which, apart from being a fantastic coastal soaring location, with two ridges 9km and 43km in length, marks the entrance to Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world and an amazing wilderness of rainforest, heathland, freshwater lakes and beaches.

And now for something completely different

Operators also offer tours to the most unlikely of soaring locations: the outback. Although flying over flatland areas has the obvious drawback that it’s difficult to get airborne, operators overcome this by towing paragliders from trucks and hang-gliders from ultralight aircraft (a technique known as “aero-towing”). Once you’re aloft, the flat open plains make cross-country flights easier and safer, especially for less experienced pilots, since there’s plenty of space to land and there are no mountains or valleys to cross.

Practicalities

When to go

The prime flying season in Australia is from November to April. Winds range from 0-8 knots, with 8-16-knot breezes along the east coast. Cloud base is at 1500-3500m AGL.

Operators

As a rough guide, an 8-day safari (or longer) will cost US$750-1100, including full ground support, accommodation and food. Equipment and even advanced training are often included in the price. Most centres also offer live-in courses for both hang-gliding and paragliding that take you from being a complete beginner to a licensed pilot. Courses last 5-10 days and cost US$450-750 including tuition, equipment rental and accommodation. You can pay more to upgrade your accommodation. Most centres rent equipment to visitors at around US$35-60 per day.

For more information, contact the following operators: Alpine Paragliding (Bright, Victoria), tel (057) 551 753, mobile (018) 352 048, fax (057) 501 153; Activeair (near Sydney), tel (042) 942 999, tel/fax (042) 942 584, mobile (018) 423 069; High Adventure Airpark (NSW), tel/fax (065) 565 265, mobile (018) 652 582; Australian Hang Gliding Adventure Tours (Sydney), tel (02) 971 1715, fax (02) 981 3728.

Licenses & regulations

Foreign pilot’s licenses are recognized in Australia, but all pilots are required by law to be members of the HGFA (Hang Gliding Federation of Australia). Short-term membership costs A$45 (US$33) for 4 months, which includes third-party insurance.

Put your eye on the sky and take to the air!