EXTREME SPORTS

Paragliding in Hong Kong: not for the faint-hearted, but what a thrill to get airborne

The adventure sport has a small but devoted following in Hong Kong. Elaine Yau throws caution to the winds and launches herself off a cliff to see if it’s for her. Plus: where you can paraglide

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 July, 2016, 12:33pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 July, 2016, 8:21am

It’s a sweltering day in June and there are a dozen adventurers, including me, standing at the edge of a cliff in Pak Kung Au on Lantau Island. It takes 40 minutes to hike there in the blazing sun, carrying heavy gear on our sweaty backs. When we eventually reach our destination, we jump off the cliff and soar into the sky, and are rewarded for our efforts with a panoramic bird’s-eye view of the mountains and sea.

There are about 200 regular paragliders in Hong Kong, who can practise this sport of daredevils in eight approved locations.

Paragliding differs from other sports in that there are no advantages gained from physical stature and it doesn’t matter where you come from, says Yuen Wai-kit, chairman of the Hong Kong Paragliding Federation. “It requires skill and experience, rather than physical stamina.”

Watch Elaine Yau take to the skies

Yuen accepted my request for a training session and, as a nervous beginner, I ask to fly tandem with him at the controls. With a large rucksack doubling as a seat, buckled up and wearing a helmet, and elbow and kneepads, I wait for the order from Yuen, who is strapped behind me, to run to the edge of the cliff.

The wind rises and I’m caught off guard when he barks the command. Dazed, and with Yuen hammering his legs forcefully against mine, I trot wonkily to the edge. Within seconds, we’re climbing high into the sky, swerving close to the mountainside and almost brushing treetops. I’m squinting, in part because of the blazing sun, and also from fear. I’m squealing like a pig in an abattoir.

I did tandem flying with another woman once before, and did the same tricks with her, but she didn’t make a sound. That’s no fun
Yuen Wai-kit

Paragliding first gained popularity in the West and was introduced to Hong Kong in 1992, Yuen says.

Flying time and distance depend on experience and weather. Conditions must be just right, and for a relaxed flying experience you need the wits of an amateur meteorologist to predict thermal columns of rising air to remain buoyant, like an eagle.

“I hated geography when I was a student, but before every flight a paraglider has to research weather forecasts, like checking wind direction, wind speed, the height of the clouds and so on,” Yuen says. “The Hong Kong Observatory and overseas weather websites are also used for reference. We collate the statistics and check how accurate the forecasts are. You gradually get into a daily habit of checking the observatory’s weather updates if you really love the sport.”

A course leading to a certificate from the federation costs HK$15,000 to HK$20,000. The gear, including a main and reserve parachutes and buckles, costs about HK$20,000.

Yuen says there’s no fixed number of lessons required. Beginners can attempt a take off at any time. It all depends on personal commitment and progress. Yuen says he took the plunge on his first session.

“Usually, it takes people three months before they are ready for their first attempt at being airborne. I had my first lesson in 2000. My instructor explained what I had to do in just half an hour. He pulled out some paper and made drawings to explain things. Soon afterwards, I just took to the sky.”

Some of the paragliders at Lantau on that day in June are more experienced than others. Only half of them, including Yuen, manage to soar significantly higher than the cliff and encircle the craggy rocks and trees on the mountain. Most navigate a slow descent to the beach below.

Only the most experienced paragliders can U-turn and land back on the cliff to enjoy the thrill of repeated take-offs without having to make the arduous hike back up.

One member of the group took off successfully but turned sideways and quickly nosedived into the bush. The daredevil emerged stunned and speechless, having collided with a tree stump on a slope just below the cliff, after others rushed to his aid. He slowly walked back up to the clifftop, his glider entangled in twigs.

Although it is described as a relatively safe pastime, there have been two paragliding deaths in Hong Kong. Yuen says the key to flying safely is not to take a gamble.

“[In 2011] a paraglider died. He was not my student,” he stresses. “But I was there on that day. It was a combination of mistakes, in judgment and equipment, that contributed to the death. Another death happened in 1992, involving a veteran who made mistakes when he was trying to perform aerobatics.

“Rather than take a gamble, people should abort risky attempts like getting higher. A risk-averse mindset is essential for safety.”

Although paragliders are alone in the sky, Yuen says they maintain contact with people on the ground using walkie-talkies who provide instructions to help deal with situations as they arise. Even unforeseen encounters in the sky can be handled with ease, he says, including with birds.

“Eagles don’t avoid gliders; one rammed into my chute once. It got tangled in the strings but soon wriggled free and flew away. A couple of cut strings mid-flight is no cause for worry,” Yuen says. “Another time, an eagle’s talons tore a gash in my chute but I still managed to fly to safety.”

In some countries, paragliders fly with birds of prey in an activity called para-hawking. The raptors have an instinct for the best flight path using thermal columns of rising air. Yuen tried to introduce para-hawking to Hong Kong but was rebuffed by the government.

“The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department rejected my application to fly with an eagle,” he says.

Some overseas paragliding sites can be accessed by road. They have flying platforms and instructors on hand for tandem flying, catering to tourists eager to try the activity for the first time. In Hong Kong, paragliders must hit the country park trails and walk up to the approved flying sites, because they are inaccessible by other means.

“You can walk a long time and just fly for a few minutes in Hong Kong, but no hiking is needed overseas,” Yuen says.

Hong Kong does have an advantage, though. “If there’s no wind in a certain spot, you can go to another one. But overseas, there can be sites that take a three-hour drive to reach, and you can get to the site and find that the weather is not OK.”

Given Hong Kong’s hot, humid summer, the best time to learn the sport is in autumn and winter, Yuen says.

Novices can practice on grasslands. This is called “ground handling” or “kiting”, where they learn how to control the glider on the ground. “You cannot practise kiting for long in summer in the intense heat, running and dragging the chute around on the ground,” Yuen says.

My first leap into the unknown with Yuen was scary but worth every second. The birds’ eye view of luxury villas and swimming pools, with sunbathers looking like mere figurines, was exhilarating, with the wind whooshing in my ears and the thrill of the speed. It left me jealous of the birds, and their freedom to fly freely without having to do that sweaty trek up the hillside.

High above the sea, Yuen swoops and soars for what feels like an eternity, treating me to a mid-air roller-coaster ride.

Unfortunately, my ear-splitting shrieks of “No. No. No!” persuade Yuen bring the glider back down to the hard ground too soon – although the seasoned aviator seems to delight in making a woman blanch and lose her cool. “I did tandem flying with another woman once before, and did the same tricks with her, but she didn’t make a sound,” he says. “That’s no fun.”

Paragliding may have been a hair-raising experience, but as we glide slowly down and land on the beach, I’m all smiles and raring to do it again.

Where to fly: 8 places approved for paragliding in Hong Kong

Pat Sin Leng, Tai Po

Long Ke Wan, Sai Kung East

Pak Tam Au, Sai Kung North

Ma On Shan Country Park

Sai Wan, Sai Kung East

Shek O, Hong Kong Island

South Lantau Country Park

Kau Lung Hang Shan, Tai Po