If you ask a lot of people what superpower they would choose, they will tell you that they would like to be able to fly. However, this really isn’t a superpower. The day that I threw myself off the side of a cliff in Rio de Janeiro, whilst strapped to a South African man I had met 30 minutes earlier, was the day that I realised this. Instead, the next 20 minutes were the most freeing of my entire life, coupled with the best possible views of Rio de Janeiro imaginable.
There are plenty of great viewpoints over the beautiful city of Rio. The most famous of these are from the top of Christ the Redeemer or Sugar Loaf Mountain, both of which do provide a stunning view over the city. However, in my opinion the view and experience that you get by hang gliding over the city from the mountain Pedra Bonita, is unparalleled.
Hang gliding is a recreational sport that requires a large metal frame attached to a fabric wing. It is operated by a pilot who is strapped onto the wing by a harness hanging from the frame. The wing can then be controlled by the pilot using their body weight to turn one way or the other. However, most importantly for me, it can also be done in a tandem format where there is a trained and experienced pilot who takes control of the wing, and the passenger is just strapped on to enjoy the ride. This was exactly what I did in my flight over Rio de Janeiro. Whilst I am sure the trill of actually piloting the wing would have been even greater than that of being a passenger, I am very grateful to have had a trained professional guide me through everything so that I could just enjoy feeling like a bird.
It was an early start on the day that I went hang gliding. Well, I had to be awake and ready at 8am so I guess for many that is not early, but as a traveller who loves to stay up late and enjoy the nightlife, it certainly felt like one. I was taken first from my accommodation near Copacabana beach to the office of the tour company to the south of Rio. I personally went with Rio Adventures, who are a very highly rated tour company with all fully qualified and certified pilots, but there are numerous other companies who offer similar experiences all for around the same price.
It was whilst I was at the office that I “signed my life away”. Whilst hang gliding is clearly not an activity that is completely risk averse, if it is done in the company of qualified professionals, then the risks are very small. That morning when I was reading and signing various forms stating that I understood the risk that I was taking on, it did dawn on me that in a matter of an hour I would be hurling myself off a cliff with all of my faith placed on a fabric wing. With that being said, the pilots and other members of staff were great with me. They explained everything very clearly and ensured that I knew exactly what I was signing myself up for before I did so.
Once I had signed all of the correct forms, I was introduced to my pilot for the flight. He was a South African man named John, who told me that he had been living and working in Rio de Janeiro for 5 years but had been a qualified hang gliding pilot for over 15. All of this information put any doubts or worries that I had to rest. I knew I was in very safe hands and suddenly I was raring to go.
It was a 20 minute drive from the beachside office to the top of Pedra Bonito. The journey was included in the price of the hang gliding, and I was driven in a pickup with John and another man as the driver, carrying our wing on the back in a trailer. Throughout the journey, we were gradually rising higher and higher above the city. It was a Sunday morning, and the roads were surprisingly quiet. This was useful because of the great length of our pickup and trailer combined with the narrow and winding streets we drove up.
As we reached the top, I had my first chance to witness where I would be starting my flight from. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t what I saw. I was faced with a large open area that ran straight onto a wooden ramp, which jutted out off the top of the mountain right over the cliff below. It was now that it actually dawned on me what I would have to do. I would have to run off the edge of the mountain down that ramp. Suddenly my confidence in John and his years of experience was out of the window.
The next few minutes were a bit of a blur. Standing at the top of the mountain gazing over the city of Rio right down to the beach, I knew that very soon I would be hurtling myself straight towards it. I am somebody who isn’t scared of heights and loves adrenaline. I have bungee jumped twice, cycled down the Death Road in Bolivia and hung off the side of the CN Tower in Toronto, but somehow the thought of running off the side of this cliff seemed like it might be a step too far for me.
Luckily, there were a few of us going hang gliding and I was not the first to jump. So, I got to see a couple of others go through all of the stages before I had to fully commit to it myself. It was at the top of the mountain that we got harnessed up. This was all overseen by one of the representatives of the tour company, so there was a peace of mind that you would be safe. Something else that I did not realise I would have to do is the practice runs. John told me that we had to practice our running start a few times as the only time that anything could go wrong would be at the start. This was not exactly what I was hoping to hear. All of a sudden there was pressure on me to make sure that I didn’t jeopardise our whole flight.
It turned out that my role in the start of the flight was actually very simple. All I had to do was run in time with John until we had gone off the edge of the platform and started our flight. It was however, stressed to me on multiple occasions that whatever I did, I could not stop running before we took off.
After seeing a couple of people go before me without any issues, it was my turn. John and I lined up at the top of the mountain, ready to launch ourselves into the Rio sky. There was enough time for one more check of the harnesses and for John to remind me again that I had to keep running until we left the platform. Before I knew it, we were off. I have never thought about running so much in my entire life. Not only did I have to keep vaguely in time with John, but heaven forbid I stopped running before we left the platform. Fortunately, I was able to do my very simple job well, and the two of us were off the platform and into the air.
Unlike bungee jumping, as we left that platform, we did not suddenly plunge down. Instead, we dropped ever so slightly before immediately plateauing. There was absolutely nothing to be worried about. I was just gliding through the air and able to see the city from a whole different perspective.
The two of us were strapped together flying through the air on a Sunday morning over one of the greatest cities in the world. I had thought that you might be able to hear the traffic below, but we were so high up that it felt as though we had been disconnected from everything. Since I was not steering the wing, I was able to take my hands off the bar. Without even realising, I was instinctively holding my arms out as if they were wings as we glided through the air.
John began to point out some sights of interest to me as the flight continued. Far away on my left hand side was Christ the Redeemer. It was a tiny speck perched on the top of the mountain. What had just the day before seemed like such a dominating presence over the Rio skyline, suddenly became almost irrelevant as I soared over the city.
The landscape below us was dramatic. There was a complete mix of skyscrapers, favelas, mountains and ocean as far as the eye could see. It gave me a whole new perspective on Rio. It was no longer this sprawling metropolis, but instead a city perfectly balanced between modernity and nature. From this one point in the sky, I could see every different aspect of Rio at the same time. This is something that you cannot get from any viewpoint in the city no matter where it is situated.
The flight itself was about 15-20 minutes but for that time I was the freest I have ever felt. Soaring through the air all of my worries melted away as I saw the beautiful city of Rio passing down below me on that Sunday morning. However, this lack of worry was about to be suddenly taken away from me. It dawned on me as we were reaching the beach, that we would have to land. All the instructions that I had received from John were related to take off, at no point had he mentioned landing.
The landing area is on Pepino beach. A pristine beach to the south side of Rio, and I can tell you that sand is the perfect material to be landing on. John began to turn us in a big arc towards the beach. It was at this point he told me he needed to unclip my legs so that I could be ready to absorb the landing. It seemed that I had not quite realised what this meant. Before I knew it, John had unclipped my legs and they were suddenly dangling unsupported from the wing. At no point did John explain to me that I would feel as though I was right on the edge of falling from the wing, only being held by one strap around my waist, that suddenly began to dig into me in some rather uncomfortable places.
This unclipping of my legs coincided with the wing losing altitude and before I knew it, we were in the process of landing. I would love to sit here and tell you that I absolutely nailed the landing, but I certainly did not. Instead, I ended up with a face full of sand. John had a quick laugh at me before checking I was alright and that was the end of an unbelievable hour or so of my life.
At the end of the flight, I had the option to buy more camera angles and footage of the whole flight. Whilst this is not something that is forced upon you in the slightest, I decided that it was certainly worth doing for me as how often do you get to fly over Rio! The whole experience cost R$ 720 for the flight and about $50 USD extra if you wanted all of the photos and videos of the flight. Therefore, it was certainly not a cheap experience, but hang gliding is definitely the best way to see Rio de Janeiro.