By Shaun Cumming
February 20, 2013
São Conrado is a small beach neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro, just 15 minutes away by car from Ipanema. To its immediate north lies Rocinha, Latin America&rsquot;s largest favela community. To its south, the amazing and bizarre double highway road, Elevado do Joa.
Overhead fly vast numbers of hang gliders and para gliders, who use the spot as a gathering place and landing strip. Part of the beach is cordoned off for this purpose. The beach road at the landing strip is a dead-end roundabout, surrounded by a variety of parked vehicles commonly used by ‘surfistas’ and, apparently, those who like to jump off mountains while attached to a kite.
Getting out of the car, I head over the beach bar, or &rsquot;posto&rsquot;, where a waiter is chopping up a fresh coconut for a customer. Others are sitting around its red plastic chairs and tables drinking Brahma beer.
I&rsquot;m approached twice by instructors asking if I want to fly &rsquot;asa delta,&rsquot; or hang gliding in English, but I&rsquot;m already set to fly with an instructor called Mauro Sacramento, who arrives a couple of minutes later, smiling and fresh from the flight. He points inland to a huge, rainforest-covered mountain called Pedra Bonita (beautiful rock). It towers to what looks like a colossal height.
The sun is shining bright and it&rsquot;s hot, but Mauro says these aren&rsquot;t ideal flying conditions, pointing next to a limp windsock on the beach. We need wind to gain lift, but there&rsquot;s none. You will need to run fast or we will drop.” A nervous flyer in any aircraft, let alone what I&rsquot;ll refer to as a kite, I start to sweat.
Mauro leads me over to his flying association&rsquot;s beach hut, where I sign what I presume is a fairly comprehensive legal disclaimer. More sweat arrives on my forehead. You see, on top of a crippling fear of heights and a dislike of flying on planes, adventure sports have never filled me with enthusiasm. Rio, this inspiring city, urged me to throw caution to the wind, and she is too beautiful to reject.
Mauro takes me in his pickup truck and we head off up the mountain where the road narrows, climbs steeper, and is increasingly surrounded by rainforest. Even his powerful car struggles on the climb. More sweat pours out.
At the top of the hill, Mauro takes me to the wooden launch pad. Looking back down towards the beach landing strip, it&rsquot;s adjacent 20-story apartment blocks look like little blocks of Lego in the distance. Pedra Bonita stands at 2,283ft, and feels every bit of it.
Mauro shows me some of the safety equipment and the hang glider itself. Its supporting ropes, which I will soon be hanging from, appear flimsy, though he assures me that a car could be hung from them.
We are connected up and head to the platform with our kite, where I&rsquot;m reminded that, due to the lack of wind, we need to run fast in tandem to make sure we gain enough speed, and therefore lift, so we will actually fly. Mauro points to the fact that we are both overweight men, so running fast will be all the more important.
I&rsquot;m focused on the task; running for my life. At the count of three, we bolt to the edge and simply fall off the edge platform. I was forewarned not to attempt to jump. We descend straight down towards a mound of grass about 20 feet below, not yet flying but not quite falling. An audience has gathered beneath the viewing platform to watch our attempted take-off. It happens so quick, but we fall to just a couple of feet away from the grass below, going at what feels like breakneck speeds. Will we crash? No. Our kite catches the air and we lift upwards and outward just in time – away from the grass. In any case, the grassy bank below suddenly falls off a sheer cliff and we now have instant height as well as lift. We are no longer falling. We are flying.
The trees below are a great many hundreds of metres below. Considering my fear of height, I tell myself it is all a painted canvas – it certainly appears that way. Rocinha twinkles in the distance alongside the &rsquot;two brothers&rsquot; mountain. The ocean glows a deep blue. A humid mist rises from the trees below as the sun burns off the tropical rainfall we’d had last night. Everything appears as a picture. The feeling of weightlessness is a thrilling. Rio&rsquot;s beauty from this height is awe-inspiring.
The flight, which felt slow and elegant, started to quicken as we come in towards the beach landing strip. Mauro reminds me to keep my hands away from the bars, which are his steering wheel. The gentle waves below are a vibrant turquoise colour.
As we swoop towards the beach, I realise our speed is far greater than I can run. Mauro pushes the bars up; the angle of the hang glider’s wings then slows us to a halt. Out feet touch the soft golden sand. The flight is over. Mauro congratulates me. For him, this is his office, 7 days a week. I can see why he loves it. My fear of heights and flying is cured. I want to climb back in the pickup truck and do it all again. Rio has inspired me. Its official tourism slogan was once &rsquot;Celebrate Life.&rsquot; It now all makes sense.
There are many hang gliding instructors connected to the São Conrado facility. Bookings aren’t necessary but it might be worth booking ahead, especially on weekends. Prices range from R$300-450 (100 – 150) and photographs and live video are usually provided.
Contact Mauro Sacramento:
Phone: (21) 7816-5737
Shaun is a journalist and blogs on Brazil. His blog can be found at http://sometimebrazilian.blogspot.co.uk“