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The author, left, and pilot Ricardo Hamond float above Rio De Janeiro's high-rises, Tijuca National Park, and Sao Conrado Beach on the Atlantic coast.
The author, left, and pilot Ricardo Hamond float above Rio De Janeiro's high-rises, Tijuca National Park, and Sao Conrado Beach on the Atlantic coast. (Delta Flights)
Taking off

Flying leap for the young and young at heart

Email|Print| Text size + By Irin Carmon
Globe Correspondent / April 23, 2006

RIO DE JANEIRO -- A child of the indoors, I largely limited my youthful adventures to those between the pages of library books. Even once wanderlust kicked in, I was still more likely to measure my escapades by languages learned, unlikely friends and sites found, or even cocktails consumed, rather than by cliffs climbed.

In a high school rope-climbing course, I opted out of the forest zip line, and later ascended Mount Washington only because of unrelenting peer pressure. Watching my college friends cliff dive on an infamous spring break ''booze cruise" in Jamaica, I was thankful for my vantage point from an inner tube on the Caribbean.

But I realized recently that I have neglected part of the youth travel experience. It was time to push the limits and step one in my transformation would be hang gliding from Pedra Bonita, which looks over Rio de Janiero from Tijuca National Park.

Rio is uniquely positioned for hang gliding, offering an accessible takeoff point in the city, a diverse vista of mountains, forest, city, and ocean, and a big strip of beach for landing. A host of pilots share the route, each offering more or less the same services: transport from your accommodation, a brief instruction period, and a roughly half-hour flight in tandem with the professional, most for about $110. Admission to the park itself is about $5.

Rather than being an impulsive lark, going hang gliding can be a lengthy process, mostly because of the vagaries of wind and water. During the normally sunny summer month of January, a lingering storm front grounded me and my friend on four consecutive days. We stayed in touch with our pilot by cellphone in hopes of finding an hour of sunshine and favorable wind.

Emboldened by a skydiving experience in Australia, my friend Haven was on hand to motivate. But even her enthusiasm began to flag on day three as we watched the clouds gather and wondered what it would be like to be struck by lightning in mid-flight.

''So, how long have you been doing this?" I asked our pilot of choice, Ricardo Hamond of Delta Flights. We would be strapped to each other in flight, so it seemed like a good thing to know.

''A few weeks," he deadpanned. The truth was nearly 20 years. In about 10,000 flights, he said, only about five people had chickened out.

I was reluctant to be the sixth. Meeting a 75-year-old man fresh from his own landing also helped steel my resolve.

Finally, on day four, the sun and wind chose to cooperate, and Haven and I dashed over to the takeoff point only to be told again to wait. We passed the time on São Conrado Beach with tattooed and shirtless Australians who seemed to embody adventure travel, whose presence made me feel girlish and uninitiated.

We signed waivers that claimed we had been trained, although this had yet to take place. When I pointed this out to the driver taking us up the mountain, I was told, ''You know what the training is? Running."

This proved more or less true. After a precarious ride up a two-way road that barely accommodated one lane of traffic, we practiced wrapping our arms around Hamond and running back and forth a few times. The takeoff point was crowded with would-be gliders getting the same briefing from their pilots, all of them distinguishable from the tourists by their tanned muscles and wraparound sunglasses.

''Let's find out why the birds sing," I heard one pilot tell his client.

The temperature at Pedra Bonita (about 1,700 feet up) was dramatically lower than on shore, and at first the mountain was encircled by clouds that made it appear as if our fellow hang gliders were jumping into an abyss.

Wearing a helmet and full-body padding, Haven went first. As I watched her launch, I wondered what would be next for me in daredeviltry now that the door to carefully manufactured thrills was to be thrown open.

After the days of waiting, plunging into midair was almost effortless. The clouds had drifted away. I could see exactly what I was running headlong into: the vast greenery of the Atlantic rain forest, the mushroom-like swell of the shantytowns nestled between the mountains, the neat blue squares of the swimming pools in the upper-class enclave below. Beyond it all stretched the ocean.

Hamond moderated the pace and momentum, creating freefall sensations and dipping down over the ocean. In those 20 or so minutes of alternating between serenity and wonderment, I forgot this was supposed to be out of character.

The uncanny sensation of being a solitary unit, at the mercy of the wind and subject to only the simplest aerodynamic technology, was intoxicating. It seemed the purest access possible to the landscape, just bodies and wings moving rapidly above it, part of the earth without touching it.

As we sped toward the sand for a landing, Hamond released my leg harness and told me to get ready to run. Powered by adrenaline, I returned to earth in a sprint.

Contact Irin Carmon at irin@irincarmon.com.

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