People tend to fall for Rio the moment they glimpse it from the plane. There are lots of angles that make this city look good, but from the air, it is breathtaking, framed by green mountains and a sea of blue bays. We have all seen those aerial pictures – the city tumbling among conical hills towards golden beaches; the iconic shape of Sugar Loaf mountain silhouetted against the wide blue sea; Christ on top of Corcovado stretching his arms as if trying to hug the whole glorious thing to his chest.
Which is what got me so excited about the idea that you could jump into that view. Everyone I met in Rio seemed to have done the hang-gliding thing. Their voices dropped an octave when they spoke of it. They said two things: the first was “it was terrifying”; the second was “it was one of the best things I have ever done”.
Rio is made for altitude junkies. Sugar Loaf is typical of numerous mountains that march round the suburbs – steep, sheer-sided, perfect for jumping off. Rio is a climber’s challenge, a hang-glider’s paradise, and a daredevil’s dream city. In a moment of bravado – the kind of bravado inspired by half a dozen caipirinhas – I signed up for hang-gliding. It was only later that I remembered I am not very good at heights. But in Rio, it is not easy to worry, and the next morning on the sandy expanses of Ipanema, I soon forgot about my appointment with the daredevil jumpers.
At least until the fateful day arrived. At 8am, a driver arrived at my hotel to take me to a mountain summit. He revved the engine at the kerb as if he was waiting for a starting pistol. In a country where the late Ayrton Senna is god, drivers tend to be a trifle keen. We hurtled past the great Maracana Stadium where generations of Brazilian footballers have dazzled the crowds with the kind of footwork they learned on the dance floor. Then we started to climb the switchbacks of Estrada da Canoa road that led to the top of Pedra Bonita.
“They say the road is more dangerous than the jump”, the driver shouted over his shoulder. We were cornering blindly at 60 miles-per-hour.
“Who are they?“ I asked, hanging on to the arm rest.
“Passengers”, he shrugged.
Occasionally, the groves of jack fruit parted to reveal flashing glimpses of Rio, growing smaller and smaller, far below us.
“You flying alone?” the driver yelled.
I shook my head. My mouth was kind of dry. “A tandem flight”, I managed at last. “With a qualified hang-glider guy.”
The daredevil driver shook his head as we narrowly missed three cyclists, two palm trees and a truck. “Rather you than me”, he said.
On the summit at the launch site, I met my hang-gliding pilot. I might have hoped for a more reassuring figure.
Paulo had one of those open, transparent faces. I felt I could read him like a book. As we shook hands, what I could read was mild panic.
“You’re pretty tall”, he said, smiling wanly. “How tall are you?”
“Six foot, four”, I said. “One-ninety-three centimetres.”
“One hundred and ninety-three”, he mused. “They didn’t tell me you were so tall. One hundred and ninety-three, eh. You must weigh 95 kilos, no?”
“Yeah, more or less”, I said. “Is that a problem?” I sensed a way to get to out of this thing without losing face. “I mean if that’s a problem…”
“No, should be okay.”
I wasn’t sure if I liked the sound of “should“. ‘Will’ was the word I wanted.
Paulo was busy with the tackle, a bewildering series of straps and buckles.
“Done this before?” he asked with an unconvincing air of breezy camaraderie. “No? Well, there is nothing to worry about, nothing at all. Don’t worry about a thing.”
A few feet away was a wooden platform, its leading edge cantilevered over thin air. Far below, Rio looked like a distant smudge.
“Nothing to worry about”, Paulo chanted. “We’ll just get you strapped in here. Don’t worry.”
The glider looked uncannily like the kind of thing that the Wright Brothers had failed to get off the ground at Kitty Hawk. Paulo buckled me into my harness, then adjusted his own. With my right hand, I hung on to a little strap. My left was meant to rest on Paul’s shoulder. Thus entangled, we shuffled on to the platform like a four-legged crab.
I have subsequently checked the facts on this one, and they say that the launch at Pedra Bonita is 1,700 feet up. But the facts are clearly wrong – we were actually several miles up. Rio would have looked closer on a satellite image. I knew that if I turned my head, I would be able to see the Panama Canal in one direction, and Tierra del Fuego in the other. That was how high up we were. This wasn’t a bird’s eye view – it was a spaceman’s panorama. Far, far below, vultures were circling. Perhaps they hoped to catch us on the way down.
I closed my eyes. Once closed, the eyes seemed to acquire a will of their own. I tried to open them, but found I couldn’t.
“That’s right, nothing to worry about.” I could hear Paulo mumbling as he pulled on a few thin straps.
“When I say run, run”, Paul said. ‘Ready. Run.”
Eyes closed, I sprinted forward, lashed to Paulo and the giant wing. I only knew we had run out of platform when my running feet were no longer making contact with anything more substantial than thin air. For a time, I pedalled inanely, like a cartoon cat as we plummeted earthward. I knew we were plummeting because the air was rushing up my nostrils with such a force that it was tilting my head back. Then, Paulo shifted his weight, pushed a bar forward, and I could feel our downward progress halted.
I opened my eyes slowly, one at a time. We were circling, gliding silently and effortlessly above the whole glorious panorama that is Rio – the Sugar Loaf mountain; the Corcovado with the statue of Christ; the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema; of San Conrado and Barra da Tijuca; the wide ocean.
“Your hand”, Paulo said, grimacing.
“What about it?”
“My shoulder”, he winced.
I realised suddenly that my hand was dug into his shoulder like a claw.
“Sorry”, I said, relaxing my grip.
And with it, I seemed to relax my whole body. This was fun, I began to realise. This was a kind of bliss. We were flying in slow circles above the most beautiful city in the world. The ocean curved away towards the east with an unblemished horizon.
The driver had been right. The drive up the mountain was a whole lot worse.
After 20 minutes or so of avian bliss, we landed on soft cushions of sand on the beach at San Conrado.
“How was it for you?” Paulo asked, reeling in the wing, which looked in danger of taking off again.
“Have we got time for another flight?” I asked.
Stanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.