“Let’s do something different, a little bit adventurous yet safe, a little bit thrilling yet relaxing, maybe nice scenery too!” Here’s something for you: paragliding at Wanli!
Text: Quyen Tran; Photos: Maggie Song
I am standing on a cliff overlooking Green Bay, a scenic stretch of the north coast between the harbor city of Keelung and the highly popular Yehliu Geopark. Strapped to my back is a straggling pack, and a giant billowing canopy spanning four to five meters extends behind me. With nothing else but kneepads, a helmet, and my all-encompassing faith in the instructor I just met who is going to take me on a tandem flight, I’m going to run off that cliff and pray that the winds do not falter.
Paragliding at Wanli
Paragliding has been a popular outdoor sport in Taiwan for some time now. The coastal mountains behind Green Bay, in New Taipei City’s rural Wanli District, receive plenty of sea wind, making them a perfect point of departure for paragliders. There are other locations in Taiwan suitable for paragliding as well, also offering great vistas – Puli in central Nantou County, Saijia in southern Pingtung County, the Luye Highland in southeastern Taitung County, and Wai’ao in eastern Yilan County. Wanli, however, perhaps offers the best conditions, with steady winds and marvelous coastal scenery.
With his trademark bandana, Mustang, the owner of Wanli’s one and only Mustang Paragliding Club, greets his visitors with a broad grin and a dry sense of humor. He has been flying here, and offering flights to others, for around thirty years now. After learning to paraglide in Taiwan, he took to the skies in many places around the world, even doing a flight over China’s Great Wall on one occasion. He then saw an opportunity, he sheepishly admits, to make money in Taiwan while doing what he loves best, and set up a paragliding club in Wanli, first sharing the launch pad with other outfits, then buying the land it sits on to gain exclusive access.
He couldn’t have chosen a better spot. Wanli is situated less than an hour away from central Taipei by car – a bit longer by public transport (train to Keelung, then bus to Wanli) – and the unobstructed views you get from where the paragliders depart makes the site a tantalizing jumping-off point. Looking out, the azure water of the sea seemingly melds with the sky, beckoning even the most apprehensive visitor to come closer.
Mustang is proud of his operation, and especially of the fact that he has made paragliding accessible to everyone:
“My prices are the lowest around! It makes everyone happy, so I keep it cheap!”
His honesty and sense of humor momentarily distracts me from my impending flight – a distraction that the many nervous first-time flyers probably appreciate.
This is not my first time taking a literal leap of faith, however. I have done paragliding before, in Slovenia, in an attempt to conquer my fear of heights, and I distinctly remember the sensations: There was initial anxiety, panic at the sudden realization that I was running towards a cliff edge, then an odd mix of relief and thrill once the wind was under the sail and I was up in the air. Soon enough, any fear I had held inside dissipated, and I was looking down and taking in the scenery like a soaring eagle. A sense of freedom and calmness took over.
That was then. Strapped into the safety equipment, I am now asked by Mustang to head towards a brightly uniformed group of people waiting at the launch pad, a “boarding pass” in my hand. I hand the pass to the friendly instructor assigned to me as my pilot. I am also given a GoPro mounted on a stick, with an attached wristband that will prevent me from dropping the small video camera. After the flight I’ll receive the memory card with my recorded flight (the card is included in the price for the flight). After a few simple instructions on what to do and not to do during start, flight, and landing, it is our turn to take off.
Helpful Hint: If you have no experience filming yourself, remember to hold the GoPro camera steady, point it towards the scenery and then yourself, continually alternating without sudden motions, and smile!
At first I feel as though things are happening all too quickly. But this is due to the highly efficient team Mustang has put together. After all, he hasn’t been running this business with around a dozen other qualified instructors for so long for nothing. It’s a smooth operation. After arriving, visitors pay the fee and are helped into their gear; then flight instructors are assigned to each passenger according to height. The team works quickly, efficiently, and professionally, and is thus able to keep up with the sometimes considerable number of visitors. This professionalism is definitely reassuring for those who might feel a bit anxious about going on a flight.
Mustang’s clientele are visitors from Taiwan and abroad alike, including travelers from mainland China, Southeast and Northeast Asia, and the West. Everyone, it seems, is drawn to this fun and thrilling experience, and Mustang relishes welcoming his new flyers in different languages. He estimates that 60% of his clients are women, the majority of these, young women like myself.
“Men are the biggest scaredy-cats,” he quips with a hearty laugh.
He’s been met with a few surprising visitors. His club has welcomed pensioners over 90 years old, and even blind people who, Mustang says, are often especially brave and appreciative of the thrill of paragliding.
Young or old, adventurous or not, everyone should try soaring the skies like this at least once in his or her lifetime. With this insight in mind, I face the looming drop-off and begin running at a determined speed. My instructor keeps yelling at me to not let up, and even though I am sure I am going to run off the cliff before the wind catches me, I believe him and keep up the pace. Suddenly, I hear the wing billowing behind us and feel straps pulling tightly across my chest, caused by the tension from the gust of wind I have been hoping for. Relief rushes over me, and before I know it we are lifted off the ground. I sit back in a surprisingly comfortable saddle, and begin enjoying our gentle drifting across the verdant mountains and the beach-rimmed coastline.
Below me is Green Bay and its azure waters, glistening in the sun. I can see Keelung Islet in the distance to my right, while to my left I can make out the unusual rock landscape of Yehliu Geopark. It is almost too pretty to be true, and I keep thinking I could stay up here for a long, long time.
Yet soon, way too soon, we are descending, and the golden-sand beach quickly comes closer. My instructor reminds me on what to do upon touching down. Unlike my previous experience in Slovenia, landing on the sandy beach here requires running to a stop. While I remember that I am supposed to stand up as soon as my feet touch the sand, for some reason my legs have lost all feeling and I find myself falling backwards. I fail the landing miserably, though we still touch down safely, thanks to the pilot’s skills and experience.
Whether it is because I have done this before, or there just hasn’t been enough time to feel anxious, the entire process has not been the least bit nerve-racking, as I remember it was the first time.
Wanli is blessed with upward-flowing breezes generally gentle enough for beginners, and many of the instructors have over 10 years of flying experience. Furthermore, the short flight (only about five minutes) ensures that first-time flyers do not get nauseous from being in the air too long. Observing others who have just landed on the beach, I can attest that no one experiences nausea … only the desire to go up again.
Close to the beach a van is already waiting to take us, the instructors, and the equipment back to the launch pad. Back up on top, we hang around a little bit longer, taking in the views and watching how Mustang and his team help more visitors off the cliff to experience their short yet wonderful flight down to the beach.
What to do next? While in the area, you want to check out the beautifully bizarre rock formations at Yehliu Geopark and Keelung’s famous Miaokou Night Market.
A single tandem flight is currently priced at NT$1,600 per person (including an 8GB SD memory card on which you record footage of your flight, holding the GoPro camera yourself; the price does not include insurance, but you have the option to buy it before the flight separately if you wish to do so). The club offers flights throughout the year, depending on the weather. Call around 9am on the day you want to fly to check conditions.
[This article was originally published in Travel in Taiwan, a publication by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau. All rights reserved.]