How to have a perfect day

We’ve just returned from such a lovely week in Austria. (See here for one of my most popular posts of all time, in which I extol the virtues of an Austrian holiday.) A couple of days ago, we all had pretty much the perfect day.

Morning: adventure playground with Oma and Opa (Felix would have happily stayed on the swing for hours), then up the cable car to the paraglider launch. Felix spotted plenty of cows, buses and tunnels.

Michael was flying all morning, but Moni and Herbert and I played with Felix in the sandpit, the trampoline and the little house outside the mountain café.

Back to base for lunch. During Felix’s nap, Herbert, Michael and I ducked out to ride the toboggan down the mountain.

Back to base to pick up Moni and Felix, and then off to another cable car and up up up. Moni stopped at the middle station for a coffee and strudel, but the rest of us went right to the top. Felix clambered around on the bouncy castle, and then I carried him in the ergo up a little track to a most incredible viewing platform, where I caught up with Michael and Herbi.

Back down again, picking up Moni on the way, and straight to a restaurant around the corner from our apartment, with views over the meadows towards the mountains.

We ate Austrian specialties for dinner and sat outside for hours while Felix pottered around the awesome play area underneath the apple trees. And what this list can’t really describe is just how happy we all were together today. We’re all exhausted now but in the best possible way.

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Five Years

This little blog turns five years old today. Five years feels a long time and a short time. Much has changed, and, strangely, much has not. When I started blogging, I split my time between England and Norway, and I was midway through a PhD. Now I live in Norway, the PhD is long finished, and there is a new little human in our lives. I have enjoyed posting these little postcards to myself and to the world.

To celebrate, over the next five days I will repost one of my favourite posts from each year of this blog. To begin:

                                                                                                           

July 2007: Parapenting

That’s paragliding. In French. We return with brown arms and peeling noses, serious leg muscles, and – almost – two paragliding licences. Eight amazing flights, but no photos. Too many other things to think about. I shall attempt a slide show in words.

Image 1, Monday: Despair

Our attempts at paragliding always involve highs and lows. In the past we’ve battled floods and weeks of unflyable conditions. This time it seemed too good to be true – Monday morning, up on the mountain bright and early, light wind, perfect conditions, arranging our lovely new wings ready for take off. And then the instructor takes a closer look. Where’s the gutesegel? Wings flown by German pilots in Germany are required to be certified by the DHV – the German hang-gliding and paragliding association. Our wings are certified by the European association, not the German one. No matter that we are in France, we live in Norway and England, and the flight school is Austrian. We cannot fly.

We sit on the back of the launch site, our shiny wings crumpled around us, our heads in our hands, as other people launch. It had been too good to be true, after all.

Eventually a very kind man who already had his licence offered to swap gliders with me. His wing was ten years old, but at least it had the right certification! And we were the same weight, which is important. I got two flights. Poor Michael carried his glider back down to the landing field. The next day the school found one he could rent from them. All was not lost…

Image 2, Tuesday: Rain

We lie in the back of the snuggle-car, and read. Rain falls on its roof and the windows, all day and all night, turning the camp ground to mud.

Image 3: The French Cat

White, brown and ginger patches, beside the red geraniums.

Image 4, Wenesday: The Climb

Despite the shuttle service, you still have to lug your 15kg glider on your back up the mountain for at least 15 minutes in the sun. That’s where the leg muscles come from.

Image 5: Take off

You can’t take a photo of this, anyway. The weight and the balance of it, as you plunge forward and the glider lifts behind you, and now is above you, and you run, and are suddenly weightless, and the wing that you carried now carries you, and the hillside disappears below, and you sit back in your harness and the air is all around: gentle, smooth, free.

Image 6: Treh

In the afternoon we go to the high mountain. There are gliders everywhere: launching, hovering, spiraling up in the thermals, crossing against the sun. Like great multicoloured birds, like a carnival.

Image 7: The Thermal Flight

Now it is my turn to launch. The wind is quite strong but I’m off with no problems, and the instructor says fly right, fly into the thermal, fly circles. Soon I am high over the launch site. I am flying up, for the first time. My first thermal. Other gliders kite around me, but I seem to be in the perfect spot, I go up and up and leave them behind. I am at cloud-base. The air beneath the cloud’s grey belly is slightly misty. It’s much colder up here, 6000 feet above the valley floor. My t-shirt is not enough. I wish I was wearing gloves. The mountains stretch below me in every direction. I can see the whole valley. I can see white clouds beside me in the sunlight. I can see the other gliders far below, distant and tiny, like tic-tacs. I hover there easily. Eventually, slightly nervous that the cloud will swallow me, I fly out towards the landing site. But I do not come down for a long time, nearly an hour, shivering with cold and with joy. The sky is reluctant to let me go.

Image 8: Wind

The next day the wind is too strong to launch, but we play about with the gliders anyway, practicing. The lovie does fine. Come, Meli, come, he says, you try too. Apprehensively I hook myself up to my glider. The wind seems to get stronger. Just hold it there for a minute, he says. But the wind is insistent and it shoots up anyway, dragging me sideways until I manage to get it up properly, controling it above me. But the sky likes me too much. Suddenly I am four metres above the ground, and I’m not coming down. The lovie stands below me, more scared than I am. When I do come down, he grabs me and pulls the lines, and we tumble over together and the glider miraculously stops. No harm done, and I got an extra little flight. Heh.

I can fly. I can fly. I can fly.

Felix and the paragliders

We took Felix to meet the paragliders this morning. (Yep, we’re back in Salt Lake City for the long weekend. You can’t keep us away!) He was very happy strutting about in his sling with his sunnies on. That’s Michael to the left of my right shoulder.

Here he is launching. I thought about having a go but the wind was pretty strong, and this primal maternal instinct kicked in that said: stay on the ground with your baby!

I intend to conquer this instinct soon, and did manage a little hop from lower down the slope before we left. Because, really, who wouldn’t want to be up there?

Many more things

Austria was gorgeous. It already feels like a distant dream. I had some beautiful flights, nosing about in the thermals and surfing the rising air above the ridge. My parents, Michael and I bought a five day cable car pass, which meant that we could go up each of the four cable cars in the region once a day. One of them you could paraglide down from. One of them had a toboggan thing on a monorail, which was awesome. And they all had beautiful views and walking opportunities.

We had amazing weather – it was warm and sunny nearly every day. The food was cheap and good, the accommodation was great, the landscape stunning. Too many adjectives, I know. But it really is the most relaxing place. Most afternoons we would head down to the local pool (entry was free with the guest card we got with our holiday apartment) and float around, looking up at the mountains and zooming down the waterslide. My parents were duly impressed. I have a feeling we’ll all be back. Mum had a tandem flight.

Michael’s Mum came along too, overcoming her fear of heights by coming with us on two cable cars all the way up to the base of the glacier, and talked about getting a tandem flight herself next time!

***

It’s a good thing we had a decent summer holiday this year because we have been back a week and the weather has been dreadful. As Michael puts it: Norwegian summer = a gap between rain showers, just enough to mow the lawn.

My folks have been here all week which has been so nice. I had this week off too. We have worked incredibly hard though!!! My suggestion to drive up to Ikea on Wednesday was met with enthusiasm, and resulting in four major (and several minor) purchases that then required assembly. Each job seemed to lead onto another one… Dad moved one of our powerpoints so we could put the new bookshelf where we wanted it. He then not only took down the door which the previous owners had ‘decoratively’ hung on the wall but also re-installed it in its proper place between the kitchen and the hall. This will be brilliant in winter because it will mean we can actually keep the kitchen warm. And we have been patching cracks and holes, painting walls and cupboards, installing light fittings, hanging curtains… Everything I thought to myself – oh we should do that sometime – is getting done. Michael reckons my parents deserve their own TV show.

My new sewing machine has been getting a workout. Michael made a pillow for the kittens and I made a mouse.

Lots to catch up on

1. Kittens being cute

2. The best house guests ever

Some very old family friends came to visit me in Halden. They pretty much feel like family, actually. I lived with them for a year and a half when I started University. It was so fun to see them! They turned up with Australian wine, Belgium chocolate, timtams and the most amazing flowers. They helped me empty out the basement for some work we need done there, and Loris even donated her mobile phone charger to me because my kittens wrecked my old one!

3. Sunshine, skies and holidays (ongoing).

Bright

Because I am heading back to the snow on Tuesday (and because Michael has already arrived there), I thought I needed to record a bit more of the sunshine. We stayed in this beautiful cottage for eight days, paragliding in the mornings, watching tennis and reading novels during the hottest part of the afternoons, heading out for beer or ice-cream in the evenings. (Michael got the beer, I was more than satisfied with the twenty different sorts of homemade ice-cream.)

Here’s our bedroom.

The fly net came in handy one night when a bat decided to pay us a visit… (We worked out if we left the light on it would leave us alone…)

It really was very very gorgeous – possibly the best holiday ever. There were millions of colourful birds, and we even saw an echidna. One day we drove up to the mountains.

Some of the trees were bleached from fires seven years ago.

But there was still water and life.

And what happened next in no way changes how happy we were, or how happy we will be one day, not too far away.

Postcards from the sky

I wasn’t there this year, but I haven’t forgotten

how, in the right wind, you soar up the slope

to join the jelly beans in the sky.

The launch site is a green and distant memory, mere patchwork

and the snowy mountains are all yours.

Afterward,

your feet on the ground as your wing falls slack,

you’ll never forget

the staircase of air

the aeons of sun.

* all credit to Michael for the amazing photos!

Whales and worlds

Today the light was soft. Sunlight hazed through billowy clouds, gilding the edges of the harvested fields, getting caught in the golden trees that have already started losing their hair. English weather really. Most mornings, frost glitters on everything, and once the mist clears, the sky is blue as ice.

Quite a lot has happened in the past two weeks. I had my last day of my summer job of proofreading and newsletter writing. Finishing up was actually a bit sad. We made a seriously brilliant newsletter though.

I held a two week old baby. She was beautiful.

I got back from the UK yesterday, a five day trip that started with an essay exam in Leeds, continued through a packed two days of catching up with friends in Leeds and York, and culminated in a lovely weekend involving curry and beer in London with my brother and two cousins and their wives. Family is just the best.

I also squeezed in an exhibition on T.S. Eliot and Faber and Faber in the British Library (did you know, there was only ever one Faber but they thought that two Fabers sounded more distinguished). Seeing type-written letters between Eliot and Pound and Stephen Spender and a whole host of other poets was just cool.

And on Tuesday morning I went to the Turner Prize exhibition with my brother. Probably not quite worth the eight quid but fascinating all the same. My favourite was a partial whale skeleton that you could only view through slits in the wall so that you were taken aback by shocking details and strange angles. It was called ‘Leviathan Edge’. The artist had also reproduced Brancusi’s Bird in Space sculptures in coal dust. My brother preferred a different installation involving an atomized aeroplane scattered on the floor like a desert landscape, and wall sculptures made of a mix of plastic and powdered brain. Actually both installations seemed to be about trapped flight, and movement, and time…

Speaking of flight, that’s what Michael’s been doing – brushing the sunset with his wings. He’s in the States for a conference (and other things), but I couldn’t join this time because of commitments.

I got home last night to a fat package covered in stamps with whales on them. It was a copy of the brand new Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature, which my Grandma very very kindly posted to me. Another world, more than a thousand pages long. I can’t wait to get stuck into it.

I’m happy to be back – happy to be at the kindergarten, and to have two days a week free now for writing. Let’s see where it takes me.

Days and Years

It will never be today again. Never. He would not, in all his life, make another discovery more shattering.

Randolph Stow, The Merry-go-round in the Sea

In the last few hours of being 29, the loss of my twenties felt like some kind of a death. When you are in your twenties you believe you will be in your twenties forever. That is, until you reach 28. Or, more worryingly, 29. But although I spent most of last year thinking ‘well, I’m nearly 30 now’, the actual cut-off point approached with alarming finality.

Most people tell me that being 30 is just like being 29. And it is. And it isn’t. I guess the contrast is pretty stark for me because I just passed my PhD two weeks ago. It feels pretty good to have passed, I must say. It felt pretty good to hand in, too. But in retrospect, the two months between submission and my viva were strangely liminal. Not a student, not a doctor. The thesis was finished, but not examined. I wasn’t overly worried, and made the most of the spare time, traveling and hanging out with my family and eating cake. But I feel so much better now. So much better. One identity is lost forever. But another one is offered to me, one that I can put in my pocket like a magical golden coin that no one can ever take away.

I loved my twenties. I worked as a care assistant for people who needed it. I picked some pears. I wrote some poems. And a long complicated story about a dragon. I finished quite a lot of degrees. I won quite a lot of scholarships. I learnt to fly. I climbed some mountains. I was sad for a short time but I got over it. I lived in seven different houses, in four different towns, in three different countries. I changed my mind. I crashed my car. I met my beloved. I flew very high indeed, high above the mountains and the wrinkled sea, right up to the belly of the clouds.  I moved to England. I fell in love with the dales and the grey stone walls. I gave conference papers. I moved to Norway. I wandered around Pompei, Assisi, St Petersburg, Berlin, Bergen, Petra, Budapest, Jerusalem, York, New York, Las Vegas. I slept on many people’s couches, and futons, and floors. I rode my bike in the rain.

I know I have been extraordinarily lucky. And there’s nothing to say I can’t keep doing any of those things. Although I hope I will never again need to do so many degrees! Numbers and years remind one quietly of mortality. The thirties might be very different. But that’s just fine.

Many wonderful things

I am in Austria. Very close to Switzerland. If you climb a mountain – or, with much less effort, take a chairlift – you can see into a lake that touches Austria, Germany, Switzerland. I am surrounded by improbable lushness: meadows peppered with dandelions, mountains swathed in patterned cloaks of dark and bright green, the pine trees interspersed with deciduous trees in the first flush of spring. White blossom still flowers in the valleys, but everything is in leaf. Here, May is the most beautiful of all months. Winter is gone and summer is yet to settle, but the air is warm and the green burgeons with promises.

It is strange to think that on Tuesday I was in Adelaide, on Thursday and Friday I was in London, and now I am here. A week of contrasts if ever there was one. It was very sad to leave. It was just so nice to hang out with my family and catch up with my old friends. My brother and my grandparents drove me to the airport, and after a coffee and a very chocolaty raspberry muffin and at least three hugs from each of them, I felt bereft as they walked away. On the plane, I thought – why am I leaving? What am I going back to?

Autumn in the Adelaide Hills.

But as soon as I arrived I knew. Apart from being with M again, which is just brilliant, there is so much to see here! So much to explore and think and dream. I really enjoyed the two days in London. I usually just transit through London, but this time M had organized a two day workshop and they were all staying in the rather lovely Goodenough College, so I got to piggyback. I just loved wandering around all the green squares between the London University buildings, pretending to be Virginia Woolf. I’ve been to that section of London before but never spent much time there. Spring is in full swing and the huge trees are raining down little umbrella-shaped pollen things.

I spent an afternoon in the British Museum. It is all wonderful but I was especially amazed at collections of medieval and Roman rings – how strange to think of the hands that have worn them! And then on Friday evening we wandered around the Tate, which is possibly my favourite art gallery in the world. It’s all been re-hung since I was last there, and there are themed collections: ‘poetry and dream’, ‘energy and process’. I loved the way the words wove between the pictures, and the layout of the rooms made the paintings and sculptures talk to one another.

I started writing this in Austria but actually now I am in Switzerland. M is working here today and we are going back to Norway tonight. I haven’t been there in nearly two months! His parents joined us in Austria and we had a very relaxing couple of days. They made friends with the neighbours. Monica did a brilliant job of combating her fear of heights – she came with us as we drove over a high pass in the mountains (see above), and even went on two chairlifts!

Michael and I each had one beautiful paraglider flight – I was up for more than an hour and could have stayed up much longer if I wished. How strange to be able to work the air currents and drift above the mountain ridges and the trees.

We had a minor disaster yesterday when M tried to launch in a tail wind and didn’t take off in time and flew straight into a clump of trees. Luckily he wasn’t hurt but we spent nearly three hours extracting the glider from the trees! They were about four metres high, so not strong enough to climb but too tall to reach the top of. They were perched on a steep slope in a patch of snow, so there was a lot of sliding around. We even had to chop a couple of them down with a borrowed axe! Anyway, no harm done, and we are rethinking our safety policies…

But all in all, everything is beautiful. My viva is two weeks from today – I wonder if my examiners are reading my thesis yet.

On top of the world

We had the best flights today. We got high above launch, high enough to see the snowy mountains in the background, and we were up for more than two hours. We could have stayed up longer if we wanted. It was so much fun chasing the lift in thermals, zooming up up up like birds.

See that tiny green square in the middle of the mountains? That’s the launch site. That’s how far we were above it. And look – here are all the paragliders layed out and ready to go:

This is me scratching for lift (technical term) above a farm:

M was higher than me at this point but I soon overtook him – hihi! There were small pockets of rising air that moved around, and also a couple of surprise monster thermals which zoomed us up soooo fast and made our little variometres beep like crazy. It really was like being a bird – being able to go down and up whenever you chose.

My glider dried off in the wind and sunshine (it was still a little damp from yesterday) and I landed nowhere near the stream.

Afterwards we drove up through the mountains and watched the setting sun slant through the clouds, stuffing sky and light into our memories for the journey home.

More flyings

mel-flying

That’s me.

And there are the gliders zooming around the cliffs.

The view into Monaco.

The view towards the landing beach. The beach is long, but there are hazards. Picnicking families. Recently landed gliders. The sea. The cliffs. And, er, a small and thankfully very clean stream right in the middle of the beach. I landed right next to it and dipped the edge of my glider into it not once but twice…

Coming in to land.

Landing! (This time my glider came to rest a full metre away from the stream. Hurrah. Possibly still need to work on that…)

Photo credits: Michael. It also must be said, he gets the taxi credits too. The shuttle bus wasn’t running till yesterday, and he has done more than his fair share of driving me up the mountain! I had three flights today, including a lovely thermal flight of nearly an hour. Michael had two flights, including a long one. Yesterday I had two short flights (15-20 min), and M had one long one. On Dec 29 I had one flight, and on the 30th I had two, the first one from the east-side launch in mild cross-wind. (Have included all these details for the purpose of our log-books, which we left at home.)

All in all it’s been great fun. There are loads of Germans and Austrians and Swiss here at the moment, which makes it a bit easier to understand what’s going on. It’s a nice change from indecipherable French. Michael said everyone must think I’m a bit strange for flying in my green coat (didn’t have space in my bag for two coats, and didn’t want to do without my green one). Most people have flying coats or suits or walking jackets. And true to form, a German approached me on the beach as I was folding up my glider, asking if I was wearing a flying coat. I was worried he was going to tell me I was doing something wrong, but he just wanted to tell me he really liked it! Heh.

Happy New Year!

We flew in the new year today, through silky air above the blue peninsulas and patterned ocean (the dark reef, the cloudy whiteness near the shore). When the lift is good, the paragliders swarm.

Last night we sang and danced and jumped around outside the casino in central Monaco, to a seriously good Beatles cover-band, the Love Beatles. We arrived in the square as they sang ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds’. The palm trees and buildings glittered around us, and fountains of fireworks erupted at our feet. I was just complaining about the reluctance of the posh Monaco residents to dance, when a little old man in a suit started jiving around in front of a spurting fire-work sprinkler, while his wife took photos. It was so cute. We joined in a dancing-caterpillar to ‘Obladi-oblada’, swayed happily to ‘Let it be’, and sang out lots of loud na-na-nas to the final rendition of ‘Hey Jude’. Ah, it was absolutely great.

2008 was a pretty good one. We went to some amazing places in Norway, Austria, France and America, we spent time with our parents, we got our P3 paragliding licences and zoomed around like birds. I almost finished my thesis, and read lots of books. M’s work is going great.

I’ve got so many plans for next year. First up, slay the dragon – er – thesis. Hopefully within two months. And then… I want to learn Norwegian, and brush up my German. I want to have another look at my novel, to see if anything publishable can be salvaged. I want to get more IT literate. And have a haircut. And join the gym. I’d like to be a better correspondent to my far away friends, and make some progress on Henry. Get some articles published. Renew my drivers licence. Be a bit more organized. And – oh – get a job. Who knows where we’ll be by the end of it?

The view from the sky

Here are some photos of our two gorgeous flights last Sunday. (Yes, I realise not everyone is as obsessed with this as I am, but bear with me.) That’s the launch site. It’s covered in carpet and is smooth and beautiful. (You don’t want too many stones and twigs and things, as they get caught in your lines.)

And here’s someone taking off (not either of us, but isn’t he elegant!).

And that’s the view from the sky. There were lots of pockets of lift around, and I managed to stay up for about forty minutes. Michael took the aerial shots, though. Here’s the view in the other direction, over Monaco. It’s a bit hazy from the sunlight.

We flew over houses and skyscrapers and tennis courts and swimming pools and highways and trainlines. The best fun of all was zooming around this hotel. How’s that for a swimming pool?

Then, when it’s time to land, you fly over the beach. The water is blue and clear and mesmerising. You have to fly quite low over the water in order to get low enough to land on the beach. This is a little disconcerting, as whatever happens, you don’t want to land in it!

Over the water, the air is quiet and silky. Then you turn in, and there is the small matter of not landing on the sun-bathers. They seem to have no fear. Luckily, we didn’t disappoint.

It was still warm after our last flight, and having forgotten our swimsuits, we made use of the nudist corner of the beach to jump right in, before watching the sun set over the mountains. A perfect day.

Weekend paragliding

in a place where the sun still warms the skin. Don’t worry, my thesis is here too! M has a conference all week, and I intend to make spectacular progress editing my various chapters. Below is a rare photo of M coming in to land (all our Utah photos seem to be of me). We didn’t actually launch from the place pictured above, as it had a very scary cliff. I’m sure we would have been fine but we decided to play it safe. We waited an hour for the next bus and then it didn’t stop for us! Luckily some young guys took pity on us and drove us up to the next launch site, where we got off no problems…

Heading back

We’re flying back to Norway tomorrow and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into my thesis again. I’ve had over twenty hours of airtime which has been brilliant. I’ve been working on keeping my wing stable in turbulent conditions, and practicing flying in strong and light winds. I seem to naturally fly higher than most other paragliders and some of the most fun times have been boating around for hours at the end of the ridge where the lift is strongest while other gliders can’t stay up… Here I am kiting at dawn, waiting for the wind to pick up.

The photo at the top of this post is my favourite from the whole trip. The wind was far too strong for us to fly that day – the paragliders behind me were experts on tiny wings (if the wing is too small for you it flies faster so you can fly in stronger conditions). But it was great just watching them go.

While we’re at it, I love this photo too. See you back in the land of birch trees and mirrored lakes!

An island in the sky

After a week of quite wonderful flying, we escaped down to south east Utah for the weekend to avoid a storm. It was the right move, as now all the mountains are capped with snow.

One of the best things about flying this time has been a growing sense of proficiency. We’ve been awarded our P3 licences – which means we are intermediate pilots, rather than novices. I’m not scared of the glider now – even in strong winds, I’m in control (if you don’t know what you’re doing, it can drag you all over the place as you try to launch). We also had a truly spectacular flight on the north side of  the ‘point of the mountain’ (the south side is pictured above). The north side has a lower ridge and an upper ridge. You launch at the lower ridge and if you get high enough you can fly back towards the upper ridge and end up soaring far, far above launch, with views beyond the mountains. There’s nothing quite like soaring along the top of a ridge and seeing the contours of the mountain beneath you – the dusty rock, the autumn colours of the low shrubs. There was a hawk flying alongside us – hovering just in front of Michael’s feet. It was incredible.

The national parks in south east Utah reminded me a bit of some places I’ve seen in Australia – the red rock, the dust, the desert plants – but in other ways they were like nothing else I’ve ever seen. We went to the iconic ‘Arches’ park, which is filled with stone arches, but my favourite was the section of the Canyonlands national park called ‘Island in the Sky’. We kept looking out at the mesas – crumbling rock formations that do look a bit like islands if you think about it, wondering – is that the island in the sky? Is it that one? Is it around the next corner? And then we came to the end of the road and saw this:

As we peered out over the cliff to the mottled, spiky, canyoned lanscape below, we realised – we were on the island in the sky. We had been all along.

Now we’re back in Salt Lake City, and hoping for some more soaring before we head back to Europe and work and thesis and all the rest of it. I want just a little more time on my very own island in the sky, bobbing upwards in the air currents and singing my favourite flying song: up up and away, in my beautiful, my beautiful balloon

And then I read this

Above all remember this: that magic belongs as much to the heart as to the head and everything which is done, should be done from love or joy or righteous anger.

And if we honour this principle we shall discover that our magic is much greater than all the sum of all the spells that were ever taught. Then magic is to us as flight is to the birds, because then our magic comes from the dark and dreaming heart, just as the flight of a bird comes from the heart. And we will feel the same joy in performing that magic that the bird feels as it casts itself into the void and we will know that magic is part of what man is, just as flight is part of what a bird is.

Susanna Clarke, The Ladies of Grace Adieu

Could that work for writing too? I know academic writing comes mostly from the head, but other times, writing about dragons or volcanoes, I have felt this frightening and exhilarating flight. My PhD feels old and worn and tangled, but I will straighten its lines, and ease air into its cells, and who knows what will happen next.

How it goes

Step one: wait for the mist to clear. On previous Austrian forays, this is pretty much all we’ve done. Para-waiting.

Step two: Fold out the glider, check the lines, hook yourself in. Leg straps, breast strap, speed bar, helmet. Take the risers and the breaks in your hands. The variometer (groovy little square thing on my waist) is an optional extra, but bad things will happen to you if you forget the leg straps. Watch for a gap in the clouds.

Step three: run, until you’re running on air.

Step four: breathe. Check the lines again. Steer yourself out over the forest, into the valley. Float through the lacy edges of the clouds. In the damp, cool air of the morning, you smell a faint hint of pine. Turn more sharply now, swing out sideways – your very own rollercoaster. Then lean back, smooth and slow. The air is very calm now, because the sun hasn’t had a chance to heat the ground, but later, gusts and eddies will pull you up as well as down. Grin your little head off. Whoop for joy.

Or try to look suave whilst balancing a camera and a paraglider eight hundred metres above the valley floor.

Step five: bumble around some more, then swoop in to land. (Plan your approach so you touch the ground in the right place, with your feet rather than your bum, in the right direction, at the right speed. Preferably avoiding power cables, trees, rivers, houses, wind-socks, other gliders, pedestrians, children, dogs and cyclists. )

Step six: carry your glider to the side of the landing field, fold it up, stuff it into your backpack, and trudge up to the cable car to do it all again. The other gliders spiral down like flocks of jellyfish. And all the while, something beats inside of you, the rush and the swing and the lightness of it, as though you really had wings all along, only now you know for sure.

Happy birthday Mum!

It’s Mum’s birthday tomorrow. Which is almost today even in this part of the world, so it must be well on the way in Australia. I haven’t sent her anything, but maybe she’ll accept a slice of cake and a pitcher of Pimms in three weeks time – if the weather’s up to it! That’s her, in New Zealand, taking off…

More pictures here. We knew she’d love the view of the mountains from above just as much as we do. And here we both are, on a boat, about to discover a cave of the most amazing glow worms. Like galaxies underground. It was her idea to go. She’s good like that.

Sending you much love! Here’s to many more adventures, very soon….

Summer blogging

I took a picture of the weather outside, but it made it look more depressing than it actually is, so I thought I’d spare us both. Suffice to say, you can’t see the tops of the hills for the mist, the river is a rapid flowing murky brown, and the trees are brown and bare. Very pretty they are in the evening, though, when the lights of the small town shine through their hair. And it’s cozy in here. The fire warmed up the flat so well yesterday that we haven’t even had to light it yet today. The cold that knocked me out over the weekend is slowly fading. The lovie is faring a little worse, and keeps telling me that he’s about to die, but I think he’ll be okay. We sleep for at least twelve hours a night at the moment. And here’s what we left behind.

Me flying at the Bluff. It felt pretty cool to zoom around this South Australian landmark. Well, it’s a landmark of my childhood, anyway, from countless weekends in Victor Harbour. I’m not about to land on the rock – I’m actually going up.

See? That’s me in the background. And now can I tell the story of how the wind got too strong and I nearly didn’t land safely? (Some people I know are already sick of hearing it.) It was scary. I was almost dragged across the road. But at least I know for sure now – when the wind gets too strong for you, come down. Don’t stay up an extra five minutes cos it’s fun. Just don’t. Anyway…

Happy flying bugs.

We don’t fly these, but they’re pretty.

My favourite Christmas photo – me and Auntie Annie, the feast in the background.

Sydney sunshine. And the paragliders out surfing the wind at Tunkalilla. I bet they’re out there still.

Soaring with seaguls at Seaford

has been one of the highlights of our time in Adelaide. There have also been some minor disasters, including gliders tangled in trees and drenched with sea water (not as bad as it sounds, but time-consuming). Oh, and bad storms hitting Queensland which meant we decided not to go there…

It’s always slightly strange coming home, knowing that I’m not the same person who left. Christmas was overwhelming but lovely. It’s been great catching up with some old friends but I no longer have the stamina to catch up with all of them. Every meeting is also a goodbye. In the past I have identified strongly with the place in which I live, so having homes in three different countries is confusing. But it’s been wonderful revisiting the South Australian landscape – we’ve spent a lot of time on the coast south of Adelaide – acres of sunlight, red cliffs beside a dazzling ocean. And sometimes we’ve seen it from the air.

Photos soon.

Queenstown paragliding

A lot has happened in a week. A lot of miles covered. A lot of time spent in the air. But here is the best bit.

Sorting the lines.

Ready to launch.

A few steps, the glider surges above me, and I’m off.

I find a thermal, and soon I’m above the launch, soaring next to the rocky, intricate peaks of the mountains. All by myself. I’m up for an hour. The glider turns beautifully. I love it up there. I remain inordinately pleased with myself for days.

Our last flights

I know there’s a shadow in this photo. But can you see how we’re still flying? Covered in dust and sweat and sun, grinning our heads off. Can you see, in our eyes, the weightlessness, the balance, the joy of stepping into air and staying there? I had just had two long flights along the ridge, in heavy traffic, all on my own. I’d lent back in my harness, and relaxed, and looked ahead for other paragliders, and stayed out of their way, and flown back and forth on the ridge, and stayed up for hours. The wind blows up the ridge, see, and keeps you afloat. Paragliding makes me laugh, sometimes – seeing everyone lugging about their huge backpacks, and unpacking them, and folding out the gliders – just for fun, just to zoom around, like kids on a slide or a merry-go-round. Just to feel air beneath your feet and wind in your face, and the gentle pressure of the brake lines in your hands, and the way you surge upwards, and turn and sink and hover. Just for pure joy.

Yet more paragliding

The wind was quite strong today, so I took photos and stroked little lizards while the lovie zoomed around.

In the evening, they all came out. It was so pretty.

When it calmed down a bit, I had a lovely peaceful, perfect flight, just after the sun set. Perfect, I say – the launch, the turns, the landing. And I did it all on my own – no radio contact, no instructors watching. I’m still smiling.

What about these guys?

While I sit here feeling miserable, needing a nap after going downstairs to get something out of the car, wondering when my bowels will be in working order again, some people are doing it tough. And I don’t just mean the lovie, who’s a good contender: not only is he doing all the housework at the moment, but he went on two 30k bike rides this weekend, and has just left to race up to the festning for the third time. I’ve just huddled on the couch and still managed to lose 5kg. But no matter. Look what these guys have been up to!

The X-Alps is an 850km race through Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France, ending in Monaco, walking and paragliding. 850km is a conservative estimate of its length, too, because that’s as the bird flies. And paragliders don’t – quite – fly like that. Oh dear, my endurance is flagging just thinking about how to describe it. It takes about two weeks, and some of the pilots walk most of the way, carrying their 20kg equipment… I’m impressed. Many contenders have to drop out due to exhaustion or injury. A couple of years ago a woman entered and had to have all her toenails removed half way through. The winners will finish tomorrow, it’s very exciting. Maybe next summer…

Parapenting

That’s paragliding. In French. We return with brown arms and peeling noses, serious leg muscles, and – almost – two paragliding licences. Eight amazing flights, but no photos. Too many other things to think about. I shall attempt a slide show in words.

Image 1, Monday: Despair

Our attempts at paragliding always involve highs and lows. In the past we’ve battled floods and weeks of unflyable conditions. This time it seemed too good to be true – Monday morning, up on the mountain bright and early, light wind, perfect conditions, arranging our lovely new wings ready for take off. And then the instructor takes a closer look. Where’s the gutesegel? Wings flown by German pilots in Germany are required to be certified by the DHV – the German hang-gliding and paragliding association. Our wings are certified by the European association, not the German one. No matter that we are in France, we live in Norway and England, and the flight school is Austrian. We cannot fly.

We sit on the back of the launch site, our shiny wings crumpled around us, our heads in our hands, as other people launch. It had been too good to be true, after all.

Eventually a very kind man who already had his licence offered to swap gliders with me. His wing was ten years old, but at least it had the right certification! And we were the same weight, which is important. I got two flights. Poor Michael carried his glider back down to the landing field. The next day the school found one he could rent from them. All was not lost…

Image 2, Tuesday: Rain

We lie in the back of the snuggle-car, and read. Rain falls on its roof and the windows, all day and all night, turning the camp ground to mud.

Image 3: The French Cat

White, brown and ginger patches, beside the red geraniums.

Image 4, Wenesday: The Climb

Despite the shuttle service, you still have to lug your 15kg glider on your back up the mountain for at least 15 minutes in the sun. That’s where the leg muscles come from.

Image 5: Take off

You can’t take a photo of this, anyway. The weight and the balance of it, as you plunge forward and the glider lifts behind you, and now is above you, and you run, and are suddenly weightless, and the wing that you carried now carries you, and the hillside disappears below, and you sit back in your harness and the air is all around: gentle, smooth, free.

Image 6: Treh

In the afternoon we go to the high mountain. There are gliders everywhere: launching, hovering, spiraling up in the thermals, crossing against the sun. Like great multicoloured birds, like a carnival.

Image 7: The Thermal Flight

Now it is my turn to launch. The wind is quite strong but I’m off with no problems, and the instructor says fly right, fly into the thermal, fly circles. Soon I am high over the launch site. I am flying up, for the first time. My first thermal. Other gliders kite around me, but I seem to be in the perfect spot, I go up and up and leave them behind. I am at cloud-base. The air beneath the cloud’s grey belly is slightly misty. It’s much colder up here, 6000 feet above the valley floor. My t-shirt is not enough. I wish I was wearing gloves. The mountains stretch below me in every direction. I can see the whole valley. I can see white clouds beside me in the sunlight. I can see the other gliders far below, distant and tiny, like tic-tacs. I hover there easily. Eventually, slightly nervous that the cloud will swallow me, I fly out towards the landing site. But I do not come down for a long time, nearly an hour, shivering with cold and with joy. The sky is reluctant to let me go.

Image 8: Wind

The next day the wind is too strong to launch, but we play about with the gliders anyway, practicing. The lovie does fine. Come, Meli, come, he says, you try too. Apprehensively I hook myself up to my glider. The wind seems to get stronger. Just hold it there for a minute, he says. But the wind is insistent and it shoots up anyway, dragging me sideways until I manage to get it up properly, controling it above me. But the sky likes me too much. Suddenly I am four metres above the ground, and I’m not coming down. The lovie stands below me, more scared than I am. When I do come down, he grabs me and pulls the lines, and we tumble over together and the glider miraculously stops. No harm done, and I got an extra little flight. Heh.

I can fly. I can fly. I can fly.

Paragliding!!!

We are very excited. We are also quite tired, mildly sun-burnt, and covered in odd little scratches and bruises. We just got back from two days paragliding in Hemsedal, central Norway (about five hours north-west of Halden, half-way between Oslo and Bergen). This picture was taken last year in Austria, but I’ve included it in order to give you non-paragliding types some idea of what it’s all about. Basically it’s connecting yourself to a big kite and flying with it. The wing folds up and fits in a backpack, along with your helmet and harness. You then drive, or climb, or ride a chair lift up a mountain, set it all up, take a few steps, and you’re in the air! That’s me, launching.

This trip, the snuggle-car performed admirably, as you can see below. Not only transport, but a home away from home.

Hemsedal is gorgeous. The tops of the mountains are still streaked with snow, which as it melts pours down the mountains in streams and waterfalls. We met up with the Oslo Paragliding Klubb. They gave us a lift up the mountain in their minibus, and then it was a 20 minute slog up to the launch site, pictured below. Very very pretty – mountain tops all around, purple flowers on the heather, patches of snow. But I was concentrating on carrying my 15kg backpack.

Here’s the exciting bit – we got 5 flights over two days!!!! (Once, in Austria, we got 7 flights over three weeks.) Until now, I’ve flown with radio contact, but this time I did it all myself! One of my launches went wrong – I was dragged along the rubble and have a grazed elbow to prove it, but that didn’t stop me getting up straight away and trying again. The landing site was on a golf course. We were told to please not land on the greens. The hardest thing about landing is judging when to come in. I got it right most times, but once I was too high, which meant I missed the landing field and… landed in the green. Oops. I stood up sheepishly, and about fifteen Norwegian pilots were staring at me. But I did it right next time. I can’t tell you how amazing it is to fly. To just step off a mountain and into the air. I love it. Love it. Here is the lovie coming in to land in his beautiful brand new Atis II.