Fri, Aug 22, 2003 - Page 17 News List

Where eagles dare

A recent increase in the promotion of paragliding might see the number of people entering the sport increase, even as serious questions about the credibility and safety of the sport in Taiwan remain unresolved

By Gavin Phipps  /  STAFF REPORTER

Paragliding at Saijia is taking off with the support currently given the sport by local governments in an effort to promote tourism.


Only the French would be crazy enough to invent a pursuit in which participants were encouraged to leap off of cliff faces with nothing but a 2m square piece of nylon strapped to their backs.

Dubbed parapente -- translated into English as paraglide -- by the early pioneers, the first paragliders to take to the air were French mountaineers in the mid-1980s. Too lazy to hike down after completing an ascent, the reckless Europeans would unfurl the chutes they had carried with them and casually glide down to the valley floor from the freshly conquered summit.

Since then the pastime has taken off on a global scale. On any given weekend, be it in Texas or Keelung, people crazy enough to leap off precipices into thin air can be spotted enjoying this somewhat dangerous pastime.

Once boasting over 1,000 active pilots, paragliding has lost momentum in Taiwan over the past eight years. While the nation boasts 12 clubs, the number of people now active is currently at an all-time low of 200.

Because of this, paragliding clubs, local town councils and the Tourism Bureau have been actively trying to increase this number in recent months. A series of regattas in Taitung and Pingtung attracted hundreds of onlookers and were considered huge successes by organizers.

In conjunction with the recent flurry of airborne activity, Taiwan has also seen an increase in the number of paragliding venues. Along with well-established spots such as Pingtung's Saijia and Taitung's Luyeh, paragliders can now soar with the birds in Hualian, Keelung, Nantou, Ilan and Hsinchu.

Rabid promotion and more venues have meant that clubs such as the Taipei Aerosport Association (台北飛行運動委員會) have seen a marked increase the number of students this year. According to Hsieh Tsong-tze (謝宗澤), a member of a Hsinchuang-based club, the number of students now on the books is at an all time high of 120.

"The numbers of students are increasing all the time. And as the number of places that allow paragliding increase, I'm sure the number of people wanting to learn will increase also," Hsieh said.

Luo Gu-sheng (羅古生) of the Keelung Aerosport Association (基隆市體育會飛行運動委員會) supports Hsieh's optimism. The association, which offers lessons at Green Bay, one of the closest paragliding spots to Taipei, now boasts a core group of paragliding regulars numbering between 30 to 40 and more students than ever before, Luo said.

Due to this sudden upsurge in the number of those wishing to take to the sky, tuition rates have leveled off. While there is no standardized fee, nearly all of Taiwan's clubs charge around NT$10,000 for a month-long course.

Although the equipment is far from cheap, with prices for a full kit starting at around NT$80,000, the number of would-be paragliders willing to purchase equipment is also on the increase. While the economy stews, it appears that would-be paragliders are more than happy to spend their cash.

"It's certainly not a cheap pastime, but you'd be surprised at the number of people willing to pay for the gear," said Hsieh. "They see it as an investment and a way in which they can get a little adventure in their lives."

While the number of those seeking adventure is on the increase, many serious questions remain relating to the quality of tuition and the overall safety aspects surrounding paragliding in Taiwan.

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