Thrill-seekers' adventure tours lure more travelers

November 18, 1990|By Dan Coyle | Dan Coyle,Universal Press Syndicate

You can tromp around the world in search of new experiences, immerse yourself in lost cultures and climb unpronounceable mountains in unpronounceable countries. Until you've done something really foolish, though, such as running off a mountain while attached to a kite, say in Utah, or jumping off a bridge in New Zealand with elastic ropes tied around yourself, you haven't truly experienced adventure travel.

OK, so this reasoning sounds just a tad on the weird side. But the fact is, a couple of thrill-sports along these lines are becoming increasingly popular, safe and accessible to non-Evel Knievel types. They're called paragliding and bungee jumping, but they're really the solutions to lingering childhood questions our parents wouldn't let us solve. Would you be able to fly if you hung onto a bedsheet and ran really fast? Would you be able to jump off someplace really tall if you were tied to a big rubber band?

First, the bedsheet question. As the name implies, paragliders are close kin to parachutes: a large square sheet of fabric on average 30 feet by 12 feet, with portals sewn into the leading edge. You're strapped into a harness that is connected to this canopy by a spiderweb of nylon lines. To launch, you simply run downhill into a headwind, pull the lines overhead to inflate the canopy, and it lifts you off.

How long you stay up depends on how high the hill is. The glider will stay up about a minute for each 300 feet of elevation. The glider moves forward five feet for every one foot it drops, has a top speed of about 25 miles an hour, and is equipped with brakes -- lines attached to the trailing edge of the glider.

Compared to other modes of flight, paragliding possesses a few distinct advantages: It's light (about 9 pounds on the average), it can be learned easily (most beginners fly on the first day) and, most important, it's launched on a slope, permitting the pilot to abort takeoff safely at any time. All of which accounts for its popularity in the alpine countries of Europe -- Switzerland alone has 20,000 certified pilots. The United States has only 200 American Paragliding Association-certified pilots, but if you're planning on taking a lesson, make sure your instructor is one of them.

No comprehensive safety statistics have been compiled yet, but Peter Zimerle, a former Swiss professional skydiver who is now the president of the APA, says paragliding is safer than downhill skiing.

Calm has had exceedingly little to do with bungee jumping ever since April Fools' Day of 1979, when it was "invented" by the tuxedoed stuntmen of the Oxford Dangerous Sports Club in England. The basic equipment is pretty simple: a seat and chest harness, a length of elasticized rubber enclosed in a nylon sheath called a bungee, and some high-grade hardware to link the apparatus to a high object such as a bridge, a crane or a balloon. It's tempting to try it on your own, but unless properly done, bungee-jumping can be dangerous. France temporarily outlawed the sport last year after three jumpers were killed.

In America, the only commercial vendors of bungee-jumping are Peter and Tom Kockelman, a pair of wickedly inventive California brothers who own Bungee Adventures of Palo Alto. The Flying Kockelman Brothers, as they are known, have abetted more than 10,000 jumps since they opened for business in May 1988. Bookings must be made months in advance, but if that's too long to wait, you can go to Queenstown, New Zealand, and visit A. J. Hackett's Bungee Limited, or Paris, where the Club Elastique serviced more than 24,000 jumpers last year.

Those lucky enough to attempt the 100-foot jump from the Kockelmans' hot-air balloon (tethered, thankfully, 150 feet above the ground in Tracy, Calif., an hour from San Francisco) probably will employ the swan dive technique. After paying $99 (which includes a videotape of your jump), you hurl yourself out of the balloon headfirst. The 50-foot military-issue cord stretches slowly, decelerates you to an easy stop 50 feet above the ground, then slings you skyward 75 feet. You bounce back and forth a few times, then are hauled up or let down to the ground.

Of course, the Kockelmans have invented variations on the swan dive, such as the body dip (done over a river; you are submerged on the initial descent), Siamese drops (two people harnessed together) and the bat drop (you hang from a bridge by your toes, then let go).

Paragliding outfitters:

*Adventure Sports, 3680-6 Research Way, Carson City, Nev. 89706; (702) 883-7070.

*Morningside Flight Park, RFD 2, Box 109, Claremont, N.H. 03743; (603) 542-4416.

*Parapente USA, 2442 N.W. Market St., No. 31, Seattle, Wash. 98107; (206) 467-5944.

*Torrey Pines Flight Park, 2800 Torrey Pines Scenic, San Diego, Calif. 92037; (619) 452-3202.

Bungee-jumping outfitter:

*Bungee Adventures, 2218 Old Middlefield Road, Mountain View, Calif. 94043; (415) 903-3546.

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