On Flying


“Jonathan Seagull discovered that boredom and fear and anger are the reasons that a gull’s life is so short, and with those gone from his thought, he lived a long fine life indeed.”

Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been enamoured by all things related to flight. It started with birds. As a boy, I persuaded my father to help me build big walk-in bird cages in our backyard and I filled them with all manner of birds, paid for using hard-earned pocket money and savings. A chaotic cacophony of cockatiels, budgies, pigeons, quails, finches, parakeets, and more filled our yard. 

Later on, as a young teenager, I would sit for hours glued to Microsoft Flight Simulator, black Quickshot joystick in hand, flying biplanes, puddle jumpers, and jumbo jets for weekends on end. I’d take off in Johannesburg, eventually flicking the controls to autopilot before going to bed, and landing the 747 in Sydney the next morning before breakfast. Once, I completely forgot to prepare for presentation day at school, so I walked up and did an impromptu 5 minute talk called “So, How Do Aeroplanes Fly?”, complete with crude blackboard sketches and blowing over some tissue paper to show how lift works. I aced it. 

I always knew that I would one day realise these dreams of the sky. It would take more than two decades before I got there, but I got there, with not much more than a harness, a bunch of coloured lines, and around four kilograms of ripstop plastic. Yes: paragliding.

In 2021, I took the leap and became a certified paraglider pilot. Life hasn’t been quite the same ever since.

Ask aeroplane pilots, and they tend to agree that yes, soaring is flying, and also yes, there is a notable difference between paragliding and most other forms of aviation. It’s not waking sleepily after a redeye flight as the flaps go down in preparation for landing, the smell of breakfast still lingering in the cockpit. You’re not even sitting in a cockpit, wrapped in metal and glass, with gauges and levers and toggles and screens separating you from the outside world.

Allow a small snippet from Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (about the difference between riding a car and a motorcycle) to highlight something subtle: 

“You see things… in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and… through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. … the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.”

For me, paragliding transcends mechanics and physics. Instead, it is a manifestation of spirit, a desire to explore the endless reach of the blue sky. Each flight for me is to realise that long-held dream once more; to break free from the constraints of the ground underneath. 

Imagine with me for a minute here. You’re standing on a patch of grass, halfway up a mountain. Your armpits and back are a little sweaty from the hike to the top. The breeze is blowing, cooling you as you take off your backpack. You unpack your equipment. The paraglider wing is pulled out into a beautiful arch, colourful lines fanning down from it, connected to your harness. You clip in, check everything, and everything is exactly as it should be.

Even though you’ve done this hundreds of times, you still feel the anticipation building, energy bouncing in your chest. You face the wing and tug on the lines. It fills with air and shoots overhead. You restrain it, like a leashed dog, shaking with obedient excitement, it just wants to be given permission to go. You swing around and face the valley ahead of you. 

But before you go, you just stand there, taking it in. This is that fleeting moment, where the normal world as you know it is both incredibly close yet impossibly distant. 

You push your chest forward, run, and as if by pure magic, you are lifted off the ground. Yes, you are taking flight, surrendering to the sky. Your heart and senses swell with the overwhelming awareness that you have suddenly become very, very alive. 

In the sky, time becomes elastic. It doesn’t conform to the metronome of the clock, but instead, it bends and deforms and flows with the breeze. You are soaring through the sky like a bird. Reality blurs. Having surrendered all control of your life into your own two hands, you realise that as of this moment, you’re not just a passenger anymore, you’re not just a witness to what’s happening: you are making it happen. You’ve become the bird.

The horizon extends a hand, beckoning you forward, but there is also the other invisible hand of gravity, pulling you down. Your senses are heightened; your attention sharpens to a pinpoint. In this moment you think of nothing else than exactly where you are. Your goal is simple: get higher.

You fly over a patch of brown, sun-baked rocks and a hot thermal shoots you skyward. You lean to the side, and in smooth circles, propelled by nothing but a blast of rising air, you rotate higher and higher,  nature over Newton. The air gets colder and colder and you have reached the top. You’re at the highest point that nature will allow, for today at least. 

As you relax and look down, you see the landscape unfold. A woven tapestry of human endeavour. Thousands of stories of mountains and valleys, farms and towns, roads and railways, rivers and fences. It’s not about what’s behind you anymore, but the endless in front of you. You realise you have been freed from whatever petty things that shackled your mind down on the ground. 

As with most meaningful things, you wouldn’t have gotten there without facing risk and putting in the hours. Turbulence, like hardships in life, tests your mettle and makes you more adept at navigating the unpredictable. In moments of uncertainty and fear, you learn to dig deep for courage. If you reflect and learn from your mistakes and pain, you get to experience the reward of growth. Flying allows you to grow stronger, wiser, and hopefully, more at peace. 

You can fly alone, but you won’t need to feel lonely. There is an invisible bond that connects us and you have joined the ranks of dreamers who dared to challenge gravity’s grip. You are part of a lineage that spans generations –long before the Wright brothers and Da Vinci– and will continue to grow, long after you’ve been put to rest. You’re part of a camaraderie that transcends time, space, and even species. 

With your feet back on the ground, you look up at the sky one last time, not quite able to explain it all. You took off from the familiar and ended up on an adventure of self-discovery. You thought you’d only find a rush of adrenaline, but here you are with more freedom, courage, and a renewed sense of life. 

So then, dear reader, when you one day might feel the call of the sky, please answer it with all your heart. May your flights also be as boundless as the dreams that took you there. May you also find the courage to soar, to explore, and to discover. For in flying, you may also just discover the essence of what it truly means to live.

About the author

Werner van Rooyen

Formerly Business Development and Marketing at Luno (where we went from eight nerds in a tiny office to hundreds of people spread over three continents) and before that Marketing at PayFast. Currently investing, paragliding, and doing research, mostly in Mexico.

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About me

Werner van Rooyen

Formerly Business Development and Marketing at Luno (where we went from eight nerds in a tiny office to hundreds of people spread over three continents) and before that Marketing at PayFast. Currently investing, paragliding, and doing research, mostly in Mexico.