Soaring in the sky

Some people go for a walk or play a round of golf in their spare time; others jump off a mountain with a parachute strapped to their back. Rolf von Recklinghausen belongs to the latter category. Enjoy the Algarve asks him about his best flights, his worst crashes, and why he prefers low & slow over higher & faster. 

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine October 2017

Intro picture by Patrick Fore,
all other pictures courtesy of Rolf von Recklinghausen


“The last 20 years, I’ve spent every summer in the Algarve, and as my children grew up, I finally had time for a hobby. By that time I’d already built enough sand castles, so I tried kitesurfing, which I loved. But I still needed something for when there wasn’t enough wind, as lazing on the beach soon became boring.” That’s when the German Rolf von Recklinghausen (57, pictured below) discovered paragliding, about eight years ago. Starting with a course in his native Germany, he has now done over 500 flights, around 100 of them in the south of Portugal.

Paragliding, called parapente in Portuguese, is the adventure sport of flying paragliders: lightweight, free-flying, foot-launched glider aircraft where the pilot sits in a harness that’s suspended from a large wing. There are two main ways: soaring and thermal flying. With soaring, which is mainly done along the coast, you’re flying next to a dune or ridge, in a wind that’s directed upwards because of this object. Thermal flying, usually done inland, uses rising columns of air, called thermals, caused by the fact that sunlight heats up some parts of ground more than others. But, warns Rolf: “You really need to know what you’re doing when flying in the Portuguese thermals, as they can be pretty strong in summer. A climb rate from 2-3 metres per second is nice, but if you go up 7m/s, which can easily happen in summer time, that’s quite intense.”

Still, the Algarve is a great region for paragliding. “That’s mainly because of the laminar wind we have here in many places,” says Rolf. This is a steady and consistent streamlined air flow -the opposite of turbulent wind- which makes for ideal gliding conditions. What makes paragliding in the south of Portugal difficult, though, is the lack of easy starting places. “There aren’t many plateaus with enough space for a standard forward launch,” the German pilot explains. With paragliding you can only start against the wind, so in most places in the Algarve you have to do the so-called reversed launch: stand with your back in the wind, pull your parachute up and then turn and move forward. Although very doable for experienced paragliders, this slightly more complex method isn’t so suitable for beginners.


Popular paragliding spots are located near Loulé (Cerro de Cabeço de Cãmara, pictured above), Vilamoura (Praia da Falésia), Vila do Bispo (Praia da Cordoama), Monchique (Fóia and Pictota), São Marcos da Serra (Benafátima) and Salir (Rocha da Pena). Rolf, however, did his first Algarvian jump near Moncarapacho, the hard way: “I went to the Cerro de São Miguel on my scooter for three days in a row, observing the conditions and looking for a good place to land. On the third day, I just went for it and jumped. Unfortunately I didn’t reach the planned landing spot, but ended up on some rocks instead.” He seems pretty laid-back about this controlled crash, but stresses others shouldn’t follow his example. “The São Miguel isn’t a good starting point anyway, because of its proximity to Faro airport’s approach path. I’ve even heard rumours about paragliders going too high and suddenly having to avoid an incoming jetliner…”

The best place to go paragliding naturally depends on the wind conditions. Rolf: “If the wind comes from the south, Falésia is ideal for soaring; we just open our parachute and take off from the edge of the cliffs. Flying there is so enjoyable: you can soar along the cliffs for hours and hours, just 50m above the beach, which makes for amazing views.”


This low altitude flying isn’t without danger though. If you’re flying too close to the ground, there’s not enough time to react if anything goes wrong. Then again, Rolf states: “You’ve always got a second parachute, so it’s actually very safe. Most accidents are due to the pilot’s mistake.” This also happened one time at Falésia, when Rolf jumped off the cliff without checking that his wing had properly opened. It hadn’t, so the chute collapsed, causing him to fall almost 30m onto the beach below. “They all thought I was dead. Luckily I wasn’t.”

Still, after he recovered, Rolf didn’t hesitate at all before going up again. “Going paragliding, especially from a mountain you’ve never flown from before, gives you such a thrill. As for landing on the beach, that’s just the best feeling in the world! And because you’re not nearly as fast as an aircraft, with paragliding you’re way closer to nature.” It’s this low and slow flying that allows for more contact with the environment. Sometimes literally, when flying with birds, also called ‘parahawking’, which is done in the south of Spain with local vultures. Flying with birds isn’t something Rolf aspires to though: “Too complicated. I’d be worrying they’d get into your lines and get them all tangled up. These birds are pretty big.”


Other options include like hike & fly, where you take your 15 kilo weighing equipment and hike up on the mountain (yes, pretty tiring, but it has the advantage that you literally can start from everywhere), acrobatic flying, and flying with a powered paraglider (paramotor or paratrike). Also possible: cross-country paragliding, for example from the Algarve into the Alentejo. Rolf has joined several excursions of the Associação de Parapente do Algarve, departing from inland towards the coast. “Great fun,” he says about this. “However, it can also happen that you land on a different location than previously planned, for example in the middle of nowhere with the nearest road being 10km away…”

Still, it’s this element of discovery which appeals to the German pilot. “Because of paragliding, I’ve seen sights I’d otherwise never have seen, like countryside villages no tourist ever comes. I’ve observed almost the entire Portuguese coast from the sky, including the area around Cascais and Setúbal.”

What he likes most about this sport, though, is the flying itself: “You can fly for hours without an engine, it’s totally silent around you. It’s a completely different experience: there’s no cockpit; you’re just hanging in the sky from a few strips to your parachute. This makes it such an adventure. After every landing I have a massive smile on my face.”


See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine October 2017



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