On June 3rd, 2007, I top landed at the school oval after soaring Beechmont. My paragliding instructor Phil Hystek shook my hand while saying, “You’re licensed”. The previous month, sixteen years ago, I’d signed up to learn to fly with a long time local of Canungra, someone who has trained most of the pilots in this club, the most active in Australia. The country offers world class flying but here in the hills closer to the coast the conditions can be quite complicated and tricky. Often when facing weak conditions in the Alps I would encourage myself by declaring it was “Canungra conditions”, something I have a lot of experience with.
Beechmont is the premier and most used site for Canungra pilots. Being in the Gold Coast hinterland, property prices are high and unlike farmers further west who have huge tracts of land and would take an interest in seeing unusual visitors, some residents here are seeking tranquility, or don’t want their horses spooked, and with the hills covered in trees, land access suitable for launches and landings has always been an important priority for the club. Raising money with membership fees higher than anywhere else their strategy has been to purchase land, secure access and consolidate relationships with landowners, which is why it has come as such a shock to me to hear that their main site is now threatened.
In my “you’re licensed” flight my instructor had told me over the radio I’d need to lean into and turn tight in those small winter thermals. Face landing (on launch) is a tricky manouvre for experienced pilots in the right conditions, and landing down the bottom of the hill is a logistical nightmare (the drive to get you is hours), so if I could just get a few turns in and gain enough height to top land it made all the difference. Generally in Australia, because the hills are quite small, the crux of the flight is “getting established”, taking thermals up to the clouds where you have a bit more height up your sleeve to have options to find lift before having to land. It means you really need to be in tune with your surroundings and you develop a detailed appreciation of nature not just for aesthetic appreciation, but to fly safe and have good flights. Have a chat to pilots on launch about what to look for and they’ll give you all kinds of advice on how to interpret the conditions. Southeast Queensland has produced some of the best pilots in the world, the most famous being a Beechmont local from wayback, Jonny Durand.
A really approachable and friendly guy he’s a part of the community, and that’s one great thing about flying, the pilots come from a variety of backgrounds but it’s a small world and everyone is a friend of a friend. I have met many interesting people throughout the world because of flying and we all love to share this appreciation of nature, understanding how the air works, and seeing beautiful areas in such a unique way. I put Jonny in touch with an American who I met through a hike and fly competition in the Alps and they made a podcast which put a smile on my face through most of it – a great bunch of stories.
Now I thought I’d tell a few stories of my own relating to flying this site, a premier site in Australia. Beechmont is close to the coast and is a great place for relaxing seabreeze flights, the ridge effectively turns onshore winds into dynamic lift, and sometimes in the evening this combines with a shady katabatic slope flow to produce magic air, widespread lifting air which is a relaxing gift at the end of the day. But the real magic happens early in the morning while the site is still quiet and sun is busy heating the eastern faces. Whilst living in Sydney I was up for a few days and this day looked promising so when my Brisbane friend was running late I said “no friends on a day like this” and I took to the sky. Conditions were tricky but it was working and soon I was working my way down the high east facing cliffs above the Numinbah valley. The tradition for club pilots is to fly “over the back” towards Canungra, with a few ridges on the way then a long valley crossing, the town of Beaudesert, and the “flats”. But for me I couldn’t understand why people would choose this technically difficult route, perhaps needing a “low save”, when a stunning vista down the Numinbah just ahead of launch beckoned.
Crossing into New South Wales you have the steep rainforest clad ridges of the caldera to fly along, half expecting to see dinosaurs. I was keeping in touch with my mate Andy who had arrived to Beechmont late, or at a more normal time, and he got airborne as well but for me I had as far as I could see to myself. The plan was that I’d meet up with him later in the day, as I needed his help to get back to the airport that night. With that in mind I was attempting a triangle, crossing the caldera to push west while staying in the hills and then skirting Lamington national park (completely covered in subtropical rainforest) again to have a scenic final leg back to Beechmont. The flying was so good that day that Andy decided to push onward to Kyogle rather than fly back to his car, which suddenly meant I had no backup plan, I had to get back! At around 3pm, when the afternoon shift were arriving to fluff their wings in anticipation of a seabreeze to soar, I bobbed over the last ridge with a few turns to get just enough height to land at Beechmont where Andy had parked his car. He hitched halfway back so I picked him up without delay and we arrived back in Brisbane not only in time for my flight to Sydney, but just in time for his daughter finishing kindy!
These “around the world” circumnavigation flights of the extended enclave of rainforest, “the Lost World” were so beautiful and inspiring and I never tired of them. They require an early start and fast flying if you want to beat the seabreeze and the scenery is wild and spectacular. Exploring beautiful places is what I got into paragliding for and it gives you an enriching memorable experience. In contrast, competitions often left me feeling constrained and frustrated that I could have done it better. But it can be a lot of fun to share the experience with your friends. So another time I came up for a weekend while a competition was on, but on this day it didn’t work out well for me as I was forbidden from launching until all the competition pilots had long departed. By then a cloud shadow sat over launch and the wind socks tended to nod downhill. I needed a fast running launch but I took my chances and went for a thermal in the valley, and it worked. I made no attempt to follow the competition task but instead followed the terrain and flew alongside waterfalls, and even met a friendly local!
Another special flight from Beechmont was during the bushfire season at the end of 2019. That year I’d considered spending more time on alternative recreation, like sailing, but with such a dry year I realised that paragliding was actually good value. I was flying here there and everywhere, covering more terrain than I had in the previous 12 years, it seemed. But later in the year I was tired of the smoky dust bowl – we needed some new ways to describe the weather as aviation meteorologists. But my mate Andrew wanted to get out of the house so he talked me into it. Alright… off we go to Beechmont. And I can’t really complain – a really special flight down the Numinbah again but then cutting across to Mt Warning, getting a thermal out of the crater. Andrew landed in nearby Tyalgum but I thought I might as well try to fly back – and it worked! Top landing I collected the car and him on the way back. Very satisfying.
While I normally like to fly somewhere new, and sometimes might say I have a “love hate” relationship with a site that I have perhaps flown too often, I must admit that it is a world class site and has a wealth of memories from experiences starting (and sometimes ending!) at Beechmont. I hope that the Canungra club continues stewardship of this site and it continues to give special experiences for future generations.