SHIP TO SHORE: Rio from the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain, with Copacabana Beach to the left and the city’s boat harbour to the right, is quite special.
SHIP TO SHORE: Rio from the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain, with Copacabana Beach to the left and the city’s boat harbour to the right, is quite special. TREVOR HOCKINS

Awesome soaring as Rio ramps it up

RIO is a breathtaking city.

From Sugar Loaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro's boat harbour sweeps to the north, and its fantastic beaches, to the south.

From the Christ the Redeemer statue, the city rolls out like a 3D street map.

But Rio is most breathtaking from the top of a frighteningly small timber ramp on top of Tijuca National Park, almost half a kilometre above Sao Conrado Beach, not far from Ipanema and Copacabana beaches.

The top of the ramp is only the start. It is when you run down it over a 460m cliff that it becomes really interesting.

On any given weekend, with the right conditions, more than 200 tandem hang gliders take off from the park's peak.

About 50 companies take their co-pilots up from the beach along a winding road through the park. The drive, usually with a hang gliding kite rolled neatly on the vehicle's roof, takes about 20 minutes.

The peak buzzes. Vehicles line up to drop off and pick up in its small carpark, and pilots and crew suit up in the little park just above it.

Down some stairs next to the timber ramp, about 20 people sitting on bleacher-seats underneath, look out over Rio watching fliers take to the sky.

This day is perfect. No clouds, warm and light breezes.

There is a 15-minute prep. First, listen to the pilot and respond quickly, and second, when you are told to, run as fast as you can down the ramp, and do not stop. Stopping may flip the kite, which could put it and its crew upside down perilously close to a narrow turf strip in front of the cliff ... if you are lucky.

So, strapped securely to the kite, and with 2008 Brazilian hang gliding titles runner-up Klaus Kramm as pilot, we stood at the top of the ramp.

Our guide, Mario Heino, an Italian who married a Brazilian girl and then was seduced by Rio, hooked us up with Konrad Heilmann's Rio Hangliding as soon as we mentioned it.

"Oh, you want to fly?" he said, flashing a broad grin. "He's a Brazilian champion. He's the best ... you want to go with him."

Heilmann tours the world competing and flying, and often visits Australia. "Do you know Bundaberg?" he asked when it became clear we were from Down Under.

"One, two, three ..." Klaus said, and a short sprint down the ramp, a little dip and lift as we hit a thermal, and we soar over one of Rio's richest suburbs, Gavea.

It is surrounded by Rio's awesome "hills", granite peaks that often stretch into mist, the backdrop to the city.

Tiny blue specks - backyard swimming pools - sparkle below and to the north there are green kidney dishes with white billabongs sprinkled along their fringes, the tell-tale geographical tattoos of a golf course.

Further on, over the headland, is the tip of Sugar Loaf Mountain and unseen below it, the city centre. Even Christ the Redeemer, the statue that is forever blessing the city, seems dwarfed from here, though it is another

quarter of a kilometre higher than us.

Look down, though, and the 20-storey buildings that line Sao Conrado beach are dwarfed, the cars on the eight-lane highway that winds behind them, multi-coloured ants shooting back and forth.

Rio de Janeiro's canvas is flecked with plenty of green - the city's massive "green link", Tijuca National Park, clings to the bottom of the city's mountains - across a sprawl of more than 150sq km, but every one has been re-planted, Marco told us. Most of the land in the city was cleared in the 19th century to make way for then-lucrative coffee plantations.

Rio's famed 200m-wide, white beaches, too, are more a testament to engineering than Mother Nature. Copacabana and Ipanema beaches were built, with what is now the Avenue Atlantico esplanade and famed beachside romalas, through the 1920s and 30s.

Rio, in 1890, was one of the largest and richest cities in the world, with more than half a million people.

Buildings had been sited right up to its ample foreshore, and rather than move them, the shoreline was extended into Guanabara Bay, which wraps around the city.

It is the largest, deepest, and arguably most spectacular bay in the world.

Rio's population these days is about 13 million, most of whom seem to be on the beaches any given weekend, tanning, swimming, walking, or playing football or volleyball on the bleached coral sand.

It is far from Brazil's largest city, though. That honour lies with the country's new business hub, Sao Paulo, to the south, less than half an hour flight from Rio.

It has a forest of high-rise buildings as far as the eye can see to cope with its 23 million inhabitants, more than Australia's population.

Rio is a little more relaxed. Sort of. We had been warned about the city's crime rate, but we were told that if we played it low-key and took commonsense care, we would have few problems. It was good advice: we had no problems.

The city has a good bus service, but taxis are relatively cheap and plentiful.

Most of the locals seemed to have some sort of understanding of English, which was good because Brazilian Portuguese sounds a little Russian to the untrained ear.

The hang glider flight was over all too soon. Just on eight minutes seems way too short.

And so did five days in Rio.

RIO DE JANEIRO FACTS

  • Rio's bay, Guanabara, has been nominated as one of South America's Seven Wonders of the Natural World
  • Rio de Janeiro means "river of January"
  • The famed Rio Carnival, a celebration before Lent which started regularly about 1850, runs in February and March each year; in 2012 it begins on February 18
  • French colonists first settled on an island in Guanabara Bay in 1555, but the Portuguese, by 1567, had expelled them after two years of bloody fighting and founded Rio on the mainland
  • It is the largest, deepest and arguably the most spectacular bay in the world

>> Read more travel stories.


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