Okay, so you've rafted down the Jordan River, hiked the Negev canyons and scuba dived in the Red Sea. But if you're feeling that when it comes to Israel you've been there and done that, guess what? You haven't seen the country until you've soared over it with the birds, literally, in a paraglider.
Yes it's true; paragliding, as they say, is the slowest and apparently riskiest way to get from one place you don't really need to be to another. But ah, the journey is breathtaking. And where else in the world can you have as much fun and at the same time risk sparking a war or at least landing on a minefield?
Okay, so there are some disadvantages. But it's only in the Holy Land that you can leap off the same mountain on which King Saul fell onto his own sword. Or retrace the route Jesus took when he leaped off an abyss to escape a lynch mob.
Despite this, or because of it, paragliding is one of the most exciting extreme sports in the country.
Not only that but word is out and more and more foreigners are flocking to the country to throw themselves off perfectly good mountains and ridges. Most locations around the world are seasonal, but Israel is uniquely situated so that despite its tiny dimensions there are enough winds, cliffs and hills to let enthusiasts find a spot to jump from nearly every day of the year.
IT'S GOING on dusk here on the cliffs of Mevo Hama on the southern Golan Heights. The setting sun is a deep yellow and it's starting to silhouette the hills across Lake Kinneret to the west. More than 30 paragliders are already in the sky hovering over the 400-meter plateau. One after another, they yank their chutes by the lines like they're pulling up a kite, turn around and literally push themselves off the edge of the cliff for half an hour of soaring before the sun sets completely. Syria and the outskirts of Damascus on the eastern horizon, the fading white Gilad mountains of Jordan to the south and the shadowy, craggy slopes of Galilee to the west; it's a stunning view that only a privileged few get to see.
It is the annual paragliding festival of a group calling itself Holy Wind (in Hebrew it could also be translated as the "holy spirit," a name chosen in deference to the Holy Land). About 100 gregarious paragliders, their spouses and kids gather in mid-July for the overnight event at the country's main high mountain paragliding site. There were even some who came from abroad.
It was here that the Syrian gunners aimed at the kibbutzim and moshavim along the shores of the lake below until the IDF captured the strategic heights in the 1967 war.
"Better watch out on your take off," they told me the first time I jumped from this place. "If it goes wrong, you risk landing in a minefield."
At first I thought they were just ribbing me in some kind of psychotic joke. But alas the barbed wire on the slopes actually marks off old Syrian minefields. About once or twice a year someone lands in a minefield somewhere in the country. So far, no one has actually landed directly on a mine and set it off. And even though these mines are likely more than 50 years old and may not still be lethal, who wants to chance it? Not only that but the army has to be called in to rescue the pilot.
PILOT. GLIDER. Floater. Ever since the days of the Greek high-flyer Icarus, people have dreamt of soaring with the birds. Nothing simulates it better than paragliding.
"Everyone starts paragliding for a different reason and enjoys it for different reasons," says Amir Malik, who picked up the sport with his wife some six years ago. "For some it's the quest for the altitude, for some the challenge of finding thermals. For some it's the aerobatics. Some do it for the silent flying along the ridges and some for the noisy flight with a motor on their backs. I personally joined the sport because it was my dream to fly. I really wanted to fly with a motor in the skies of Israel. That was my dream but with time, after my Level 1 course, I realized that free flight was the kind of flying for me. I even bought a motor and tried it, but I saw that it wasn't for me.
"I enjoy high flight, the higher the better. Flying just before dusk as the sun sets over Lake Kinneret is the ultimate flying experience for me. My most beautiful moments of my flights till today are the evening flights from Mevo Hama."
The paraglider evolved from a kippa-shapped parachute and today resembles a sort of inflated, banana-shaped wing. It's made out of siliconized cloth and inflates with the wind that gives it enormous lift that allows the pilot, dangling beneath in a well-padded harness, to fly. The pilot controls the glider by pulling on brakes, lines that literally bend down the trailing edge of one side of the wing. Pull the left brakes and the wing turns to the left, and vice versa. Some have purchased motors that are strapped on the back and allow them to fly without the need to jump off a mountain. This is called paramotoring.
The paragliding sport came into prominence here in the mid-1990s with the advent of light, strong materials, better understanding of aerodynamics and growing awareness of extreme sports in the increasingly affluent society.
Paragliders are often seen in the summer buzzing the coastal bluffs that stretch from Herzliya past Netanya. Other favorite sites are off Mount Tabor in the Lower Galilee and the Golan Heights. In the winter the flying shifts to Mount Gilboa and the cliffs over the Dead Sea when the easterly winds are blowing or down to the Negev craters.
"That's the beauty of paragliding in Israel," explains Tsahi Reil, a farmer from Kibbutz Merhavia and one of the doyens of the sport. "There are nearly year-round flying options available and every site is within a one- to three-hour drive."
"Our scale makes us unique, but it also is our greatest limitation," he added.
REIL MEANT the borders, of course. The ultimate goal of most paragliders once they have mastered the sport is not only to stay aloft with the winds and thermals, but to actually fly someplace, to cross the country. Here it's not like Europe where paragliders can take off in the Swiss Alps, cross over Italy and land in Slovenia without second thought for border control. Here one risks starting a war, if he flies over the border.
n November 2005, Adam Wexler, a paraglider test pilot, took off without authorization from Kibbutz Menara and instead of soaring east toward the Hula Valley as he planned, a gust sent him right over the border into tense Lebanon. He asked for permission but was reportedly rejected. He jumped anyway. Hizbullah gunmen tried to capture him and opened fire in his direction. But alert IDF troops engaged them in a fierce gun battle to allow him to sprint back over a minefield to a border gate where he scuttled in. No one was hurt. But Wexler not only left his chute on the Lebanon side, he was charged with disobeying military orders and negligent operation of a flight vessel. He was eventually acquitted because he proved he had indeed received verbal authorization.
Minefields and Hizbullah! Not to mention low-flying IAF fighter jets during weekdays. As if dangling from thin nylon strings under a parachute 1,000 meters above the earth wasn't extreme enough. What kinds of people are drawn to this?
There is no real typical paraglider; some are in the hi-tech fields, some are farmers, bus drivers, Web designers, cops and businessmen. There are a handful of Arabs, but this sport has not caught on with that community. One reason it is attractive to Israelis is that despite the fact that it looks like a loner sport - just you and the clouds - it requires a supportive social network. And Israelis are social animals.
"This is not an individualistic sport. If it was, it would never have taken off in Israel because we all like to run and tell our friends," says Nir Aruesti, 36, a bus driver. "You have 10 minutes of flying and two hours of story telling to your mates. Not only that but there will always be someone to pick you up from wherever it is you land."
Avi Shaul, 36, an air-conditioning technician, got into the sport after falling down three stories in a work accident.
"I was afraid of heights and I told myself I needed to deal with that," he said. "Now I've got the opposite problem - I see heights and I want to jump off!"
"This sport sucks you up. Not everyone who does the course sticks with it, but those who do end up investing a lot of time in it. You become crazy about it," interjects Reil.
Old-timer Beni Yishai always flies with a loaded pistol tucked into his belt. "Why?" I asked him. He quickly draws it out and says, "You never know what you might encounter out there. You never know."
Indeed, this is mainly a man's sport. Israel mirrors the rest of the world and here roughly 5 percent of paragliders are women. (In Brazil about one in three paragliders are women.)
IS IT expensive? The price of a chute, padded harness (which contains a reserve parachute) and helmet is about NIS 14,000. Used equipment costs about half that. The basic course that teaches you to fly off high mountains and bluffs costs about NIS 7,000. Courses in thermal flying and other advanced topics are usually taken after pilots accumulate 100 to 150 hours of flying which takes about a year or two.
There are about 200 active paragliders in the country and another 200 or 300 who occasionally participate. Israel is even home to APCO, one of the most formidable paragliding manufacturers in the world.
There are four schools in the country that can be recommended. But the sport is wide open and there is no longer a need for accreditation and you don't actually need any formal license to fly.
Is it dangerous? There are always accidents, mostly due to pilot error on takeoff and landing or not obeying the rules, but also due to sudden weather shifts and inexperience. There have been a number of fatal accidents, but statistically it's one of the safest sports in the country.
I kept repeating this to myself as I stood on the cliff edge at dusk waiting for the wind gusts to die down. Exactly a year ago, with two years of experience under my belt, I had a bad takeoff. The wind threw me back violently against the cliff (above the minefield) and I broke my collarbone. That kept me grounded for a few months.
But I was back because I have always had this inner urge to fly like a bird. I wasn't afraid of the parachute - just my wife.
One of the best ways to experience the paragliding thrill without going through the course and buying equipment is to be taken aloft in a tandem with an experienced pilot.
For the experienced, Mount Tabor is the mecca, drawing enthusiasts from around the world. A virtual thermal machine, from here paragliders can lift off, soar over the monastery and head east. Sometimes the currents will take you toward Lake Kinneret, just over where the Jordan River picks up again. Or if the winds are right you can continue to the eastern shores of the lake.
"That's the pinnacle achievement of our sport," says Eitan Shabiro, one of the organizers of the Holy Wind gathering on the Golan Heights. "The moment someone does that complex 20-kilometer cross from Mount Tabor to the Golan Heights for the first time, he runs and plasters it all over the Web. I know I did, because when I landed here that was such a great thrill."
Just north of Mount Tabor, near Nazareth, is the Mount of the Precipice, or Mount of the Leap. According to tradition, this is where an angry mob dragged Jesus to this cliff, his poor mother watching in horror. But before they could toss him off, he calmly "walked through the crowd" and leapt over the precipice.
Tradition says Jesus soared the eight kilometers and landed on the top of Mount Tabor where he went through the process of transfiguration. Depending on how you interpret the New Testament, one could say that thermal conditions must have been pretty good and Jesus may have made one of the first "cross-country" flights in the Holy Land. This past May, Pope Benedict XVI visited what had been an inaccessible site. The new road paved for him has thus opened up a new paragliding launch site.
When he jumped off the Mount of the Precipice for the first time, Tsahi Reil wasn't thinking about Jesus. "The only thing I was thinking of was how to keep my leading edge from running forward and causing a stall," he recalls.
No matter where you fly you pass over ancient sites. The winter take off site at Mount Gilboa is called "Saul's shoulder." It was here that King Saul fell on his sword and died instead of being taken captive by the Philistines. At the Arsuf bluffs, paragliders get a bird's eye view of the Crusader castle of Appolonia (and the nudist beach just to the north).
MOST ACTIVE paragliders will tell you that the sport has changed their life. Like farmers, they notice the seasons more. Like sailors, they are more keen to the changes in the winds. Like hunters, they can identify most birds. Weekends and many evenings in the week are spent linking up with fellow gliders and flying.
"When I drive past those filled parking lots of shoppers at the strip malls on the weekends, I pity them. I used to be one of them, wasting my time. Now I'm seeing the country, making great new friends and flying," says Shaul.
Moshe Edri, 46, is a recently retired flight technician with thousands of hours of helicopter flight in his logbook.
"I look at the skies and see the clouds and wind direction every morning when I wake up. Even my family has become infected. They see the flags fluttering in the wind and they say 'Dad, there's an easterly wind today,'" he says.
Paragliding for this airman is drastically different.
"In the air force I was up there all wrapped up in metal and glass. But hanging under a paraglider, I feel the wind and am literally flying with the birds. In fact one of the most moving moments I ever had was when I found a thermal. Then a short-toed eagle joined me and we circled higher and higher. That was the biggest compliment I have ever received," Edri recalls.
After a night of merrymaking in a Beduin tent and singing around a campfire, we paragliders awoke with hopes of a good westerly wind for an early morning flight.
Peter Kostal, 49, a visitor from Austria, was anxious to fly but a bit apprehensive about the minefields. He's flown all over the world but this was a first for him.
"I'm excited to be in Israel because when I fly here, I have no idea what will happen," Kostal says.
I'M ALL strapped up in my gear and off I go. Once airborne I turn north and start hunting for thermals. My altimeter chirps when I ascend and "burps" when I descend. I'm listening for the chirps and find them over a spring and start to circle. Many times I have soared high and returned for a top landing on the Golan, but alas it is still early and the sun has not yet warmed up the earth for a strong thermal. After 25 minutes of peaceful flying, I head out to the landing zone near the shores of Lake Kinneret. I am ecstatic.
Not far behind me is Kostal, who lands disappointed with his first flight from the Golan.
"I pulled away from the ridge on top quickly because I was afraid of landing in one of the minefields," says the Austrian. "I guess I'll have to come back and try again."
How to make the leap
The most popular Web site and forum for the sport is Holy Wind (www.holywind.co.il).
Excursions with tourists can be arranged at a number of sites. The most popular are at Netanya and Arsuf (Ga'ash) bluffs over the Mediterranean. But the higher flights and cross-country flights are from Mount Tabor or Mevo Hama on the Golan Heights.
The average cost is from NIS 300 for about a 20-minute flight over the coastal bluffs, and NIS 450 for a longer flight from the mountains in Galilee or the Golan.
The market is wide open since there is no licensing required for tandem flying. But the most reputable pilots offering safe tandem flights are:
• Nesher (www.flynesher.co.il) from NIS 300 for about a 20-minute flight over the coastal bluffs and NIS 450 for a longer flight from the mountains.
• Agur (www.flyagur.co.il) from NIS 350 for half hour coastal flight and NIS 450 for mountain flying.
• Shamayim Paragliders 052-222-3221, (09) 954-9788
• Dvir Paragliding (www.dvirparagliding.co.il) 050-833-3100, (09) 899-0277
• Dekel (www.dekel5.co.il) (03) 506-0063
• Agur (www.flyagur.co.il) - The Israel hang gliding and paragliding club, established 1977, Sea Palace Beach, Bat Yam. Arnon Har-Lev 054-245-4346
• Sitvanit (www.sitvanit.com) - The Sitvanit Paragliding Club, established 1994. Shimon "Shimi" Hanegbi, (03) 518-9618, 050-559-0894
• Udi Doron (www.glide.co.il) 052-803-3824
• Seven Winds (www.7winds.co.il), Roman Kirpak 054-464-3969