Pulling the strings

Photo: Matt Gibson

Malcolm Vargas believes Taiwan is a paraglider’s paradise and has spent years helping it to realise its potential

Matt Gibson

Photo: Matt Gibson

Malcolm Vargas believes that he’s found paragliding paradise on an island in Southeast Asia. It’s not hard to see why his chosen spot is well suited to paragliding. An island straddling the Tropic of Cancer, it is just under 400km long and 150km wide, with more than 60% of its land area covered with hills and mountains, half of them over 1,000m tall. The mountains are steep and rugged, and the eastern coastal range is especially amenable to paragliding, as it plunges almost directly down into the ocean, save only for a highway following the shoreline and a few narrow beaches. The island is Taiwan.
“It’s simply the best place in Asia—probably one of the best in the world,” said the chipper 53 year-old American. “It’s even better than Bali.”

 

If anyone is qualified to comment on paragliding in the country, it’s Vargas. With 11 years of flying in Taiwan under his belt, he’s the only foreign pilot in the country to have gone through the entire Taiwanese certification process and one of the few instructors there certified by the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association.
You could fairly say that Vargas wrote the book on paragliding in the country. With the help of his wife, paragliding pilot Doris Wang, Vargas wrote the first comprehensive paragliding instruction manual in traditional Chinese.
Geography isn’t the only reason that Vargas feels Taiwan to be one of the best places to paraglide. The temperate climate, friendly locals, low costs and accessibility of amenities are all reasons that make it ideal.
“Some places in Taiwan,” said Vargas, “you can get off the train, drive up to the takeoff zone in 10 minutes, fly, and then walk to your hotel from the landing zone. It doesn’t get more convenient.”
The level of development in Taiwan also makes it a safe place to fly. “Insurance coverage, search and rescue, and good medical service,” said Vargas, are all readily available.
Most importantly, though, Taiwan has one quality both prized and rare in the world of paragliding – the possibility of year-round flying. “You can fly any day of the year in Taiwan,” he said. “As long as it’s not raining and you know which site to fly.”

Photo: Matt Gibson

Despite the favorable conditions, there are few paragliding pilots in Taiwan. Vargas estimates that there are only about 150 active pilots in Taiwan compared to more than 1000 about fifteen years ago. Many people in Taiwan attribute the decline in pilots to a slowing economy. Vargas, however, believes otherwise.
Taiwan has an abysmally poor paragliding safety record. In 2003,  Taipei Times reported that, with just 200 active pilots, Taiwan was losing about one pilot every two years – about the same rate as France, which had between 20,000 and 30,000 active pilots.

Meanwhile, an article in a local magazine reported that unqualified instructors – some with as few as 35 flights under their belt – were selling lessons as professionals.
“There were a lot of accidents – really bad accidents – and people got scared away”, said Vargas. According to him, the main causes of the accidents were, “lack of information and unscrupulous management. Taiwan has its fair share of people who keep their information to themselves because it gives them an edge over the competition. That’s the business side of paragliding. It’s ruthless.”
Vargas’ own experience exemplifies the lack of training that was previously often given to new pilots. Most student pilots are given at least one or two days of ground training before attempting to fly solo. “I was given maybe 30 minutes of ground training”, he said. “When we got to the top of the mountain he [the instructor] said, ‘Pull the glider up and run off into the sky. You just go try.’ The first flight went great. On the next five, though, I landed in the trees.”
Vargas quickly realised that his instructors were less than professional and sought further instruction online. Fortunately, there was a wealth of information about paragliding available in English and he was able to learn enough to ensure his safety. Unfortunately, he wasn’t always able to help those around him to do the same.
In 2004 a student studying under a local coach approached him for advice. His name was La Ji Loon. He asked Vargas for instruction because, he said, his coach was too busy to help him. Vargas, not wanting to overstep his boundaries with another coach’s student (paragliding instruction being quite competitive), gave the student an English instruction manual, but declined to teach him personally.  Four months later, during a paragliding competition, Loon drowned in a water culvert.
Vargas took Loon’s death very personally. He decided that he would do the one thing that would help more than any other to make paragliding in Taiwan safer for students like Loon: write a comprehensive Chinese guide to paragliding so that Taiwanese instructors would have a manual explaining how to teach paragliding properly and, even more importantly, so that students like Loon would have a resource to draw on if their instructors failed them.
It took Vargas about three years to research and write Introduction to Paragliding, which is not only a student’s book, but also a teacher’s manual. As part of his research he travelled to Torrey Pines, California for instructor’s training at the Torrey Pines Gliderport, run by Dave Jebb, a director of the United States Hangliding and Paragliding Association. The book was published in 2007.
After finishing the book, Vargas dedicated himself to developing Taiwan’s paragliding industry with the hopes of bringing tourist money to impoverished rural (mostly) aboriginal communities. He’s currently negotiating a lease on a plot of land on Lion’s Head Mountain in Pingtung County, a site that because of unique weather conditions, according to Vargas, “has the best year-round flying in Taiwan.”
The area is ideal for adventure tourism. The site is located outside Fengliao, just a few kilometres from the southernmost train station on the west coast, and just an hour’s drive from the Kaohsiung International Airport. The mountains are webbed with trails ideal for hiking and mountain biking and the wide, relatively unused beach shows great potential for windsurfing, kitesurfing, and kayaking.
“Tourists could fly to Taiwan on Friday night from Hong Kong or Japan,” said Vargas, “fly, bike or kayak all day Saturday and Sunday, and fly home Sunday night. People from Taipei can drive here in just four hours, or take the train in six.”
He hopes to teach some of the local residents to paraglide well enough to take tourists on tandem flights, and also help them to open equipment rental shops and other tourism-related businesses. First, however, he has to obtain a long-term lease on the site from the local government, and that has proven difficult.
“It’s the bureaucratic shuffle. Nobody seems to know whose responsibility leasing the land is, so I get sent from one department to the next, and back again.”
According to ParaglidingEarth.com, a paragliding website where users post launchsite locations, Taiwan has 37 paragliding sites. Together, Vargas and Wang found and developed about 20 of those, all around southern Taiwan. They’ve become so proficient at it that they wrote a second, bilingual book called Site Selection and Development for Safe Paragliding.
Lately, they’ve been working on a site on the east coast that is, according to Vargas, “a real beauty; 900m high, with a one kilometre flight down the valley to the ocean.” Until they are able to get a lease to the site on Lion’s Head mountain, they will keep doing what they do best, finding, developing and flying new sites.

Malcolm’s top five sites

Saijya, Pingtung County
330m Above Ground Level (AGL)

This remote southern site, the first in Taiwan, is known for its great cross-country flying and is best flown December through March.

Kaotai, Taidong County
150m AGL

Located on the east side of the island, this site offers great cross-country flying up the valley with thermals up to 900m, and a site distance record of 100km.

Big Bird, Taidong County
65m – 1400m AGL

This eastern site offers numerous take-off options and the opportunity to cruise 20-30km up the coast. Best flown April through December.

Tiger Head Mountain, Nantou County
420m AGL

Taiwan’s most popular and largest take-off zone, with numerous amenities such as hotels, cafes, restaurants, and shops, just 15 minutes away. Best flown October through February.

Lion Head Mountain, Pingtung County
165m AGL

The best training site in Taiwan, this area enjoys the least rain of any in the country and a year-round flying season, with a 7-11, restaurants and a hotel all within walking distance of the beach-landing zone.