Nick Neynens is just as comfortable flying over the Southern Alps as he is standing on their peaks.
On a clear day above the Southern Alps, cross country paraglider Nick Neynens can see coast to coast.
It’s a view few achieve without an engine, but Neynens earns it on his own steam, using nothing but his legs and flying skills.
“You can see half the island from above the Craigieburn Range. At 3000m, you can see from Banks Peninsula all the way to the Tasman Sea,” he says.
It’s for views like this that keep him returning home to New Zealand.
Born in Invercargill, Neynens now lives in Australia, but New Zealand would do well to claim him – he’s our top cross country paraglider and holds the national record for the longest straight line flight of 238km, from Sugarloaf Pass to Macaulay, near Aoraki/Mt Cook.
Vol-biv (translation: flight camping) is Neynens’ speciality and involves tramping up a mountain, flying off it and camping his way back to civilisation.
His fascination for the sport grew out of an early love of the backcountry.
“Dad took us tramping a lot when we were kids, and that was really why I wanted to get into paragliding – it’s a different way to get around the mountains, and there is lots of tramping involved, too,” he says.
The Southern Lakes area is Neynens’ favourite to fly, and he flies a new valley every summer.
“My favourite stretch to fly is between Aspiring National Park and Aoraki/Mt Cook, as close to the Main Divide as possible.”
Neynens carries everything he needs in a lightweight harness that has pockets for his supplies. To keep weight down, he sleeps under his airtight wing in a down jacket – sometimes two – instead of carrying a tent.
“In New Zealand, I always have at least two or three days of food in reserve that I’ll never even touch – it gives me the confidence to fly into areas where if it didn’t work out I would be able to walk out,” he says.
“I spend a lot of time looking at maps, so I don’t always know the names of places I’m flying over, but I’ve always got
an idea of the major features and valley systems.”
Breathtaking as it is from above, New Zealand is far from perfect as a paragliding destination, Neynens says. While Europe’s mountain ranges are scattered with villages, New Zealand’s peaks are more isolated, and the weather can be difficult to predict.
Conveniently, Neynens works as a meteorologist and has a sound understanding of weather patterns.
“New Zealand’s weather is quite different because it’s an island with uninterrupted water around it. It’s very windy most of the time – it’s even windy when it’s not windy,” he says.
The combination of speed, heights and weather add an element of danger to the hobby, but bruises are the extent of Neynen’s injuries. “The wings are really safe, but you’re a small aircraft and you’re flying close to terrain, so if you get too close and something happens, you can die from the impact,” he says.
Neynens is the only Kiwi to have competed in the invite-only Red Bull X-Alps race and will return this year for another crack.
The 1000km route sees pilots fly and walk their way from Austria to Monaco, with the aid of a support vehicle.