Los Angeles traffic feels like a stuffy nose. Sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 405, or the 10, or the 91, you start wishing for a cosmic tissue to blow away the insufferable congestion. Eventually the jams peter out on the I-15, disappearing on Highway 79 South altogether. At last, some tumbleweed! My car slices through rolling brown hills that seem familiar from Hollywood westerns. Up ahead is the Warner Springs Airstrip, a saloon for modern sky sailors. We are here to tick off sailplaning, or sky sailing, or soaring, or whatever you want to use to describe the act of gliding a fibreglass dragonfly in the dreamy California sky.
Lining the airstrip are white coffin-shaped boxes containing easy-to-assemble sailplanes. Although fixed-wing gliding has been around since the Wright Brothers, the aircraft took off recreationally after World War II, when Germans were restricted to flying non-powered planes. Modern German-built gliders, withstand more pressure than fighter jets, have reached over 13,000 metres in altitude, and covered an incredible 2250 kilometres. It is said that the best pilots in the world are avid gliders, capable of feeling the winds beneath their wings. Case in point: when a section of a fuselage blew out, a pilot named Dave Cronin credited his gliding skills with saving all aboard his Boeing 747. Good to know as I cram into my seat behind the sailplane pilot. We are connected to a small prop plane with a sixty-metre metal tow wire. It’s a bumpy take-off, the glider rattling and flexing on the ground with the grace of a running swan. My nerves start to shake with the seat. Unless one is prepared to invest $300,000 for a new state-of-the-art Stemme, most gliders are designed for thrills over comfort. Before the tow-plane even leaves tarmac, our glider lifts gently into the air, tuned up and eager for altitude. The swan elegantly takes flight. Once we reach one thousand metres, the pilot signals me to pull a lever and cut our umbilical cord to the plane. Suddenly, I am inside the eye of an albatross.
Much like hanggliding or paragliding, sailplane pilots hunt warm pockets of air called thermals in order to gain elevation. Each pocket of warm air results in a dramatic upwards swing. Safely strapped in, there’s not enough room in the cockpit for too much bouncing around from the turbulence. Air gushes in from breathing holes on the sides, which I open up all the way in case of motion sickness. This increases the noise level, but takes nothing away the thrill of pure flight. No engines, no fuel – just air currents, speed and grace.
“Do you want to see what this baby can do?” asks the pilot.
That’s usually a rhetorical question, one I’ve been asked several times researching this Bucket List, and one I have never yet answered in the affirmative. Dave Cronin suddenly nosedives the sailplane and there is so much blood rushing to my head it might just explode. He's pulling a David Cronenberg!
You know that moment when you’re on a rollercoaster and wonder if you’re going to fall out? When you pull tricks in a sailplane, that moment doesn’t stop. The speed and pressure is incredible, increased as the pilot points the nose upwards, giving us the sensation of negative G-force. Weightless for a moment, his walkie-talkie floats above our heads. Worth noting at this point is the volume of my screaming, and the fact that I am wondering if vomit can cleanly squeeze through the diameter of the breathing holes. We level out, and after a twenty-five minute ride, land on the runway, speed along to the main office, and come to an abrupt stop. Gravity feels especially heavy, but there’s some relief when my feet touch the ground. Unfortunately, I’ll have to use those feet for the drive back to Los Angeles, where soaring is strictly reserved for the imaginations of would-be starlets.
For more info, including directions, weather and rates, visit: www.skysailing.com
I'm thrilled the Force has finally awakened. Let's face it, during the last three prequels it was basically asleep, wooed into slumber by some atrocious casting, questionable characters, and CGI animators who were one crate over their daily Red Bull allowance. But all is well again, even if the new villain is the pouty dude from Girls, and you can't swing a light sabre without hitting a merchandising opportunity. The original Star Wars series was produced right here on Earth, and you might recognize some of the scenes should you find yourself wandering about:
Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine looks remarkably similar to Tunisia, and his home very much like the traditional Berber house known as the Sidi Driss Hotel. Open year-round, the hotel is located in the town of Matmata. Exteriors on the desert planet of Tatooine were shot in hundreds of kilometres away in the salt flats of the Star Wars-sounding Chott el Jerid.
Tikal National Park, Guatemala
Filmmakers outdid themselves finding a location for Yavin 4, a jungle moon housing the secret Rebel base in Episode IV: A New Hope. They selected one of the largest and most spectacular Mayan ruins in Central America, Tikal. Located in Northern Guatemala, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must-see in the region. Some of the temples can be seen in the movie, along with a landing Millennium Falcon.
Redwood National State Parks
One of my favourite scenes in the series is the speederbike chase in Return of the Jedi, where our heroes are chased through the giant trees on the forest moon of Endor. The scene was filmed among the giant redwoods of Six Rivers National Forest in California, and the Redwood National State Parks in northern California’s Humboldt County.
Located outside of Petaluma California is the world’s largest privately owned Star Wars collection, amassed over 37 years but someone who clearly is strong in the force. The former Lucas Film employee has all the memorabilia, toys, props and artefacts a jedi knight could want.
Comic-Con, San Diego
The mammoth gathering that is Comic-Con celebrates all things science fiction and fantasy. Star Wars is always represented, through panel appearances by its stars, fans and collectors. Owners of the franchise use the 4-day event to announce news about the ever-expanding Star Wars commercial empire.
Palace of Caserta, Italy
In Episodes 1 and 2, you’re probably thinking: where did they film Queen Amidala’s magnificent Threed Royal Palace? The answer is the Palace of Caserta, the largest royal palace in Italy built in the 1700’s, boasting over 1000 rooms, sprawling gardens, and plenty of romantic escapes for Star(Wars)-crossed lovers. Staying in Italy, Anakin and Padmé were married on the terrace of Lake Como’s Villa del Balbianello.
Star Wars Weekends, Disney World
Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park, located within Disney World, used to offer special Star Wars themed weekends. Before you throw a Kylo Ren tantrum, rejoice in the fact that you can now experience all new Star Wars experiences, going behind the scenes on the making of The Force Awakens, and undertake Jedi Training. Work is underway on a new 14 acre Star Wars themed "land" within Disney World. Did I mention you will find merchandising?
Death Valley National Park, California
3CPO and R2D2 wander lost in the desert in A New Hope. The scene was supposed to be filmed in Tunisia, but production hiccups brought our lovable droids back to California’s Death Valley, in particular the impressive sand dunes at Stovepipe Wells.
The Empire Strikes Back, the best film in the first series, opens in snow and ice. The scenes were filmed in around the town of Finse, located between Oslo and Bergen, where crews had to battle extreme temperatures, and the worst storm in 50 years. Hey, nobody said filming on the frozen planet of Hoth would be easy.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.