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Down the

Rabbit Hole

words by GavinMcCLURG images by JodyMACDONALD

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S

eriously, I want to know what just happened. The photos and my unreliable memory insist on giving me reason to believe I’ve gone absolutely out-of-my-alreadyquestionable mind. I can’t even stick to what I know because it has to be some crazy, wild, fantastic dream. In every way I will account for what I believe happened, but there being absolutely no possible way that it did, it’s all, therefore, hearsay. For all I know, sometime around two weeks ago I went down a rabbit hole, and this

morning I got spit back up in the blaring sun, stumbling around with a headache— a clear indicator that something very, very strange and wonderful happened to me while I was away. The Rabbit Hole was entered sometime around noon on the first day. Our group had arrived from ports halfway around the world: the shockingly handsome twins Mike and Stu, owners of Verbier Summits, a paragliding school in the Swiss Alps; their gorgeous girlfriends Rachel and Rosy (soon to be girlfriend and fiancée, but I’m getting ahead of myself); my sister Lesley, who had decided to take a break from the wintery drizzle in Seattle; and finally, Bruce, a lovable doctor from Australia, and an admitted paragliding and kite-surfing addict. They have all flown to Tonga to board Discovery, a catamaran 30

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we are sailing around the world as part of a five-year kite-boarding and paragliding expedition called The Best Odyssey. The journey is funded by owners like Bruce and two dozen others—modern-day adventurers seeking out places to pursue their passions where few or none ever have. These are the people who have allowed me to chase that bunny right into fantasyland. Our crew is rounded out by my partner and photographer, Jody MacDonald, and our chef team, Hannah and Lars, whom we stole from the Fat Duck in England, the second-highest rated restaurant in the world. Lars’s creations in the galley mirror his


tattoos, complex and intimidating—egg and bacon absolutely do not come to paraglide. However, in ice cream, green tea miso soup with seared Wahoo— a time long, long ago, while sailing in Venezuela in while Hannah brings an elegance and coziness to the the first year of our expedition, I spent a whole lot of culinary offerings that make for a hell-of-a-team. greenbacks, sweat and tears to procure a paragliding Fantasies always begin with preposterous proposi- winch, and our dreams of flight in the tropics took tions. This one was as ludicrous as they come. Take shape. a moment to Google “paragliding” and “Tonga.” If A bit of sashimi, a bit of a run-down on the boat, you get a hit, it will be from the trip you are reading a few laughs, a quick dusting of the tow-winch, and about right now. Tonga is an island nation in the a brand new Rebel, compliments of our new Gin middle of the Pacific Ocean that lacks in-full what sponsorship, and suddenly my Rabbit Hole had a paragliders seek: hills or mountains. People travel few more characters. Nuku’alofa, the capital, is not to the Kingdom of Tonga to experience a number of known as Tonga’s greatest gem, and the plan was to tropical wonders, such as calving Humpback whales, depart for waters north as soon as possible. But plans seriously good surf, or spectacular diving, but they suck and should be given wide disregard. I avoid

[previous] Mike Belbas takes the first flight. [left] Skipper says: make it look bigger! [above] The skipper and Stu use the tow winch for the first time.

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ragliding and “Take a moment to google pa from the Tonga. If you get a hit, it will be now.� trip you are reading about right

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it Hole now. [this [opposite] Very far down The Rabb of quite a few dunks.

page] The first

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moldy food. Use the Lonely Planet and Cruising Guides for firewood and I promise real adventure. Or in this case, a better fantasy... So the plan was scrapped, and we went for a recon. Not 12 miles from town we found waters so clear, coral so intact, beach so beautiful, wind so-so-so perfect for flying, I knew this trip we had indulged in just had to play out. Lead on Rabbit, lead on! How do I describe what we see up there? Bruce lands and says it’s the most incredible thing he’s ever seen. Stu lands, and his smile can clearly be picked up from a mile away. Mike lands and he just shakes his head and repeats “AMAZING” so many times I con34

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sider he may have a brain injury. When it’s my turn, apparently everyone can hear me yelling all the way up and all the way down. Personally, I have no idea my brain is whirring at dangerous speed, hardly able to cope with the inputs. I shake my feet around like an excited puppy, then bank a few spirals over the boat, wave to my sister, land on the soft white sand barefooted and, in that moment, realize that if the winch sank to the bottom of the ocean that first day, it would all have been worth it for this one flight. But in this dream, I get to go again...and again. Ah, but even dreams have glitches. By flight number six, we figured we were pretty much experts and sent Jody up the mast so we could tow

Mike right under her. A potentially dangerous and wholly outrageous attempt, but you know how it goes when the camera comes out. And thus ended the towing for the day, when the brand new Rebel (and Mike) took swim number one. In the coming days it’s possible the wing saw more water than sky, but MY GOD IT WAS WORTH IT! The next day—the glorious Triple Play. Flying in the morning. Snorkeling before lunch. Kite surfing in the afternoon. That’s what it says in my log book, and I’m sticking with it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t say much else that’s even remotely intelligible—just a lot of “whoa, that was a crazy day” and “whoa, that was a crazy day” ad infinitum, which doesn’t help me much when it comes to recapping a week in the space of a story when I really

[main] On glide over coral forests. [below left] Stu rides the fine line between flying...and swimming. [top] The gang takes a break. [above] Mariner's cave.

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need the pages of a book. We did at some point need to move on. The Humpback whales would not wait for us in the Vava’ua group forever, and between Nuku’alofa and Vava’ua were a litany of uninhabited and sparsely populated islands I thought I’d explored on previous visits in 2001 and 2003. But as it turns out, in the next 10 days we never once anchored even close to anywhere I’d been before. If you look at Tonga on a map, you would not be immediately impressed with the cruising possibilities. While French Polynesia is the size of Europe, Tonga is more the size of say, Denmark. But small is not the correct word for Tonga. Not her people, not her splendors. Swells bring great surf; clear deep waters harbor some of the healthiest coral I’ve seen; perfect white sand beaches complement stunning limestone and palm-tree clad islands, and a million surprises await at them all. Kelefesia holds our attention for a few days, a wickedly gorgeous little spot whose one inhabitant no doubt found himself somewhat bewildered to see people flying without motors over his island. The girls all get to fly and Lars gets the first flight of his flying career. What a terrible thing we’ve done. If Lars continues to fly, I think there will never be a view that can match his first. But as always, the days become hard to track and things you think you’ll never forget get mixed up with other wonderful memories. As I’m writing this, I recall two surfacing whales that came up near us on the trip to the Ha’apai group, the first Humpback whales most of our group had ever seen, an incredible treasure I’d nearly let go. We head north in small 36

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runs, each time stopping where we see potential in seem a little more blissful than before. Something either land or sea. At Mango Island we find an an- is going on there... chorage that is almost completely surrounded by In our final days we see lots of whales, but a wall of coral 40 feet deep with small body-wide swimming with them remains elusive. We even fissures that make for amazing swimming. Lars bone up for a day tour, which we find a bit disand I have a look around one night after dinner and bag 10 slipper lobsters for the next evening’s feast, one for each smiling soul on board. And again we move, this time to the far eastern islands in the Ha’apai, another area I’d missed in past trips. We are told by the few passing boats we see that the Vava’ua group is finally thinning out. It’s a famous cruising area and the last stop for most boats that have traversed the Pacific, all headed to New Zealand and Australia for the cyclone season. Perfect. By the time we arrive, we’ll have it to ourselves. In the meantime we find yet another majestic anchorage with no neighbors, another spot to fly. I full stall the Rebel just to entertain myself, as if entertainment is needed, then recover and site my landing in time to see Bruce catch a wave on the SUP (stand up board) directly below. I’m flying, Bruce is surfing, the gang is playing on the beach, while insane smells waft over us from the galley. Oh yes, very deep in the hole now. We stage our run to the Vava’ua group from Ofalanga, an uninhabited island I remembered from previous trips and the first place we stop I’ve visited before. It makes me realize how long you could explore this planet and still see very, very little. We spend the afternoon enjoying gardens of coral and wildly abundant fish life, then entertain one another with trips on the SUP behind the dinghy. Jody wins the speed event, Rachel wins the head plant, Rosy wins no-bikini, Bruce gets the style points. We head off at midnight for an easy night-sail. On arrival in Vava’ua we do, indeed, find it mostly deserted. If it’s even possible, Mike and Rachel

[opposite] Working the beach. [below] Handmade local Tongan craft. [bottom] Lars barely makes it to the...LZ?

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[above] South Pacific Sunset. [opposite] Flying over Discovery in Vava'ua, Tonga.

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appointing. Plenty of whales are seen, but in an effort to get us close, the Captain’s tactics border on harassment. It’s an all-day affair in the sun on a very uncomfortable boat with no drinks or food. We’re all happy to get back to our home. In the final days we get Stu, Bruce and Jody up at the same time, and they dance above the tree-tops and the mast of Discovery for hours, ridge-soaring. The winch and dinghy have gotten a workout on this trip, and we decide to end our flying efforts here. The numbers: something over 50 flights, the Rebel’s been in the drink 9 times (sorry Gin!), we’ve burned up a few hundred bucks of unleaded, and “holy shit” has been said enough times to make even the most hardened priest faint ten times over. During the last supper, between courses of curried roast pumpkin soup with hazelnut oil, parmesan and soy roasted pumpkin seeds, suvited duck over fresh pistachio pesto and beet juice infused carrots, morsel of tenderloin with basil béarnaise, and mango and cardamom sorbet, we learn the

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Milky Way worked its magic on Mike and Rachel’s night watch. Instead of an engagement ring, Rachel is gifted with an antique compass rose, which we all agree is more romantic than any ring, and ,of course, quite appropriate given our surroundings. And then? Well, then that rascally rabbit takes me by the ear and hauls me and my friends out of his hole, points at the horizon and gives me an even greater gift than he already has. A dangling carrot. Lead on Rabbit, lead on! The author, Gavin McClurg is the Captain and founder of The Best Odyssey. To learn more about the expedition please visit www.offshoreodysseys.com


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Down the Rabbit Hole  

The Offshore Odysseys team take paragliding to all new...heights in Tonga. Join us as we soar where no one has before.

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