All Black captain Richie McCaw tells Scott Kara about the other love of his life.
You'd think the tow rope would be a bit thicker. The thin white line snaking across the ground between the glider and the plane looks more like a flimsy bit of string than a robust cable. "Yeah, sometimes they snap, but there's plenty of runway to play with," says glider pilot Richie McCaw in his casual drawl.
That's the All Black captain wedged into the seat in front of me, making light of the tow rope that's about to haul us 1000-or-so metres into the air above the beautiful mountains, valleys, and plains of the McKenzie Country in North Otago.
It's too late to freak out though. The glider — a $250,000 space age-looking thing — trundles along the grass runway at Omarama Airfield behind the tow plane, its long, slender wings flexing slightly with the bumps and then, lift off. We follow the plane, the tow rope straining and then relaxing, as we get steadily higher. Almost immediately after McCaw detaches the tow rope with a loud snap and clunk, he asks if I want to do a 360 degree loop.
I'd seen him do two during a practice run earlier, and it made me squirm just watching it from the ground. I'm terrified of heights and not a great fan of flying (although I've never let it get in the way of me going anywhere), so now that we're more than a kilometre up in the air I have no qualms about politely chickening out in front of the All Blacks' captain. "I don't know Richie. I might pass, eh? This is a big move for me just being up here," I say, meekly.
He's okay with it, and recounts a story about flying here with his dad when he was a young fella. "When I was about 8 or 9, my dad and I got reasonably high, about 8000 feet [2400m], and Dad said, 'Right, do you want to do a loop?' And we just did about a dozen, all the way down ready to land.
"I love that sort of stuff, it's a bit like a rollercoaster. As you pull through you get a bit of G [force], then you see the ground come around. It's a bit like doing wheelies, I guess," he laughs.
Flying or, more specifically, gliding, is McCaw's other sporting passion besides rugby. He stars in the new Discovery Channel series, Sportstar Insider, hosted by Australian rugby league great-turned-TV host Andrew "ET" Ettingshausen, which looks at the science and know-how behind extreme sports like acrobatic flying, big wave surfing, and free diving.
A few years ago McCaw played a part in inspiring the idea for the series, after convincing Mandy Pattinson, the head of the Discovery network in Australia and New Zealand, to do a show about gliding. "I chewed her ear off about it," he says. Earlier this year they filmed McCaw at Omarama for the show, which screens on November 5.
This tiny little junction town, on State Highway 8 about two hours' drive north of Queenstown, is a world famous gliding spot. Its unique mix of landscape, wind and beautifully hot and sunny weather during the summer months combine to create ideal gliding conditions. Put simply, the climate around Omarama creates "thermals", gliding speak for the vertical up-drafts that give the gliders lift. When you go through them you feel a short, shuddering bump.
Another key feature of this area is how the wind hurtles over the Southern Alps from the west, creating a "standing wave" on the lee side — that's the sheltered side — of the alps. When conditions are right, lenticular clouds form and the glider can run along the front of these clouds at a fast rate of knots and at high altitudes.
"The perception people have is that you just float around and it's relaxing. And it is relaxing, but figuring out how to stay up there is the hard part," says McCaw. "You're using the atmosphere, the wind, and whatever the sun is doing, and you have to learn how to use those elements to stay up in the air — and then be able to go somewhere. That's the real art and sport of gliding, I reckon."
For something that doesn't have a motor, a glider can cover extreme distances — and soar at heights of up to 6000m. Two of McCaw's favourite runs are to head 100km north to the Tasman Glacier and Mount Cook ("Soaring the face of Mt Cook. That's pretty awesome"), or to go 100km west to Mt Aspiring and take a run down the Mt Brewster glacier.
"The real intrigue I've got for it is every time you go out it's different. With power flying you turn your engine on and go somewhere. Whereas with this, you are on a mission to get somewhere, but you may not get there, and you may not get home. But that's what it's all about."
At the airfield today, it's cold, grey, and threatening rain. But McCaw and Gavin Wills, his gliding instructor, mentor and owner of GlideOmarama, don't look too worried. It might not be scenic soaring weather but "we'll get up." And a few hours later, true to form, a big blue hole appears in the sky, making a perfect gliding arena — for novices who are scared of heights like me, at least. We're off to find some thermals.
Flying is in the McCaw family's blood. His grandfather was a fighter pilot in World War II, flying Typhoons, Tempests and Hurricanes; his dad, Don, and his two uncles fly gliders and McCaw has loved flying since "before I can remember."
He's had a licence to fly fixed-wing aircraft since the early 2000s — he flew to Omarama from Christchurch in his little plane to meet us here today — and did his first solo glider flight in 2005. The old family farm in the Hakataramea Valley, where Richie grew up — about 50km from Omarama — had an airstrip, from which the North Otago Gliding Club operated. "I used to jump in the back of the tow plane with Dad and loved it. I guess that's where I got the bug. I just loved it and I knew it was something I was always going to do. Dad and I talk more about flying than we do rugby," says McCaw.
There are similarities between the two sports, he says. "Gliding is about being aware. Aware of where things are, the conditions, and it's about being able to process all that, I suppose that's what you do in rugby."
"The McCaws," says Wills, who has known the family for years, "are more famous in gliding than that other thing they do." It's obvious Wills is biased towards gliding, but he reckons McCaw has the potential to be a better glider pilot than rugby player. "He has this situational awareness. He sees clouds, assesses the situation, asks questions if he needs to, then goes."
He describes his famous protege as thoughtful, determined, and competitive. But "humble" is the description he offers up last: "His ego is tucked back there somewhere, which is rare for a rugby player."
He's right. McCaw is a laid-back country boy. Before we take off he chats keenly about the glider, explaining all the little instruments in the cockpit, when you might need oxygen (thankfully we won't be going that high). And he gleefully points out the single linchpin that fixes the wings to the glider's body. Apparently you can dismantle them and put them in a trailer if need be.
The only time he's a little reticent is when talk turns to rugby. The All Blacks' patchy performances this year have meant an especially challenging season for the captain, even rivalling the failed 2007 World Cup bid. "There is a bit of pressure on, and first of all you have to get your own game right, and then help the team. I love challenges in life and this year has certainly been a challenge. And, you know, we're playing against some pretty good teams.
"There are going to be times when it's not that easy, but you've got to keep belief in what you're doing, and if you start doubting yourself and what you're doing then you're never going to get it right."
You can hardly blame McCaw for being less enthused by rugby when he's in Omarama. This airfield, which is deserted today but gets overrun with local and overseas enthusiasts during the summer months, is his escape. "The people here don't care too much about rugby," he says.
"On the airfield a lot of them watch the rugby but they don't get carried away with it. Coming here, you fit in with what they are doing and you're not the centre of attention. I learned off these guys. So you get back here and forget about things for a bit and have some fun. That's what it's all about. If you have a weekend here you get home refreshed. If you don't have these sorts of outlets you'd go nuts."
And Omarama holds some fond memories for him. He used to spend school holidays here at the campground and these days he and his folks own a house here. "This valley is where I grew up and now it's my holiday joint where I come to have fun."
Back up high in the sky, we haven't had much luck finding quality thermal action. But still, McCaw tries to coax some action out of the atmosphere by spiralling around and around. As he does this I look out across my shoulder, down the long flexing wing, and it's as if I'm horizontal to the ground. I'd heard how gliding was all about silent flight — and up here, as you drift, glide and soar, it's serene with only a faint whirring sound working its way into the cramped cockpit.
Surprisingly, today's soaring experience is far less harrowing than the erratic turbulence I'd experienced during the flight from Auckland to Queenstown the day before. But, sadly, the conditions today are a "dead dog", reckons McCaw, so we head for home. As we swoop in to land, the rusty barbed wire fence at the end of the runway looks a little closer than one might wish, but he lands it like a magic carpet in the middle of the grassy field.
"I suppose that was a boring flight for you?" I ask him. "Nah. I just love being up there. It's the closest thing to having wings on your back."
* Richie McCaw appears on Sportstar Insider, on the Discovery Channel at 8.30pm on November 5.
GUIDE TO GLIDING
Gliding is about more than just getting towed up into the air and drifting back down. It's about seeking out thermals, getting lift, soaring, charging into lenticular clouds, and then riding them as far as you can. It also helps if you've got a land form like the Southern Alps to help create a unique soaring environment.
The basics: "Your engine is the atmosphere," says Gavin Wills, Richie McCaw's gliding instructor. "We boil it down to being simply a function of the sun, the wind and the terrain. That's the guts of it. The glider pilot has to learn how the atmospheric engine works and then experience it in all its glory and wildness."
Thermals: The hot and sunny climate of Omarama is ideal for creating these vertical updrafts of warm air that give gliders lift. Once pilots finds a thermal they can fly in circles within the thermal and gain altitude before flying on.
The Southern Alps: "Because there are oceans either side of the alps," says Wills, "when the hot air rises in the mountains, it draws the sea air in forming convergence fronts — similar to a cold front on the weather map — which create long bands of lift [lenticular clouds] that run up and down the South Island. One can fly very long distances."