Flying over the Skyscrapers and Skimming the Dunes in the Arabian Desert. The first UAE Hike and Fly Paragliding Championship.

Dubai = malls, beaches and brunch?

Or floating amongst the worlds’ tallest skyscrapers, flying through the mountains and skimming the Arabian sand dunes at sunset?

With the launch of the first UAE Hike and Fly Championships, the top pilots from around the world gathered in Dubai this November to sample all the desert air has to offer.

From 77 stories up alongside the worlds’ highest infinity pool, 7-time Red Bull X-Alps winner Chrigel Maurer, prepares to launch with a suitably attired set of spectators. It was a very long ways from the Alps.

While the first days competition was a launch from the roof in challenging winds, by evening the wind flow allowed the competitors to take back to the skies for a sunset flight, that could only be described by one competitor as ‘unforgettable.’

A touch of magic, sunset flying around (and through) the skyscrapers of Dubai. Photo: #Batoquefly

For those perhaps thinking the flying would be anything but challenging, the launch conditions and the skills displayed at take-off from the pool were very much on display. With little more than 10 meters square to launch, wind shifting from behind and then to the side and that rather large first step, pilots needed a moment of perfection to leap off the ledge.

As most competitors were in Dubai for the first time, and it was the first major international competition in the UAE, it was as much an exploratory journey and a chance to fly where they never had before as something they came to win. But being naturally competitive, any plans for just a relaxing holiday were soon put aside and the tactics, the speed through the sands and up the mountains were hard fought moments of heat and sweat as they learned the ways of the desert

It’s all about that first step – launching from 77 floors up at the Address Beach Resort, Dubai. Photo: Robert Anderson

From the city, the pilots moved out to the Hagar Mountains and Jebel Jais, flying from near the top of the UAE’s highest point, soaring along the brown rocky ridges and down into the depths of the Wadis to land kilometers away far below.

Flying over the Hagar Mountains, Jebel Jais, Ras Al Khaimah. A very long way from the glaciers and icy heights of the Southern Alps for Kiwi pilot Nick Neynens. Photo: @nneynens

The worlds top pilots were well represented, with many of the “worlds’ toughest race” Red Bull x-Alps competitors in attendance. From the winner of that race Chrigel Maurer, to second placed Patrick von Kanel, to the youngest, and also winner of the first two tasks here in the UAE, Tommy Friedrich.

Away from their many fans in Europe, it was a rare opportunity to talk everything from their shoes (Chrigel Maurer is a fellow Lowa Ambassador), to Antoine’s route flying up the Baltoro Glacier and over the heights of Broad Peak.

Antoine Girard, holder of the world high altitude record for paragliding, when he flew over Broad Peak, reaching 8,407 meters. Flying from far down the Baltoro Glacier, then circling up Broad Peak with K-2 in the background can be re-lived through his video. For pilots, you may like to see his track logs of the flight. As he pointed out when we talked, he started way, way down the glacier, and flew all the way up the Baltoro before soaring up the face of Broad Peak.

The final two flying tasks of the competition were at the very popular flying site at Al Faya, just an hour outside Dubai.

With a long ridge several hundred meters high, the desert winds create strong lift for kilometers, pushing pilots far above the dunes. This provides local pilots with frequent opportunities to fly for hours, especially with the prevalent strong afternoon wind flow in from the Gulf of Arabia.

Desert magic as the skies fill with competitors. Photo: Robert Anderson

The third and fourth tasks took pilots along the ridge, with a start up a huge sand dune backed up onto the ridge, then, (thankfully) out of the sand and into the air. The pilots flew up and out of sight, before returning along the ridge to drop down into the landing area.

Final Day of the Championships, pilots leave the ridge for a checkpoint over the dunes. Photo: Robert Anderson

Al Faya, in Sharjah, with the sun setting, the soft desert winds flowing, the dunes radiating the last rays, is nothing less than a magic place. You fly suspended between the golden sand, the dark rocky ridge that soon fades far below you and sail into the deepening blue of the sky.

As evening approaches, and the orb of the sun sets, gliders glow orange and we often touch down just as nightfall sweeps the desert.

Tom Payne flying along the perfect ridge of Al Faya, the flying centre and landing is to the left with its’ distinctive green landing field. Fossil Rock and the end of the ridge in the far distance. Photo: Tom Payne

With the competitors making a last 2 km. run across the dunes back from their final desert landing checkpoint, local pilots all took to the sky.

As expected, we were soon joined by a host of the worlds’ best, that even after a week of competition, were getting in one last, memorable flight skimming the dunes until sunset, before they headed home.

Time to play at end of day. Photo: @Tommy_flyhigh

With the international cast of pilots assembled, the tasks flown and for many, the chance to experience flight over Dubai and the cool of the desert at end of day, long after the days competition was finished, it was a rare opportunity to see and experience a side of the UAE that few imagined.

While with any ‘first’ there are unknowns, risks and rewards, it was in those final moments in the desert, skimming the dunes with the competitors after they were finished for the day, scooping handfuls of sand and doing wingovers in the evenings warm winds sweeping over the desert, with the sun burning orange into the horizon, that the success of the UAE hike and fly championship was most evident.

All summed up so well, and as ever, a picture…

Gui Padua’s vision was realized in the end, with great support across the UAE to help create a unique gathering in a place with so many opportunities for real adventure.

As one prize winner commented to me at the closing ceremony, -“I’m going to buy my family a few great presents so they will be happy when I come back and fly again next year.” Or maybe he will just have to bring them all along with him.

The competitors for the first UAE hike and fly competition