The Ups and Downs of Life
Born in 1967, I grew up in the suburb of Vermont, east of Melbourne. My parents were teachers at a local secondary school. My older siblings and I were brought up to believe we could achieve whatever we put our minds to. We were well educated and given every opportunity to pursue our interests. I was always a sport enthusiast and was pretty good at most sporting endeavours, though not elite at anything in particular. I liked a lot of things; including music, model aircraft, drawing and time with friends, but it was my love of sport that led me to tertiary studies in Physical Education.
I achieved good enough marks in Year 12 (1984) to get into the four year Bachelor of Education degree at Rusden. I majored in Physical Education and Mathematics and my parents generously funded me to live on-campus at Monash University Halls of Residence. Living in Howitt Hall over those years gave me easy access to Rusden, and though I may have applied myself to studies better elsewhere, it was a great social experience and gave me the confidence to go out into the world thereafter.
Launch from the Sierra Nevada, overlooking the Owens Valley, California.
I also sparked an interest in Hang Gliding during those years, through a brief stint at the Monash Hang Gliding Club. After graduating, I saved up enough money to attend a beginner’s course in north-east Victoria, where I swiftly became hooked on flying hang gliders. It was 1989, and for the next couple of years, I used my teaching degree to work at secondary schools around Melbourne as a fill in teacher. I would save up enough money during the school year to take a few months off over the summers to live in Bright, where I would go hang gliding almost every day possible.
I gained airtime rapidly and logged over 200 hours in my first two years of flying. I was thrilled to be showing promise on the competition circuit around Australia, gathering a few trophies along the way! I did some instructional training and began teaching hang gliding to beginners, wondering how I could make a living out of flying somehow. I applied to the Air Force to become a pilot, twice progressing to the Officer Selection Board and even once getting recommended, although I wasn't selected. In hindsight, that was a blessing in disguise because I'm not someone who would enjoy shooting or bombing anyone. I just wanted to fly!
Kissing the pier in Dunedin, never to sail the high seas again.
In the middle of 1991, I decided to escape the Australian winter and travel to the USA. I lobbed up in Los Angeles, knowing no one, and found my way to a local flying site. There I made some friends, picked up my hang glider from the airport, and started flying as much as possible for the next couple of months. I spent several weeks flying in the Owens Valley, a legendary hang gliding area in California bordered by the Sierra Nevada and the White Mountain Ranges. There I achieved several milestones. I flew 100 miles on my second day and also flew my longest flight of 140 miles (225 km), taking over five hours and reaching altitudes up to 18,000 feet above sea level.
It was extreme flying at times, climbing out in thermal air currents at over 1500 feet per minute and having to launch and land in thin air at high altitude. I was living my dream. I travelled across to Colorado and flew at Telluride before making my way back to the West Coast. Along my way I met a Kiwi girl who I would end up following to New Zealand in 1992. She was my girlfriend for a while and after we broke up, I moved to the South Island and took up a job instructing and flying tandem passengers from the mountains around beautiful Queenstown.
Throughout 1993/94 I had the time of my life taking thousands of passengers for their first experience of hang gliding among the spectacular scenery of the Southern Alps. I also managed to help crew a yacht from Auckland to Dunedin, surviving all sorts of stormy weather in what would be probably my most terrifying experience ever. As I stepped off the yacht for the final time, I swore never to sail on the ocean in rough seas again. Flying in rough air, up to a point, didn't bother me too much but I would leave the oceans to others!
I was fortunate enough to win my first two hang gliding competitions in the open category, one of which was the New Zealand National Championships in 1994. I travelled to Canada for a few months and won another competition later that year. For the first time in my life I was verging on being elite in my sport and I wanted to keep improving. However, in order to fly at the World Championships for Australia I needed to do well on the Australian competition circuit. After a short stint working as a stuntman for a TV commercial in Malaysia, I returned to Australia to compete over the next couple of years whilst trying to establish my own hang gliding business.
Me on board the yacht I helped sail from Auckland to Dunedin.
I tried instructing and flying tandems around Melbourne and then moved to the Gold Coast hinterland for a better location. I was never as busy as I had been back in Queenstown, and having to revert to part-time school teaching didn't appeal to me. I was offered a place on the Australian team for a hang gliding competition in France in 1996. The inaugural World Hang Gliding Series of competitions were happening in Spain prior to that, so I travelled to Europe and had a wonderful time flying in both Cross Country and Speed Gliding competitions with moderate success. I was the highest scoring member of the Australian team at the "American Cup" event in France, though we finished fifth out of as many nations invited. Following that I toured around Europe, hang gliding from sites throughout France, Switzerland, Austria and Germany.
Tandem flight from The Remarkables overlooking Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown.
Knowing that I would be out of money after Europe, I had arranged a job teaching English in Japan. I moved there, having requested a rural posting with the intention of doing some flying on the side and learning the local language. Instead, I was sent to teach at a school south-east of Tokyo in an area that was particularly industrial. Surrounded by steel and chemical factories with not a tree in sight was not what I had envisaged. I did venture out to hang glide on a couple of occasions, and though I didn't mind the teaching component, the experience was not what I had hoped for. I decided to give a month's notice before moving back to New Zealand.
From 1997, Queenstown was again home, and I was able to save enough flying tandems during the busy months to take a couple of months off for competitions overseas. I travelled to South Korea, Canada, USA, Italy and Greece to compete. Highlights included winning the 1997 Canadian National Championships, the 1997 New Zealand Speed Gliding title, the 1998 WHGS World Cup Speed Gliding event in Canada, the 1999 WHGS World Cup cross-country event (which doubled as the Canadian Nationals that year) and placing sixth at the 1999 Speed Gliding Pre-World Championships (Mt Olympus, Greece).
In my travels, I met a Canadian woman who would eventually become my wife. She moved to New Zealand in 1998 with her two girls. We were married in 1999 and I had an instant family. That year I set up my own company, Antigravity Hang Gliding, in Queenstown. I had ideas of how to improve the Queenstown hang gliding experience I had been providing thousands of adventurers over the years, but my previous employers were not interested in change. I set up a small business, which grew rapidly to rival the company I had been working for previously. Our goal was to provide a better quality experience and charge slightly more for the privilege. People were prepared to pay extra to spend less time standing around watching others fly and, if conditions allowed, have a longer flight themselves.
My family invested in a house and land beneath Coronet Peak, our main launch site. The 5 acre property had its own landing area and became the base for Antigravity Hang Gliding. As I descended to land there, I was able to point out my Labrador, Jonah to my passengers. For safety, we always landed on wheels with our passengers, so that they were not required to run. I warned them to stand up quickly after we rolled to a stop before Jonah had time to come over and lick their faces. He was a very friendly dog!
High above the Rocky Mountains, Telluride Colorado.
Tow-launching in the early 90s.
In 2001, with my life seemingly in perfect order, my wife gave birth to our daughter, Taylor. I had been happy enough just to be a stepfather, however having my own biological daughter was amazing! Nothing could compare to how happy I was at that time, but a cruel twist of fate awaited seven weeks later. In early September, 2001, I sustained a spinal cord injury (SCI) at the C4/5 level which would change my life and the lives of those around me for ever after.
It was early spring and business was typically slow at that time of year due to difficult launch conditions. When a customer wanted to go for a tandem flight, I initially turned them down because the wind on launch at the Coronet Peak carpark was blowing the wrong way. I checked the weather station again soon after and the wind was blowing up so I decided we would drive up to the launch and see what happened. When we were there and setup to fly, conditions were safe for take-off so we ran down the hill and flew away without a problem. Conditions were very stable so we were unable to gain height via lifting air. Typically, in such conditions, I would give my passenger the option of some aerobatics before we landed. I did some manoeuvres to give him a thrill before turning to set up our landing.
Having flown over 5000 passengers on tandem flights over many years, I had become complacent. I had left the landing approach much later than I should have and my final glide was low. The safest option would have been to land on my neighbour's cow paddock; however he was an angry man who had forbidden any kind of glider landing on his property. He would literally try to run down gliders with his tractor and once dragged a paraglider pilot along the ground after having driven over the wing. I had maintained a cordial relationship with this farmer and didn't want to upset him. I thought I might be able to make it over the fence, and then the stream, to land on my landing strip. I cleared the fence but was unsure whether I would make it over the stream, which had steep banks and spanned about 3 or 4 metres. I figured that the safest option was to set the wheels down in the long grass between the fence and the stream, expecting the long grass to stop us quickly. Unfortunately, after the recent winter, the grass was weak and slippery. We skidded across it and from a speed of approximately 20 km/h, came to a sudden halt on the far bank of the stream. The triangular aluminium frame around us hit base bar first and the upright tubes absorbed our impact by bending outwards. Both my passenger and myself didn't hit the bank, we simply came to a sudden stop.
Both of us should have been fine and fortunately my passenger was uninjured but his arm had swung through and struck the back of my neck, causing my injury. Instantly I couldn't feel anything from the chest down, nor could I move. I checked that he was okay then told him not to move me as I feared that I had a spinal cord injury. The passenger went to the house and an ambulance was called. The same man who had run the first aid course I had attended a week earlier was in the ambulance that came to collect me. I was taken to the airport and flown to Christchurch, where five months of hospital treatment began...
It wasn't just my world that had changed drastically, my family was thrown into disarray and my friends couldn't believe what was happening. Indeed, the world changed forever a week after my accident when two airliners flown by terrorists brought down the World Trade Centre towers in New York. I found it hard to decipher whether I was having a terrible dream or that all of this had happened. Over the next few years, trying to be a parent, a husband and manage my business, whilst trying everything possible to regain whatever body function I could took its toll. I went to California for a month trying a recovery program, but upon my return I ended up separated from my wife, living in a nursing home, seeing my daughter three times a week, losing my business and eventually my home as well. One positive to come out of that time was meeting a mouth painting artist.
He encouraged me to try what he did so I produced six acrylic paintings and sent them to be looked at by the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (MFPA). They offered me a student scholarship to help pay for tuition and materials in order to develop my artistic ability. Prior to my accident I had admired the positive way that members of the MFPA had dealt with adversity. I had several times purchased the Christmas cards which had been delivered over the years. I know that some people don't like this form of distributing the cards/calendars, however there is no obligation for anyone to purchase them if they don't want to.
water-soluble oil on canvas board
8 x 10" (20.3 x 25.4 cm)
Oil on board
(30 x 40 cm)
During my school years I had enjoyed drawing, graphic design was one of my favourite subjects. However, up until my scholarship, I had done little in the way of painting. There were a lot of artists based around Queenstown, some I already knew and I admired their work. I had lessons which led me to try different mediums. I decided that oil paint would be most suitable for me due to its slow drying time and my ability to correct mistakes. I trialled various setups and techniques, settling upon an upright position using short to medium length brushes with rubber tube covering the end that would go in my mouth. My favourite subjects included landscapes, portraits and comical scenes. The MFPA also requested paintings they could use for Christmas and Spring mail outs; particularly Christmas cards and floral images. I had drawn some cartoons years earlier to accompany articles I had written for hang gliding magazines so I had a little experience, but over the years since my accident I have produced around a hundred paintings. Some are better than others and while I can finish a painting within a day occasionally, they often take weeks to complete if I get held up or daunted for whatever reason.
In 2007, my six-year-old daughter was living with me in shared accommodation with a carer near Arrowtown. The situation was less than ideal and I was eventually able to move back to Melbourne, where I had family and friends around to assist with raising Taylor. I have been based in Hawthorn East for the past nine years, and my daughter is growing up wonderfully. I continue to paint when I have the time, between lots of other things that consume everything else. Family and friends are important; you really get to find out who your best friends are through experiences like mine. I enjoy going to the football to see the mighty Hawks, attending the Australian Open tennis, exhibitions, movies and my daily jaunt to a Camberwell cafe to get out of the house, have a coffee and read the sport pages.
Being a mouth painter gives me some kind of identity and purpose now that I can't claim to be a pilot any more. My work is still developing and I doubt I will ever know it all, in what I find to be a most subjective form of expression. I have had a couple of my works published, though obviously it's not to everyone's taste or expectation. Then again, what art is? I also make myself useful as a peer-support volunteer for AQA/Spire. Earlier this year we won a Victorian Disability Award for volunteer services, which was nice recognition for the team who try to help newly injured people with a SCI. Sometimes I go to the Royal Talbot to do talks and demonstrations about mouth painting to the art group and it was pleasing to see a new mouth painting artist emerge from one such demonstration.
Into the future, I hope that I can continue to improve as an artist. I will enjoy seeing my daughter continue to grow up and be the best person she can. I also have a recently born step-grandson, who lives with my stepdaughter and her partner in New Zealand. I try to keep healthy and as active as I can manage. I think I have a few stories left to tell.
More of Geoff's work can be viewed here.