A short hop from infinity : TRAVEL

There must be better things to do in Turkey than leap off mountains. Paraglider Jolyon Jenkins doesn't agree
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The Independent Culture
THE Turkish mountain of Bab Dag is a mile high - think of Ben Nevis, then add some. Its steep, sloping sides are covered with jagged boulders and scrubby gorse. And the point is, there were people there who clearly expected me to jump off the edge.

Now that I was strapped into a harness, the idea of entrusting my life to a few square yards of nylon and a cat's-cradle of string seemed questionable. But I was buckled up, the paraglider laid out behind me, and it seemed too late for second thoughts. Everyone was looking at me, and ...

"Go!" shouted my instructor, Kaz, a strict woman with purple hair. I tugged on the paraglider. With a gentle crumpling noise, it filled with air and floated over my head. I started running towards the edge of the mountain. "Run!" yelled a chorus of paraglider pilots waiting behind me. I felt myself lifted a few feet into the air, and relaxed. Immediately, I found myself back on the ground. "Keep running! Run, run, run!" I stumbled forward some more, and finally, just in time, the mountainside fell away from me. I was airborne, with the wind whistling past my ears.

"OK, Jolyon," crackled a voice over my two-way radio - it was Spike, another instructor, who had taken off just before me. "Carry on flying straight out towards the sea." There was a pause. "Jolyon, can you hear me?" Yes, but to reply I had to press the "speak" button on my radio - which meant letting go of one of the control lines. I intended to grasp hold of whatever I could, for as long as I could. "If you can hear me," Spike continued, remorselessly, "waggle your legs." Gingerly, I waggled one of them. "Fine." And so we settled into a pattern: Spike gave the orders, while I semaphored assent with my nether quarters.

I had spent three gruelling days training for this moment. I had run around on a beach in the 90-degree heat, towing a paraglider behind me, urged on by the tyrannical Kaz with word and gesture. I had spent hours climbing up impossibly steep slopes to do yet another 20-second "short hop" from small hills, witnessed by a collection of curious Turkish schoolchildren. Finally I was up there - just me and a few pounds of synthetic materials.

I looked down. Below me was Spike's own canopy, and below him, the lower slopes of the mountain, covered in pine trees - too small to make out individually. Straight ahead, the Mediterranean, dotted with tiny (so they seemed) yachts. Gradually, I glided down over a ridge. The sandy bay of Oludeniz came into view, and beyond it, a lagoon. I wanted to be there, not up here.

And something felt wrong. I was slipping forward, out of my harness. Instead of sitting comfortably and enjoying the view, I was dangling from ever-tightening chest and leg straps. The straps, I had been told, could support several tons, but I knew it was going to take all my psychic powers to stop them snapping. I concentrated my full attention on this problem.

"Carry on to the lagoon, and then come back along the beach," ordered Spike. I waggled my increasingly numb legs. As I reached the lagoon, I pulled on one of the controls and - slightly to my surprise - the paraglider started to turn. I straightened out, and glided back towards the mountain. Above me, and heading in my direction, was Jason, an Australian trainee who had taken off after me. Below, I could see Spike coming in to land. On the beach, I could make out individual sunbathers.

Gradually, I went back and forward, losing height. With a few hundred feet to go, Spike brought me in over the land, and then back towards the sea. I flew over hotel swimming pools, then over palm trees, so close I expected to brush them with my ankles, and then, in a rush, over the beach. Everything was happening terrifyingly quickly. I tracked along a line of parasols with inches to spare, fleetingly rehearsing my apologies to the snoozing bodies beneath them, before the sand rushed up towards me. Like a cartoon character, I ran with my legs in the air, pulled hard on the controls - and hit the ground still running. The paraglider collapsed behind me. It was 20 minutes since I had taken off, and I was still alive. "Well done," crackled Spike. "How do you feel?" I couldn't find the words to reply. Petrified? Elated? Relieved? A minute later, Jason landed. "Guess I better change my pants," he drawled.

After an hour, my adrenaline levels had receded, and sensation had returned below the waist. I was ready for another go. This time I was strapped in properly, and floated back to earth with the confidence of a Red Devil on holiday. As I landed, there was a ripple of applause from spectators on the promenade. I bowed, modestly. I felt like Mr Toad on discovering the motor car: "The poetry of motion! The real way to travel. The only way to travel. And to think I never knew. All those wasted years that lie behind me. I never knew, never even dreamt!"

Postscript: the tally of launch injuries sustained that week comprised one leg, broken in three places, one cut knee (property of Kaz), and one torn ligament requiring plaster of Paris from toe to knee. These were among experienced paragliders. The most important holiday accessory is a good insurance policy. !

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: First Club Holidays (081-567 5112) offers flights to Dalaman, in south-east Turkey, for £222 return, departing from Heathrow. Campus Travel provides return flights to Dalaman from Heathrow for £214 return, which are open to all. There is a regular bus service from Dalaman to Oludeniz, changing at Fethiye. The journey takes approximately 112 hours and will cost around £25.

PARAGLIDING TOURS: Greendragons Paragliding runs holidays in Oludeniz for between £509 and £699 for seven days. The season lasts from April to the end of October. Paraglider hire is extra (about £60). Greendragons is at 633 Rainham Road South, Dagenham, Essex RM10 8AH (081-517 7945; fax 081-593 5271). The Sussex College of Paragliding also organises trips to Turkey. Phone or write for details to 10 Crescent Road, Brighton, East Sussex BN2 3RP (0273 609925).

At Oludeniz itself, several local companies run courses, including Grida (010 90252 6166801) and Sport Flying and Tourism (010 90252 6147076). If you don't fancy embarking on the (fairly long) learning curve, all the above companies do tandem flying, in which you are strapped into a double harness with a very experienced pilot. Tandem flights cost about £60. In Britain, paragliding is governed by the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, which can supply details of schools (0533 611322; fax: 0533 611323).

FURTHER INFORMATION: Turkish National Tourist Board, Egyptian House, 1st Floor, 170-173 Piccadilly, London W1V 9DD (071-734 8681).

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