Wings and a prayer: Learning to paraglide in India
Sheer terror, huge exhilaration and enormous black bruises: learning to paraglide in the mountains of India's Western Ghats is a truly memorable experience
Saturday 12 May 2007
'If you cannot fall to the ground from a standing position," said Sanjay, owner of Nirvana Adventures, "then paragliding is not for you." It had been a while, but the thought flashed through my mind that the nearest hospital was more than an hour away by van, brushing past ox-carts on the broken tarmac of rural Maharashtra. There was, however, a mattress. I adopted a survival position - elbows pinned, fists balled under my chin - and rolled on to it. Falling over was easy: I did it again - and again.
This was the only bit of learning to fly that was anything like as easy as falling off a log. The course mixed unaccustomed exercise, some moments of sheer terror, and a huge amount of exhilaration. There are plenty of good reasons to choose the mountains of India's Western Ghats to learn how to paraglide. Most importantly, for eight months of the year almost every day is flyable, thanks to a settled climate and a set-your-watch sea breeze that wafts over from the Bay of Bengal just before sunset.
Icarus would have lived a little longer if he'd known about the latest range of paragliders. From a three-strap, sit-in harness, Kevlar cords thread up to attach the would-be pilot to a wing made of rip-stop nylon, sewn into pockets. When travelling forwards, incoming air fills the pockets and transforms the fabric into the shape of a wing. If not filled with air, it would be as aerodynamic as a fluttering rag, but you don't think about that, at least not on day one.
You don't think about much on day one, except perhaps to wonder what made you think that learning to fly was a) possible and b) a good idea. I was introduced to my kit, taught how to lay the wing out prior to take-off, check the lines and carry out some basic safety measures. This all seemed fairly straightforward, until I pulled the wing into the air.
It hadn't occurred to me that a kite powerful enough to lift my 100kg into the air would have to be quite a serious beast. I pulled the wing over my head and Yogi, my assistant instructor that day, helped me to run a few steps down the gentle slope.
At the time I was mystified as to how a gust of wind caught the wing and blew it off to one side, with me following. With a lightning tackle, Yogi brought me to the ground, grabbing at the lines to collapse the fabric pockets. Later on, watching other beginners, I realised that novice flyers, paralysed with fear, just don't hear their instructors, however loudly they shout. "Left hand down! Run right! Run left!" are commands obeyed late, if at all. Daunted, I learnt to pack my wing into its carry-pack, loaded it back on to the van and headed back for lunch. The next day, I was assured, would be easier - and more fun.
That night my upper arms turned black with bruises from the paragliding cords. I stumbled out of bed on stiff legs. Nor was I encouraged by being asked, before breakfast, to fill in a disclaimer.
I'm not great at running at the best of times, let alone with a heavy paraglider harness on my back and an unpredictable paraglider wing above my head. Sometimes it swung off to the left, sometimes to the right. My uphill trudges became slower and the downhill runs became ambles. Yogi had an answer to this: he ran behind and pushed.
Suddenly I was airborne. My legs were still moving but my feet had left the ground. The seconds passed slowly as I skimmed ever further: 20, 30, 40 metres. By the time I drifted back to the ground my legs had stopped windmilling so I fell over. I'd done my first "Bunny Hop".
That night at the guesthouse, a flood of 20 weekenders from Mumbai transformed the atmosphere, blowing a blast of city energy through the airy terraces. Qualified and trainee pilots alike, they shared a love of free flight but otherwise mixed professions, castes, religions, sexes and drinks.
The next day was the Hindu spring festival of Holi, and our drive to the flight site ran a gauntlet of roadblocks set up by small children expecting donations. We ran out of coins first, then low-denomination notes, which meant the last few Robin Hoods were left grinning in delight.
Not a grin from our party as we climbed a hill known as Shelar, named after the farmer who owned the flatlands below, and watched the windsock dangle despondently. To fly, a steady wind of about 15km/h is needed and there wasn't a breath. A British pilot who had arrived the night before pulled out a paperback. A 12-year-old boy who had booked for a tandem flight burst into tears. Everyone else sat around, frustrated, talking climate change. Maharashtra's famously reliable weather had let us down.
This left me with a slight problem. I'd gambled by allowing just five days to complete a five-day course: now I was a day adrift. Chief instructor Pendu took this challenge in his stride. At 6am the next day we were up sipping sweet Indian tea, ready to catch the morning wind. On three occasions I climbed a 40m hill and flew down, following instructions on an intercom strapped to my chest. Then I attempted a final flight alone, which was fine until I overshot the landing field and dumped several thousand pounds worth of paraglider across three thorny bushes.
For my first soaring flight I took off from a ledge 80 metres above the landing field and sheltered by a cliff behind. My wing went up like a lift. For several moments I was terrified. In open flight the wind noise was much greater than I expected, and my wing seemed to take on a life of its own. When I cleared the ridges of the Western Ghats, turbulence twitched at my harness and it bucked around my shoulders. I'd been told not to look up for reassurance, so I looked down to see a Google Earth-like view of rural India, where even big trees looked like small round bumps. The delicate smoke trails of small kitchen fires should have given me valuable information about the state of the wind but didn't. I just prayed.
I was still flying, though, and a new range of lessons washed away my fear. For a start, the simple steering I'd learned close to the ground, pulling on left and right brakes to turn or slow down, weren't enough to control the wing in free flight. Instructions came though the intercom: "Shift your weight to the right!" Strapped firmly into my harness it didn't seem immediately obvious how this was to be done. As if reading my mind, a more refined command crackled through. "Cross your legs to the right!" Immediately the wing responded, spinning in a curve that seemed terrifyingly fast. Gradually I got the hang of controlling my flight, crabbing across the clifftop to catch the breeze and climb ever higher. The radio instructions fell away and I picked my own course, describing a succession of long, lazy figures-of-eight over the top of the world.
After an hour in the air I began to wonder how I'd get down. The sun was setting and I half-remembered talk about evening thermals that could affect whole valleys, vast tubes of air that my fevered imagination suggested might send me to meet the space shuttle. Pendu's voice crackled back on the radio and directed me away from the mountain. Here a series of turns brought me effortlessly back to the landing strip. I touched down soft as a feather, turned and dropped the wing to furl into a neat concertina.
Pendu shook my hand and Shelar, the farmer, came up to give me a celebratory cup of tea. That night I'd be driving back to Mumbai and then flying home. But at this moment, as a qualified P1 beginner pilot, I felt on top of the world.
Mumbai is served by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com), Jet Airways (0870 910 1000; www.jetairways.com) and Air India (020-8560 9996; www.airindia.com), from Heathrow.
Nirvana Adventures (00 91 22 2605 3724; www.nirvanaadventures.com) organises paragliding courses at Kamshet in Maharashtra state.
Five-day beginner pilot courses cost €400 (£286) including five nights' accommodation, equipment hire, radio supervision and site charges. Tandem, weekend, and novice pilot courses are also available. Flying takes place from October to May. Nirvana can arrange for guests to be picked up from Mumbai airport for the three-hour drive to Kamshet (Rs2,500/£30).
British passport-holders require a visa, available from India's High Commission (0906 844 4544, calls 60p per minute; www.hcilondon.net).
Be warned that normal travel insurance does not cover adventure sports such as paragliding: you will need to consult a specialist.
India Tourism: 020-7437 3677; www.incredibleindia.org.
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