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"Can you read in a moving vehicle without feeling sick?"
The question was posed to me by Jamie Messenger, the English paraglider who had been assigned as my pilot for my paragliding flight. I had signed up for a one-hour cross-country tandem flight with Frontiers Paragliding, one of the oldest operators of the sport in the city of Pokhara, Nepal.
For the next hour, I’d be snugly strapped into a specially-designed tandem harness attached to Messenger and the wing (as the voluminous canopy is called; also known as the parafoil if you’re an aeronautical engineer) which he would control and direct when we were in the air.
“Yep, I have gone through entire novels on long bus rides,” I replied. If I have a hidden talent it is an iron-clad stomach that has proven resistant to sea sickness, air turbulence and treacherous budget coach rides through the narrow highways and by-ways of Third World countries. “Great, then you shouldn’t have any problems,” he smiled.
It was briefly reassuring to hear, but a quick glance at our take-off site at Sarangkot, a mountainous village perched roughly 2000 feet above sea level and doubts started to sink in. After all, we were literally going to be hurl ourselves off the side of a mountain into, well, nothing.
After donning a helmet and making sure that my camera was secured tightly to my body, I stepped into the tandem harness, which if you can imagine it, is like putting on a fortified diaper. Then came the awkward bit: it was Messenger’s turn to hook himself into the harness and it hit me that for the next hour, I would essentially be suspended in a sitting position almost ass-to-crotch with a complete stranger.
Clearly a professional, Messenger turned my focus back to the take-off, which is what paragliders refer to as "the launch”. After he gave me some preliminary instructions, we were ready to go.
Having made sure that the wing was spread out on the ground behind us in a horseshoe shape, we positioned ourselves several metres away from the edge. When the wind was right, Messenger gave me the cue to run towards the take-off point.
So we ran, linked together, which was the tricky bit. As we hurtled down the slope, the wind urgently filled the wing and lifted itself in the air and at a point, caused us to be jerked abruptly backwards, which Messenger had warned me about, but we held our pace – or rather, he did, while I lurched along – and before we knew it, we were up, up and away.
Airborne, the first thing Messenger made me do was to get me into a sitting position, which meant switching from the standing position with my legs dangling below me to one that was cradled by the harness with my knees almost to my chest.
It was a much more comfortable pose and finally I was ready to take in the incredible view. We were soaring over mountain peaks, lakes, villages that grew tinier and tinier as we ascended. At the risk of sounding trite, it was nothing short of breathtaking.
The first thing that strikes you about paragliding is that it’s fast, really fast. The speed range of paragliders is typically 20 to 75 kilometres per hour, which may not sound all that quick, but when one is open to the elements with the wind swooshing brutally across your face, you become quite aware of the speed you’re travelling at as compared to, for example, if you were in a closed-top vehicle.
The next thing you notice is how cold it is. We were advised to dress in a long-sleeved shirt, long trousers and thick socks primarily for this reason. At that altitude, the temperature drop is quite severe, and with the added factor of wind shear, an unprepared individual could find his teeth chattering for a good hour.
A crucial part of paragliding is gaining altitude by using thermals, that is, columns of warm rising air. Messenger told me that an easy way to spot these is by observing wild birds like falcons and hawks that use them pretty much in the same way. The alternative method is to look for clouds.
Once he found the centre – or the “core” – of a thermal, he instructed me to shift my weight to the left of the harness as he did the same. Together, the weight shift caused us to rise upwards in rapid dizzying circles (this is where the iron-clad stomach comes in useful) to the frantic beeps of his vario-altimetre, a device which indicates the speed of which a paraglider climbs.
We would repeat this several times over the flight to make up for any lost altitude along the way.
The thrill of the flight did not abate for me from start to end, but I definitely felt a little more comfortable with the speed, cold and the staggering height right about the 30-minute mark. It was at this point that I was really aware of the lanky man who was sitting snugly behind me, so I decided that it was time to get to know him a little better.
Born in the UK, you could call Messenger a paragliding nomad. Apart from taking silly tourists like me on paragliding flights in Nepal during paragliding season, he also travels all over the world for paragliding competitions held in the United States, Europe and Australia.
One of Messenger’s pet events is cross-country paragliding which can see competitors up in the air for as long a stretch of 10 to 12 hours. So naturally, I had to ask the all-important question, “So, what if you have to pee?”
"We have a special er... system involving tubes and er… stuff."
"Er, right. What about the women competitors?"
"They wear adult diapers."
I also asked if he has ever received strange requests from tourists and he shared that Donna Karan, the famous womenswear designer, once requested to be taken into the air to scatter her late husband’s ashes over the famously spiritual soil of Nepal.
Before I knew it, the hour was up and it was time to make our descent, but Messenger had something else in store for me before we got back on solid ground.
“Are you ready for some acrobatics?” he asked. I said yes, gingerly, not quite knowing what he meant.
And suddenly we were spiralling downwards. It was just for a few seconds, but I felt my stomach rise into my throat and uncontrollable nervous laughter burst out of me through the combination of fear and adrenaline.
He did it for a few times more until we were almost close to the landing site and before I knew it, my feet were on land again without nary a scratch.
Undoubtedly, paragliding has been one of the most amazing experiences in my life and if you ever find yourself in Nepal, you should definitely consider trying it for yourself.
That is, if your stomach is prepared for it. I suggest you first start by reading on the bus.
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