Soaring with eagles: paragliding in Nepal

The four wheel drive was haltingly making its way up the steep hill, skidding on the loose stones and rubble of the unpaved road. The driver did not say a word. The paraglide instructor had also stopped talking. To the left of us was a deep drop, unprotected and eager to devour man and metal without hesitation. In front of us demented motorists were flashing downhill towards us on the narrow road that definitely did not allow two vehicles to pass each other without careful and considerate maneuvering. My knuckles had turned a sickly shade of white and I nervously joked, “funny how the ride is actually scarier than the glide!”

I had actually not felt nervous until this point, much to my surprise. Sure, I had felt that tingly sensation in my stomach when looking up at the sky and seeing an infusion of colourful paraglider chutes slowly floating down towards Pokhara’s lakeside, knowing that soon we would be among them at about 3000 meters altitude. But when we sat in the booking office of the company we decided to glide with, my nerves did not play up when I signed for our package, and while waiting for the car to pick us up and bring us to the top of the hill I felt strangely calm. “This is nice,” I thought. “At least I don’t feel sick about the fact that I decided to jump off a cliff on what may be the last day of my life.” My serenity was soon disturbed however by the insane car ride, and even though some terrorizing minutes later we had made it to the top without plunging into an abyss, the sight of our paraglide wings being prepared by the instructors brought little relief by this point.

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“So Evelien, you get to go first of your group. Why don’t you come over here and have the harness and wing connected and prepared.” As I stood there while the instructor was fitting me in the harness and (hopefully) attaching me to all necessary anchor points, I watched the people from a group that had arrived before us and were now ready to jump. One girl and her instructor, fully attired with their gear and the wing lying stretched out behind them, had walked to a distance of some 15 meters before the edge of the cliff. He was closely monitoring the sky for a sign of a favorable gust of wind. “Remember, you will be in front of me when we take the jump,” my instructor explained while fastening some straps on my harness. “We may have to wait for a while to find a good moment to jump, because of the wind. When I say “run!” we run, and we don’t stop until we are over the edge of the cliff.” That sounded like a dubious advice that I might or might not follow, depending on the willingness of my legs to actually carry me over the edge of a cliff the moment I am half a meter away from it, I thought. The girl and her instructor were still waiting, when suddenly he shouted, “okay, we run!” She was hesitant and did not get into motion until the effort of the instructor who had started to run behind her forced her to move. I watched them run towards the edge, and I saw how their parachute picked up wind. First it slowly started to ripple, the air waves quickly growing to a surge until the entire parachute went airborne. They were running, and getting closer and closer, when in a moment of presumed panic (or a healthy and evolutionary will to live) the girl stopped in her tracks, her legs bending and her bottom almost hitting the ground in a halfhearted attempt to stop the traction of the parachute by sitting down. The instructor nearly stumbled over her and literally pushed her over the edge with his body weight, and I watched their bodies disappear as they tumbled over the cliff’s perimeter. For a few moments that were even more terrifying than the uphill car ride they were out of sight, but it was with great relief that I saw their parachute billow, picking up a gust of wind strong enough to carry the two unfortunate souls up and away from an untimely death. “Yeah, that’s why I said you should run and not stop,” the instructor said while shaking his head in disapproval.

Fair enough. I would run. “Are you ready?” The next seconds as the instructor was scanning the sky for the right moment to take off stretched to the point where they almost felt like minutes. “Now we run,” he said. The runway was short, and within moments we were at the cliff’s edge. The poor girl’s tumble fresh in my memory, I continued to run, and for a brief moment I had to laugh at myself because I knew that to anyone watching I must have looked like Wile E. Coyote in the Looney Tunes cartoon: still frantically moving his legs in slapstick fashion while suspended in the air until he realizes that he has no solid ground under his feet at which point gravity suddenly pulls him down. Luckily, our parachute withstood the forces of gravity and within moments we were soaring up, gaining altitude and swirling gently to the gusts of wind.

I had imagined that at such a vertical distance from the hustle and bustle of Pokhara city the flight would be quiet. But the wind was roaring and with every turn our parachute made, it became louder. The altitude meter of the instructor beeped ferociously, indicating the speed at which we were gaining elevation. My nerves had immediately calmed the moment we became airborne – to be completely free of any contact with the earth or any solid object was startling and this new sensation kept my mind occupied for a while. I watched and felt my legs dangle with a miniature Nepalese landscape a few thousand metres below them. Looking around, I could see that we soared past the cliff’s face, gaining altitude and then dropping some again while churning and twirling, with trees, tiny houses and cattle passing by from a dazzling perspective. In the distance Pokhara’s Pewha lake, the sprawl of the city and behind that the mountain ranges.

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Lone buffalo in a field

Then, the most marvelous moment: an eagle gliding past, completely unfazed by us. The bird of prey circled for some time on the same thermal convection flows that we were using to direct our paraglide through the troposphere. To be able to soar like a bird; how many men before us had not tried it and failed? And here we were, eye to eye with an eagle in its flight.

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What goes up, generally comes down, and so after about thirty minutes we set course for Phewa’s lakeside. The instructor skillfully steered us towards a green strip along the lake which was the designated landing site. The ground came closer at a worrying speed, but just like the parachute had picked us up from the cliff’s edge it now also somehow slowed us down a few moments before we touched ground again. The wing then lost its curve and slowly floated to the ground, and I was freed from my harness by the instructor. Legs slightly shaky, I waited for my partner, who had jumped after me and was still up in the air. I watched his tiny figure grow bigger as he approached the lake, and I envied him for still being in that delirious state that comes with being airborn as much as I was glad to be back on my two feet again.

Trainee instructors practicing to recognize the moment the wind picks up the wing (the moment to run and jump!)

Create your own adventure!

Pokhara in Nepal is a prime paragliding location. In fact, by many paragliders it is considered to be one of the top locations for gliding in the world. There are several companies in Pokhara that offer you the thrill of a glide, and it is easy to arrange. You can simply show up at one of their offices or book through a tourist agency, of which you will find many when you walk along Pokhara’s main street. Usually you can book up to a day in advance, although it is probably best to arrange your jump at least two days in advance if you want to be sure of a spot on your desired day. Also, it is possible that your glide is cancelled in case of bad weather or lack of thermals. You can get your money back or reschedule your glide to the next day – so if this is really a must-do for you, plan to be in Pokhara also the day after your originally scheduled date in case you need to postpone the glide.

Most companies offer three gliding options per day: at 10 AM, at 12 noon and at 2 PM. The later time slots are generally considered to be better, because it’s when the right thermals have formed due to the earth having been warmed up by the sun. You can also jump at 10 AM but expect a calmer flight with less gains in altitude. The glides are offered year round, but the best seasons to try it are spring and autumn due to the pleasant temperatures and absence of monsoon rains.

Most companies jump off Sarangkot mountain which is a short but crazy car ride from the town center. They will pick you up at your hotel or from their office and will drop you off again after the experience.

We decided to use Sunrise Paragliding upon doing some research. This company is a reputable business and has a good safety record. They work with local Nepalis whom they train as instructors. Like most companies in Pokhara, they offer standard tandem flights (like the one we did, where you glide together with an instructor) but they also offer training courses in case you have some time on your hands and are interested to learn how to paraglide solo.

Most companies offer different types of flights: a short and calm one, a longer calm one (usually bringing you to higher altitudes, although this will depend on the thermals on the day of your flight. In our case, we opted for the longer flight but the circumstances did not allow us to do so, so once in the air it was decided that we should switch to the shorter flight and we got the difference in price back from the company afterwards), or an acrobatic flight, during which your instructor will pull some stunts that will make your adrenaline rush (and may make the contents of your stomach fly into your instructor’s face, true story that I was told by my instructor).

You can take pictures or video during the flight. I recommend to bring a camera that you can somehow attach to your body, for example with a strap, because you will probably not be the first sucker to see their iPhone slide from their hands never to be seen again. Instructors can also make a go-pro video of your glide for a fee.

And remember… when they say “run”: you run!!

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