Flying high with buccaneers

"We've run out of pilots" ... Paragliding in Pokhara, Nepal.
"We've run out of pilots" ... Paragliding in Pokhara, Nepal. Photo: Nikki Marshall

"WE'VE run out of pilots," comes the shout.

"Another company will be up soon; they'll take you down. Just wait here."

Not exactly reassuring words to a first-time paraglider standing on a 1600-metre cliff above Pokhara, Nepal's second city.

Nikki Marshall paragliding in Pokhara.
Nikki Marshall paragliding in Pokhara. 

It's lucky I've been in Nepal for a week, so I'm getting used to how it works here. Little runs to schedule and everyone displays a remarkably relaxed attitude towards personal safety – but things get done.

Truth be told, I'm grateful just to have been spoken to. Two mates and I had been picked up from our hotel and driven to the jump site, yet no one said a word.

Then Tracy and Nick were beckoned over by a pair of permatanned backpacker types who turned out to be their pilots. Before long, they were up and away.

Left on the hilltop, I try to count the parachutes circling above. As I reach 50, another jeep-load of adventurers appears.

First up is a slight blonde with a deep tan and a sunny smile.

"Are you my pilot?" I ask, a touch desperately.

I'm handed a helmet and a harness and look on as the pilots meet their punters. A Czech is speaking in Mandarin to a Chinese couple. Other pilots are Russian and, I think, Israeli. They look like modern-day buccaneers, adventure-sports enthusiasts who have been to a full-moon party or four.

The blonde tells me her name is Eli, she's Finnish and, yes, she'll be my pilot. All I have to do, she says, is run fast to take off. But I must stop instantly if she shouts out. (I've witnessed a couple of aborted starts when the wind has died down. It doesn't look like fun.)

And for $20 – the flight has cost $90 – she will shoot pictures and video from a camera on a pole.

Finally, she tells me that if I feel nauseous, she'll cut the ride short and pass a sick bag. About one in five people need them.

Moments later, it's our turn. One second we're on the grassy slope, the next we're in the void, with Pokhara and its glorious lake spread out below us. The Earth curves away in every direction.

As we spiral up, Eli invites me to treat my harness like an armchair. Soon the jump site is several hundred metres down. I'm uneasy yet exhilarated.

But we chat happily for the half-hour ride. Eli tells me she only ever took one tandem flight, was instantly hooked, and married her pilot.

Just before we land by the lake, we head over the water for some aerobatics. Then it's time to touch down. It's a soft landing, but suddenly I feel seasick. I was fine in the air but safe on solid ground it feels as though my brain is spinning loose in my skull.

(I'm not the only one to feel queasy: Tracy and Nick both loved their flights but Nick needed the sick bag.)

Then Eli pulls a CD burner out of her backpack, crouches on the grass, and hands me a disc loaded with photos.

After smiles and hugs, we're off, and the pilots are heading back up the hill for their next jump.

As for me, I'm raring to go again. Just give me a year or so to get over this one.

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