Paragliding in Nepal (or High as a Kite)
by Andy Maloney
A year or so ago, Colin Iles showed me a video called ‘Parahawking’, about a paragliding company in Nepal (Sunrise Paragliding) who had got together with an English falconer (Scott Mason) and trained orphaned hawks to fly with paragliders The hawks found thermals for the pilots, flying to the pilots hand for treats. Unfortunately, one of the birds (a pariah kite) followed a dropped piece of food to the ground, where it was killed by village kids. As a result, the Himalayan Hawk Conservancy was set up to rescue orphaned raptors, and also to educate people in Nepal as to the importance of raptor conservation.
The video was quite inspiring - to the extent that Colin mooted a trip to Nepal, to join a ‘Paratrek’, a ten day long paragliding adventure with Sunrise Paragliding. I was keen to fly in Nepal too, and before long we had a group of four Wellington pilots ( Ken Anderson, Brendon Duffy, Colin and I) booked on a paratrek in November 2004. My partner Chris Pugsley, a non-flyer who didn’t want to get left out, booked on a beginners course with Sunrise at the same time.
On arrival in Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city (about the size of Wellington) , we discovered that our good friend Fiona Dalzell, a kiwi pilot living in England, had also booked on the trek. The final two members of our group were Mark Fennell, an Australian pilot with a wonderfully big personality and heaps of enthusiasm for paragliding, and an English pilot who I shall call ‘Quentin’ (a pseudonym to protect the guilty). Brendon had pulled out, though due to an altercation with power lines in India three weeks earlier. The leader of our group was Rajesh, a Nepali pilot and partner in Sunrise. He is a wonderful guide- friendly and unassuming, with bags of local flying knowledge he was happy to impart on us.
The first four days flying were from sites around Pokhara. Sarangkot, a hill overlooking Pokhara and Phewa Tal (Pokhara’s beautiful lake) was our first flying site The launch is near the top of the hill, some 650m above the lake. The landing was along the dirt road and adjacent rice paddies by the lake- next to Nanda Devi, a café / restaurant owned by Adam Hill, the English co-owner of Sunrise Paragliding. Post flight coffee and bullshit with other pilots was a particular joy of Sarangkot!
Unfortunately, the weather was not the classic flying weather that was expected in the post-monsoon season. Instead of clear mountain views and 5000m bases, we suffered serious pollution- Pokhara was barely visible from Sarangkot some days - all of 3km! The thermals were weak, and the cloud base often low. (Those who have access to the DVD ‘Never Ending Thermal’ can see how fantastic the weather had been the previous year!). The mountain views were rare - Maachupuchare (Fishtail) mountain, nearly 7000m high and only 30km away, was rarely seen - by 10am it was shrouded in cloud. When I was last in Nepal in 1988, at the same time of year, I never saw a cloud! As a result, long cross country flights were not an option - 5km down the ridge and then back was as far as I got!
On one of the days we were taken to another site nearby, called Dickie Danda. This was a few kilometres from Pokhara towards the main ranges of the Himalayas. The Sunrise jeep was in use for Chris and the other learner pilots, so we took taxis to launch Imagine, if you can, our laden, quarter-century old Toyota Corollas labouring up monsoon-eroded four wheel drive tracks up the hill. Amazingly, they made it, though not without having to get out and push in places! The idea at Dickie Danda was to get a couple of hundred metres above launch, and then fly over to the Green Wall, an immense vertical jungle at the head of the valley, replete, we were told, with monkeys and birds. Unfortunately, the thermals refused to cooperate and only climbed to a little above launch height. Rajesh was very apologetic about the conditions, and took us all back there on two days after our paratrek was over, in the hope of better conditions, but we never did make it to the Green Wall!
The lack of great paragliding for those days was more than made up for by the relaxed ambience of life in Pokhara. The tourist area, Lakeside, has some of the best restaurants in Asia- and we ate fantastic meals every night for less than it costs for coffee and a slice in New Zealand cafes! Our favourite was an Italian place called Café Concerto, where we accompanied our meals with local apple brandy (a bad habit that Punam from the Sunrise office introduced us to). Shopping was another wonderful diversion. Anyone who goes to Nepal should take a minimum of gear - we re-equipped ourselves with North Face (or rather North Fake) waterproof gear and fleeces at about 15% of the price of the real stuff - and so far its proved to work OK (though we’ve been warned that the zips tend to be dodgy). I loved shopping for Buddhist Thankas (religious paintings) - and came home with several! My best cost US$250, but took someone 3 months to paint- the incredible detail being done with a single horse hair!
On our fifth day, the really interesting part of our trip began, and Quentin joined our group for the first time. We were to travel to a village called Galam, not far from Pokhara in distance, but a different world altogether. It is situated on the flanks of a deep valley in the foothills of the Himalayas to the south east of Pokhara. Although only 20km or so as the paraglider flies, the journey to Galam took half a day. Taking the Sunrise jeep, we traveled for over an hour along the twisty main road towards India, then turned up a very rough 4WD track up a hillside, though several villages, to the road end. Our porters for the trek were already there, and soon grabbed our paragliders for the walk up to Galam. The track wended its way round the back of a very steep gully, with a large cliff face at its back. We later discovered that this was the house thermal trigger- known as the ‘Bus thermal’, a scary start to every thermalling flight from Galam.
After a walk of an hour or so, we arrived at the idyllic, electricity and road free village of Galam. At least it should have been road free. An ugly scar of road building cut across the hillside, a hideous blot on a scene of otherwise amazing rural beauty It turned out that the villagers, with a rather simplistic idea that roads lead to progress and wealth, had pooled their resources into hiring a bulldozer, and simply bulldozed a road with no thought to the engineering required to stabilise the land on steep, monsoon-prone slopes. Ancient rice paddies and stone footpaths were destroyed, and gullies were filled in, with only a few six inch water pipes to allow their streams to flow under the road- not nearly enough for the torrents the next monsoon would unleash! No thought had been given to how the subsistence farmers were going to pay for maintenance of the road either- access to markets by road seems a little pointless if you’ve no surplus to sell! I suspect that it won’t exist for long.
The road aside, the village was lovely, a place that, except for the diesel- driven corn mill, and occasional tin roof, could have been unchanged for hundreds of years. The best thing was that, despite the proximity to Pokhara, no tourists ever visit except for four groups of paraglider pilots each year. As Sunrise paragliding donates money to help the local school, pilots are made especially welcome. Unlike the ‘tourist trail’ areas, we didn’t feel intrusive asking to take people’s photos, or accepting invitations into people’s houses. It was noticeable that although people are poor, and working the land is hard, they seemed to be amongst the happiest people I’ve met. Certainly living in such a beautiful place must be part of it!
Our party camped on a perfectly flat ‘sports field’ on the edge of a near vertical drop to the valley floor, 600m or so below (I wouldn’t like to be the one to fetch the ball in a soccer game!). It was a wonderful luxury to have attentive cooks and porters to attend to your every need- mugs of coffee, or items of food would appear at regular intervals, threatening to put us over the weight limits for our gliders! Our porters would not let us carry our wings- they took them up the 300m climb to launch every morning, and would meet us in the landing field below Galam at the end of the day to carry things back to camp.
With few chores to do, our group had plenty of time to relax and get to know each other. We talked about many subjects, and Quentin talked about himself. His wife was apparently very lucky to have met him, and he was a close personal friend of all the top paraglider pilots such as Jockey Sanderson, as well as being a world class kayaker. And he loved shaving his balls. Mmmm.
The weather was still rather abnormal, and not every day had a classic sky and great conditions When we didn’t fly, it was a great opportunity to explore the village and meet the villagers, so I didn’t mind too much. On the three days we flew, the flying was awesome. Flying out from launch, then turning left into the rather rough and scary cliff face of the ‘bus thermal’ was a rather sharp start to a days flying. After that, the flying seemed easy! We flew along the ridges enclosing the valley, which was perhaps 6km long and 3 wide. From the air, the view of similar valleys stretching into the distance enticed me to do a long XC, but the thought of landing in a valley days walk from a main road kept me safely in the confines of our valley. It would be a fantastic spot for vol bivouac flying, though! The main ranges of the Himalayas rose to seemingly impossible heights to the north, floating magically over a sea of valley smog. The thermals, up to 6m/s, took me to cloud base and beyond- to experience the inside of cumulus, and even the top of cumulus- something I’d never done before. The different air masses in each valley had different moisture contents, so it was possible to fly above a ridge up the side of a developing cumulus. The view of the valley below, a kilometre deep, with forested tops, big waterfalls, and steeply terraced rice paddies was pure magic. This is what flying is all about!
On our third night in Galam, the villagers came up to our camp to party. They sang a traditional song (only one, but it was sung all evening!), and lubricated by generous quantities of apple brandy, and the local ‘raksi’ (a distilled millet brew of deceptively bland flavour), Fiona and I joined in the traditional dancing. I tried to teach the Nepalis a new song (On Ilkley Moor Bah Tat), which got a polite, but bemused reception. Fiona and I encouraged Quentin to join in the dancing. This seemed to make him believe Fiona lusted after him (what woman wouldn’t?), and his hands wondered to parts of Fiona’s anatomy that made her knee connect with his groin. Meanwhile, Ken had asked for a dance with the Major’s wife (the Major is an ex-Gurka, and village headman). All was well till the dance ended, and Ken kissed her on the cheek - a major faux pas! (The Major just said in a serious voice “That was a mistake”). Luckily, it wasn’t taken too seriously. We heard a story that a pilot who had kissed a girl of marriageable age was later tracked down in Pokhara by the family to ask if he wanted to marry her!
A highlight of our visit to Galam was our visit to the local school. Many of the teachers in the school were not paid by the government, and donations from pilots and Sunrise Paragliding are an important source of revenue. As a result, we were treated like royalty. The kids had all made flower leis from marigolds and poinsettias, and each child presented one of us with a lei. We were nearly buried under about 10kg of flowers each! Not an experience to forget in a hurry!
Other acts of generosity were appreciated too. The villagers grew a special herb to treat their cattle when they got intestinal problems, and I was very touched to receive a gift of a large ball of this herb from one of them. Sadly, I had to give it away before returning to New Zealand, as customs take a dim view of animal medicine imports. The herb? Cannabis sativa, enough to make a whole herd of cattle very happy and healthy!
Our stay in Galam should have been five days, flying back to Pokhara on the final day - achievable on glide if you get a good thermal from the ridge above Galam. However, there was a transport strike that day. The Maoist ‘terrorists’ call these from time to time to show their influence - no motorised was allowed (any vehicles seen in use were likely to be firebombed at some later date). Landing short of Pokhara would mean a long walk, so most of us decided to wait at Galam another day - Quentin was the only one to attempt the flight (he just made it). The rest of us had a wonderful last evening around the camp fire, but regretted our decision the following day - as big clouds started to gather over the ridge. By mid-morning, it was obviously unflyable, and so we prepared to walk down to the main road and catch the bus to Pokhara. As we walked, the sky towards Pokhara turned an intense black. It boiled towards us, and a few spots of rain landed as we flagged down an heavily overladed bus. Within minutes, we were driving through drifts of hailstones in the biggest thunderstorm I’ve ever seen! Thunderstorms are almost unheard of in November, and whilst we were inconvenienced, many Nepalis lost any remaining crops they hadn’t yet harvested, a serious situation for many.
Unseasonal weather aside, our Paratrek was an extraordinary experience that I would strongly recommend to itinerant pilots looking for new experiences. While the paratrek may seem expensive (prices are European rather than third world), it gives a unique experience of both flying and local culture, and the Sunrise team (Adam Hill, Rajesh, and Punam) could not have been more helpful. It is suitable for any pilots with a few hours thermaling experience.
Many tourists have been discouraged from visiting Nepal because of the terrorist activity. However, no tourists have been caught in the troubles - the Maoists at worst charge US$12 (‘donation’ to their funds) on popular trekking routes. They issue a receipt to ensure you don’t get charged twice! In my opinion, there has never been a better time to visit - Nepal is less crowded with tourists than it has been for years, and it is still a safe place to travel.