The afternoon wind was strong but smooth. We were camped at the base of the Sahyadri Hills in Western Maharashtra, waiting to leap off cliffs and soar like vultures. Our group leader, Sanjay, had scoured the local terrain for months before striking upon this remote site: a glorious set of five arched hills, each peaking at a thousand feet. Our camp was at the edge of dry, open farmland and smoke from charcoal fires rose up from some of the plots in the distance. I looked around and counted 13, each of us occupying a different wedge on the paragliding pole. I was a rookie; my instructor, Stroller, a tattooed Englishmen had recently flown over the Canadian Rockies solo. The group was mostly Mumbai professionals who had signed up for a basic five-session paragliding course
Since I had never done this before, I was to fly in tandem with Stroller: my back harnessed to his chest. Earlier, while walking to the site, we came across the local meteorological officer, a dhoti-clad old-timer sleeping on a cot outside his hutment. He raised his hand in a manner indicating conditions were perfect. “The villagers understand the sport because they’ve been watching the wind for centuries,” said Astrid, an advertising veteran who chucked her production job to start Nirvana Adventures with her husband Sanjay, an engineer.
After checking the windsock and anemometer, Sanjay decided to begin trial runs on the ground. The colourful gliders (which when spread out on the ground look like 20-feet-long sleeping bags) were quickly inflated by the gushing wind. The gliders’ cells burst with air and pulled the students skyward, but no one was flying yet. They first had to perfect their manoeuvres on the ground.
I continued to sit in the shade watching the comical scenes unfold simultaneously: corporate attorney, Harish (who had given me a ride up from Mumbai earlier that day) being pulled backwards by the glider, furiously backpedalling to gain control; and lightweight Maruk being lifted straight of the ground till Ravi, an instructor, latched onto her knees and pulled her back to earth.
Immune to it all, Stroller was napping with his head against a smooth stone. I spotted a sparrow hawk perched on a nearby boulder, then saw a large eagle soaring above us. Suddenly Stroller woke up and decided it was time to fly.
He placed Rex, his stuffed puppy into his bag (with only his head popping out), gestured to me and headed up the hill (Stroller says Rex is his stress-management consultant). We quickly climbed about 600 feet till we reached a flat ridge, the perfect location for take-off. The ridge, like a diving board, seemed much closer from below.
Stroller unpacked the equipment and tested it meticulously: each rope was checked for knots and every inch of our bright-red glider for breakages. He gave me a Biggles helmet and proceeded to strap me up from my arms, shoulders, chest, waist and then tightly between my legs — giving me the largest wedgie I’ve had since my fraternity initiation ceremony six years ago. Stroller then buckled the strap near my crotch, and smiled. “I’m nowhere your tailor hasn’t visited,” he quipped in thick Cockney.
We go through some procedural details but my role is minor: My back is going to be strapped to Stroller’s chest and he’s going to do most of the work in the air. My primary responsibility is during take off when I have to run hard towards the edge, gathering momentum to propel us off the cliff. We do a final safety check. Stroller thinks we’re ready. Our glider has caught the wind and is flying high and taut. Then just like that, I hear the loud command, ‘Run!!’ And I do, straining every sinew. We gallop off the ridge in perfect synchrony.
Suddenly we’re flying. We immediately hit a thermal (a hot blast of rising air that propels gliders upwards) and rise rapidly. Stroller tells us that we’re 1,500 feet above the base camp and a few hundred above the hill peaks. The strap wedged between my legs seems a little thin to be resting on, but I relax. It’s just before dusk and our view is panoramic. We saw small towns, lakes, villages, valleys, and the Deccan Plateau — against the backdrop of the molten, rolling Sahyadri range. I clutch onto side-straps fastened onto the glider that allow me to maintain balance. Stroller even lets me take control for a while, sometimes placing his hand over mine, at other times letting me ride free.
It’s hard to describe the myriad emotions one feels while paragliding, but for Stroller “the rush is all about the serenity and single-mindedness of the experience.” For me the greatest thrill was the bird’s eye view. Among the highlights were large vulture nests in hill crevices and intricate volcanic rock formations. I noticed Rex sticking his head out of Stroller’s bag. I saw colourful gliders flying below us. Stroller and I kept a nice conversation going, but there were also long periods of silence. It was liberating.
After 26 minutes of gliding around hill tops, we decided to land near the vans, parked over a kilometre away from takeoff. At first we braked slowly and straight, then moved to more extreme twirls that brought on the same feeling of weightlessness one experiences on an aircraft descent. As we reached the open field, Stroller asked me to step like I was getting off an escalator. We dropped a bit more and then suddenly we touched earth in perfect stride.
“Thanks for the ride,” I said as we lit up on some nearby rocks. He looked at me sharply: “It’s not me; Rex piloted his first tandem flight today.”
As published in The Sunday Express April 13, 2003