Flying High: Paragliding in Pokhara
Last time I went paragliding in Pokhara was nine years ago. Only a handful of companies were operating then, and there were more mountain peaks visible than fliers. My tandem pilot was five months pregnant, and we had a cushy ride floating in the thermals, seemingly as high as the mountains. I thought the overall experience was fantastic, but I remember wishing we’d done some acrobatics like some of the other guys in the sky.
I went paragliding again last week, and this time it was a little different. With 60 plus companies operating these days, the sky is more congested. This time the pre-flight pace is a little faster, and also a little more professional and streamlined. This time I asked for acrobatics.
I went with a friend who is 6’4”–much taller than the average Nepali! The staff assured us the wing and harness would support him (but they also told us to have a very light breakfast).
We left the office at 11am and hopped in a small van that drove us to the 1500m take-off point at Sarangkot. A soldier with a large gun stopped us at a checkpoint to inspect our permits and licenses. From there we were quickly taken to our take-off spot where there were already quite a few fliers, some looking pretty laid-back and seasoned.
Nepal is incredibly popular on the paragliding circuit for many reasons. You can fly in the sky with eagles and Egyptian vultures while gazing at Dhaulagiri (8167m), Machhapuchhare (6993m) and Annapurna II (8,091m), plus the rest of the Annapurna range. Post flight there are beers and good food beside Phewa lake, waiting for the sunset. What’s not to like? I asked a German flier how long he stays up per flight. “Until I have to pee,” he unflinchingly responded. “And then I go up again.”
My friend and I got harnesse up. My male pilot, Dipak, was not pregnant, and he promised me some acrobatics. But first we needed to go up high before we could do the fancy tricks, which incorporate falls of several hundred meters per move! As soon as we took off we found a thermal and rose 500m. Dipak said they often follow the birds, because they’ve already found the thermals. We followed the other flyers, too. There were several other colorful wings populating the skies, too.
The volume of fliers didn’t matter at all though. Once I settled down into the harness (which is feels like a lounge chair in the sky) and unclenched my arms holding the front straps, I realized I was absolutely safe. We were flying just like a bird, circling gracefully high into the air. There was no engine, just the wing and the wind along with some birds of prey.
At one point Dipak took us away from the pack of other fliers and over a ridge. I had a fleeting thought that we were going to float far into the atmosphere, never to return. But that would never happen with skilled Dipak at the helm! He was just doing the paragliding equivalent of off-roading. He adeptly maneuvered the wing back over the valley and Phewa Lake. After 25 minutes of flight, we were ready to make our descent.
But first came the acrobatics. This is why we were told to eat a light breakfast.
Dipak told me to hold onto the GoPro-on-a-stick we’d been using all flight, and he put his aviation talents to work. We did a series of wingovers directly over the lake. Each time my stomach turned and I thought I was going to lose either the GoPro or my light breakfast. I figured out the trick to ease the tummy torture by focusing on one point on land. After that I just started laughing. Those little flips all the way down to the 800m landing point at Maya Devi were exhilaratingly fun!
Although my tall friend laughed pretty loudly at my sub-par landing form, the staff and pilots were all very supportive and congratulatory. Once the wings and gear were pack in a matter of minutes, the crew took us back in the van on the short ride back to town. Everybody was jazz and the energy in the van was high. These guys clearly love what they do, and we did too.