Five minutes later, Ravi muttered the same words as he untangled the thin threads linking his harness to the expanse of colourful nylon lying on the grass. “Cross wind.” Another five minutes passed as the clouds gathered and shifted in the west. Then, a distant rumble. Ravi muttered again. “Thunder.” A few drops of rain drifted down from the sky.
Twelve hundred metres below us, the settlement of Bir looked like a page from a storybook, the golden spires and shining turrets of Tibetan monasteries jutting up amid slate roofed farmers’ cottages and the sylvan hills of the Kangra valley. Yellow fields quilted the land around the township, riding the contours in curving stripes. Somewhere in the middle, a bullseye lay like a tiny dartboard. A series of red, yellow and purple crescents wafted towards it, gentle and silent as butterflies.
Half an hour before, Talwar B.M., a generously moustached figure in a straw stetson, aviator shades and wind jacket with ‘India’ emblazoned across its back, had called an end to the Paragliding Pre-World Cup, barking into his radio that the 50 or so fliers from India, Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Israel, lined up behind a yellow rope, were to stay where they were. A bank of cloud had been seeping over a rugged ridge to the west, known as Big Face, for a couple of hours. The conditions were too risky.
For three of the previous four days, pilots had been competing in race-to-goal events, completing a circuit of the valley, then landing on the bullseye below us. Points are awarded for speed, accuracy of landing, and time spent in the lead, with the results fed into national and global rankings. With three days completed, the competition results could be accepted as valid.
Pretty much as soon as he had declared the competition closed, Talwar had beckoned to two pilots, Ravi and Niko. “Kitna lenge? Do panch?” he’d said, gesturing towards Claudia and me. Now that the professionals had been told they couldn’t fly, we were apparently to take to the air ourselves, a couple of fortysomethings who’d never so much as seen a paraglider up close. Still, Ravi and Niko looked the real deal, solidly built and confident, unlike the unshaven boy our taxi driver had tried to convince us should take us flying. Harnesses fitted and safety helmets planted on our heads, we waited our turn in front of a crowd of stubbly pilots, policewomen, an Eastern European man in military fatigues, a craggy farmer or two and a couple of score teenage boys whom we’d seen hitchhiking on the long taxi ride up to the launching pad.
Billing, a twisting half-hour drive through pine, cedar and rhododendron forest above the Tibetan settlement at Bir, has drawn paragliders since the 1990s because of its thermal activity and consistent weather. A felt green knob of land backed by a rack of hills, the site boasts a couple of stone buildings serving as chai stalls and not much else, brought alive each year by the primary hues of paraglider nylon. Top pilots from around the world gather here to fly in the February-March spring season, getting into practice ahead of summer cross country events in Europe and the USA. The Pre-World Cup, organised by the Himachal Pradesh government and supervised by the Aero Club of India, this year attracted pilots ranked between 146th and 950th in the world.
Lack of search and rescue infrastructure is the main factor restricting Billing’s development as one of the world’s top paragliding destinations, Talwar had told us before encouraging us to leap off the mountain. The day before, he explained, a Russian man had dislocated a shoulder just beneath the spot where we stood. Winch launches are common in Eastern Europe, and some pilots – whose English is often basic – don’t understand that they have to run before they jump. In the last five years, at least two paragliders have gone missing in the glacial wastes of the Dhauladhar range, which lies just behind Billing. Only one body was recovered, a year and a half later.
The time had come. Ravi signalled to me and I stood as his assistant buckled me into a harness that strapped me to the front of the instructor. “Run until you cannot run any more,” said Ravi. “And don’t sit until I tell you.”
A frisson shivered up my spine, equal parts fear and excitement. We’d watched dozens of fliers launch themselves from the hilltop, most of them soloists who’d leapt effortlessly into the air to begin a long, floating descent into the valley. There had been tandem launches as well, some of them smooth, some of them not so smooth, pilot and passenger spinning and dancing, like a couple of wrestlers mid-grapple, before they took off.
“Run!” said Ravi from behind me. I took a couple of light steps before the paraglider caught the wind, my legs kicking in the air. A maniacal laugh burbled up from deep within as I realised we were airborne, and that this wasn’t scary at all. It was fantastic, like that dream most people seem to have, where you leap into the air and float for a while before coming gently back to earth.
We climbed in a series of tight circles, spiralling over the launch site. Rhododendron forest spun below my feet, and dirt paths traced veins across ridgetops. A tumbling stream slid past, and tiny cottages. This was the mountains, rugged and virgin and viewed from directly above, as you never see them. Ravi steered us west for a while, in the direction of Big Face, then tacked backed towards Bir, and all too soon we were descending. Houses and schools loomed closer and the bullseye came into view, beside a narrow road and what looked like a wedding tent, set up for VIP spectators. The fear and excitement kicked in again briefly as individual stalks of wheat became visible in the fields and the ground suddenly seemed to accelerate towards us. “I’ll land on target,” said Ravi, and sure enough, we thudded to earth about a metre and a half from the bullseye. My legs collapsed beneath me and I was laughing again, prostrate on the ground beneath the weight of the harness, the helmet and the sail of the paraglider.
Around us, monks and elderly Tibetans and Indian villagers had gathered for the spectacle. We dusted ourselves off and rewarded ourselves with a helping of aloo tikki and a bottle of Limca. Behind us, a seemingly never-ending procession of fliers was tumbling to earth.