Sky Rider

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My paragliding journey began in India. I was riding an Enfield Bullet around the Kullu Valley in 1999 when I saw paragliders in the sky. I rode straight up to Solang Nallah and did a four day introductory course. Hooked, I returned to Sydney, Australia, joined a club and worked up to an intermediate rating with 40 hours flying time. My motivation was always to learn to fly cross-country and return to the Himalaya. Australia has some world class flying sites, from 200 metre coastal cliffs to flatlands where world distance records of well over 300 kilometres were set. My favourite Australian site is in the Victorian Alps - It's reminiscent of Billing; they've both staged Pre-World Cup events, but Australian mountains don't have the epic grandeur of the Himalaya. I came back to India with a paraglider in 2001 to realise my dream, and wasn't to be disappointed.

I headed straight for the legendary site of Billing in Himachal Pradesh. The 45-minutes drive up a rough road takes you a kilometre skyward and gives the butterflies in your stomach plenty of time to kick in. The takeoff is a cleared knoll at the edge of a ridge that seems to jut out into the void. The town of Bir below is so distant through the vast ocean of air that it seems to be on the bottom of the seabed. Snow capped mountains hunch below an enclosing sky. Ridge after ridge flows down from the Dhauladhar Ranges. I can make out where the spines descend to the towns of Jogindernagar and Palampur, but no further. It is 40 kilometres to Mandi in one direction as the crow flies and 45 kilometres to Dharamsala.

The dark blue material of my wing spreads out untidily behind me, and seems woefully inadequate to achieve either of these more distant goals.My takeoff goes smoothly. A warm thermal rustles in the canopy, bringing with it some light vegetation and the smell from the forest, but the lift is limited. I hug the top of the ridgeline, flying low and slow over trees that climb the mountain. Langur monkeys start screaming and thrashing the branches, their black and white bodies flashing through the green leaves.Then I hook a good thermal - with each turn higher the layer of the foothills drops like a veil revealing endless ranges of permanently snow-covered peaks, each layer higher than the last. Once rugged ridges and valleys seem to fold and flow. Snow covered mountains ripple down to the plains like waves on a beach. It doesn't just inspire minor poetics, but genuine ineffable awe.

Sitting in only a harness, you feel like your body is dangling in space; the valley floor is now thousands of metres below. You're very much in the scene, feeling every caress of the wind, but also detached, floating above it all. After thousands of years, now, this is possible.The only noise is the wind whispering in the wing and my breath amplified in my helmet. The next thermal is marked by half a dozen Himalayan Griffin Vultures, birds with a two metre wingspan and a heavy body that makes them look like a flying Labrador. I join them, continuing on as part of the pack for the next 20 kilometres as we work a perfect cloud street that runs all the way to Dharamsala. We fly over rocky peaks and past huge lonely meadows until we see a town occupying the curve on a steep ridge. The Dalai Lama's temple and residence is perched where the ridge drops off to the mist, and I recognise it as McLeod Ganj, Upper Dharamsala - the goal's achieved, but the real goal is the journey.

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Will Marks

Will Marks is a New Zealander who has written 'The Highway', a fictional work based on his travels in India.

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