The Umbrella People

Action Asia
Eric Fearn weaves a trail over the Western Ghats
Action Asia
September 2003

The Umbrella People, that’s what they call us. Outside the dingy truck stop local farmers have gathered, speculating about the huge, colourful backpacks piled outside the door. Sanjay, our host, is used to it all. “They want to see us do what ordinary mortals cannot do— fly with the eagles:’

Paragliding in India is still a novelty, but it’s growing fast. European pilots have been coming to the Indian Himalayas for years to fly the fabled rollercoaster thermals. But the conditions there demand skill and experience. In central India’s Maharashtra state, it’s a different story entirely.

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Three hours inland from Mumbai, in the Western Ghats, lies a vast, dusty plain covered with craggy, brown, weather-beaten hills that look like the bones of the earth. A hot, stable wind rakes across this semi-arid land, combining with natural thermal activity to make this place ideal for pilots of all skill levels. Sanjay’s outfit, Nirvana, is the main paragliding school in the area, based outside Kamshet, a town on the highway which links Mumbai and Pune. Rising 400m above the town is boomerang-shaped Tower Hill, the highest peak around, and an ideal site since it faces into the wind, scooping it upwards and promising hours of air-time.

After a short ride, then a hike uphill to our launch site, John and I swig away from our water bags and silently take in the spectacular view. The sunburned hills and valleys stretch away into the vastness of central India, the bent horizon a soft line of yellow dust, There are really only two things a paragliding pilot does: paraglide and para-wait. Right now we’re para-waiting, because the winds, which are gusting to 32kph, are too strong for us to ride.

Ravi, Sanjay’s chief instructor, knows all the “house thermals” around here, which makes him the gatekeeper to this aerial pleasuredrome. He takes us through the theory: how to launch at this particular site, where to find the thermals, power lines to stay away from, possible landing sites. The wind is calming down now, but there are still some aggressive thermals about.

I strap myself into my harness and spread out my glider. Two cow-herders hanging about help hold down the canopy so it won’t inflate prematurely and drag me across the top of the hill. I pop my wing up and immediately get lifted off the ground. 

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As I head out away from the ridge, the lift stabilises and becomes more predictable. I fly lower into the valley where the village is so I can start hunting for lighter thermals. Hawks, vultures and eagles come to check us out, and we end up following them, looking for thermals. It’s turning into the ride of my life.

By late afternoon, everything is bathed in a warm golden glow. The thermals are dying and I’m spent. As I descend in lazy figure-8s, I notice the women draped in amazing green and fuchsia saris scything the deep yellow fields below. As our shadows pass silently over them, people drop what they are doing and come running as we land. The farmers form a rough circle around us, behind which the women and kids jostle for a better view, in delighted awe of the Umbrella People. But none of them is more in awe of my recently completed flight than I am.

Peace bliss