Exploring the Western Ghats

Boating around in the evening light
Boating around in the evening light

People have been asking me “What was India like?” But the truth is, I’m not sure we really saw the “real” India! We avoided the hustle and bustle of the cities, didn’t take a single 30-hour train journey, never saw more than 5 people on a scooter and didn’t once got drawn into a staring match with an old man – something my other fair-headed friends had all warned about!

Chilling out on Christmas Day
Chilling out on Christmas Day

For us, India was peaceful (mostly). We immediately escaped to a lovely hill-top town in the middle of the countryside and did loads of flying and relaxing which, after a hectic year, was exactly what we needed!

Walking out of Mumbai Airport into the heat, we weren’t surprised to meet a wall of sound from car horns. Choas reigned! But after a missed night’s sleep and 16 hours travelling, it mostly just washed over us. Leaving Mumbai in our jet-lagged stupor, we barely noticed as our driver casually weaved in and out between lorries and motorbikes, one moment in the hard shoulder, the next veering across three lanes to find the most efficient route through the traffic. In many countries, I’ve found the driving not to be as bad as the stories, but I’m convinced that if you can survive driving in India, you’ll be able to drive anywhere in the world!

Always a fan club on landing! These lovely kids were much nicer than the bands of middle ages men that stood silently watching us pack most of the time!
Always a fan club on landing! These lovely kids were much nicer than the bands of middle ages men that stood silently watching us pack most of the time!

Five hours later, we arrived at Eco Camp Panchgani 150km to the south – our oasis of calm in the Western Ghats mountains. Eco Camp is run by a motorbike tinkering, cheese making, paraglider flying Canadian, Andre, and his wife Meg who, between them, make the place feel like home for the random bunch of pilots who end up there, creating a great sense of community among the pilots from around the world.

Staying at Eco Camp makes you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, but in reality, 5 minutes walk will have you at the market or local restaurants. Andre will take you to take-off and his local experience beat the unreliable forecasting every time. Top landing is usually an option, so getting home often wasn’t a challenge. Occasionally the crowds gathering to watch you pack and have their photo taken with you could get a bit much, but for the most part, people were just fascinated, wanting to know where they could learn, where we came from and what we thought of India.

Landing across the lake
Landing across the lake

On the occasions when we did land out, we found ourselves travelling through little rural communities – pretty places where people point and wave at the funny looking foreigners passing by, then get back to their everyday lives, tending the land and painting their cows’ horns. Local buses or jeeps were never hard to find – as long as you don’t put yourself somewhere really foolish!

Even if you find yourself stranded, like we did one unfortunate day (I thought he had money, he thought I had money, that sort of thing), a taxi back to your door from Wai at the bottom of the hill, costs less than £3 and riding up the hill in our private bright yellow jeep only adds to the adventure!

Landing obstacles
Landing obstacles

The flying is thermic during the day. Launch sites are good, but often strong and small – particularly when the crowds gather in to watch the spectacle. While we were there this December, almost every day was flyable, but the days are fairly short and there were only a handful of days where 50km+ XC flights were possible. Our final day, however, at the start of January, was the start of a run of epic weather with friends flying several 70-80km flights. Longer flights have been known throughout the season which starts in November. Soaring in the mornings and evenings was also often an option.

For newer pilots or for anyone needing a bit of hand-holding, Kamshet to the north with its schools and reliable soaring conditions would probably be a better choice. You pay more for the support of the schools, but you’ll probably get more airtime as well. But for more experienced pilots used to flying in thermic conditions, the potential of Panchgani is great – as long as you don’t let the pressure of 60 people watching and cheering from right behind your wing affect your take-off too much!

On glide back to Panchgani. Photo by Vistasp Kharas
On glide back to Panchgani. Photo by Vistasp Kharas

One day, we’ll go back, get a motorbike and explore properly – then I’ll really be able to answer what India was like! In the meantime, I’ll enjoy being able to sit on take-off, taking my time and watching the world go by, without the watching crowds and the cry of “selfie” or “just one photo” ringing in my ears! I’ll also miss the beautiful scenery, the community of pilots and the wonderfully reliable flying with the potential of big distances there for the taking.

A snapshot of Chile

Chile wasn’t really on the main agenda for our south America trip, but I couldn’t resist adding a few days to fly the world famous Iquique!

Flying over Iquique town
Flying high over Iquique town

As I researched it a little, a sort of plan started coming together; a few days flying in Iquique, then through the desert and across the border into Argentina, gradually making our way down flying through the Andes and Central Sierras.

But it’s really best not to get too attached to your plans! As it turned out, Iquique didn’t really go our way. After our 26-hour marathon from the south of Mexico, we arrived exhausted! We watched all the pilots pile into jeeps and head off to Palo Buque – a giant sand dune just south of the town. Confident that we’d be joining them the next day, we fell into the most comfortable bed we’ve had in months and siesta-ed the day away.

Our confidence turned out to be misplaced, however. The Dakar rally was rolling into town and all paragliding was grounded from 1pm the next day for five days – almost the exact length of time we were expecting to stay there!

We had only one opportunity to fly, so headed up to take-off about 10am the next morning for a couple of hours thermalling over the dunes.

First impressions are that it really is an easy place to fly. Two buses take you from the Altazor flight park direct to take-off within about half an hour and you can land right back at the flight park or on the beach in town for ice cream.

It starts off fairly smooth.  When the thermals start feeling beyond your comfort zone, it’s time to head down for lunch.

Pilots rocking up to the site for the first time just need to pick the brains of those who have been there a while to get a briefing and tag along with someone going to take off to work out where to get off the buses. You can also team up with other pilots and borrow a vehicle to go to different sites, the supermarket or anywhere else you need to go.

Apparently January isn’t the best time to go – November and December are meant to be the best. But it’s still one of the easiest and most reliable sites we’ve come across!

Flamingos and salt lakes

We weren’t able to fly again though, so headed off into the desert. San Pedro de Atacama is a small isolated town, the last stop on the road to Argentina and Bolivia and the jumping off point for tours into the desert and Andes. With limited time and no transport of our own, we decided the simplest way to experience the area was to submit ourselves to the mercy of a tour operator for two days of intensive tourist action.

I learnt almost immediately that organised tours are an odd kind of torture. Tour guides linger over the most mundane sight, then rush you through others you’d spend hours over if you were alone. But in this case, they were a necessary evil and I’ll never forget the stunning and stark scenery of the Atacama desert, with wild flamingos, vicuna and llammas, giant geysers at dawn, salt flats, volcanos and the candelabra cacti standing like lonely sentinels watching across miles of desert landscape…

image

Thanks Chile, it’s been great! We’ll be back for sure!

A paraglider’s paradise?

DCIM100GOPRO
Ready to take off at Bucaramanga

Imagine a flying site which is so reliable you can almost guarantee it will be flyable. Sounds almost perfect, doesn’t it?

OK, so let’s see if we can make it better… Let’s add somewhere to stay right by take-off with a friendly vibe where you can lie in a hammock in the shade watching the sky until the conditions are just right for you. Is that perfect yet?

Well, almost. But let’s throw in breakfast, unlimited good coffee, retrieves, and radio support from two excellent instructors, just for good measure.

And while we’re imagining our perfect paragliding retreat, let’s set the price. We all know pilots don’t like spending much money, so we’ll chuck in all the extras for free and keep it about the same price as any other hostel in the area.

It all sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? So imagine our surprise when we arrived in Bucaramanga to find exactly that!

Getting to Hostel El Nido at 8am, exhausted after a 9-hour night bus ride across Colombia, Sarah, the Colombian lady who runs the hostel, did everything she could to make us welcome, magicking up a couple of extra plates of breakfast for us and pouring the tastiest coffee we’ve found in Colombia down our throats.

Hostel El Nido - a great place to hang out and watch the sky!
Hostel El Nido – a great place to hang out and watch the sky

As we ate our breakfast, we watched the birds exploring the first morning thermals in the valley in front, so we quickly polished off our third coffee and headed out to join them.

A badly timed launch on the tandem (neither of us are known for our patience) meant that our first flight can only be described as a brief orientation to the site as we found ourselves in the landing field in no time. But not a problem – the retrieve van was there waiting for us. Within less than half an hour we were back in the air. This time, staying up was no problem and we were high above takeoff before we knew it and able to explore the area properly.

The site tends to blow out in the middle of the day for all but the heavily loaded tandems (there are no skinny tandem pilots here) and those on mini wings. This may not suit everyone, but we found the enforced lunch break welcome setting us up nicely for the evening of soaring and restitution until the sun set.

The next day, the same. And again, and again and again! On the one day the weather wasn’t so good, the overcast sky slowed down the thermals, but it was still flyable with enough wind to soar by the end of the morning.

The place isn’t great for XC at the moment thanks to a recent reduction in the air space allowed by nearby Bucaramanga airport. Maybe this will be relaxed again in future? Let’s hope so!

But in the meantime, it’s still a great place to practice your XC skills and clock up loads of airtime. The thermals are just boisterous enough to warm you up for the European spring, without being so strong that they throw you around the sky. The flatish land out front gives you the chance to practice identifying thermal sources and joining up thermals. And if you’re wrong, you just land and have another go! You can set yourself little triangles to fly to build your skills.

Despite the lack of big distance potential, we certainly found enough to keep us entertained for a few days, so if you’re in Colombia, it’s definitely worth considering adding Bucaramanga to your itinerary!

Beautiful flying at Bucaramanga
Beautiful flying at Bucaramanga

Going with the flow

We always try to go with the flow, never more so than in the last few days…

Leaving Pana at 6am on Saturday had us reeling with mixed emotions – sadness at leaving our friends and the place that had come to feel like home and excitement about the next stage of our journey – Colombia!

As soon as we entered Guatemala airport, everything was different! The building was built with straight lines and modern design, there was air conditioning, good coffee, WiFi everywhere and everything operating smoothly. Other than the slightly awkward moment when I had to try and explain in faltering Spanish why I had three parachutes in my hand luggage, all went smoothly. It felt like we had already left Guatemala!

Welcome to America!
Welcome to America!

Arriving in America was a different matter… They have their procedures, and that’s just fine. But over 2 hours in queues from getting off the plane to out of the airport did seem a little much!

So first impressions of Fort Lauderdale? Everything is VERY BIG. And there are signs everywhere! Signs telling what you’re not allowed to do, where you should and shouldn’t go, things you should buy, ordering you to have a nice day, etc, etc. No one walks. I knew this, but it’s still a strange feeling driving along streets totally empty of pedestrians. The taxi driver seemed to have way more trouble understanding my English accent than any Spanish speaking Guatemalan had done in the previous 2 months and tried twice to drop us at the wrong house!

But when we finally arrived our hosts for the night, Heather and Benjamin welcomed us into their lovely home with open arms. If you’ve never tried www.airbnb.com (which you probably haven’t), I can highly recommend it. I have to admit we were a little wary of the idea of a website where people rent out their spare room, but with photos and reviews, it really is no different to finding any kind of hotel or b&b online. And at less than a third of the price of any hotel in town, we thought, “why not”?

Heather gave us a quick tour and offered us the choice of making ourselves at home with a takeout or joining her and Benjamin at a “young couples meet-up” they organise. The deal was further sweetened by a $5 brewery tour and beer tasting, and we bit (although I’m still not convinced the Funky Buddha Brewery pint glasses we were given will survive all the way back to the Uk)!

Unexpectedly finding ourselves in an American brewery
Unexpectedly finding ourselves in an American brewery

Not quite sure what to expect as we walked into the restaurant, we were pleasantly surprised to find a roomful of normal looking smiling and welcoming people! Apparently this kind of event is normal there. I suppose it’s natural that the culture that gave us internet dating has taken it one step further… As far as I understood it, these couples can network online and come together to make new friends. I remember how hard it was at times in London to meet new people and build up a good social network. This event seemed to solve that problem and there was definitely a great vibe.

Off early again, getting out of America was MUCH easier than getting in to it. The lady at security even complemented Graham on his new Guatemalan pant (and I genuinely don’t think she was being insulting when she called them PJs)!

Killing time at Fort Lauderdale airport
Killing time at Fort Lauderdale airport

With ideas of a new digital camera and some good quality suncream, we were looking forward to a bit of shopping at the airport. But America, the capital of consumerism, let us down! The airport had one small gift shop, a small duty free shop selling only drink and cigarettes and a bland café selling even more bland coffee. Puzzled and a little disappointed we had to content ourselves with people watching as we finished off the leftovers from the monster sized dinner of the previous night.

Arriving in Colombia the strangest thing was how normal everything felt. We were somewhat shocked by the sheer scale of Medellin town and relieved to find tranquillity, space and greenery a couple of miles outside the centre in El Poblado.

First flight at Medellin -  best way to take in the city!
First flight at Medellin – best way to take in the city!

The 2 hour taxi-metro-bus trip up to takeoff the next day slightly undermined the benefits of our peaceful haven, but we finally made it to launch receiving a warm welcome from the local pilots. They seemed surprised to see a girl flying tandem and rushed over to watch and help! They called over the only other female tandem pilot there to meet me which restored a little normality and Graham managed to fight his way through the crowd to claim his place as my co-pilot. But it was all friendly and extremely welcoming and after posing for a couple of pictures, off we went.

We were rewarded with a lovely evening soaring taking in the amazing views of this enormous city climbing up the sides of a huge valley with steep mountains all around. We finished the day with a lift back down the hill in an overheating banger (I quickly recognised that driving style), with a couple of teenagers teaching us Spanish swear words and talking to us about salsa music.

We decided to head south today to meet up with friends in Roldanillo, before working our way back up the country, stopping off to fly Medellin again on our way back north. Like the rest of the last couple of days, the journey through stunning countryside has been spiced up with random and amusing little moments, from fitting all our belongings into the smallest taxi in the world (getting them in a tuk tuk was easier) to being proudly served pãn lasagne – yes, that’s lasagne made with bread instead of pasta! We just keep on going with the flow and look forward to the next little piece of randomness to make us giggle as we go 🙂

Moments

One of the real joys of travelling for me is the way we nomads come together and then move on again. It may only be for a short time, but the memories and shared experiences last much longer.

Fun and games in the truck to take-off
Fun and games in the truck to take-off

Most of us didn’t know each other a month ago. But travelling pilots are already part of a bigger family. We are practised at making ourselves at home in any given environment. We already have friends and experiences in common. The moments we share may be surprising or they may be mundane. I was delighted to discover that Tommy, our new Venezuelan friend, knew the trout smoking German we’d stayed with in the Andes during a visit to Venezuela in 1984.

Graham's first piñata
Graham’s first piñata

We’ll never forget our first ever piñata for Graham’s birthday – thanks all for the piñata bashing lessons! And even though it was the last thing we expected to be doing, hosting Christmas dinner for our new-found family of 8 was a joy! The whole of our Christmas and New Year period was spent working and playing together. Together we broke the record for Real World Paragliding’s busiest day ever, Cade and Becca from America, Tonno from Guatemala, Tommy and of course Mr and Mrs Real World, Christian and Steffi.

Waking up to sunrise on takeoff on new year's day
Waking up to sunrise on takeoff on new year’s day

So, even though half the gang has moved on, the memories live on. Thanks for making the last few weeks awesome! This video from Cade and Becca really says it all…
IMG_20140118_200143

Cross country flying – a state of mind

Jenni landing out after her first XC
Your first XC doesn’t have to be epic – just cut the apron strongs and go on a glide! This is a very happy Jenni looking back the 8km to take-off after her first ever XC

When we’re talking about XC flying, we find the mental stuff often gets the better of people and that people share the same questions and fears.

This summer we ran an introduction to XC course in Annecy for a small group of pilots who wanted to do their first XCs and learn enough so they could go on to progress on their own after the course. We talked a lot about the mental side of XC flying. This is every bit as important as the practical flying skills if you want to fly XC.

Here are some of the common issues and a few of the tactics we use when we’re flying XC that might help…

1) What if there’s nowhere to land?

Why would you put yourself somewhere with nowhere to land? XC isn’t just about joining up ridges and thermals, it’s also about flying from one landing field to another. When we’re flying, we’re always looking at landing options and making sure we’ve got a selection of friendly-looking fields in easy reach. Never leave one landing field behind until you’ve got another one within reach!

2) What if I bomb out?

Get used to it – you will bomb out!

There are lots of ways indications for whether you’ll make a glide – other pilots, you instruments, estimating the angle with your feet, etc. But you’ve got to put it to the test in the end and risk being wrong.

If you never bomb out, you’re probably not pushing yourself. Don’t be afraid to fail – you will make mistakes and you WILL bomb out. That’s one of the ways you learn (and often where the real adventure begins!).

3) Sometimes I get scared in the air…

Everyone does! Fear can be healthy – firstly work out if it’s rational or irrational. Having something to take your mind off it will help when irrational fear strikes. Chewing gum, singing songs, thinking about your shopping list, having something to eat or drink all help.

As I turn in a beautiful thermal, I see another glider heading over to join me
As I turn in a beautiful thermal, I see another glider heading over to join me

4) I don’t know where to go!

Pimp off others! Other pilots give you some of the biggest clues about what the air’s doing. If you’re not using them to maximise your climb, glide and distance, you’re missing out. BUT don’t follow them until you know they’re going somewhere good (not to work or to pick their kids up from school)!

5) It wasn’t really working over there…

Pilots often lose patience if they have to wait a while for the next thermal or when banging their heads against an inversion. They give up and wander off even if they don’t have anywhere better in mind and end up bombing out. They are often rewarded by getting to watch the other pilots they were scratching with then climb up and carry on while they’re packing their wing!

Be patient and don’t give up! Sometime’s it just takes perseverance to hang on until the next thermal cycle or fight your way through an inversion. As long as you’ve got a safe landing in glide, keep fighting!

6) I get tired and distracted after a while

Don’t forget the creature comforts. Have food and water easily available and go for a wee before you launch. Get your harness set up nicely and get familiar with your instruments in a stress free environment. Being uncomfortable in the air is distracting and will have you thinking too much about your landing field.

Happy pilots in goal after a challenging sunset task!
Happy pilots in goal after a challenging sunset task!

7) I started going for the next ridge, but changed my mind…

Make a decision and stick with it! Don’t just bimble around – you’ll either never leave the ridge or just keep changing your mind until you find yourself on the ground. Use all the information available, choose a (safe) route and follow it through. Then you can ask yourself: “Was it the right decision?” You’ll never know and learn if you keep changing your mind.

Déjà vu

You can’t fly from the summit of Mont Blanc in a westerly wind. It’s a well known fact.

Groundhandling the Geo ii
Thanks Ozone! Getting to know the Geo ii again 😀

But that’s exactly what Irwyn and I ended up doing last time we went up there. The forecast wasn’t straight westerly, but when we got to the summit, the wind was coming directly up the arête. We waited until the sunshine brought the wind up the southerly face and we were able to take off.

The last forecast showed the weather improving enough to make the attempt at the summit look sensible. But while the wind is dropping, it’s also turning westerly again. But this time, it’s unlikely we’ll be waiting around for the sun to do its work – while the temperatures are increasing, we’re still looking a frosty  -13C at 5,000m.

But it’s the best opportunity on the horizon, so we’re taking it and just in case the wind does exactly as forecast (for once), we’ll be checking out the terrain on the way up for a nice launchable westerly facing slope!

ITV Awak 2
Irwyn having a play with the ITV Awak 2 tandem

The last couple of days have been filled with preparing our kit – a job which seems to expand to fill all available time! I’m delighted that Ozone have agreed to sponsor me again with a wing. The Geo II behaved perfectly last time – just as well as the first chance I had to inflate the wing was on the summit. This time I’ve had plenty of chance to play with it on the ground and it’s just as I remember. It inflates beautifully in any wind strength, feels solid overhead even in gusty conditions and is nice and responsive on the brakes, so I’m confident that however challenging the climbing side of the adventure might be, the flying side should be trouble free.

ITV Parapentes in Doussard have been incredibly supportive with the loan of two lightweight tandem wings. Graham will be flying the new Skyman tandem and Irwyn will be flying the ITV Awak 2. At 5.8kg and 6.4kg respectively, either wing represents a considerable weight saving compared to a normal tandem wing, so will make a huge difference to Jam and Sam’s chances of making the summit. First impressions of both wings are good… now we’re off to put them through their paces and give the boys some last minute take-off practice over Lake Annecy!