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…

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