Saturday, June 14, 2014

Up & Away: Para-gliding in Himachal Pradesh

"It is quite easy....just lean, put your weight forward and run."

In any other place this seemed like an easy instruction to follow, but I was standing on a cliff 2500m high in the Himalayan foothills, preparing for tandem para-gliding jump, with an instructor standing behind me.

A few minutes earlier, we had driven up from a Tibetan settlement called Bir, near Palampur, Himachal Pradesh. A friend had called up a people she knew and were now waiting for our turn to jump. On the barren hilltop called Billing, a young woman was screaming that she did not want to jump while her boyfriend giggled nervously, putting on a brave face.

While the couple sorted out their nerves, our instructors quickly laid out parachutes on the hilltop, strapped us to the bucket-like suits, and before we knew it, our family of three had 'leaned forward' and found our feet feet suddenly dangling limp as the parachute soared into the skies.

It was an amazing experience. Each of us swirled over the hilltops in gentle circles and slowly glided over thick forests, monasteries, villages and wheat-fields before touching down at Bir.

As soon as we landed, the pilots gathered up the billowing parachutes, folded them back into their bags and guided us back to our starting point.

We had a  hearty lunch, picked up a few bottles of fruit wine and drove back to Palampur, stopping for a few minutes at the picturesque Binsar temple.

A few days after got back home we got a bit of news that rattled us. Our friend in Palampur had jumped off the same cliff and his parachute had developed a snag. Both the instructor and the student had plunged into the forest below and had been lucky to get their parachute tangled on an oak tree. It took more than two hours for them to disentangle themselves and clamber down the 60ft tree.

Considering  the fact there there were plenty of bald, deforested hills in the Bir-Billing area, this had been a close shave indeed!

Now, looking back, we realized that there had been absolutely no paperwork involved in our little adventure. We had not registered ourselves with any adventure company, we did not know if our instructors and pilots were adequately qualified for tandem flying and we had not received any receipts for the Rs.1500 each of us paid for the jump.

Was there any accountability in this line of adventure tourism?

As always, there are two sides to the story. The entrepreneurs who organize these adventure camps are quite wary of government oversight. The tourism-department 'inspectors' have neither the stomach nor the aptitude to handle the outdoors. Most of them would just be interested in squeezing the entrepreneurs for handing out permits and clearance certificates.

So, as of now, it appears that the para-gliding entrepreneurs just "insure" themselves offering free para-gliding trips to friends and families of the local decision-makers.  If you want a free-ride, all you have to do is turn up at Bir and flaunt your 'connections'.

In the long run, we all lose. Fewer people will try out this amazing sport. The total absence of paperwork or any form of oversight also guarantees we will not learn the right lessons when para-gliders suddenly drop off the skies.

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