Hang-gliding is ethereal. I did it in Queenstown, New Zealand, which is to the outdoors what Parma is to ham, Benares to silk, and Holland to design. Queenstown is where outdoor enthusiasts come to attain nirvana. Or die trying. It possesses a beauty so surreal and abundant that it is almost a shame. So much beauty unvarnished by even a shade of ugliness makes the average viewer take it for granted, appreciate it less. Queenstown’s residents, for instance, had no clue that they were living out what would be a fantasy to most people. To them, it was reality. So they did everything they could to escape it. They jumped off bungees, rode speedboats across Lake Wakatipu and kitesurfed on crystal clear waters. Hang-gliding seemed like the least scary option, so I decided to try it.
My instructor was a Turk who had ridden a bus from Tashkent to Tajikistan. I looked into his green eyes, fell instantly in love and decided to take the plunge with him. It is the eyes of course that give outdoor enthusiasts away. Look into them and you will see a tortured soul, the kind that is running away from a horror so real that jumping off a cliff seems sane in contrast. Extreme sports enthusiasts are both optimists and pessimists. One could argue that it takes a death wish to scale 6,000ft rocks as Chris Sharma has done many a time at the Realization route in Céüse, France—a 5.15a “extreme difficulty” climb for those who care. Yet, on the other hand, it could be that these rock climbers (or hang-gliders for that matter) seek to embrace a reality that is far “purer” than their own. When Scott Fischer perished on Mt Everest, he wasn’t acting out a death wish. He was guiding a group of novice mountain climbers up its slopes. Fischer’s company, Mountain Madness, guaranteed summit climbs for more than $50,000 (about Rs20 lakh) a pop. It was a crass commercial enterprise but that didn’t detract from Fischer’s love of the mountains and keeping them pristine.
Wing it: From Kangra to Kalahatty, hang-gliders have many options in India.
Unlike Fischer, Sharma, or Alex Lowe—the “lungs with legs” who has been called the greatest mountaineer of all time—the outdoors aren’t my life. They are merely a craving that I don’t see myself satisfying, given how bound up I am in the agonies and ecstasies of grihastha (the Sanskrit word for the life-stage of being a householder). Every now and then, however, I decide to jump.
On top of a cliff in Queenstown, the young Turk hooked me on to a hang-glider. He gave me a safety briefing and then told me how to jump. Basically, we had to run to the edge of the cliff and jump into the abyss below. “You have to think that you are jumping into your mother’s lap,” said the Turk. “Because if you don’t jump far enough, the glider will get caught in the rocks and not unfurl when it should. The trick is to jump straight out into the valley.”
These mental games are a key part of extreme sports. On the one hand you have to psych yourself to jump into an abyss. Yet on the other hand, you have to stop thinking about contingency plans and what-ifs. Thinking is overrated anyway. A lot of us, in my opinion, ponder far too much. When I was in art school, the cure for over-thinking was simple: drink a few pints of Mad Dog 20/20, listen to Tom Waits, indulge in some weed and paint. Now, however, I am at the age when I am sermonizing to young minds about the evils of the aforementioned practices. Hang-gliding in contrast seems almost sensible.
So I jumped. I ran to the edge of the cliff, held my breath and jumped right into the valley that spread out a hundred feet below. The Turk later told me that I was a fantastic jumper. You jumped without any hesitation or sense of fear, he said. “Like you had nothing to lose.” I didn’t think it was a suitable time to tell him that I had a five-year-old daughter waiting for me in the hotel room. Again, after the initial jump, it was all procedure. The Turk controlled the glider so we slowly circled down to the valley.
The beauty of hang-gliding is that it approximates flight without all the paraphernalia. You actually get to see and feel like a bird. The circling motion, the buffeting wind, and the sense of freedom all make it an addiction. That said, it isn’t without its dangers. Thermal updrafts and sudden shifts in wind current can cause the hang-glider to veer dangerously off course and crash into a mountainside. Otto Lilienthal, the man who invented gliding, died in one such crash.
India has many world-class hang-gliding sites. Billing in the Kangra Valley (not to be confused with Billings, Montana, another outdoor paradise), Dharamkot near Dharamsala, the Kalahatty hills in Ooty and others near Mumbai. One of the pleasures of hang-gliding in the Kalahatty hills is that if you are lucky, you get to see wildlife in the verdant forests below.
Why hang-gliding, you may ask. As Lilienthal said, “To invent an airplane is nothing; to build one is something. But to fly is everything.”
Why fly? Because it is freedom; because it is the basis of the phrase: free spirit.
Shoba Narayan is a free spirit. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org