Page 3 - From Nowhere to the middle of Nowhere
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A Journey by Paraglider (cont.)

DAY 5

We wake up in our high bivouac camp, and for the first time since we arrived, we're on our own. Al gets the fire going, putting on the first brew of the day, whilst I wander off to the spring, which, this high up, miraculously flows out from behind a fern, just 2 minutes away from camp.

Over breakfast we talk eagerly about today's flight, keen to get back in the air, and excited that a big one today, could put us half way to our destination. We are more than 150km from the nearest dirt road, and only 30km from Tibet, but somehow it doesn't feel all that worrying... just abstract, because we've got an aircraft hiding in Al's rucksac. The only thing we feel concerned about is the weather, but today's a beauty, a 100km day, and by 11.30 we've spread the wing, packed our huge harnesses, and clipped in. We go early, not caring that we take half an hour to catch a good climb, just content to soar around the pristine woods, looking up at the mountains all around us, whose rocky buttresses have been powdered with new snow after last nights storm. And then it finds us, a 7m climb that launches us skywards, up above the snowline, and the start of today's journey. Immediately we can see the col that we must go through, maybe 30km away next to a 6000m mountain, and we are amazed at the increase in visibility caused by last night's storm. Our next climb is easy, but the third is scary since it's over some badlands, where going down is really not an option. And then we are there, real fast, at the start of the ridge, leading up to the col. It's beautiful, with gentle lift over 5000m; up against big rock faces set between ice fields, one with a garden of miniature penitents - little six inch pillars of ice. Its out of a dream, as it passes by too quickly... we're glad of the ride to the heavens, but we're expecting it to disappear all too soon... so we glide over the col while we've still got the height.

The next hour is straight out of Dennis Pagen, each successive spur giving us a solid climb - anything less than 7, and we continue on our way. And then it's into the huge Karnali valley, which we enter on a big rocky spur. But I've been spoilt by the easy flying, and screw up badly in a valley wind. We spend an hour detouring, going back the way we've come, then run down a side valley, hoping to find better air. As we slowly scratch up a deserted hillside, I see maybe 500 people in a line above me, watching us climb slowly up towards them. We pass just a few wingspans away, and as we climb up above them, we can look down on the dusty village meeting place, the venue for today's general election. Nepal's PM has recently died, so today the square is roped off into channels, with policemen standing at the gates. It's surreally like looking down on a P.W.C. competition, it's in just the right place on top of the hill. But there is no longer anyone queuing, they are all standing on the edge watching us, or running around cheering, as if we are a circus come to town. I wonder if the police marshals are armed, because I'm sure they must feel piqued that they are no longer in control. We leave the police to reorganise their election, and go deeper into the side valley, where we finally find the big high climb. Now we have enough height to glide along the incredible upper Karnali river, which has become a gorge. As we look down from our final glide it hits me how amazing a paraglider really is, how we are sitting here above such scenery, actively involved in it, yet physically free. The only other way to experience this part of the Humla Karnali is probably by kayak, and I'm glad not to have to think about swimming down there.

We glide on to Dharma, find an ok take-off for tomorrow, and land on a steep terrace. Alun has got the biggest smile on his face... and I realise that for the first time on this trip he's been relaxed in the air. We've flown 80km.

Dharma's amazing, straight out of a story book. Were staying on the roof of a large house in the village, massively built of wood and stone... which is a good job because I count 43 people up on the roof here with us. We are running out of cigarettes, and ask if there is a shop anywhere nearby to buy some from. There is a rapid Nepali exchange and then laughter, as someone points his arm to the south, and says "4 days". We laugh too, and resign ourselves to giving up smoking, when a guy pulls a cigarette out of his pocket and lights up. We can't believe it, and immediately ask where he got it from, only to find out that it's from the cigarette man, "in that house just over there." Al's off, coming back with our ciggies, but nothing else. The guy only sold cigarettes. But we were later to find the egg man, then the milk man... There is basically no cash economy for the majority of people, they get by on what they can grow or exchange. The only regular paid jobs we came across were the occasional health worker and the school teacher, who was paid 4000 rupees a month [40], and had an incredible walk to school.

The village was so beautiful, with two story houses, and hollowed-out log ladders giving access to the upper floors. And there were huge 'bungalows' of composting leaf litter surrounding the whole village, collected from the forest by women with wicker baskets.

DAY 6

When the next day came and it was time to leave, it felt too soon, but there was the approaching monsoon, which we expected early. So we walked up to take-off, and glided off between the trees. Within five minutes we were listening to the vario sing our favourite tune, a continuous shrill little ditty that always seems to be playing in Nepal. Maybe all the slowies are played in winter.

Within 2 hours we were peering westwards towards lake Rara, Nepal's largest, and then we're again going south, along a high ridge which is out of the tree line, but which feels like it should live in the Cairngorms. We scratch around the end of it for ages, thinking that with the sun cut off, we might have to land. But eventually, as always, a monster 9m climb takes us right back to over 6000m, standing our glider on its end as if it's a toy. Then another endless glide going on for ever and ever, with me beginning to worry about the state of the sky. Our tandem was so beautiful to fly, amazingly stable, easy to launch and to land. But under big, big skies, with the prospect of at least 4000m of B lining to get near the ground, it worried me. We had a payload exceeding 200kg, so it would have been a big job to get it down. And then there was the prospect of what we would find on the ground; more likely than not, strong valley winds. And that's what we find today. As we approach the last ridge before the main valley, we hit a headwind at 4000 m, which forces us to change the heading of our glide. We still cross the high ridge with plenty of height, but we now have to run out into the main valley by gliding between two big spurs. And between them the air is sinking, in the rotor caused by the valley wind. It felt amazing to be quite so high, and yet to be in such serious sink, as all the time my vario's siren is calling out it's life threatening tune. Down we go to 3500m, 3000m, and all the time our options are getting more limited. Al suggests landing in the side valley we're sinking down into, but I look at the narrow landing places below us, and remember our crash landing a week ago, in a similar but altogether milder situation. I opt for the main valley. The wind is bound to be stronger, but at least we'll know where it's coming from, and I hope there will be less things to hit. As we leave the mouth of the ravine, out into the main valley, the air becomes digital, with big surges up and down. And we can see why, 'cos the valley's constricted just up wind of us, whereas downwind it's beginning to open out. A good place to land. Looking at the trees it looks all right some of the time, so I set up to drift back onto the best looking field. Not that there is anything growing in it, it's just 'soil'.

We make our final approach at walking speed, and it looks like we'll make it, without too much drama. We touch down and kill the glider, doing a bizarre sort of one legged race, before falling over. But the glider is down, and I'm telling Al to grab the slings I've clipped to the B lines, as a dust devil kicks off twenty feet away. It pulls the B's right out of my hands... and we're off, the glider's re-inflating, and there is not much to do but swear. My mouth's instantly filled with fine mica, my shades are trashed, and my camera ripped away, as Alun and I are dragged along in our ridiculously heavy harnesses, tied together by the spreader bars. All I can do is haul in on one brake line, almost getting my fingers through the first cascade when another huge gust rips the line back through my hand... and then I begin again, getting one half vaguely under control, as the other side snags on a finger stone somebody thankfully left standing in the field. For half a second we both just lie there stunned, until I yell "jump on the wing" in a voice that doesn't feel my own. It's like a command from above. And amazingly we do it, somehow getting up and sprinting the short distance to the wing. We dive onto the ripstop and lie there panting, saying absolutely nothing for what seems like ages. I've seen two men approaching, but they stop a respectful distance away, as if fearing what they might see. And then the heat hits us, and the dust that is everywhere. I throw away my useless shades, and start spitting dust from my mouth. Then I see the state of Al and laugh, he looks so absurd, covered in dust and soil, filming the mayhem through a wide angle lens that's opaque. He rubs it viscously with a filthy gloved finger, then carries on. "Got the whole thing on film" he says, as I stare in disbelief. We're both insane.

And that's it, really.

By ten o'clock the next day the wind is much stronger, becoming ridiculous as a storm sets up in the afternoon. For 3 days we trek up and down the valley, trying to figure out how to escape the wind. But everywhere's a looser, and at the back of my mind is the certainty that we'd been lucky, that if we had landed in this valley an hour earlier, during the full heat of the day, or maybe one hour later, trying to escape a storm, things might not have been so fortunate.

So, we'd landed to the east of Jumla, the trade centre in the middle of nowhere, half way to Pokhara, half way to Tibet, and although being 10 days from a road, it had a functioning airstrip. We had heard stories that it was hard to get flights unless you chartered, but everyone we asked said it would be no problem - there were lots of planes laid on by the government, to fly out the police brought in for the elections. And they were right. The next day at 11 am we push our rucksacs into an underneath locker, and stand shuffling about next to the policemen's orderly queue. Then a stewardess is handing us boiled sweets; and cotton wool which I assume is the equivalent of a wet wipe, so I decline. Ten minutes later I'm pushing bits of paper instead of cotton wool into my ears... they have started the engines, and they are loud!

As we flew out of the mountains and into the foothills, our amazing 7000m cloudbase disappeared, sinking down below ridge level, as we entered the moist air on the plains. Al and I looked at each other grinning, hoping that this was the start of the monsoon. We were glad to be escaping, glad to be uninjured, but still troubled by the thoughts of a thousand 'what ifs', like "what if tomorrow's wind wasn't exactly the same as today's?" And then, gazing out of the window, at the maze of interlocking hills passing beneath us, I remembered the conversation I'd just had with the air traffic controller at Jumla. I'd hunted him out to ask about wind speeds, and when he had looked at me strangely, I'd reluctantly told him our story, and that we flew paragliders, and were trying to fly the length of the Himalaya. He laughed at me, as if I was crazy, telling me "it's a 50 knot wind from the south every morning, summer and winter... and the only time it's not 50 from the south, it's 50 from the north. And that's when there is a storm in the mountains". With that he walked away, shaking his head, as if I must be a hopeless case. And this time I had to agree, I was.

I got on his plane



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