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An Indian Delite (winner of best Skywings article 2007)

by Crispin Rose-Innes

Indian Delite

Dave Lewis announced plans for an adventure to India in December. By early February we were off on a trip that was to prove none of our wildest dreams had come anywhere close to the vivid experiences that were to follow.

Our flying base in the Western Ghats, was centred around the small hilltop town Panchgani, in the state of Maharashtra. The ridges and spurs of the Western Ghats radiate like long, dry wrinkled fingers across a vast, dusty landscape dotted with small towns and villages. This is a tranquil rural area where buffalo and oxen with richly painted horns are common place.

The countryside is hot and dry and spotted with trees that provide a welcome umbrella of shade when waiting for transport. The hilltops are cool by comparison, but the sunshine is piercing at all times. The skies are blue with a gentle haze across distant mountain tops and an inversion that casts a distinct layer above the unfolding landscape. Eagles frequent the skies marking thermals for high altitude flying and big distances that are achievable each day. There is endless opportunity.

I had not flown the four months prior to our Indian visit. With the imminent prospect of launching into this powerful landscape, momentary apprehension set in. A degree of fear with each new site is only too common, and perhaps rightly. The sites around Panchgani can be demanding.

Our hotel room provided a good view of take-off and round-the-clock assessment. As sites go, this was ideal, with a dry grass slope descending to a trans-linear, black rock face that rapidly warmed in the early morning sun. Ironically, my first flight was to prove my best. By 10.20 I was in the air. Flying north along the ridge was pure joy after my long lay-off and to my relief, all apprehension soon evaporated. With lift everywhere, a turn here and there quickly brought me up above the tall radio mast at the summit and from there I could relax and explore the ridge to my right. Several kilometers out front, a large lake filled the valley floor and beyond that, another mountain ridge appeared like a giant curtain waiting to be opened. The views were staggering and the day had only just begun. At height and in a holding pattern, it was re-assuring to see the others launch and climb like moths to the bright light above. Without much delay we were all airborne, thermalling with eagles, climbing higher and higher into a clear blue sky that offered us all that was needed to fly pretty much wherever we liked. A high pass over the lake to the distant shore was a possibility and in another direction, there were mountain ranges and flat valley floors that just begged to be crossed. It was hard to make a choice. My prime objective was to get my bearings, relax and enjoy. It was much the same for all of us, who only days before, had been shivering in the grey cold of the Sussex countryside. The Western Ghats were new and exciting and we soon realized that we had made an excellent choice in coming to this paradise for paragliding. I have flown in Chile and Brazil, in Spain and in Turkey, but none were quite like this.

Under a wide Indian sky, we explored the giant mountainside bowl far below. This place was so large and the landscape so inviting that before long, the group split into smaller units, quickly fading into specks, with no hope of re-uniting. The sky was ours and now working harder and climbing higher, with decreasing temperature it slowly dawned on me that a return to take-off would soon be impossible. The day was young, we were high, there valleys and mountain ridges beyond and perhaps, just maybe, this would turn into something of a special flight. Thermals were everywhere and just below inversion heading north east past the flat top of Harrison’s Folly, the air became more turbulent and pilot input more demanding. Dave Lewis and I worked our way across the first flat land to the ridge beyond and once engaged, the thermals generated by the mountain spurs rocketed us higher to an ever blue sky. This ridge was surely working well, and, continuing along the spine we soon approached a high flat top at the end of the range. Here the air was rougher still and at this point we broke through the first inversion. These were fast climbs of around 8 metres per second which I had never previously experienced. My Gradient Delite, gave superb feedback and although I felt safe and in control, this was no time for any lapse in concentration. Dave on his Mustang was close-by and slightly higher and I was glad to have a companion who’s experience was much in excess of my own. This was flying that others had talked of, flying that until now, I had only dreamed of and here I was at around 8,000’ working like crazy in a world that was completely new to me.

The Delite has thin lines and after a long-ish spell in the air, with half-wraps on the breaklines, sensitivity to gloved fingers becomes uncomfortable. With such turbulent air, it was vital to keep the wing pressurized. The breaklines were pinching and from time to time I had to release and take new half wraps to ease circulation. To relax the break lines even momentarily in these conditions was un-nerving, as one instinctively felt the unexpected could happen. And, sure enough, high above this flat topped mountain plateau, it did! There is frequent talk, that one should anticipate collapses and deflations, when going cross-country and I was prepared for these. However, those self induced SIV exercises are unlike the real thing and most usually take place in mild air. When flying cross country, things happen with little warning. It can be un-nerving!

This flat top was an ideal place to be before leaving the ridge and crossing the flat land to the next finger of a ridge in the distance. We needed more height and got it very quickly by hanging onto a thermal that had broken through the first inversion, and ricochet us quickly through the second. The vario went ballistic, the wing started pitching violently, momentarily collapsing only to re-inflate with hands up and a bang like a gun shot. I was now so glad of those previous SIVs! I was indeed frightened, it had all happened in seconds but the wing was flying again and after a few more 360s in the thin milky air, we suddenly popped out into a crystal sky that I had only ever seen from the window of high flying aircraft. A stunning calm ensued as we crossed high above the plain to the next ridge, where after losing precious height, we repeated the whole procedure all over again. After a low-ish save, and with Dave now much higher and waiting, I managed to climb out again, bursting through the first and second inversions and once more we were together and on our way. Looking up, the Delite was reassuring and serenely beautiful. It was so much a part of me now and I was thrilled that we were one.

We headed out across another wide plain, laced with irrigation ditches, a slow meandering river, small roads like cotton threads connecting one village to another, and a busy motorway deviating south towards Goa. We were on a glide above the second inversion, and here high above the plain, the air was surprisingly buoyant. We were in level flight with occasional thermals allowing us to top up from time to time before reaching yet another range of ridges and spurs to our south east. Flying mixed layers of inversion is tiring and after the previous turbulence, this was a good time to relax and take in the view. A gentle 360 or two gave us opportunity to orientate and look back at the town of Wai, now reduced to a chalky smudge many miles behind. Having crossed the motorway and the river, we headed to the next distant range and another open plain that unrolled like a blanket into the haze beyond. After bouncing around in the two layers of inversion for so long, I was now feeling quite tired and concentration was lapsing. I had never appreciated that descent through inversion could be as rough as the climb through it.

We pushed on for a while and then recognizing fatigue, we decided to change course and headed to a large town, Lingau, several kilometers distant. We were still high which was as well, since we needed to cross the plain, a lazy river and the busy town on the opposite bank before descending to open fields. Dave was now on a lower glide than mine and the selection of landing options began to fade. With the height I had, I would have preferred to have flown further out of town but as things were, Dave now had little choice. The preferred option was obviously to land together.

Over the town, the thermals erupted like flak from the tin roofed patchwork. I maintained height while Dave circled low observing power lines. It’s a privilege looking down on a wing lower than yours and it is useful too when it comes time to land. I had quite enough height to see what gathered below. Streams of children ran across the open dusty wasteland and it was clear that we were to receive a rapturous welcome. Dave had landed and was surrounded by throngs of excited school children. It was lunch hour! We had been in the air for three and a half hours covering around 35ks and now tired, there was suddenly a lot more to contend with. I landed just short of Dave and the melting pot swiftly divided into another melée, quickly enveloping my patch of ground. There was no time to bunch up. Somehow, with a lot of pushing and shoving we finally managed to stand back-to-back, stunned and completely surrounded with no quick or easy escape. Kids can be fun when landing out, but with 500+, there was clearly more than one school’s worth here! We defended our wings while waves of children fell over us having been pushed by the surge of those behind. Hands were shaken, autographs taken and the shouting was so shrill we could barely hear ourselves. In a state of near panic I was so glad not to be alone in all this! Looking quite alien with helmets, curly coiled radio leads and flying suits the children were intrigued to view white skin as we peeled away our layers. There was no room to put anything down! We took turns in defending each other, but how to best to pack away with kids forever falling over you? As hard as I tried, the best I could manage was to force-fill a stuff sack.

As always, the walk back into town was longer on the ground than it had looked from the air. Pushed and shoved all the way along the tarred road was something of a marathon with un-manageable loads and sweat dripping off our brows. The shouting and autograph gathering continued all the way, with constant calls of ‘What’s your name?’. Dehydrated and in need of liquid, our priority was for shade and a place to escape. We found a small tea-house and managed to stumble up the steps, leaving the hoard of so many wanting children in the blazing sun. By the time we were into our second bottle of something cold, the noise outside gradually subsided and the children made their way back to school. At last, we were in relative peace to haggle the price of a taxi ride back to Wai. Cost was un-important, it would be cheap whatever the outcome and all we both needed most, was to be out of there and on our way.

A deal was struck. We loaded an old jeep and made a calm exit. On driving out of town, and as fate would have it, we brushed nose to nose with a police patrol. Windows were wound down, exchanges were made, doors were opened and a policeman jumped in to sit beside us. It all seemed quite friendly and I assumed that we were giving the cop a ride home to the edge of town. Looking round however, I noticed we were under escort with the police close behind! We drew up by a rudimentary building , were asked to get out and directed into an empty, dusty room where shoes were removed and the whole long process of interrogation began. One by one everyone sat down. We crossed our legs and began an interview that was to last two hours or more. Where have you come from? Why did you land here? Do you have Pakistani connections? Where is your passport? And your visa? The process was endless, with mobile phone calls to the Panchgani police and even to our hotel. Our authenticity was checked and re-checked. Squatting uncomfortably and being as polite as ever possible with radios hidden, I could barely believe that I had flown out of London just two days previously – and neither could they! ‘How long were you in the air?’ they demanded and, ‘why did you land here?’ ‘It was an emergency’ Dave explained. ‘We have no engines, we had no choice!’.

Chai was generously offered and then food, but the most pressing need was to pee. We were escorted to the corner of a barren field and given all the time we needed. Waiting for return calls and true verification of who we really were, took forever and was necessary before we were allowed to leave. Finally we did. Hands were shaken, friendly photographs taken and at long last, we were once again our way in the rickety old jeep, back to Wai, forty kilometres distant. From Wai a local bus delivered us to Panchgani where the whole exciting adventure began eight hours previously. It was ‘Happy Hour’ now and with Dave Lewis as a formidable flying companion, we de-briefed and celebrated with others over many beers.

I had flown further and longer on previous occasions but without doubt, I had just completed the most exciting and challenging flight of my life! Thank you Dave, it was a truly memorable experience!