I’m just going to say it. I’m scared of heights and always have been. When friends would relay to me all their bungy jumping and skydiving adventures, I’d always be impressed and everything, but it was never something that I could see myself attempting anytime soon. I’d always say to people who asked, “I’d rather be 20m underwater than jump off something 20m high.” And of course they’d just roll their eyes at me.
But then one day, when I was meant to be studying for the final exams of my undergraduate degree, I was procrastinating like a pro – by watching vimeo videos on the countries I was hoping to visit the second I passed said exams. And that’s how I stumbled across parahawking and a seed was planted in my mind.
Fast forward four months and I was trekking through the Himalayas in Nepal for a month. My days were saturated with mountain views – something that is very rare in my part of Australia. I’d drink my morning masala gazing at snow-capped peaks, walk through valleys lined with pines, and trace their outlines in the darkness while gazing at the stars and simultaneously brushing my teeth. By the time I was a few days out of Pokhara I had psyched myself up enough to attempt it. If I was going to take to the skies at any point in my life, it may as well be in the presence of the giants.
The mountains talked me into it, those cheeky devils
I had also appealed to my inner environmentalist. Parahawking is the unique combination of paragliding and falconry, and is only able to be done in one place in the world – in Pokhara with Scott Mason of The Parahawking Project. Essentially, he has trained Egyptian Vultures to fly alongside paragliders and take food rewards whilst in flight. With these incredible birds flying beside me I’d probably be distracted from how high I actually was, so I thought why not?!
The day arrived and as we were driving into Pokhara, one of my porters gleefully pointed out Sarangkot Hill which is where the majority of paragliders launch from. I could see the morning’s gliders out already, gracefully arching around above us, like birds of prey spiralling in thermal updrafts. It looked high – eep! After sitting at the arranged meeting office for a little while, a small car pulled up and I was gestured inside. What I’d at first glance I’d thought to be a chicken (because, Nepal), turned out to be a vulture perched contentedly on the arm of Scott. “So, who’s this?” I asked. “Kevin,” he replied simply. All I could think of in response to that is that Kevin is quite possibly the best name ever for a vulture. Just saying.
As we wound up Sarangkot Hill, I badgered everyone in the car about how the business started, how the concept of parahawking was invented, and how the business has been affected by the current Nepalese fuel crisis. Scott explained that their paragliding company was the first established in Pokhara, and now there are more than 80 in existence. Unfortunately, they have been affected by the fuel crisis, as has everyone else in the entire country. With petrol in such short supply, finding enough to even drive the car up the hill from town is a difficulty in itself.
However, we made it up, and before I could second guess my sanity I was being strapped into my harness and then attached to Scott before running off a flipping cliff edge into a nothingness sky!!!! The wing cells suddenly filled with air and we shot up, climbing higher and higher. It was so smooth and peaceful, that fear wasn’t even something that registered. I was too busy taking in everything below me: the children playing in the streets, women drying laundry on rooftops, and the boats paddling around out on the lake.
After I got comfortable I reached into the pouch strapped onto my front and removed a small piece of buffalo meat. I grasped it with my thumb and forefinger which were covered by a leather falconry glove. Scott blew two shorts blast on his whistle, and I turned my head to see Kevin soar towards us, and land gracefully on my outstretched arm. He was surprisingly light and incredibly delicate in the way that he picked the meat from my fingers before taking to the sky again. I know the word ‘epic’ is no longer used in the way that it was initially intended but I actually mean it. This moment was epic.
Kevin taking some buffalo meat. What a lad!
For the next 20 minutes or so, Kevin flew between my paraglider and another as we sailed out over the lake, and spiralled up in thermal updrafts. Eventually he began to get tired, which was our sign to return to the ground. After a few quick turns that left my tummy doing nervous backflips (I’m fairly sure you can see the fear in my eyes in the video), we gradually descended down onto the lakeside and landed on our feet. Miraculously, my knees weren’t even knocking together!
After we escaped from our harnesses, we walked across the road into Parahawking HQ where we were shown around the cages, met the other birds, and given the rundown on the current conservation status of vultures in Nepal. To say it’s not great would be an understatement. In the last15 year, vulture numbers have dropped by 99.9% due to a drug that was used to treat pain in dying cows and buffalo. When the cattle would die, the wild vultures would then descend and then pass away themselves, as the drugs (which are poisonous to the birds) were still in the meat. Because vultures are a keystone species, their decline is having significant effects on the ecosystem.
A portion of the money from the parahawking goes towards vulture conservation, which is super important as vultures aren’t usually on the receiving end of a lot of donations. Think about it – if you were given $50 and told that you had to give it to an elephant or a vulture, which would you give it to? Exactly.
But if this MINDBLOWING AWESOME experience has taught me anything, it’s that Kevin and his lot are gorgeous creatures and they definitely need to stick around. So if you’re ever in Pokhara, I highly recommend that you take to the skies and see what I’m talking about first hand.