I flew with a vulture in Nepal and discovered first hand that it is definitely something for the bucket list.
The town of Pokhara in Nepal is famous for its paragliding. On any clear day paragliders can be seen floating above the town, and with stunning views of Lake Phewa and the Annapurna Ranges there is arguably no better place in the world to do it.
It’s also the only place in the world where you can paraglide alongside an endangered Egyptian Vulture. Ranked as the number one activity in Pokhara on Tripadvisor, Parahawking allows paragliders to interact with the birds in their natural habitat – the sky – observing their in flight behaviour and flight paths.
Paragliders often use wild birds to guide them to the best thermals – rising currents of warm air that allow birds to gain height without flapping their wings and conserve energy when travelling long distances. The Parahawking Project takes the concept to the next level, harnessing the natural abilities of trained birds of prey to guide them to the best thermal hot spots.
British falconer Scott Mason, who has been training birds of prey since he was 10 years old, created the project in 2001. All the birds currently involved in the project were rescued; found injured, orphaned or illegally kept as pets. Scott has trained two birds for parahawking: both Egyptian Vultures and both hand-reared, meaning they wouldn’t survive in the wild if they were released.
I’d been casually browsing Facebook one day when I saw a photo that commanded my attention – a man paragliding with a bird on his arm. It looked photoshopped. Was it a fluke? Had a wild bird landed there mid-flight?
Some weeks later, my friend Brooke and I were planning a holiday, browsing cheap flights to anywhere, when we chanced upon $600 return flights to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Long story short, we found ourselves in a taxi in Pokhara with our two paragliding instructors and an Egyptian Vulture named Kevin. As we made our way to the launch point, Brooke began to ask questions.
“So, it’s completely safe, right?”
“Umm, I think that’s a conversation for when we’re back on the ground,” replied the instructor, Jess.
Brooke and I would both fly at the same time and Kevin would fly between us. He would guide us to the best thermal hot spots and we’d feed him raw buffalo meat as a reward. We reached the launch point, a hillside high above Pokhara, and watched other paragliders take flight while waiting for our equipment to arrive. It was slightly disconcerting to see the flimsy piece of material that would be the only thing keeping us in the air.
When looking out on a beautiful hillside view, one’s natural inclination is not typically to run off the edge. Jess eased my insecurities as she strapped me into the harness.“If my mother can do it then so can you,” she said.
I’m not exactly an adrenalin junkie, but some experiences are too unique to be missed. Regardless, we’d booked and paid. There wasn’t really anything to be done other than to surrender to the experience – or lose $200.
“Walk forward, then start running when I tell you,” Jess said.
I’d been prepared for a rush of adrenalin and a heavy jolt, but takeoff was surprisingly gentle.
“Run” Jess said, and a couple of seconds later we were in the air.
Before I knew it we were gliding over the Pokharan countryside, with the lake in full view and the Annapurnas as a backdrop, albeit somewhat obscured by fog. I can only imagine the view when the fog clears and the mountains are clearly visible.
I see Brooke has taken off after me, along with Kevin, our vulture, who is flying around us. Jess blows a whistle and I stretch out my gloved arm containing some raw buffalo meat. Kevin lands gracefully, before flying away to find Brooke. A voice on the radio keeps tabs on both paragliders along with Kevin as he flies between Brooke and I, landing on our outstretched arms to take his reward before flying away to guide us to the next thermal.
Landing was pretty straightforward. Jess instructed me to stand up in the harness and start running – so we’d literally hit the ground running. Being on the ground felt odd – I wanted to do it again. But at $200, that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.
The project aims to promote vulture conservation and highlight the issues associated with the drug diclofenac, which kills vultures, eagles and other birds of prey. – Victoria Kerridge
Photo by Victoria Kerridge.